If you’re a woman, going to a church that promotes traditional gender roles — keeping women out of the pulpit, for example — can be bad for your health.
That’s according to a new article published in the journal American Sociological Review by Florida State University professors Patricia Homan and Amy Burdette.
We know that going to church is generally good for your mental health — not because of anything supernatural but because it allows you to be part of a larger group, creates outlets for your creativity, and gives you a regular dose of hope and optimism. (Secular alternatives can do those things for you as well!) But when you’re a woman, those benefits can be outweighed by the conservative nature of your church.
They write in the paper:
Women who attend inclusive congregations have better self-rated health than non-attenders and women who attend sexist congregations. There is no statistically significant difference in self-rated health between non-attenders and women who attend sexist congregations. These results indicate that women only experience a health benefit from religious participation when they attend religious institutions that are gender inclusive and allow women to hold meaningful
leadership roles within the congregation.
The researchers came to this conclusion by using one data set that allowed them to sort churches by their levels of sexism — based on whether women could deliver sermons, lead classes, serve on the governing board, etc. — then seeing the health assessments of the women who attended those churches.
Religion News Service summarizes those results:
Women in inclusive churches had an average self-reported health score of 3.03. Women in sexist congregations had an average score of 2.79. That difference is equivalent to a person having at least three years of additional education (which has been shown to impact health) or at least 15 years’ difference in age, said Homan.
“We found that only women who attended inclusive congregations got that health benefit from religious participation,” Homan told Religion News Service. And the more restrictions there were on women’s participation in the life of a congregation, the worse the reported health outcomes were. There was no conclusive data showing whether or not sexism had any effect on men’s health in the study.
None of this suggests that going to church — even good ones — is necessary for better health. It can help, but so can other forms of social interaction and accountability. But women seem to fare worse when their churches already treat them as inferior, even if the rhetoric from the pulpit suggests equality.
Critics of complementarianism have been saying this for decades — that saying God wants men and women to serve different (but equally important) roles is just sexism wrapped in religious language. But now there’s data suggesting this is more than simply rhetoric. Even women who might accept those traditional roles may be better off in the long term by finding a healthier outlet for their faith.
Conservative churches, if they give a damn, should also take this information to heart. So many of those pastors love to talk about how inclusive they are when the words coming out of their mouth show the exact opposite.
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