June 4, 2005

Sex and religion: the Christian gender gap.

In recent years feminists have criticized the Christian church for what they consider its patriarchy and sexism, but far more women than men go to church. Peter Steinfels writes in the NYT:
And the pattern is not limited to the contemporary United States. With a few possible exceptions in Eastern Europe and Asia, the gender gap holds for Catholics and Protestants worldwide, even for the rapidly growing Pentecostal churches in Africa and Latin America. It has long been the norm in Catholic Europe, perhaps since the Middle Ages. Certainly the rolls of New England churches in Puritan times recorded a majority of female members, and 19th-century church leaders reported a similar preponderance of women at services.

By contrast, [David Murrow, author of "Why Men Hate Going to Church"] claims, no such gender gap exists in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam - an interesting point, although one he doesn't at all document. "Only Christianity," he writes, "has a consistent, nagging shortage of male practitioners."

So why do men hate going to church? Hormones, says Mr. Murrow. Brain structure. Prehistoric imprinting.

Men can't sit still, want to be outdoors, aren't very verbal and can't read and sing at the same time. Men crave adventure, risk, danger and heroic sacrifice. Men value boldness. They love action, tools, technology and competition.

Men are hunters and warriors. Women are gatherers and child-tenders.

Is all this true? Mr. Murrow clearly thinks so, even if he apologizes now and then for being politically incorrect, or allows for many female exceptions, or hedges about whether he thinks those traits are ingrained and relatively fixed or culturally created and relatively malleable.

And Christian churches, he maintains, have an antimale culture. Their "spiritual thermostats" are set for women - set for comfort instead of challenge. The emphasis is on relationships, security, sensitivity, nurturance, children and family. Guys don't get it.

Well, my spiritual thermostat is set for being disgusted by that sort of talk.

Steinfels is somewhat critical of Murrow, especially his self-help writing style. He notes (citing the European historian Hugh McLeod):
[F]or freethinkers in the last two centuries the problem was never that too few men went to church but that too many women did. Their common explanation was nearly the opposite of Mr. Murrow's, although by today's standards it was no less politically incorrect. It was not that men were driven away from church by their warrior hormones, their less flexible brains and the peer pressure of their drinking buddies, but rather that they stayed away because of their greater rationality and composure, while women remained pious because of their emotional susceptibility and their subservience to the clergy.
What a complicated problem! The most complicated part of it is that you can't talk about it at all without offending everyone. What is the message here? Women should stop complaining about patriarchy and sexism, because the church needs to be patriarchal and sexist to keep the men from avoiding it altogether?

UPDATE: The quoted material above suggests that men and women inherently require different religions, but to put it that way is to say that religions exist to serve people's emotional needs and not because they are true in the sense that they claim to be true. If they are only serving emotional needs, then there's nothing wrong with women attending and men opting out. The problem goes away except to the extent that the women who attend want male companionship. If a religion is true in the sense that it claims, it would make demands on people, not simply cater to their existing preferences. But in a free society, people can decide not to meet the demands. If so, is it anything more than a social problem if more men than women turn away? The religion that claims to be true shouldn't change its tenets in order to balance the sexes, but I would think it could change some things about the service, such as the music or the sermon topics or the poliitical advice.

32 comments:

JohnF said...

Some of the religions mentioned where men outnumber women, e.g., Judaism and Islam, have decided males-are-dominant philosophies and structures, so it doesn't seem so surprising that men take to them.

JB said...

I think John's on to something, Christianity was and is the single major religion that is the most, "empowering" of women. Men are said to be the leader, but consider how that the range of acceptable behavior is defined (treat your wife as God treated the church), leaves a pretty equal or maybe not equal, but repectful pairing between the two.

It tends to be politically incorrect to recognize that the first major "women's lib" movement was Christianity. But it is the case. And Christian churches, he maintains, have an antimale culture. I don't think it's that, it's that again, Christian churches have a balanced culture in a sea of religions that squarely place men in control.

Mark Daniels said...

Going back to Jesus' time on earth, women always played a prominent role in His ministry and were among the handful of His followers who stuck around when He was crucified. Women were the first to be entrusted with the message of Jesus' resurrection.

I believe the reason that women have been more open to faith commitment in the Church is far more cultural than hormonal. Men, across cultures, have been taught to be self-sufficient, competitive score-keepers. Women tend to be nurtured on the truth that no one is an island, leaving them more open to believing in the interdependence and fellowship that is at the heart of the Gospel. Christian faith is not really a religion, but a relationship into which we're invited, allowing us to link hands with God and neighbor.

Men are schooled in a macho culture that, in its common expression, disdains such thinking and living.

Having said that, I feel blessed to be the pastor of a congregation in which women and men are equally interested in actively following and serving God and others.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Great post and comments. I'm just wondering what adventures, risks, and heroic sacrifices Mr. Murrow has undergone lately. Has he been off hunting mammoth again while he should have been working on his book?

David Manus said...

Being a Steve Vai fan, this post evoked only one image to me:
sex and religion

Bruce Hayden said...

Interesting problem. My gut feeling is that there are a couple of things going on.

First, to yank Ann's chain, I do think that there are some differences between men and women here. Not, probably, in their ability to sit still, because, while I think this a problem with lower school, I think it also pretty much goes away by high school.

But rather, in spiritality. At least my experience is that women tend to be more so than men - on average. But this is just my experience. Also, maybe a standard deviation problem like so many we face in sex differences.

But also, I buy into the female liberation angle of Christianity. Many forget that the real strength in the Church in its early years, before it became the Roman State Religion, was in the women.

But also, I think that most other major religions tend to be anti-woman, or, probably more accurately, pro-male.

In many of these it seems, male power in society and the family is really enforced through the religion, and those males who participate, benefit accordingly. And to some extent, female participation is family based - they need their husbands attendidng in order to participate fully.

I think most of us Christains remember the story about Jesus discussing theology with those in the Temple when he was 12 (Luke 2:46). That they would, and that he could, is accepted. But the contrary would not have been - his sisters would not have been allowed to discuss theology with the learned. Indeed, this has really only changed in American Judaism in our lifetimes.

And, I suspect, from all I have learned, Islam is worse. We have a religion that still sanctions both polygamy and concubinage. And implicitly condones, or at least does not condemn honor killings. Yes. Men are given the right, and indeed, the duty, to kill their women if they tarnish their honor. Not a very feminist religion.

Indeed, as a guy, why wouldn't you want to be Muslim. The religion reinforces males' power over women.

My point here is that in both classical Judaism and Islam we see a major gender gap, with males having significant power, etc. through their practice of their religion, esp. vis a vis women. So, there appears to me to be a strong incentive for men to participate.

Christianity on the other hand, though traditionally providing some of this, has always provided women with a significant amount of respect, and, almost, equality.

Ann Althouse said...

Bruce writes, First, to yank Ann's chain, I do think that there are some differences between men and women here. Not, probably, in their ability to sit still, because, while I think this a problem with lower school, I think it also pretty much goes away by high school.

Bruce, I do recognize male/female differences. Just look at all my bathroom posts! And I even think much of it is biological, but only in the sense of averages and overlapping bell curves.

As "the female liberation angle of Christianity": there is something for women in all the religions, and those who practice them can chose to bring it out if they want, and they can also bring out the oppressive side too if they want. As to which religions intrinsically offer the most to women and are the most distorted when the oppressive message is derived, I'm not enough of an expert to say.

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: Murrow could have been writing heroically, but it looks like he didn't challenge himself terribly strenuously in his writing. Your comment makes me think of that Robert Bly "Iron John" stuff from the 80s.

Bruce Hayden said...

Like I said, to yank your chain.

But that said, I do wonder whether there is a difference in spirituality between the two sexes, based, as I said before, on my extremely small sample. In other words, I am wondering if the means of the two bell curves are really the same. Or, alternatively, as with many things, it appears that mens' standard deviation is greater, and maybe we can explain this phenomenum through that.

But if the theory that women are more spiritual (if true, and we obviously don't have enough information to show that) is true, it would imply that many men attending church in other religions do so for other than spiritual reasons.

Ann Althouse said...

Bruce, I tend to think that sort of thing is projecting your own ideas onto women. Men have alternately thought of women as more spiritual and more carnal throughout history.

And by the way, plenty of spiritual people avoid organized religion and plenty of nonspiritual people participate out of fear, a sense of obligation, or for social benefits.

Mark Daniels said...

Ann wrote, "And by the way, plenty of spiritual people avoid organized religion and plenty of nonspiritual people participate out of fear, a sense of obligation, or for social benefits."

GREAT POINT, ANN! One of the most deeply spiritual and committed Christ-followers, so it would seem, is Bono. He's an unchurched Christian. I also know of church-people who profess zero faith in Christ and are just along for the ride.

This is why Luther talked about the invisible Church. It's the real Church and it exists both within and beyond the Church. Membership isn't the same thing as discipleship.

Christ comes to liberate us from the crap of religion and free us to live with God.

Mark said...

I think this has been over analysed. Church is a social event, and I think women are generally more attracted to social events than men are.

In societies where all of your neighbors are of the same religion, there must be more peer pressure on men to show up, both because people may notice when you don't and because religious events play a much larger part of their social life.

Ann Althouse said...

I think we've got two "Marks" here!

Mark2: Good point. Success in the commercial world might depend on being seen in church.

Mark1: I think some spiritual persons are put off by the lack of spirituality in places of worship. It's supposed to feel holy but it doesn't. It feels like a social club or a political rally.

Troy said...

Perhaps I'm a bit simplistic, but the issue of women going to church more than men seems a relatively "easy" (if there is such a thing) one to me. Women, for all of our talk and efforts to "equalize" (and of course they are eternally and should be temporally), still mostly get the job of raising and nurturing children either within or without a marriage relationship.

I've been a Baptist for over 30 years and anecdotally I can tell you that many more women came to church with kids and without Dad than the opposite.

My wife has taught at church pre-schools for over 10 years and time and again "un-churched" folks bring their kids because they want their kids to get a "moral (or values, etc.)education" (their words not mine) and they seem to get it at a church rather than at HeadStart or a secular private institution.

If women do more child raising (and it seems clear they do) a major reason more women come to church than men is to help inculcate values in their kids. Yes I know many women don't have kids, etc. etc., but we're talking generally right?

Couple that aspect with those women who come to feed themselves spiritually (with or without anyone else)and the issue seems reasonable.

Ann Althouse said...

Some of the explanations given in the comments don't take account of the assertion, made in the article, that the disproportion only exists in Christianity.

amba said...

My impression from the traditional communities I've seen (the one in Romania where Jacques grew up, and others) is that men make women suffer a lot -- mainly through infidelity and drinking -- and women go to church for consolation. "Sex and religion" indeed: such communities give men a lot of de facto sexual freedom. Women are not given the same leeway. So their church attendance may be partly sublimation, or a place to seek the love, tenderness, understanding they're not getting at home.

Judaism and evangelical Christianity are interesting exceptions. These two (I'd include Catholicism, but confession is too much of a safety valve) have made a serious effort to teach "that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be," in the words of Elizabeth Anscombe. They've offered the bait of male primacy and specialness -- you know, male headship in Evangelical churches, and the "thank God for not making me a woman" prayer in Judaism. These are among the incentives offered for going against nature, and foreswearing promiscuity, and being a loving husband. Call it feminizing males, or call it humanizing them. (Sorry, guys. Not you, them out there.)

Diane said...

David Murrow's claim made me wonder if what he said is true. Is there a difference between going to church and practicing a discipline? Muslims, practice a discipline as do some of the other non Christian religions mentioned. This is not the same thing as going to church.

Finn Kristiansen said...

We can't forget the romantic and artistic angle in terms of more women putting in face time in Christian churches.

When I was growing up my mother had this photo in a frame--cut from the NY Times Magazine--of a white male hippie type, holding a glass of wine, with a woman swooning in the forefront. The image represented "Jesus and the church" my mom told me, and she wrote the words "My beloved is mine and I am his" on the bottom of the image.

This, in a conservative family. I am not sure if my father was at all thrilled with this picture of hippie Jesus drinking wine and romancing his "church", or with the likelihood that my mom was probably imagining herself as the woman in the picture, sipping riesling with Christ.

But many women, at least in some evangelical/fundamentalist/born again type places (choose your term) often think of Jesus as this perfect male entity, and they project a lot of emotion onto that vision. Church then becomes not merely gathering together with fellow believers, or hearing God's word, or singing songs to the Savior, but, essentially, a romantic outing with the perfect man.

Well why would this exist in Christianity and not in other religions? Perhaps because the image of Christ has been so well defined through art over the ages and other religions really lack the same visual images of their leaders. I mean really, Buddha (as depicted in statues) or Jesus (as seen in art, film, plays). Who looks sexier?

Of course, this irritated me greatly growing up, as I did not really want "that type" of relationship with Christ, and such talk of Christ as the "husband" made me feel a wee bit homoerotic (when all I wanted in my life was to touch 13 year old female boobies).

Nevertheless, and sitting in on my mom's bible studies with friends, Jesus tended to sound like a really cool person to date, and not remotely related to the slayer of men, women, and children found in the Old Testament.

Ann Althouse said...

Finn: That's hilarious! You should blog.

Diane: I'd missed that detail. Interesting!

Amba: Very interesting!

Sean said...

There is some (not a lot) of actual sociological research (by which I mean peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, as opposed to "Iron John" meanderings) on this topic, and it doesn't support the contention that a disproportionately female presence is unique to Christianity. You can review the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (available in the university library, I am sure), if you are really interested.

Incidentally, I don't buy the claim that the reason for the disproportionate number of women in church is that women are more interested in social activities. Last time I went to the ballpark (a religious experience for some!), the crown was heavily male.

Judith said...

"Men can't sit still, want to be outdoors, aren't very verbal and can't read and sing at the same time. Men crave adventure, risk, danger and heroic sacrifice. Men value boldness. They love action, tools, technology and competition."

This doesn't explain why they don't have a problem with Judaism (not a physically aggressive culture since the Bar Kochba revolt, and which involves singing and reading at the same time) or Buddhism (where you have to sit still and meditate for hours, and war is right out). And a significant amount of most religions takes place indoors.

Judith said...

"Some of the religions mentioned where men outnumber women, e.g., Judaism and Islam, have decided males-are-dominant philosophies and structures, so it doesn't seem so surprising that men take to them."

The attempts to cast Christianity as more feminist than Judaism are pretty funny. Both religions have traditions which assign particular gender roles which can be oppressive, and both have vibrant feminist movements which have made huge changes in the more liberal branches.

Many Orthodox Jews (who never daven in egalitarian shuls, so how would they know?) are convinced that the male/female ration in Reform and Conservative shuls is out of whack because men don't like women rabbis and praying with women, and therefore the liberal branches are mostly women. (Essentially the same complaint as your author). My extensive sampling of egalitarian Jewish congregations around the country tells me this is not so.

"Men are schooled in a macho culture that, in its common expression, disdains [interdependent] thinking and living."

This is a sweeping statement that does not apply to the males of many cultures, Judaism among them.

"Christianity . . . has always provided women with a significant amount of respect, and, almost, equality."

Um, not according to most Christian feminists I've read. Significant whitewashing of Christian history here, and making Christianity look good at Judaism's expense, while comparing apples to oranges (which is classic Christian antisemitism in its new feminist guise).

The rationale for separate roles assumes more biological determinism than is warranted, so I am not advocating for separate roles. But you assume that separate roles = less respect, which isn't true.

The gratuitous and ignorant Jew-bashing in these replies is pretty amazing.

Judith said...

"Nevertheless, and sitting in on my mom's bible studies with friends, Jesus tended to sound like a really cool person to date, and not remotely related to the slayer of men, women, and children found in the Old Testament."

This is plain antisemitism. Just cut it out. Obviously you haven't read the Hebrew scriptures, in which God commands us to care for the widow and orphan - or the Christian ones, in which Jesus says he will come with a sword. And if you read both you might notice how very little in the latter isn't just copied and reworked from the former.

"the "thank God for not making me a woman" prayer in Judaism. These are among the incentives offered for going against nature, and foreswearing promiscuity, and being a loving husband."

Complete misunderstanding of this very minor prayer. Look. I belong to several egalitarian minyans which use siddurs where this line has been changed. There has been considerable discussion and reworking of many Jewish prayers, for all sorts of political reasons. So most of the Jewish men I daven with don't say it, and I don't say the female equivalent of it.

But once again you are making glib superior comments about things you know nothing about. (Google "time-bound mitzvot.")

Just stop it. I'm sure you all think you're tolerant multicultural liberals, but you're self-satisfied ignorant bigots, and you don't even know the history of your own religion. And you don't even know the history of the feminist critique of your own religion.

Judith said...

PS I just want to add that everything Ann says in the original post is right on.

leeontheroad said...

I'm glad you commented, Judith. Traditional Christian readings of Hebrew Scipture are so based on the "superseding" notion of much Christian doctrine, I think it fair to say
"you haven't read the Hebrew scriptures, in which God commands us to care for the widow and orphan - or the Christian ones, in which Jesus says he will come with a sword."

More apt might be that Christians ritually read Third Isaiah, following Gospel promptings, as foretelling Jesus as Christ [Messiah], when no such thing happens in Judaism, of course.

But I quarrel with this: "And if you read both ["OT: and "NT," I assume] you might notice how very little in the latter isn't just copied and reworked from the former."

Of course, Jesus and Paul refer to Hebrew Scripture, quite frequently. Jesus was a Jewish prophet, after all, or at least teacher, as references to him as "rabbi" in the NRSV make clear. A point I found myself making to Sunday school students -- many times-- is that there's no historical context for "reading Jesus" as intending to found a new religion. (After all, even the Christian Revelation central to the Easter story-- resurrection -- wasn't new with Jesus; the Pharisees believed in resurrection, also.)

Still, the synoptic Gospels, John, Lukan Acts and the Epistles may refer often to Hebrew Scripure, but they are a new thing, indeed. There's nothing I see as akin to the Epistles in Hebrew Scripture, certainly. Revelation may be in the tradition of Daniel (and by extension the prophets of the Babylonian Exile), but as a foretelling of the Second Coming of Christ, Revelation has no parallel in Hebrew Scripture.

Finn Kristiansen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sean said...

In response to several of the above comments, I think it's a mistake to treat Judaism as some sort of 2,000 year old unchanged essence. A better way to describe the history of Christianity and Judaism is to say that there was a religion, Temple Judaism, which disappeared with the destruction of the Temple. It was this religion that produced the Old Testament. Temple Judaism has (at least) two descendents, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Among their respective literary productions are the Talmud and the New Testament. Each of these religions has of course changed over the past 2000 years, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in conscious opposition.

This description isn't particularly flattering to either religion's self-conception, since the prevalent Christian belief is that Christianity is a unique reworking and fulfillment of the Old Testament, and the prevalent Jewish belief is that Judaism is an unchanged continuation of the religion of Moses. As I stated previously, I am not convinced that either religion is significantly more attractive to women than the other.

SBH said...

Does the same hold true for Mormons? That is, do Mormon women go to church more than Mormon men? If so, I think that is an interesting observation in light of that religion's polygamous history. If there are (were) 5 religious (practicing) Mormon women for every 1 religious (practicing) Mormon man, for instance, does polygamy become more understandable from a self-selection viewpoint?

M. Simon said...

The Bagavad Gita is a man's religious book.

Rebecca said...

Thanks, Judith, for criticizing the oh-so-old-and-tiresome Christian supremacism indulged in here by some liberal Protestants. If we're looking at the whole sweep of Christianity - how about the Catholic Church, where only men can be priests, bishops, and pope? How about evangelical churches that talk about how men should always be the leader in the family? How about the "household codes" in the New Testament that prescribe women's subservience to men? Or are you folks just ignoring those things because they don't fit your anti-semitic proposition that what Jesus came to do was to liberate people from Judaism?

Molly Johnson said...

judaism and zoroastrianism

Beyond Words said...

Woa, Judith, I love your comments. Rebecca, were you serious that "Jesus came to liberate people from Judaism? Hello, we can't begin to understand what he was doing unless we embrace him as a Jew and realize the Jews were set apart to protect the whole cosmos for the day when Jesus would come and liberate all the nations from crappy religiosity.

I'm currently struggling to understand the whole gig of being a Christian woman. I think the resurrection is the most compelling reason to believe that men and women are equal in the new creation--which began, to some degree--with the resurrectioin. As far as men coming to church goes, my congregation takes great pains to gear the songs, the decor and the verbiage to the 25-35 year old male culture. I'm pretty sick of it. But everyone has a good point in suggesting that it must be hard for men to grasp the intimacy of a relationship with the super-macho all male godhead. That is all the more reason to celebrate God's feminine attributes as well. Shouldn't men have the opportunity to worship the sacred "other," too?