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How different are the sexes?

by
01 March 2013

Grace Davie looks at a study in the field of gender and religion

Dialogue: Liz Hodgkinson (right in photo), a journalist, has written Why Women Believe in God, based on her conversation with Sister Jayanti (left) of the Brahma Kumaris, on which the author may be a more reliable inform­ant than she is in her com­ments on church history (Circle Books, £11.99(£10.80); 978-1-78099-221-1). Church Times Bookshop (Use voucher code CT175)

Dialogue: Liz Hodgkinson (right in photo), a journalist, has written Why Women Believe in God, based on her conversation with Sister Jayanti (left) of the Brahma Kumaris, on which the author may be a more reliable inform­ant than she is in her com­ments on church history (Circle Books, £11.99(£10.80); 978-1-78099-221-1). Church Times Bookshop (Use voucher code CT175)

Why are Women More Religious than Men?
Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce
Oxford University Press £25
(978-0-19-960810-2)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use voucher code CT175) 

THE aim of this book is straightforward. It gathers together the available evidence on the differ-ences between men and women in terms of their religious lives, and seeks to find explanations for these data. It is well known that women are more religious than men on a wide range of indicators (practice, belief, self-understanding, propensity to prayer, etc.). Why is this so?

The data include facts and figures from the mainstream Christian groups, alternative forms of religion (new religious movements, the New Age, spiritualities of various kinds), and other faith communities (both in Europe and beyond). That said, most of the material comes from the (post-)industrial West, on the grounds that only here is religion sufficiently distinct as a category for individuals of either gender to be aware of their own religiousness.

To account for the difference between men and women, Trzebiatowska and Bruce adopt what is now a well-known division between explanations that depend on nature and those that tend towards nurture. They are strongly in favour of the latter. Different propensities towards religion are not to be found in the biological make-up of men and women, but in the social roles that societies continue to impose on people of different genders, noting in particular the woman's role of carer (notably of the very young and the very old).

Other factors - for example, attitudes to self-sufficiency and to bodily and mental health - reinforce these patterns, leading to what the authors call the "sum of small differences" that together account for the variations in the data. All of this, however, is trumped by the continuing process of secularisation - an abiding theme in the work of Bruce. This means that whatever differences can be discerned at present will, in the long-term, diminish as both men and women become more secular. Currently, men are more affected by this process than women.

Most scholars of religion would agree regarding the nature/nurture distinction, with which they are already familiar; they might, however, nuance it differently. Fewer would acknowledge the dominance of secularisation. Most of all, however, such scholars would question some of the omissions in this text, which draws on established ideas, but fails to acknowledge their authorship. They, like me, will know who they are.

This leads me to a more general point. This volume is essentially a review of the literature in an important field. Such a review requires two things: a detailed index, and a consolidated list of references. This book has neither. Take, for example, the Ws in the index. There are four references to Bryan Wilson, who, to my knowledge, has never written anything on gender; there is no reference to Linda Woodhead, a prominent scholar in this field. She is there, in both text and footnotes; so why not in the index? Her views on secularisation are, of course, different from those of the authors, but her explanations why women are more religious anticipate much of what is said here - all the more reason to bring her work into the foreground and debate the implications.

Dr Grace Davie is a Professor Emeritus in the University of Exeter.

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