Why Are There More Religious Women Than There Are Religious Men?

02/02/2015 14:49 GMT | Updated 30/03/2015 10:59 BST

2015-01-28-4967243989_5103c02343_b.jpg The claim that religion is 'man-made' is, so to speak, something of a sine qua non to contemporary atheism: if it doesn't come from God, then it must come from us. Generally the term 'man-made' refers to humanity as a whole, in a genderless sense, but in its present context it seems more appropriate to employ it literally. It's unlikely, after all, that women would have lent a hand in the construction of a philosophical system based largely on male supremacy. Indeed, to most it would seem clear that religion was created by men, for men, and that women factor in as a mere afterthought fit only for childbirth and emptying chamber pots.

[Image: 'Nun and Waterfall' by Xinem]

It is curious, therefore, that a recent poll undertaken by Professor David Voas has exposed a rather formidable gender gap in Britain's approach to religion. When asked their opinion on God, only 34% of women responded with atheist or agnostic claims, a figure dwarfed by the 54% of men who agreed with them. To make matters stranger, a weighty 63% of these men claimed disbelief in an afterlife, while a yet weightier 64% of women insisted they believed in life after death. What could be the reasoning behind this overwhelming gender disparity? Voas himself doesn't speculate, but Deborah Orr, in her recent article for The Guardian, suggests religion retains some sort of social utility for women, that it gives them purpose where everyday life doesn't.

To me it seems more likely this gender gap indicates a philosophical discrepancy, not a sociological one. Explicit feminism is more popular now than ever before, and while many would credit this to religion's ebbing hegemony, the above statistics suggest women might feel safer within the confines of religion. And this could be because it does, in a number of ways, facilitate feminist thought. The notions of the soul, the disembodied mind, and the sexless spirit are, after all, egalitarian in nature. If we return to the mid-seventeenth century, to the rise of Cartesianism, we can see just how the philosophies adopted by religion came to cultivate protofeminism in the early modern period's new-fangled ideas on the human mind.

2015-01-28-9513552087_599215951c_z.jpg For a long time it was held by philosophers that women were innately inferior to men, that their minds or souls were of a different sort, namely a lesser sort, to those of their male counterparts. It was a fact not often questioned, since a woman's physical weakness, together with her ignorance resulting from her lack of education, seemed to confirm her alleged incompetence. It was inferred that weakness was a part of female nature, and that God therefore intended women for subjugation. With the arrival of Cartesian rationalism, however, people's view of women, and women's view of themselves, began to change.

[Image: 'Descartes' by Screenpunk]

Descartes believed the mind and body to be made up of completely different substances. The body was a machine -- material and worldly -- and was understood in terms such as those of weight, location, and proportion. The mind, on the other hand, consisted of a non-physical substance whose nature was to think and be rational. This Cartesian mind was an independent thing; it could exist on its own, undying and characterised by its capacity for conscious rationality. Naturally Descartes made no distinction between male and female minds, since gender concerned physical things, so it followed that men and women were, upon consideration, in possession of the very same tools.

This spurred something of a revolution in women thinkers. Through the use of reason -- which was, according to Descartes, the exploit of all minds and not just those of men -- women were, more than ever, allowed to get involved in the philosophical debates of their time. It was the beginning of the intellectual salons typical of early-modern England and France, small soirees in which men and women of the bourgeoisie would get together to discuss literature, politics, philosophy, and theology, and compare ideas based on rational argumentation. Descartes' metaphysics gave credence to women philosophers and their objections to the poor education they were afforded, objections that wouldn't have otherwise been taken seriously. Men were forced to consider women because their bodies were no longer seen as reflections of their minds.

2015-01-28-3769518015_089e17042b_z.jpg But how does this relate to present-day women and religion? These days we're very much grounded in a naturalistic view of the world: we see ourselves in terms of nature, neuroscience and psychology, not immaterial minds, souls and innate rationality. We make sense of the human mind in terms of the human body and its physical states. This means we're able to look out into nature and see ourselves as an inseparable part of it, without reference to God or non-physical entities. The problem for feminism arises when we acknowledge the 'female role' outside the human race. Females are generally smaller, weaker, more servile, less independent, and are bound to the laborious tasks of motherhood. Though these are by no means intrinsically 'feminine' qualities, they are qualities which tend to fall naturally upon females in the wild. Feminists are wary of theses associations, since feminism has reached a point where a woman's decision to conform to these templates is considered notably anti-feminist.

[Image: 'Nuns on the Beach' by Joe Shlabotnik]

This puts women in a position where they must fend off what seems to be a natural misogyny, a burden easily evaded when you believe the human mind is a genderless entity which transcends all physical classification. There is a certain safety to the philosophical themes of religion because, in some ways, feminism is more easily defended from within them. Of course this isn't to suggest feminism is less valid in an atheistic context; rather it is to say that, in forsaking religion and its philosophy, women are forced to reject what was once the best case for female rationality in the face of overwhelming oppression. They're effectively forced to defend against misogyny in a completely new way. Considering this, is it any wonder women are hesitant to move into a world that still hates them, and still favours men in every corner?