"Women are more religious than men." That's a longstanding generalization made by pastors surveying their pews and by social scientists surveying the public. Husbands and single guys with other weekend plans might even offer that truism as an excuse for skipping church.
Why the gender difference? Old explanations said women were less educated or cited their nurturing tasks at home and secondary roles in society. Yet when droves of well-educated women took on jobs and busy schedules, they too tended to pray more than men, to attend services more, and to affirm (to pollsters) more religious beliefs.
Now a provocative scholar known for innovative social theories is suggesting that the disparity lies in the biochemistry of certain men. Six percent of young males have been identified in criminology studies as physiologically disposed to take risks for momentary excitement without regard for consequences. This cohort of men serves as a dismal model of masculinity for many other men, said Rodney Stark, who has taught sociology and comparative religion for nearly 30 years at the University of Washington.
"We've all been taught to laugh at the idea that some people were 'born criminal,'" said Stark to a packed room at the Religious Research Association meeting last month in Houston. The RRA meets annually with the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and both groups of specialists are interested in social and cultural bases for behavior, not physiological or genetic causes.
"If I have offended you to say it's in the genes, it is so that I might provoke sociologists to do [new] research," said Stark.
Stark invaded the realm of historians and biblical scholars in 1996 with "The Rise of Christianity," a sociological account of why the early church grew. Earlier this year, in "Acts of Faith," Stark and coauthor Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University defended their influential and controversial principle of "rational choice," which they apply to the study of religion.
In Houston, Stark presented poll results from 49 nations that show women consistently exhibiting higher levels of religious belief and practice than men, demonstrating that the differences are not just North American. In arguing for more research in physiology, he cited "a definitive health survey" of nearly 4,500 Vietnam war veterans revealing that men with the highest levels of testosterone--a male sex hormone--were violent and impulsive, committed crimes, abused drugs, were promiscuous, beat their wives, and had poor work records.
"Recent studies of biochemistry... imply that both male irreligiousness and male lawlessness are rooted in the fact that far more males than females have an underdeveloped ability to inhibit their impulses, especially those involving immediate gratification and thrills," Stark said.
"These men set some very unfortunate examples--some men pick up on that," said Stark, in conceding that social influences are a factor as well. The fearless risk-takers "serve as undesirable role models, setting quite excessive standards for masculinity: 'Real men take what they want.' 'Only wimps go to church.'"
Responding to Stark, Paula Nesbitt of Denver University said that "as a feminist, I am uncomfortable with biological arguments" for assessing the capabilities of men and women. "In my work on women's ordination," she said, "the fact that women can give birth has been used as an argument against social equality." At the same time, she said, "I cannot tell you that hormonal levels [in men and women] are not influential."
Before sociologists "jump on the biological bandwagon," Nesbitt said, they should consider whether the male affinity for outdoor activity and athletics might also fit into the definition of religiosity and spirituality. And consider also, she said, "women who may be attracted to religion for community and friendship" more than prayer and otherworldly concerns.
Darren Sherkat of Vanderbilt University contended that gay men "are more avid religious participants than are male heterosexuals...and are similar to female heterosexuals in their rates of religious participation." People who call themselves bisexuals in the same General Social Surveys in the 1990s were the least pious and attended religious services the least. Lesbians were a little more religious than bisexuals, but they prayed and attended church less frequently than gay men, he said.