Mary Eddy Baker and Helena Blavatsky aside, religious leaders and cult founders have tended to be male. A simple scroll of the most prominent names confirms this: Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha. Yet a recent Pew Study reveals that worldwide women tend to be more religious than men, especially among Christians.
According to research, American women outnumber men 60% to 47% in ranking religion’s importance in their lives. The gap is starker when it comes to daily prayer: 64% to 47%. Women also lead by eight points in attending weekly services, 40% to 32%.
This trend continues around the planet—83.4% of women are affiliated with a faith compared to 79.9% of men—even though it is men that are by and large more fundamentalist when it comes to piety. In Islam, for example, men attend mosques more frequently than women. But gender restrictions in such houses of worship need to be factored in, miring the statistics in a social and political cloud.
Moving forward it will be interesting to see how the influence of women in religion plays out on socially. With women’s rights a bigger issue than ever before globally, the influence of feminine spirituality may shift the balance of ideas arising from religious factions.
It’s not that women have been absent. Mary and Mary Magdalene are both essential characters in Christian mythology. Historically Hinduism has featured numerous female characters, in both goddess and human form, while Gautama, the most famous Buddha, was known for his progressive stance on females (for the time). Today women like Pema Chodron, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most renowned figures, carries that mantle.
While chauvinism in Islam is no small issue, women have played critical roles in its structure. Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, was also the first convert; his latter wife, A’isha, narrates the largest number of hadith. Fatima, Muhammad’s youngest daughter, is beloved. And while Sufism has always been on Islam's fringes, the saint and mystic Rabia Basri played an essential part in the development of her sect.
Even with social disparities being widespread in Islam, the gender gap appears more prominent in Christianity. In terms of daily prayer, importance of religion, belief in heaven and hell, and belief in angels, women and men were nearly tied, whereas Christian women led by up to ten percentage points in these categories.
There is also a larger gap between Christians of either gender in belief in heaven and hell than in Islam—an interesting psychological trait in either religion. That more people want to believe in an eternal place of peace and deny its opposite shows the continued relevance of fantasy in religious thinking regardless of faith.
What accounts for this gender gap? Researchers found no silver bullet, but suggested a combination of factors:
Biology, psychology, genetics, family environment, social status, workforce participation and a lack of “existential security” felt by many women because they generally are more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence.
Income does appear to make a marked difference, however: women that work outside of home show less religious commitment than women that work at home or do not work. For that and other reasons researchers conclude that religious belief relies on nurture more than nature, even though researchers like Paul Bloom have shown extensive proof that the human brain is generally wired for the metaphysical.
As equality becomes more relevant worldwide, it will be interesting to see how the force of women’s beliefs will affect religious institutions and systems. With women earning as much as men and spending more time away from home create a less religious world, or will other factors kick in and restructure the belief systems at their core? Time will tell.
Image: Issouf Sanogo / Getty Images
Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.