The much-awaited survey on the religiously unaffiliated, “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” is out and it exposes some fascinating gender differences. Or does it?
“Women are also less skeptical than men and less drawn to irreligious and anti-religious views. They are more likely to reject a secular upbringing,” Kosmin says.
Well, that’s just from the researcher talking to the press, and you know how that can go. How about the report summary?
Whereas 19% of American men are Nones only 12% of American women are Nones. (Fig. 2.1)
Oh, my Gawd! Men are 60% more skeptical than women!
And from the report itself (detailed pdf):
There are a couple of additional findings worth noting here. Looking at retention by gender, Nones are more likely to retain men than women: 66% of men who reported no religion at age 12 were Nones at the time of their participation in ARIS 2008, but only 47% of females who reported no religion at age 12 remained Nones. Of those who reported having a religion at age 12, 15% of men left while only 9% of women did. It appears that American women have a greater affinity for religion than men. And conversely men have greater affinity for secularity than women.
Well, that’s easy to say, but of course, the study isn’t directly measuring skepticism or the appeal of secularity or religious views. It’s measuring social behavior. It’s measuring affiliation.
So what happens if we look at affiliation? 19% and 12% give us 81% of American men who are religiously affiliated versus 88% of American women. Which means we have 9% greater affiliation among men than women. That’s still a significant difference, and it’s the difference in what is actually being measured by the survey.
Of course, religion isn’t the only major type of affiliation that people are expected to have. In fact, Kosmin and his group looked at the interaction of political affiliation and and religious affiliation. Unfortunately, they didn’t report their results by gender, but a 2004 Pew study did. 59% of men and 65% of women identified themselves as affiliated with a political party. In other words, women showed about 10% greater rates of political affiliation.
Huh. About the same, then. Who’d have guessed?
Okay, now that I’ve got you thinking about what the survey does and doesn’t measure, and the complexity of the situation, it’s time to take a step back. When Kosmin is talking about regarding skepticism in the original quote isn’t the base statistics on affiliation. He’s talking about a smaller survey of beliefs among the non-affiliated, in which 58% of women indicated a belief in a higher power or personal god, compared to 46% of men.
Yet Kosmin’s statement isn’t that women are less skeptical of religion. Nor does it address the interaction between those beliefs and the ways in which women move into and out of religious affiliation (if males with no belief stayed among the unaffiliated while the women with no belief left for social/affiliation, rather than belief-based reasons…). It doesn’t, as my Episcopalian atheists friends would be the first to tell you, even address belief among the religiously affiliated by way of comparison. In no way can it be said to address gender differences in skepticism in general.
While it is possible to conduct studies in which women show less skepticism, it’s also possible to choose topics on which men are less skeptical. One survey that covered a range of topics found no difference by gender. If you want to really address the question, you simply have to look at a broad range of areas requiring skepticism. I recommend Podblack’s three-part series on the topic.
Whatever you do, don’t take Kosmin’s word for it.
Update: I also recommend this post at Pandagon and the comments, which delve into the question of gender differences in affiliation.