Women now leaving the church in greater numbers

When I think of the typical churchgoer, the image that comes to mind is an older woman, though perhaps in the megachurches this stereotype may not hold. Such people have been the mainstay of traditional churches as younger and male parishioners fall away. So it should be of some concern to churches that women too are now drifting away in larger numbers.

A new Pew Research Center analysis of General Social Survey data confirms a long-simmering trend in U.S. religious observance: While attendance at religious services has declined for all Americans, it has declined more among women then men.

In the early 1970s, 36 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported attending church services weekly, a ten-point gap that reflected the long-standing trend of women being more religiously committed than men.

The gap reached its widest point in 1982, when it hit 13 percent, but then it began to shrink. By 2012, 22 percent of men reported attending church weekly, as did 28 percent of women, reflecting a “worship gap” of only six percent, an historic low.

Catholic women form the single largest group of people exiting from religion and into the ‘nones’ category.

Many reasons can be postulated for this recent increase in the departure of women from religious institutions, though it is not clear which is the dominant one. Suggested reasons include the increased role of women in the workplace and more education but Patricia Miller, the author of the above piece, thinks it is the strong religious opposition to abortion rights and contraception that is the driving force.


  1. doublereed says

    That seems unlikely considering their opposition to women’s rights hasn’t really changed.

    My speculation is that women have become a lot more aware of slut-shaming and purity culture. Men don’t get a lot of social dominance of other men through religion. That’s just not how our social dominance games work. Being manly isn’t really tied to being religious. But for women, social dominance is often bullying about sluttiness and clothing and purity. So women had more of a reason to stay in religion because it meant they were better than those other naughty women.

    But nowadays, women are becoming more aware of how toxic that thought process really is. So now they don’t have much use for religion either. So while men gave it up quicker, women had more reason to stay a bit longer.

    At least that’s my baseless hypothesis.

  2. says

    My hypothesis is that they’re finally realizing churches are male-dominated tools for oppressing them, and they are tired of kissing the hand that slaps them.

  3. doublereed says

    @3 Marcus

    …but then women would leave religion before men, not after men…

  4. Dunc says

    Well, since everybody is throwing out guesses, here’s mine: it’s not really about religion, it’s about community. Women’s higher attendance wasn’t because of a greater religious commitment, but because of a greater involvement in the community, and exclusion from other social spaces. It just so happened that the church was one of the principle community intuitions and social spaces available to women -- indeed, it was often the only one. There are now a greater range of options for socialisation available to them, so the church is losing out.

  5. Hank Tholstrup says

    One simple reason could be that church attendance takes time, and time seems in short supply these days. Not going to church on Sunday saves almost half a day, time you can spend doing stuff or having fun.

  6. Scr... Archivist says

    This could also lead to reduced church attendance in another generation. Often it is mothers who are tasked with taking their kids to church. If Mom doesn’t go, the kids won’t either.

    But of course this is all terrible news since this could lead to more women trying to join the atheist boys’ club. And we certainly don’t want atheism to spread to the wrong “people”, amirite?

  7. 0nlythis says

    From an ex-RCC point of view, I believe turning the celebrant around from having his back to the congregation as its representative before the deity to facing the congregation as the representative of the deity was the first step in the dissolution of the RC Church -- at least in the US, which is a representative republic and not a monarchy.
    More recently, the introduction of electric votive candles have replaced the ritual of lighting one candle with flame taken from an other with merely flicking a switch. Consequently, RC churches no longer exude the nostalgic aroma of bees wax residue encrusted on the walls that they once did.

  8. Mean Sagittarius says

    It’s most likely a combination of things:

    1) Economic independence
    2) Education
    3) Religious regulation of female sexuality
    4) Relegation to secondary status -- the equal in god’s eyes but not in the world just doesn’t cut it anymore.
    5) Women don’t have time or have better things to do

    I think if all religions addressed 3 & 4 alone, attendance would rise. However, it’s an unlikely scenario. As women leave, the church dies.

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