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← Why Women Are Bound to Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective

Why Women Are Bound to Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective - Comments

elfstoned's Avatar Comment 1 by elfstoned

Excellent article, makes perfect sense!

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 00:35:00 UTC | #325899

Hypnos7's Avatar Comment 2 by Hypnos7

Intuitively appealing, but this could be a "just-so" story.

How does Dr. Cornwall's model compare with the organic model where magical thinking is built into the brains of many people, male and female, and is resistant to external factors? The organic model makes predictions in fMRI and for the intransigence of religious belief.

What predictions does this model make? One might be that in societies where women can be economically self-sufficient there are fewer religious women, different from men of comparable education/earning power. I do not see this trend.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 00:44:00 UTC | #325907

andersemil's Avatar Comment 3 by andersemil

I agree very much that religion can create an illusion of kinship and security to the feeble mind and that this will be a major reason for people to stick with religion even today. We have all heard of or know people who claim to have a personal relationship with Jebus and the likes, and people who claim they have received guidance, strength and even comfort from their invisible playmates. And, as the article states, it makes perfect sense why women generally would be more vulnerable to these delusions.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 01:08:00 UTC | #325919

Chris Davis's Avatar Comment 4 by Chris Davis

Oh noes! It's all women's fault!

I knew they weren't to be trusted - what with that apple thing and burning down the Ka'ba.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:20:00 UTC | #325948

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 5 by rod-the-farmer

Very interesting, and answers many of the questions I myself have asked. This may help explain why many (most ?) of the "visions" had by xians seem to be by women, rather than men. I suppose one could draw up a map of the distribution of male & female atheists across a country. I can imagine that one would see a marked bias towards female atheists in larger cities, as opposed to rural communities, where the support groups would be smaller, and much more likely to involve a local church. Men, on the other hand, would be much more free to be atheists, not needing support groups to the same extent. Therefore not so biased towards cities.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:26:00 UTC | #325949

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 6 by ColdFusionLazarus

I have 2 nit-picking minor comments and a question. Elisabeth Cornwell said "Yet, without women passing on faith, belief, and dogma, religion could not survive through the generations." This isn't quite true because Shakers abstained from reproduction and had to rely on continually gaining new conscripts to survive. And the religion survived quite well for some time.

She also said "males who risked upsetting the status quo and did so successfully would have gained an advantage in their own reproductive success. Females who tried the same would not" and also "Let the man take the risks, and if he succeeds choose him as a sexual partner". Surely, in previous tribal times, a successful woman gaining a leadership role could pick and choose whichever strong men take her fancy. If not in this role then she might not be chosen at all, or may have to breed with the lesser-males. So there is some advantage for taking a risk, although I admit the advantages are less.

Finally, "there needs to be something tangible to replace the support that it offers". I'm tempted to agree, but what should replace the role of religion in society[qm] It seems some of us are wired to have something like religion that can sometimes unite us in our efforts to support each other, and play a useful role as a supportive extended family. A phrase I heard recently is the "therapeutic community". A kind-of-church without god could give us this. But then without the central, all-powerful dictator us unherdable atheist-cats might well strongly disagree and dissipate.

What would work to replace some people's reliance upon a faith group[qm]

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:31:00 UTC | #325951

SteveN's Avatar Comment 7 by SteveN

The potential benefits (in evolutionary terms, that is) for a secretly philandering man appear obvious: more offspring to carry on the genes. The benefit for a philandering woman seem less obvious to me. There may be a benefit in having her own genes combining with genes from a variety of different fathers rather than just one, but the risks if discovered seem comparatively high (i.e. loss of support from the chosen mate). I don't know what the statistics are concerning the rates of 'sleeping around' for married (or mated) men and women in different societies, but I don't have the impression that women are particularly 'programmed' to be faithful. Am I missing something obvious here?


Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:38:00 UTC | #325952

hungarianelephant's Avatar Comment 8 by hungarianelephant

It's ingenious, certainly.

At the risk of getting flamed, though, this rather misses something important: bitchiness. As a vast and sweeping generalisation, such as the author's, women do tend to seek out each other's support more than men, but they are also more ready than men to snipe at members of that same support group behind their backs. (I read recently that there are evolutionary reasons for this too - anyone have access to that?)

The point is, you don't actually need to buy into the group belief system. You only have to conform - not rock the boat. Following Prof. Cornwell's logic, a woman would gain maximum reproductive advantage by appearing to conform and then reproducing with the rebel's genes, much as married women are more likely to have sex with another man during their period of maximum fertility.

How do you show that actually being prone to religiosity, as opposed to being good at feigning it, is an advantage?

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:40:00 UTC | #325954

JohnC's Avatar Comment 9 by JohnC

Disclosure: I regard most evolutionary psychology that I've encountered as unscientific story-telling.

Some figures from Australia first. In the 2006 Census there were 9,799,249 males and 10,056,041 females counted (ratio 0.974). The numbers who are nominally Christian are 6,018,674 males and 6,667,160 females (0.903). But this discrepancy starts to dissolve somewhat when one realizes that the major gradient of nominal belief is age, with 55% of 25-34yo being nominal Christians but 78% of those aged 65-74, and while men outnumber women slightly in the younger cohort, women substantially outnumber men among older persons.

In other words, as far as nominal Christian belief goes there is not a large discrepancy between men and women.

Church attendance is a different matter, but less than 8% of Australians are in church in any week. Here, women outnumber men by at least 2:1 (as they do in both the US and Europe). And the age gradient is even steeper than for nominal belief.

So before we get carried away with Just So stories, let us recognise that women are not much more likely to "believe" but among the small number of (older) people who do attend church, women are indeed greatly over-represented.

Do we need a Darwinian explanation for this? I think more proximate reasons may be at hand. Of course, things may be different in Colorada Springs but if so that only makes a Darwinian explanation even less likely.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:41:00 UTC | #325955

epeeist's Avatar Comment 10 by epeeist

Comment #341762 by JohnC:

Do we need a Darwinian explanation for this? I think more proximate reasons may be at hand. Of course, things may be different in Colorada Springs but if so that only makes a Darwinian explanation even less likely.
It would be interesting to look at the educational syllabus that the older believers were exposed to. How long ago was it that girls were taught needlework and cookery rather than science?

Certainly the school that my wife teaches at was started with a view to giving girls the same educational opportunities as boys.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:56:00 UTC | #325961

Raiko's Avatar Comment 11 by Raiko

Isn't it always like those who are the most scared (or have most reason to be scared) try to adapt the most in bad circumstances... and make those they care for adapt as well (i.e. children?)?

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:05:00 UTC | #325967

JohnC's Avatar Comment 12 by JohnC

10. Comment #341768 by epeeist

Well clearly I believe culture and socialisation are more productive avenues of investigation (though here is not the place to deliver myself of some theory, even if I had one).

But I only had to look at the title for the irritation level to rise:
1. Let's examine the data before we declare "women bound to religion".
2. If you are going to take evolutionary theory outside the bounds of biology (whether it be psychology, history or sociology), you'd better have some iron-clad data to be working with before you submit even a very modest conclusion, let alone sweeping generalisations.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:13:00 UTC | #325972

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 13 by DamnDirtyApe

...No one's commented that this was posted on

I thought that was a double win myself. wooooo hooooo...

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:18:00 UTC | #325979

Rosbif's Avatar Comment 14 by Rosbif

This still doesn't explain why it was a woman who believed the talking snake?

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:27:00 UTC | #325987

JohnC's Avatar Comment 15 by JohnC

This still doesn't explain why it was a woman who believed the talking snake?

What about Adam, who without the benefit of evidence believed this preposterous story?

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:34:00 UTC | #325988

Vaal's Avatar Comment 16 by Vaal

In fact, it was the opposite in my case, as my father was the religious party in our household, and my mother was decidedly luke warm.

What does surprise me, and I have found even with intelligent well educated women, is their predisposition to believe in astrology, pseudo-science, pseudo-medicine, and the "spiritual". I have never managed to get my head around it. Perhaps it is down to different wiring in our brains, or are some women more susceptible to trying to see what they perceive is beyond the physical world?

Anyway, it is always fun to see the faces of anybody, male or female, when I reply to their "what sign are you?" as "Uranus".

EDIT: My apologies to the more rational women who visit this site :)

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:37:00 UTC | #325990

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 17 by ColdFusionLazarus


Oh my! I had noticed it came from, but hadn't clicked on the link. I'd assumed it was a site that discussed how society in general should become more girl-friendly. I also assumed it would do this in a very sober manner. But this is quite racey! "wooooo hooooo" indeed :-S

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:43:00 UTC | #325995

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 18 by DamnDirtyApe

Well, I hope it corrects some people's misconceptions about feminists - they are THAT AWESOME.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:47:00 UTC | #325997

JohnC's Avatar Comment 19 by JohnC

16. Comment #341797 by Vaal
What does surprise me, and I have found even with intelligent well educated women, is their preposition [sic] to believe in Astrology, pseudo-science, pseudo-medicine, and the "spiritual".

Data, please! The Census I am quoting from indicates the opposite, with twice as many men as women in the category that includes "New Age".

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:50:00 UTC | #326002

Vaal's Avatar Comment 20 by Vaal


That is interesting. However, I have to say from a personal perspective, that I have found the opposite to be true. In fact, when my mother recruited an astrologer to determine if she should leave my father, he looked decidedly uncomfortable when introduced to her burly rugby playing 17 year old son, when introduced as a keen amateur astronomer.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 04:56:00 UTC | #326005

JohnC's Avatar Comment 21 by JohnC


This site is about reason and evidence vs unsupported belief. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but don't expect to make empirical statements (particularly controversial ones) without being challenged. Data, please -- anecdote doesn't pass muster.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:01:00 UTC | #326011

gos's Avatar Comment 22 by gos


How do you show that actually being prone to religiosity, as opposed to being good at feigning it, is an advantage?

Groups of animals almost logically demand arms races in deception and perception:
1) Animals living in groups will favor genes for reciprocal altruism.
2) Genes that mimic altruistic behavior in a manner that is less costly than actual altruism (deception) will do better than genes that dictate actual altruism.
3) Given some level of deception, genes that are better at spotting the freeloaders (perception), will do better than genes that aren't.

This gets us to a group of people that both have genes for deceiving and perceiving deception. They have also evolved means to communicate their intents.

I posit that it is more difficult to perceive that a person is deceiving you, especially if the deception is regarding their intent, if that person herself believes that they are being honest. And so, genes that promote self-deception along with deception become more common.

In this way, evolution will select for a person who strikes the best balance between lying to others and appearing honest (sort of like politics). If those who sincerely believe their own bullshit appear more honest than those who don't (and I think that's true), then the self-deluded swindler should be an archetypal behavior pattern in all human groups. Preacher, anyone?

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:07:00 UTC | #326017

sunbeamforjesus's Avatar Comment 23 by sunbeamforjesus

A good article but doesn't really explain the belief side of women's adherence to faith.The social/group protection theory works, but is she suggesting women belong for these reasons or do they really believe the nonsense?
I am married to a highly intelligent and successful woman who slightly disapproves of the atheistic views of myself and my 2 teenage sons.This is because she believes them to confrontational and therefore anti-social.So far so good, but were she to be asked for her actual belief in a deity she would likely hedge her bets rather than admit outright disbelief.
Could it be that upbringing(I was not going to say inculcation although it must be implied)imprints more on women than men?
Is there any documentation on this?

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:09:00 UTC | #326018

A. Noyd's Avatar Comment 24 by A. Noyd

12. Comment #341779 by JohnC

If you are going to take evolutionary theory outside the bounds of biology (whether it be psychology, history or sociology), you'd better have some iron-clad data to be working with before you submit even a very modest conclusion, let alone sweeping generalisations.

Interesting article by David J. Buller from January 2009's Scientific American with some criticisms of evolutionary psychology.

And while I'm sure it's terribly gauche, I'd like to quote myself from a tangent in another thread which I think is more relevant here:
Another consideration for the religiosity of women is that it's one of the few forms of ecstasy and emotional succor that is permitted to women without criticism. It's still the general belief among many that women shouldn't find great passion in sex or intellectual pursuits or art. Strong religious convictions combined with certain religious practices can bring about similar states of ecstasy. Even a repressive religion can bring pleasure and relief to a woman with no other such source.

It doesn't contradict the author's proposition, but it's something I've observed myself (anecdotal, yes, I know), especially in women who are part of more repressive faiths, but even in supposedly woman-friendly neo-pagan or new-age communities. Perhaps women are not merely trading safety for victimhood, but are carving out a more personal place for that sort of pleasure all humans derive from intense experience while staying within the bounds of convention.

Edit: Good grief, the comment editor is in severe disagreement with me on the formatting of my links.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:17:00 UTC | #326025

Stella's Avatar Comment 25 by Stella

Sorry, I can't take seriously anything linked from Suicide Girls.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:30:00 UTC | #326037

Denial's Avatar Comment 26 by Denial

This theory fails to account for the fact that in the catholic "consecrated life" (monks and nuns), an environment devoid of reproduction decisions, nuns outnumber monks 4 to 1. For this case, it can only resort to its claim of "deep psychological needs", which are so ill-defined they are basically non-falsifiable, i.e. unscientific.

Much like some other psychological and most cognitive theories of religion, its "psychological needs" should predict constant religious innovation among non-religious populations. This prediction is usually omitted because it is so obviously false, but it follows fairly logically from most theories of this type. In this case, the problem is explained away with "strength and courage", not common psychological measures but typical moral ones - and undefined/non-falsifiable as well.

A model that works much better is the rational choice theory of religion. It explains religious behaviour as investment in relationships with supernatural agents for expected benefits. This investment is dependent on trust in the supernatural agent (which is socially reinforced), on what the religion promises and on how expensive its costs are. This model expects people to act rationally within the scope of their knowledge and observation (including religious convictions), i.e. it expects people to always try to get more for less. So religious behaviour takes place if and when it seems to be the more beneficial way of spending one's time. This means people who earn a lot per hour exhibit less religious behaviour than poor people. This in turn explains why country-folk are more religious than city dwellers, old (and especially retired) people are more religious than young ones - and women are more religious than men. In each case, it is a matter of whether or not more attractive ways of "spending" one's time are available.

The book is "Acts of Faith" by Stark and Bainbridge. It explains a lot of aspects of the religion landscape that cognitive theories can't, such as why religions tend to become less expensive sacrifice-wise over the centuries, why monotheism is more successful than polytheism or why there are no big churches of magic. I strongly recommend it to those who seek in-depth scholarship rather than just plausible stories with moral tidbits.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:30:00 UTC | #326039

Vaal's Avatar Comment 27 by Vaal

21. Comment #341818 by JohnC

Yes, you are right John, it is anecdotal, but in my 50 years of life and living in several different countries and cultures, I have found that it is overwhelmingly females who find solace in astrology and are interested in the "spiritual" side of life. I also see evidence of that in most book stores or libraries I visit, as it is literature that is decidedly gender related. I would be interested in what other people here on this site have experienced in their lives, although I suppose it depends on what circles one subscribes to.

However, as you correctly said, this is anecdotal, and I was just showing an interest based on my own life experiences, but you have me interested and intrigued now, and I will see if I can find some hard evidence that either supports my observations, or otherwise.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:36:00 UTC | #326041

JohnC's Avatar Comment 28 by JohnC

A. Noyd,

Thanks for Buller link. Should be compulsory reading for anyone feeling attracted to evolutionary psychology. Tooby and Cosmides have been skewered several times, including by the late Steve Gould. Pinker's Blank Slate (the only one I've read of his) is a disgrace to scientific discourse, IMHO, sanctifying all sorts of opinions with selective snippets from a spotty literature.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 05:43:00 UTC | #326046

scottishgeologist's Avatar Comment 29 by scottishgeologist

JohnC's figures are interesting.

I wonder who the figures for church gender ratios break down according to theological emphasis

Evangelical clappy happy churches I SUSPECT have a more balanced ratio

Liberal churches may well have a higher ratio of women

Another thing I have experienced is that it is mainly the evangie churches that get "gender specific" groups going, like womens bible study groups and mens "prayer breakfasts"

Never could understand this desire to create artificial divisions like this. After all, doesnt the bible teach that all are equal "in Christ Jesus"

Muslims also have separate services for men and women. Maybe the difference betwen these two faiths isnt as great as it is portrayed...


Tue, 17 Feb 2009 06:03:00 UTC | #326056

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 30 by NewEnglandBob

What would work to replace some people's reliance upon a faith group?

I see a replacement, anecdotally, in the current younger generation (early to mid 20s). There seems to be a knitting together of friends into support groups that seems to extend into marriage years.

Someone should do a study on this in various geographical areas. I may possibly see this replacement only because I live in a progressive area of people with higher education.

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 06:05:00 UTC | #326057