Analysis and Explanations

The greater religiosity of women must be one of the oldest, and clearest, findings in the psychology of religion, and should be considered one of the universals in human religious behavior, but its explanation has proved challenging. The greater religiosity of women is often viewed as a puzzle and a paradox. That is because religious organizations, institutions, and traditions are developed and controlled by men. There is one aspect of religious activity where men predominate, and that is public worship.

In some historical religious traditions, such as Islam and Judaism, women are not expected to take an active or public role in most religious activities, as in many traditional cultures public activity by women is limited and controlled (Anderson, 1993; Loewenthal et al., 2002).

Beyond the discouragement of public participation in some cultures, clergy roles are reserved for men in most religions around the world. Women clergy have been the rare exception (Yinger, 1970). The social institution of religion and specific religious institutions in different societies are in the overwhelming majority of cases controlled by men. Cross-culturally we can say that women are rarely in positions of power and influence in religious institutions and organizations, and in many cases they are formally excluded from positions of liturgical and clerical leadership.

Weber (1968) observed that religious movements of the underprivileged gave equality to women at first, but as they became established withdrew it. This theory has been found to be true of American Pentecostal sects in the early 20th century, some of them African American. At first they had many charismatic women preachers, sometimes the founders of sects, but their numbers then fell (Barfoot & Sheppard, 1980). This is true for the rare female founders of modern religious movements such as Ellen G. White, Mary Baker Eddy, and Madame Blavatsky. The groups they started soon came to be run by men.

We can describe the psychological world of the committed religious believer as a pyramid made of three tiers. The top of the pyramid is the religious pantheon, made up of imaginary invisible creatures. Then we have actual humans who constitute the religious hierarchy. The broad base of the pyramid is made up of the followers, who are the largest group. As we get closer to the top of this pyramid, we find fewer and fewer females, and as we move to the bottom tier, we find a female majority. The pantheon, which includes gods, angels, saints, and mystics, has little room for women (Carroll, 1979). The world of religious figures, real and imagined, which has in it angels, demons, saints, founders, prophets, priests, is thus a masculine universe. It was obviously created by men, reflecting their wishes, so why are women so willing to adopt this masculine universe and commit themselves to it?

Here are some of the most likely explanations.

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