Instead of asking why women are more religious than men, they should have been asking why men are less religious than women, said Rodney Stark, a UW professor of sociology and comparative religion.
"When you turn the question around it starts to get us somewhere and the evidence pretty strongly points to physiology, not socialization," said Stark, author of two papers exploring what seems to be a universal trend in religious rates around the world.
Stark said lower rates of male religiousness is a form of risk-taking behavior just as criminality is, and men are far more likely to commit crimes than women.
"Any phenomenon that occurs in many and very different social and cultural settings necessitates explanations that are equally general, which tends to rule out most social and cultural factors," he wrote in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
"Recent studies of biochemistry imply that both male irreligiousness and male lawlessness are rooted in the fact that far more males than females have an underdeveloped ability to inhibit their impulses, especially those involving immediate gratification and thrills."
The upshot is that some men are shortsighted and don't think ahead, and so "going to prison or going to hell just doesn't matter to these men," Stark said.
To examine rates of religiosity, Stark used the World Values Surveys, which collected data in 57 nations. The world's major faiths were included and the data came from such countries as the United States, most European states, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, China, India, South Africa and Turkey. In all 57 countries, a higher percentage of women than men said they were religious.
"The gender differences hold up everywhere, even in religions that are very male centered, such as Orthodox Judaism," said Stark. "This is not some fragile finding, and the fact that it shows up in so many cultures says something."
He added that these rates of religiousness are not just a phenomenon of our time. "It is true of all ages. It was there in ancient Greece, it was there in the Roman Empire when the early Christians were mostly women and it was there in medieval Europe."
In the second paper, published in the American Journal of Sociology, Stark and co-author Alan Miller, a sociologist at the University of Hokkaido in Japan, looked at how the role of traditional gender socialization and differences in social power influence gender differences in religiousness.
They dismiss popular explanations such as that women are raised to be nurturing and submissive and this socialization makes religious acceptance and commitment more likely. Similarly, they reject the notion that women are more religious because they don't work outside the home and have more free time to engage in religious activities. A number of studies, they said, have shown that career women are just as religious as those who stay at home and both are far more religious than their male peers or spouses.
"It appears that neither (gender socialization or social power) have a relationship to gender differences in religiousness. Amazingly, these results hold across time periods, cohorts, religious traditions and cultures," they wrote.
"We looked for an obvious simple explanation, but nothing worked except physiology," said Stark. "People studying crime also have looked at socialization and they can't find a reason that explains the gender difference except a physiological one. Not being religious is similar to any other shortsighted, risky and impulsive behavior that some men – primarily young males – engage in, such as assault, robbery, burglary, murder and rape."
For more information, contact Stark at 505-890-5271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.