Men, Religion, and Hormones

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Women worldwide tend to be more religious than men. In the United States, for example, self-identified Christian women are more religious than self-identified Christian men.1 Numerous possible reasons have been offered, from the social to the genetic. Last year, I highlighted a study that found religion to be less analytical and more pro-social: “In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious. That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men.” As noted by economist Bryan Caplan, “Stereotypes about personality and gender turn out to be fairly accurate: on both Myers–Briggs thinking–feeling and FFM agreeableness, there are large male–female gaps in the expected directions. Women are about half a standard deviation more agreeable than men; on the binary Myers–Briggs measure, the thinking–feeling breakdown is about 30/70 for women versus 60/40 for men.”2 According to Pew,

Under the “nature” umbrella are theories that variously attribute gender differences in religious commitment to physical or physiological causes such as hormones, genes or biological predispositions.

For example, Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark postulates that men’s physiology – specifically their generally higher levels of testosterone – accounts for gender differences in religion. His argument rests on what he views as increasing evidence that testosterone is associated with men’s greater propensity to take risks, which he argues is why men are less religious than women. By inference, women are more religious because they have less risk-promoting testosterone.

A new study offers some evidence for the testosterone theory:

From the analysis of over 1000 men, [Aniruddha] Das found that men with higher levels of the sex hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in their bodies had weaker religious ties.

“Religion influences a range of cultural and political patterns at the population level. Results from the current study indicate the latter may also have hormonal roots,” says Das. “There is therefore a need for conceptual models that can accommodate the dynamic interplay of psychosocial and neuroendocrine factors in shaping a person’s life cycle.”

He believes that more studies should be done to better understand how hormones, in particular, shape a person’s religious patterns in later life. This is of importance, as religion has been shown to have a positive influence on how people age and ultimately experience their later years. According to Das, the findings further point to biological reasons behind the particular personal networks and social affiliations that people form during the course of their lives.

Testosterone has been shown to reduce empathy, perhaps explaining why women tend to be more empathetic–and therefore, more religious–than men. As Steven Pinker explains, “Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, and feel more empathy toward their friends, though not toward strangers.”3

It’ll be interesting to see what future research finds.