Why sisters still do patriarchal passion play for themselves

Aberdeen sociologists investigate mystery of female religiosity. Matthew Reisz reports

October 4, 2012

Two sociologists have set out to explain the mystery of why women almost everywhere seem to be more religious than men.

Given that "all the major world religions have...been intensely patriarchal", argue Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce - lecturer and professor in sociology at the University of Aberdeen, respectively - women's well-evidenced greater religiosity might seem paradoxical.

Although it "may not be as counter-intuitive as turkeys voting for Christmas", they write, "it certainly seems similar to manual workers voting for conservative ... parties".

Their new book, Why Are Women More Religious Than Men?, attempts to find the reasons for this predisposition.

Dr Trzebiatowska was brought up as a Catholic in Poland, although she is no longer practising, and studied for a BA, an MA and a PhD at the University of Exeter.

Her doctorate involved fieldwork among Polish nuns, which led to a more general interest in how "religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, even oppressive, by secular feminists".

Academic writing on religion, in Dr Trzebiatowska's view, has often suffered from the assumption that it is simply irrational and archaic.

"If you speak about religion (in terms of) political or national identity and cut out the supernatural aspect, that's fine, but as soon as you take people seriously and talk about their experiences in the way they themselves see them, it becomes more problematic," she told Times Higher Education.

In the case of women in particular, Dr Trzebiatowska said, she believed that "some value spirituality and religious experience more than the oppressive structures they are placed in, which in any case they often find ways to manipulate. Others try to transform power structures from within, as we see in the Church of England. To say they all suffer from false consciousness is arrogant and narrow-minded."

So why does it seem to be true that more women than men are interested in "New Age spirituality" as well as traditional religions? Dr Trzebiatowska and Professor Bruce's book has a number of suggestions.

Churches have often provided rituals and support for childbirth, as well as teaching the next generation and caring for the elderly, tasks that traditionally fall to women. Religion can also offer "escape routes", such as giving Latin American women "an alternative to a culture of machismo", or offering orthodox Jewish women "religious precepts to regulate male sexual demands".

Even more importantly, the process of secularisation has tended to affect the public sphere (and the men dominating it) before reaching more private domains, they add.

However, cultural changes in the West such as increasing sexual equality, conclude the authors, now make it likely that the long-separate "graphs of male and female religiosity will converge as they approach zero".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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