IN FOCUS: Religion, gender, and age
- Published on 11 December 2008
- Written by Derek Michaud
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Recent polls conducted by the Gallup Organization (2006) as well as the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" (2008; hereafter “Pew Survey”) have shown that women and older Americans are more likely to self identify with, and belong to, an organized religious tradition. According to the Pew Survey, all Christian traditions have a higher percentage of female membership and all other traditions have a higher percentage of male members than the national survey total. A majority of Americans self report as belonging to a Christian tradition. Many religious groups are disproportionately older than the total sample. For example, according to the Pew Survey, approximately half of all mainline Protestants and Jews are over 50 years old.
Religious groups with female membership out numbering male membership include: evangelical churches (53%), mainline churches (54%), historically black churches (60%), Catholics (54%), Mormons (56%), Orthodox (54%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (60%), and other Christians (54%). Groups with male membership out numbering female membership include: Jews (52%), Muslims (54%), Buddhists (53%), Hindus (61%), other faiths (54%), and “unaffiliated” (59%).
These trends are occasionally reversed for more specific strands of a given tradition, but for the overall percentages within these larger traditions the pattern remains strong. For example, while overall Judaism in America is more male than female, Conservative Jews are more female than male, 55% and 45% respectively. It should also be noted that while the overall Pew sample size is large, the sample for some individual traditions is not. For example, the data on Judaism is based on only 682 observations. While the tradition specific samples do accurately reflect the relative make up of the US population as a whole they may not be very reliable on the demographic breakdown within the various traditions because of their small sample size.
Overall, women reported belonging to religious communities much more often than men. For example, women are significantly less likely to report being religiously “unaffiliated” than are men. In particular, women represent a very low percentage of agnostics (36%) and atheists (30%). Thus, women tend to identify with a specific religious tradition more often than men. It is impossible to offer a reason for this discrepancy on the basis of the Pew Survey data but this trend clearly warrants more detailed investigation. What is it about Christian traditions in the US that attracts a higher percentage of women than men? Why do other traditions attract more men than women?
Of particular interest is that the trend for Christianity seems to be mirrored by an opposite tendency within all other religious traditions (including no tradition at all). While the higher number of Christians of both genders makes the impact of other religions negligible at the national level, where women out pace men in religious affiliation generally, the possible causes of this gender disparity deserve future attention.
“Religion is more important to women than it is to men” (Gallup 2006). According to a 2006 Gallup poll 66% of women, compared to 51% of men, report that religion is “very important” in their lives. Women are also less likely to report that religion is “not very important” than men (10% compared to 20%).
This trend is relatively unaffected by age as well. Women are more likely to report that religion is “very important” across all age groups. Among younger Americans the difference is 13 percentage points (18-29: 53 – 40%; 30-49: 64 – 51%). These numbers increase slightly for older Americans (50-64: 68 – 52%; 65+: 78 – 63%).
Many religious groups are disproportionately older than the total sample. According to the Pew Survey, approximately half of all mainline Protestants and Jews are over 50 years old. Mainline Protestants aged 18-29 make up just 14% of their total and 36% are age 30-49 for a total of 50% below age 50 – nine percentage points below the national average. Jews aged 18-29 matches the national total of 20% but the number above 50 years old is 51% (the same as mainline Protestants). The national total for over 50 is just 41%. Both mainline Protestants and Jews are therefore significantly older as a group than the US population as a whole. Six of the 14 major religious groups identified by the Pew Survey have an 18-29 population below the national average: Evangelical Churches (17%), mainline Churches (14%), Catholics (18%), Orthodox (18%), Other Christians (16%), and Hindus (18%).
In contrast, Historically Black Churches (24%), Mormons (24%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (21%), Jews (20%), Muslims (29%), Buddhists (23%), Other Faiths (26%), and the unaffiliated (31%) either met or exceeded the national average for percentage of the population aged 18-29. Only Muslims and those unaffiliated with any formal religion were found to be significantly younger (measured by percentage of group population under 50 years) than the general population.
While the Pew numbers are suggestive of the comparative long term health of the various religious groups, the Survey does not provide information about the relative importance of religion for adherents of the various age or other demographic groups.
“Older Americans are much more likely than younger Americans to say that religion is very important in their lives” (Gallup 2006). In a 2006 Gallup poll, 47% of 18-29 year olds reported that religion was “very important” in their lives. All other adult age groups reported a higher rate, above 50%, in the “very important” category: 30-49, 57%; 50-64, 60%; 65+, 72%. The contrast between the 18-29 and 65+ groups is particularly striking. Older Americans not only report that religion is more important than those in all other age groups but only 9% report that religion is “not very important” compared to 22% for the 18-29 group.
There are multiple ways to interpret these results. The significantly higher importance placed on religion by older respondents may be due to increased need for consolation and comfort brought on by life’s difficulties and the reality of death (for themselves and loved ones). On the other hand, older Americans were raised in a climate that was generally more religious than today. For example, in 1965 70% of respondents reported that religion is very important in their lives while by 2006 that number had dropped to 56.5%.
Far more detailed survey instruments are required to determine the cause of the increased importance placed on religion by those 65+. According to the Pew Survey the percentage of “unaffiliated” respondents is greatly underrepresented in the 65+ age group with only 8% compared to 16% in the national total across all religious traditions. This may suggest that older Americans are not only more likely to report that religion is important but that they are also more likely to report belonging to a specific religious tradition or community as well. Additional research is necessary to determine what, if any, connections exist between importance of religion and belonging to a specific tradition.
Overall the data on gender and age suggest that women and older Americans are more likely to belong to an organized religion and to highly value religion in their lives. While demographic data of this kind can contribute greatly to an understanding of the current religious picture of the country they do little to address the deeper questions of why women and older Americans are more attracted to religion. Additional research is necessary to address these types of questions.