Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Women Are Religious: An Evolutionary Argument

I have written several previous posts critiquing male-centric religions that dominate today. One of the reasons that I am not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim is that I don't think it is appropriate or accurate to personify the supreme deity as some sort of male being. What I always have less trouble understanding is how other women do so quite willingly. In her article "Why Women Are Bound to Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective," R. Elisabeth Cornwell, PhD explores this question while drawing from evolutionary ideas. Specifically, she asks:

"While religions throughout history have mutated, gone extinct, and propagated -- the position of women within their ever expanding reach has usually fared poorly. Yet, women are far more likely to be religious, attend religious services, and inculcate their children with their beliefs. Why are women so willing to give in to religious dogma and subject themselves to the degradations often inflicted upon them?"

Conrwell begins to answer this question by noting that men and women differ physically and hormonally. Furthermore, as the human brain grew, humans developed the need for an extended childhood and, subsequently, the need to be taken care of for longer periods of time than other mammals. Due to this vulnerability, women had to rely on the support of other women and the support of men in order to ensure the survival of their offspring. As Cornwell writes, "With this in mind, we can begin to understand why it is so essential for women to fit into their social group. Exclusion would have meant extinction since those women who could not live in accord with the other members of their group would have had fewer or no descendants."

She goes on to argue that the same concept is at work today:

"Religion creates the illusion of kinship, and kinship is crucial to a woman's reproductive success. Even today, single mothers (and fathers) who receive support from family often avoid many of the pitfalls that single parents without support endure."

I think this argument is interesting. While some conservatives and religious folks argue that men and women are "complementary" and that's why all children need a mother and a father, Cornwell's evolutionary argument suggests that human survival throughout history was due more to the provision of social support to the mother or primary caretaker. Furthermore, religion does provide a built-in support network and, in small communities especially, I can see how it would be scary to be excluded from such a network. For many women, it seems, the practical benefits of having this kinship system would outweigh the less tangible harm of belonging to a very male-centric religious community.

For atheism, agnosticism, secular humanism, and any other belief system to truly compete with today's monotheistic male-centric religions, they will have to provide community, kinship, and social support.

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