Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, December 08, 2006

BRYAN CAPLAN ON RELIGION (AND GENDER)

Econlog blogger (and GMU prof) Bryan Caplan writes:

Last week I stumbled upon a little gem outside of Larry Iannaccone's office: a chapter by Rodney Stark and Alan Miller on the religious gender gap. Long story short: Women are more religious than men by virtually every measure in virtually every culture.

But the fun doesn't stop there. Once people admit that this gender gap exists, the most popular explanation is that women are "socialized" to be more religious. Stark and Miller put this theory to the test. If the socialization hypothesis is true, they reason, then the gender gap should be larger in more traditional societies where socialization pressure is more intense. Make sense to me.

Survey says: Dead wrong. In fact, the gender gap is smallest in the most traditional societies, and largest in the least traditional societies! In societies that approve of single motherhood, with a high abortion rate, low fertility, and high female labor force participation, the religiosity gap between women and men is especially large.

If socialization is wrong, what's right? Here Stark and Miller lose me. They attribute the gap to men's greater taste for risk. In a nutshell, men are more willing to throw the dice on Pascal's wager than women are. Unfortunately, this story has two obvious problems:

1. Greater risk preference could explain why men engage in less religious activity, but not why they are less likely to have religious beliefs in the first place.

2. The risk-preference story doesn't explain why the gender gap gets bigger as societies become less traditional.

Can I do better? I think so. My story has two building blocks:

1. Men and women have different cognitive orientations - a difference that is in large part genetic. As the Myers-Briggs personality test powerfully confirms, men are more Thinking, and women are more Feeling. (Or if you prefer the Five Factor Model, men are less Agreeable).

On a deep level, then, men are more inclined to want some hard proof that religious claims are true, while women are more willing to take religious teachings on faith because they sound nice. Burn me at the stake if you must, but it's true.

2. As the great Timur Kuran persuasively argues, social pressure leads to "preference falsification." If other people hassle you for lacking piety - as they do in traditional societies - people will pretend to be pious even if they aren't. The weaker the social pressure, the more sincere people become.

Implicitly, Caplan assumes that "thinking" and wanting "hard proof" are more likely to lead to truth than "feeling." But critical reason, by itself, only leads into an abyss of skepticism. As Enlightenment philosopher David Hume showed long ago, even induction, the key to the scientific method of gaining knowledge about the physical world which "rationalists" tend to accept as the only legitimate source of knowledge, is ultimately based on prejudice. (Karl Popper's ideas about "falsifiability" were an ingenious attempt to get round Hume's problem, but although they provided a brilliant trick for "demarcating" science and non-science, they don't avoid the basic problem, that our belief in order/patterns in the world must ultimately be a sort of faith.) Feelings, meanwhile, are real; they bear witness to something; they are part of the world. We have better evidence, indeed, of their reality, than we do of that of the physical world.
It's a cop-out to say that religious teachings "sound nice." A lot of them don't sound nice at all. But they speak to our psychic experience more profoundly than worldly alternatives do.

UPDATE: Commenter Justin Bond (also the author of the blog Irrational Knowledge) writes:

[W]omen are more vulnerable than men. Women are more more vulnerable
physically. Women are more vulnerable when a pregnancy occurs outside of
marraige. And Women are more vulnerable inside marriage because choosing
childrearing over career leaves them dependent upon their husbands while their
resume grows old and stale, reducing their ability to survive without their
husbands.

Given these increased vulnerabilities, women are far more likely to assign
a high value to marriage.


I'm prepared to believe that as a generalization. Sadly, it's not my personal experience.

6 Comments:

  • There is no getting around the hard fact that there is a kernel of truth to feminism: women are more vulnerable than men. Women are more more vulnerable physically. Women are more vulnerable when a pregnancy occurs outside of marraige. And Women are more vulnerable inside marriage because choosing childrearing over career leaves them dependent upon their husbands while their resume grows old and stale, reducing their ability to survive without their husbands.

    Given these increased vulnerabilities, women are far more likely to assign a high value to marriage. As the sociologist James Q. Wilson notes in 'The Marriage Problem', when the gender ratio favors men, men use their greater market power to extract sex outside of marriage, with minimal committment. By contrast, when gender ratios favor women, they use their market power to extract promises of marriage. There has never been a document society in which women have used their superior market power (in terms of favorable gender ratios) to engage in casual sex with men free of committment. Never.

    Given this, it is entirely rational to expect that women to support institutions that will protect them both inside and outside of marriage. In fact, I would call upon men to be more respectful of this dynamic, because if you were to walk a mile in the other person's shoe, you would feel differently.

    But to address the philosophical side, Caplan is lightyears behind the current time. Antony Flew was one of the leading logical positivists and the formost expert on miracles. But he converted to deism because there is no credible atheist explanation for the radically contingent nature of our universe. God is the most reasonable inference. Antony Flew was also considered to have lost his debate with the Christian William Lane Craig to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the televised BBC debate between Bertrand Russell's famous and Fred Coppleston.

    By Blogger Justin, at 11:21 AM  

  • Though defining all empirical knowledge as faith because it is always contingent is a great rhetorical success for those who want to demote naturalism, but like many such, it's a fickle victory. At some point, someone will notice that the relabling doesn't invalidate Popper's central critique, and the new rubric would allow one to evaluate faith for how well justified it is in the same naturalistic context as before. Serves in Ronald de Sousa's "intellectual tennis without a net" can go both ways.

    Back to the main topic of the post, I agree that socialization offers no first-order explanation of the religious gender gap and further agree with Lance's assertion that feelings are veridical and important. In fact, a primary motivation for Dennett to formulate heterophenomenology as he did was in response to the eliminativism of Churchland's neurophilosophy.

    I also offer the hypothesis that "angry atheists" account for a large percentage of the gender gap. Simply put, men (are socialized to*) value conflict and dominance far more than women. In cultures in which religion 1) no longer offers such large patriarchal advantages and 2) no longer insists on marginalizing atheists and heretics, many men adopt a combative version of the skeptic approach. It allows them to point out how the dearest beliefs of others reveal them to be soft-headed, weak, deluded simpletons, while the "angry atheist" is hard-boiled, brilliant realist with the true grit to face the uncaring world. Or whatever. At least until they convert to whatever is the most hard-boiled evangelical religion available to provide them license to dominate.

    They're my favorite people.

    *I don't mean to imply that all of men's affinity for dominance and conflict is socialization, just that socialization activates and exaggerates genetic predispositions.

    By Blogger Nato, at 12:23 PM  

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