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Science, Religion and the Gender Factor

Science, Religion and the Gender Factor

Hannah Waite unpacks her findings from her latest research on how gender factors in discussions around science and religion. 14/12/2022

It is a ‘truth’ universally acknowledged that scientific atheism is a very ‘male’ phenomenon. By scientific atheism here I mean not the kind of Marxist–Leninism that scientifically predicted and promoted the death of religion (though that was also a rather male activity) but rather the more modern phenomenon of basing atheistic beliefs on scientific foundations.  

Name a prominent scientific atheist of this stripe – Richard Feynman, Harry Kroto, Jerry Coyne, Victor Stender. Michael Shermer – and they are likely to be a man. The persistent gender imbalance of New Atheism can be seen clearly in the cult following among of the “four horsemen of New Atheism”, who sought to make it clear that science and religion are deeply incompatible and at war with one and other. Note I say horsemen, not horsewomen.  

There are but a select few women who speak of the alleged fundamental antagonism between religion and science, and those who do, like Madalyn Murray O’Hair (founder of American Atheists) or psychologist Sue Blackmore are simply not given the same stage or notoriety as their male counterparts. In general, women appear absent from the church of scientific atheism, with its creed that evolution (or cosmology or neuroscience) has buried God. Is this all just ‘universally acknowledged’ anecdote or is it really the ‘truth’, and if so, is it because of a gender inequality in New Atheism, a disinterest among women, inherent male hostility to religion, or something else?  

Research has long shown that men are generally less religious than women, not only less likely to say they have a religion, but also less likely to go to church or believe in God. Therefore, it must be true that male scientific antagonism towards religion is merely part of their non–religiosity. New research suggests that this is not the case, however.  

This research is part of the project Science and religion: reframing the conversation undertaken by the think tank Theos and The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. The project seeks to analyse the understanding of science and of religion today, as a means of better grasping and navigating the relationship between the two. Over three years, the research team interviewed more than one hundred leading experts and commissioned a YouGov survey of 5,000 UK adults. The resulting data confirm that there really is a gender difference in this whole issue – it’s not just a question of the men getting into the spotlight. But the data also show that the gender difference between opinions about science and religion is more than an accident of existing differences about religion. Rather, they suggest that gender may directly influence one’s opinions regarding science and religion for some more profound reasons.  

The new research demonstrates that men are consistently more likely than women to state that science and religion are incompatible. 60% of men stating the relationship between science and religion is incompatible (vs 55% of women), while a quarter (26%) of men view science and religion as highly incompatible compared to 19% of women. Research demonstrated a similar trend when it came to the in/compatibility of science and Christianity or science and Islam.  

The research also examined the gender difference across age, opinions on holy texts, views on what science and religion are, the value of science, and the place of religion in society. The gender difference holds up across all these areas. Across all questions, men are significantly more likely to view religion negatively and view the relationship between science and religion as one of incompatibility and potential warfare. For example, we found that more men than women agree believe that science disproves the Bible (43% vs 35%) or the Qur’an (41% vs 26%). Moreover, we found that overall men have a more negative view of religion, and, within that, ‘incompatible men’ (i.e. those who see science and religion as at odds) demonstrate the most hostility to religion. For example, 53% of ‘incompatible men’ agree that “religion is comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”, compared with 29% of men overall and 17% of women.  

This is not simply because women are more religious than men, however (though that is true). When religious differences were accounted for, we found that non–religious men are more inclined to highly incompatible views of science and religion than are non–religious women.  With 37% of non–religious men viewing science and religion as highly incompatible vs 30% of non–religious women. This suggests that the gender difference that is so readily apparent in the science and religion debate cannot simply be boiled down to only being about religious belief. 

The data gathered in the research highlights that not only is there a gender dimension to this discussion, but that gender bias in science and religion is a genuine and persistent phenomenon in which men are openly more hostile to the idea of compatibility between science and religion. In short, men and women simply approach this question of science and religion differently, men being more inclined to find and voice conflict, and to turn the whole thing into an argument rather than a conversation. 

This continued hostility can create difficulty in points of entry for women who either want to explore this discussion as an intellectual pursuit, or even in a casual conversation. 

In this instance then, the richness and nuance that could be explored in the science and religion conversation is often crowded out by (male) views of incompatibility and hostility, making this yet another academic discipline (and conversation topic) that is unduly influenced by male opinions, and voices with little wiggle room for women to enter the conversation and present a different point of view.  

This points to a wider societal difficulty, one in which women are often seen as “amicable” or individuals who merely sit on the fence on contentious issues. When we view any group in this way, we not only do a disservice to the group itself (in this case women) but also to the wider society by failing to allow space to hear a more conciliatory perspective on the world – or in this case on longstanding debate.  

It appears that the ‘four horsemen’ have influenced much of the current debate and aided in its perception as a ‘male’ subject matter.  Perhaps when it comes to science and religion the response should be to seek new voices, to search out those who have not been able to participate in the conversation but are ready, excited, and eager to do so.  

Dr Hannah Waite is the science and religion researcher at Theos

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Hannah Waite

Hannah Waite

Hannah joined Theos in 2019. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Counselling and a PhD in Practical Theology both from the University of Aberdeen. She is particularly interested in mental health, disability and theology and was a founding member and community developer of Friendship House Aberdeen, a movement towards creating an inclusive community for adults with and without disability. She is working on Theos’ Religion and Science project.

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Posted 15 December 2022

Gender, Religion, Science, Science and Religion, Sex


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