Sunday, September 09, 2007

Women, Families and Religion

Hoover Institution - Policy Review - How the West Really Lost God:

[I]t is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from it.

There is clearly a causal connection between fewer "natural families" and smaller family size and the decline in religious observance, and there is also reason to believe that the causal flow goes in both directions. However, Eberstadt's explanation of the mechanics is vague and fishy:

[T]here is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree... Thus does a complementary religious anthropology begin to emerge, grounded on the primal fact that the mother-child and father-child bond, as no other, appears to push at least some people toward an intensity of purpose they might never otherwise have experienced.

There is a more straightforward, less metaphysically loaded explanation that is consistent with the data and has wider scope: religion is good for "traditional" women--women who either do not work outside the home or who have jobs-not-careers and play traditional sex-roles. It's consistent with the data because traditional women are more likely to marry than non-traditional women and far more likely to have large families. Eberhardt hasn't considered this hypothesis (which would be something of an embarrassment) or provided any data that would make the cut between high marriage and fertility rates and high percentage of traditional women in the population. In the data she cites for the US during the 1950s, where the baby boom correlated with a boom in religious observance, she doesn't note that it also correlated with the feminine mystique, suburbanization and the mass exodus of women from the labor force. To test which it is she would have to look at a "natural" families with, say, more than two kids and see whether there was any difference in religious observance between those whose female head was "traditional" and those whose female head was "non-traditional." I'd bet heavily that there would be a statistically significant difference. But I'd also bet that there are too few families of this sort whose female heads are "non-traditional" to provide a decently large sample.

The piece of data significantly missing from Eberhardt's discussion, and most other discussions of church growth and decline, concerns differences in religious observance among women. Everyone knows that women in the aggregate are more religiously observant than men. Eberhardt, who doesn't produce statistics, just suggests going to any church on a Sunday and looking at the composition of the congregation--and that's fair. However this kind of informal survey doesn't capture the demographic characteristics of the women one is looking at, in particular, how many are employed full-time and how many are in non-female-identified occupations. It is a safe guess that whereas there are more religiously observant women than men in the aggregate, there are proportionately far fewer non-traditional women who are religiously observant. That is, take any group of full-time workers in a non-female-identified occupation (don't even worry about intangibles like attitudes or sex-role conformity--hard data will do): I would bet that you will find that there are proportionately fewer religiously observant women than men.

I have fairly good data for one occupation--my own. While women in the philosophy are about 20 percent, they are seriously underrepresented in philosophy of religion, a specialty that attracts primarily religious believers, and in the Society of Christian Philosophers. There, the figures are closer to 5 percent. The differences are so significant that you only have to look. I would bet (but would love to see data on this) that you would get similar results for doctors, lawyers, engineers or any non-female-identified profession other than clergy.

It doesn't take speculative theses about the transcendental event of birth or primal facts of parent-child bonding to explain why. First, and most obviously, churches provide the benefits of employment to individuals who do not do paid work, including not only traditional women but retirees. The Episcopal Church, for example, not only provides opportunities for altar guild, flower-arranging and the like but traditionally provided affluent, educated women with volunteer jobs that were the female-identified equivalent to the upper management and CEO positions their male counterparts held--jobs in which women controlled large sums of money and exercised significant power. This is not a novelty. In the late Roman Empire, when the patronage system was institutionalized, male Notables held court for their clients and pulled strings to get them political preferment while wealthy matrons ran the Church's charity business and provided comparable benefits for their clients--widows, orphans and the generic Poor.

Secondly, Christianity in particular, valorized what were popularly regarded as "feminine virtues"--humility, submission and trust--and offered protection in exchange for subordination. Christianity is, as Nietzsche correctly noted "a religion for slaves." For women, slaves, members of the underclass and the disposessed, who were required to be humble and subordinate, who had no power and little control over their lives, and who of necessity had to trust masters and patrons, Christianity made a virtue out of a necessity.

In both of these ways, the Church provided for individuals who were disadvantaged in secular society. For the talented tenth it provided an alternative career path: ambitions, capable women could be patronesses of the poor or ECW executives; clever peasant lads and boys from immigrant families could be priests, get a free education and, if they were clever and ambitious enough, rise in the Church hierarchy. Women who played traditional, subordinate roles "doing for" people, caring for children and the elderly, and providing menial support services, were told that the roles they played of necessity were virtuous: the first would be last and the last first; Dives would go to Hades while Lazarus went to Abraham's Bosom. The Church was a relatively humane, decent alternative to an inhumane, stratified secular society where only a few privileged males enjoyed what we should regard as the good life, where few men and no women enjoyed opportunities for advancement, and where the great bulk of the population was poor and powerless. The Church provided relatively desirable options for men from disadvantaged groups and for all women that were not readily available in secular society.

A century ago all Irish families, and quite a few Italian families, wanted one son to be a priest. Nowadays they don't because there are better paid, more desirable secular options available, and so the RC Church has a shortage of priests. There is no dearth of aspirants to the ministry of Protestant denominations, but in the Episcopal Church at least most are middle-aged individuals looking for second careers. Where secular options are available, most talented, ambitious individuals do not look for work in the Church. Even more significantly when it comes to sheer numbers, since career prospects in the secular world have opened for women, far fewer able women have the interest or time to work on a voluntary basis for the Church. Powerful women's organizations which traditionally provided a venue in which able, educated women could make alternative careers for themselves are collapsing because capable, ambitious women who would in the past have provided leadership for these organizations can make their way in the secular world, in business and the professions.

Since religious participation is now de facto as well as de jure optional, churches increasingly play to their base--in particular, to women who are comfortable with traditional sex-roles. These traditional women do the work they do at home and in pink-collar occupations in a church setting--caring for children and the elderly, catering, cleaning, entertaining, decorating and drudge work. The shrinking population of traditional women are pleased to have the opportunity to contribute their talents to the Church and to have their work honored but the growing number of women who, in their secular lives, play different roles and have different expectations, find most churches inhospitable. Imagine that you are a woman who is an investment banker, a lawyer or an academic and decide to become "involved" in your local church. Coming from a world where men and women do the same jobs and mingle freely you find yourself in a social setting where most activities are sex segregated and where there are different expectations for men and women. You are asked to volunteer for childcare during the service and hustled into women's organizations that run bake sales. You have a nanny that does childcare; you don't bake cookies, don't have the time or energy to participate in the church activities that are expected of women and aren't interested in "doing for" people; you have little in common with the traditional women with whom you are expected to socialize and find the church "community" alien.

The Church is a better deal for traditional women than it is for men, but a very bad deal for non-traditional women who, predictably, are disinclined to participate. This is very bad news for the Church where, traditionally, women have made the church-going decisions for their households. When St. Paul converted Lydia she brought all her family, including slaves, into the Church. Clarence Day, Sr. depended on Vinnie to get him into heaven and expected her to do the religion job for the entire family. If women don't do this job the Church suffers--and currently, fewer women are willing to do this job. Churches don't notice because there is still a preponderance of women in the Church--primarily elderly ladies and "traditional" women. But, since there are fewer traditional women in the population, there are fewer women in the Church and so fewer men and children.

If the Church is interested in growth without changing its fundamental structure or commitments there is an option though not one that is either desirable or feasible: see to it that secular society is lousy--see to it that women don't have any viable career paths in the secular world, maintain traditional sex roles in the home, and make sure that the bulk of the population is poor, insecure and oppressed. In third world countries that maintain these conditions, signaled by high marriage and fertility rates, religion is booming. If however the Church wants to survive in modern, affluent societies where low marriage and fertility rates signal the economic emergence of women, it needs to reconsider and revise its program and policies.


acb said...

The religions of the poor may adopt precisely the strategy you reprehend. If men are sufficiently dangerous, women will return to their traditional roles.

H. E. said...

Not just religion. In the US since the Moynahan Report in the mid-1960s one of the repeated themes has been the need to promote the "traditional family" in order to tame troublesome young underclass males. Hence "the end of welfare as we know it" which was supposed to force underclass women back into dependence on men who would behave themselves in the public square in return for female subordination.

Isn't that a dandy conspiracy theory?

acb said...

Well, it hasn't exactly tamed the young men, has it, to have all the women frightened of them?

H. E. said...

I don't buy your suggestion that traditional women are frightened of men. I wasn't in any case offering an explanation of why women play traditional roles but rather an explanation of why traditional women are religious and so why religion declines when there are fewer of them in the population.

Surely the main reason women play traditional roles is simply economic. If there are few viable options for women in the labor market then women have to depend on men for financial support. In return they provide traditionally female people-pleasing, "caring" and cleaning services for men and their children. It's a fair deal: it's a job, not a great one but better the jobs many men do. When options for women open up in the labor market women go out to work and become less traditional.

I also don't claim that the traditional family actually does "tame" young underclass males. That was Moynihan's hypothesis. The idea was that young black men engaged in anti-social behavior because of low self-esteem, induced by racism and exacerbated by "castrating" women. Underclass black women were financially independent--they worked or got welfare--so their male counterparts couldn't play the "normal" paterfamilias role and so, the story went, turned to violence and criminal activity. Remember the Moynihan report on "the Negro family" is a period piece--published in 1965 when Freudian psychology still had cachet and most respectable middle class families were "traditional" families.

I explain it all in the book--publication date now set for Feb 8, 2008. If you want a copy of the ms or a link to where you can read it online just email. I'm dying for comments. The publisher has created a cover--a very good looking one--and it's being advertised all over (from what I've seen googling around) but I still haven't been hooked up with an editor or got any comments from them so I'm getting a little frustrated. I sent them the ms almost 3 months prior to their deadline and I suspect they weren't expecting it that soon.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I see your point here: "religion is good for "traditional" women--women who either do not work outside the home or who have jobs-not-careers and play traditional sex-roles. It's consistent with the data because traditional women are more likely to marry than non-traditional women and far more likely to have large families."

I'd like to say that it works the other way as well: Religious women hold more traditional values, but we have many "religious" women who don't hold traditional values. In fact, they often hate traditional values. In conversation with these women I often discover that they don't understand the origins of the values and institutions they oppose. They are liberally trained and uncritically accept the politically correct misrepresentation of traditional values and institutions. I write a good deal about this at my blog, Just Genesis. Visit when you have a moment:

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