Women Are Leaving Church, And the Reason Seems Clear

May 30, 2016

By Patricia Miller

A new Pew Research Center analysis of General Social Survey data confirms a long-simmering trend in U.S. religious observance: While attendance at religious services has declined for all Americans, it has declined more among women then men.

In the early 1970s, 36 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported attending church services weekly, a ten-point gap that reflected the long-standing trend of women being more religiously committed than men.

The gap reached its widest point in 1982, when it hit 13 percent, but then it began to shrink. By 2012, 22 percent of men reported attending church weekly, as did 28 percent of women, reflecting a “worship gap” of only six percent, an historic low.

Pew’s David McClendon gives several possible reasons for women’s declining levels of religiosity as measured by church attendance. One is the increase in the number of women in the workforce, which could theoretically decrease their leisure time and force them to cut back on activities like church. But as McClendon himself notes, “the fastest increase in women’s full-time employment” actually “occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which time the gender gap on religious service attendance actually widened somewhat.”

If women aren’t too busy with work to go to church, maybe it’s because they’re becoming too well educated. Higher rates of educational attainment are correlated to less church going, except McClendon notes that both more educated and less educated women are going to church less.

Finally, McClendon notes that the growth of the “nones” appears to having contributed to women’s declining church attendance, as “the rate of growth in the unaffiliated has been slightly more rapid for women than men,” which has “helped narrow the gender gap in weekly attendance.”

But it seems likely that more women becoming unaffiliated is part and parcel of the same trend of more women staying away from church. It still doesn’t explain why this is happening.

What McClendon overlooks is that the years that women’s church attendance began to decline are the very years when religious leaders in the Catholic Church and the evangelical movement fused religion with the culture wars, with overall attendance for women taking it’s first steep drop in the 1980s.

This drop in church attendance for women coincided with the period when the Catholic bishops began making abortion a litmus test for Catholic politicians, as in the 1984 election when Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was attacked for being pro-choice.

And Pew’s own numbers appear to back this up. According to Pew, women are slightly more likely than men to say that churches should keep out of politics (55 percent vs. 53 percent), and overall 60 percent of Catholics say church should keep out of politics.

Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

7 comments on “Women Are Leaving Church, And the Reason Seems Clear

  • … maybe it’s because [women are] becoming too well educated

    I don’t even have an idea what that means.

    Higher rates of educational attainment are correlated to less church going

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    … except McClendon notes that both more educated and less educated women are going to church less

    There you go.

    … the years that women’s church attendance began to decline are the very years when religious leaders in the Catholic Church and the evangelical movement fused religion with the culture wars …

    Although I remain to be convinced that the “culture war” is a thing I can see where Miller is coming from. That said, why aren’t women capable of simply being members of a new social movement towards the atheist stance? Why can’t they simply be persuaded that the evidence for supernatural realms and/or entities is too slim to require their time along with other demographic groups?

    Membership of a wider social movement would explain the statistics. Women are leaving churches in larger numbers because they were disproportionately represented in the first place. I see no mystery here – this is representative of other statistical political shifts.

    The stories of widespread abuse of children in the care of the Catholic Church broke in the US with the Boston Globe investigation in 2002. This had no effect?

    The comments under the source story are worth reading. Misogyny, anyone?

    The public Net, the place where religions come to die, is generally thought to have begun between the World Wide Web (1991) and the full commercialization of the Net (1994). This also correlates with the fall in religiosity but is not considered material by Miller.

    I have no doubt that the systematic organization of Conservative Christians as a political movement – the Christian Coalition was formed by the failed presidential candidate Pat Robertson in 1988, though other groups had laid the foundations – does indeed correlate with the statistical trend. I’ll even go so far as to say, yes, there can be little doubt that this had a negative effect on some of the Christian electorate.

    But is there enough evidence to say that this is the whole story? As above, are other trends equally, if not more, likely to have contributed to women leaving churches? Miller’s piece skims the surface of a deep ocean of knowledge in order to claim expertise.

    Patricia Miller, as the original story page shows, is a woman on a mission. Her book Good Catholics is about the separation of church and state, including what concessions[?!] society should make in public policy to matters of religious doctrine. Also a journalist, Miller writes on the intersection of politics, sex and religion.

    I may be as guilty as Miller and extrapolating too far on slim evidence (though, to be fair, I’ve investigated more thoroughly than she), but; might this be the kind of piece that someone with the agenda of selling the public the line that the Catholic Church needs to take a more liberal line might write?

    Oh yes.

    Not to mention that Miller’s sins of omission are a great smoke-screen – the Church hierarchy must love her.

    Scratch a True Believer looking at statistics and find a politician and, in this case, a Writer looking to make a buck – but don’t read anything by Miller and expect to see truth emerging.


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  • I was a minister, in a liberal Christian denomination, for 23 years. Women ran the church; that is, they – for the most part – staffed the committees, prepared community meals, organized volunteer efforts and so forth. I’d imagine women in churches are getting tired of doing most of the work as if it were the assumption of the community that they would do so.

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  • As a woman who’s left a church and become an atheist, I have to say it was a long accumulation of simmering rage against the insult and injustice of the ingrained patriarchal attitudes toward women and children…and the final realization that all the centuries of misery and abuse have been based on nothing more than fantasy and fairytales.

    Done being “ruled over” by men, and done being lied to and cheated and denied full status as an intelligent, capable human being.

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  • The only women acceptable to the “great” monotheistic religions are:


    Monogamous mothers

    And even then their value is sometimes considered to be half that of a man.

    Then, for a few days a month they are considered “impure”

    They tempt men to do things against their better nature, (but then so do altar boys), so are forced into modest apparel.

    The real question is: Why do so many women chose to remain part of such mysoginistic churches?

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  • Stephen #3

    tired of doing most of the work

    It really is a ton of work. All of those meals and the clean-up. Fund raising, etc. In my teens this prompted me to say, “They need me but I don’t need them.”

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  • I was moved by Stephen’s comment [#3] to revisit my first comment [#2]. This is not a reply to Stephen, rather, it’s a more studied reply to the OP.

    It seems to me that the liberal churches have understood this problem – and the increasing number of churches that practice ordination of women is tacit admittance that they need to promote the workers, or the workers will revolt. The Catholic version was an Apostolic Visitation that ran, as far as I can remember, from about 2010. I don’t remember seeing the results.

    Miller is a Catholic. According to Steven Pinker (he didn’t share how he knows) the World is not short of submissives. My experience of Catholic women is only marginally less than my experience of Muslim women – which is to say: vanishingly small – and I remain leery of media depictions when so many are obvious caricatures – but if they’re anything like the women in other Christian denominations (which, like Stephen, I do know) then it takes an awful lot to move them from openly obsequious observance to turning their backs.

    Sue Blue’s experience [Comment #4], appears to be a growing trend. I say seems – I have little evidence though there is some. This is clearly linked to the molasses-slow progress Western societies are making towards gender equality. As sexism is slowly eroded so women’s expectations and understanding of the World are rising, and the churches have reached the crunch point.

    To be fairer to Miller, education probably plays a role – while women have had access to a good education in the US since the 1930s, the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act ensured Title IX covered all programs of any educational institution. Women were already earning more Masters degrees by 1988, and this helped to ensure that at least the majority of women that Miller is discussing (born, approx., post 1972) were (and are) getting equal access to education.

    While education, and the slow winning of the battle against sexism, are two other coincident social trends there is still no simple cause and effect. Patricia Miller still gets an F.

    There is no doubt in my mind that Stephen is right; women leaving the churches is a much bigger crisis than it appears on the surface. They are the stokers in the basements of organized religions doing most, if not all, of the dirty tedious ‘heavy shovelling’ – and getting precious little in return except to be preached at. Then ‘holy men’ add insult to injury by adding misogyny like Timothy. Of course, submissives love that kind of thing.

    We do women a great dis-service if we follow Miller’s prescription and assume that women are leaving the Church because the Church doesn’t understand sexual politics – period. Women today are confronted with a very different world to those of their grandmothers and, frankly, the world of their great-grandmothers looks like an alien planet. Better educated, better informed, greater freedom and greater opportunity give young women pause for thought. Empowered women: Meet the churches that want, nay need, submissives. Things that make you go “hmm”?

    There is no doubt that sexual politics plays a part in moving women out of the churches, because the churches will focus, despite many warnings from gender-alert politicians (including those in their own ranks), on insisting that religious morals trump a woman’s sovereignty over her own body. Then they insult all mothers of gay, lesbian or trans children to boot. But to look at it this way, excluding all other influences, leaves Miller simply demeaning her own sex – and losing the battle for hearts and minds. Barking mad!

    We must assume that Miller, as a self-proclaimed Catholic, would prefer not to be losing this battle. Yet Miller makes the same mistakes as her male religious counterparts (which suggests she has on religious blinders, not sexist blinders) and attempts to over-simplify a situation that calls for nuance – for a stride beyond what worked for churches recruiting and retaining women 80 years ago.

    Those of us in the ‘none’ camp need to take this lesson on board.

    We simplify women’s positions on spirituality and religion at our own cost. This is very easy to do; women are a minority but they still make up the largest demographic in Western societies – marginally outnumbering men. If Miller is right about one thing; if it is possible to break down her gender demographic group into Christians, other religions and ‘nones’ then it’s also possible to conclude some things about religious women.

    While researching for these two posts I came across evidence that women tend to report more direct spiritual experiences than men. This suggests that the simple denial of theists positions will only work for a minority of religious women – because most are not really interested in theology. There appears to be a need for the ‘none’ camp to come up with a better way to address spiritual experience, if we’re serious about moving more Christian women to de-conversion.

    I wish I had an answer. There certainly seems to be room for us all to consider more frequent references to humanism (social responsibilities, safety nets and inclusive political policies) and secularism (equal time and equal political voices for all religious views and none) and arguing for the decoupling of spiritual experience from any ‘necessary’ connection with a religious artefacts, places, people, or rituals.

    We are all, female, male and other, emotional creatures – and we all seek to excite those emotions. It seems highly likely that we are also, therefore, not addressing the needs of many people by simply pressing the atheist case – and not just the majority of spiritually-inspired women.

    My thought for today.


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