The Psychology of Religion/Chapter 2

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And the first popular fallacy about the psychology of religion which we have to expose is the idea that women are in a very large proportion more religious than men. Here even the reader who finds me generally cautious about my facts and reasonable about my deductions will begin to protest. Surely, he will say, it is notorious in every land, has been notorious in all ages and literature, that woman is more religious than man. The clergy themselves almost universally believe it, and they ought to know.

Let me remind you that a great many things which are not true have been believed in all countries and ages, and many of these beliefs relate to woman. It has been universally believed that woman is more sensitive than man, yet it has been proved repeatedly in the psychological laboratories of America that she is not. It has been held widely in all literatures, and is widely held today, that a woman knows things by "intuition," and one need know little psychology to see that this is a miserable fallacy: that the "intuition" (which exists more abundantly in fiction than in life) is simply a hasty deduction, unconscious of its own premises. When I worked in the Feminist movement, ten to twenty years ago, I found it the quite general and dogmatic belief of my lady friends that woman is innately, or on principle more virtuous than man; and it was to them quite a new, though obvious, idea when I pointed out that if, in sexual intercourse, the male ran the risk of pregnancy, all the coyness and virtue would be on his side, and that familiarity with the use of preventives is already altering this distribution of virtue.

But let fact precede argument. In the last chapter I gave from American experience a set of facts which abundantly prove my thesis, that the chief influence in religious belief is the activity of the priest. Now let me give a set of facts from British life which are worth more than a volume of argument or psychology about the religion of woman.

In the years 1902-1903 there was an accurate and scientific enumeration of the people who go to church in the city of London. There had been a similar, though less systematic, enumeration in 1886, and religious people, encouraged by the optimistic assurances of their clergy, desired a fresh enumeration, which should make an end of this wicked cry that religion was in decay. An important metropolitan journal, under religious control, organized the census. It was spread over a year, so as to give a balance of good and bad weather, and it was conducted by religious, but broad-minded men. Every man, woman, and child of the six million people of London who went to church during that period was individually counted, and a liberal estimate of "twicers" (people who went twice on one Sunday) was deducted so as to give, approximately, the actual number of people who go to church more or less regularly in the largest city of the world.

To the general lessons of this census I return in another Little Blue Book, No. 365, Myths of Religious Statistics. Here I will say only that it showed a very marked decline of church-going between 1886 and 1903—the Church of England alone had lost 140,000 worshipers, although the population had very greatly increased—that of 6,240,336 inhabitants of London only 1,252,433 went to church, and that there were less than 100,000 Roman Catholics in the six million people.

Most interesting of all was the division of the sexes: for the enumerators counted every man, woman, and child separately. I analyzed the figures, which are published in minute detail in the official report (The Religious Life of London, edited by R. Mudie Smith, 1904), in my Religion of Woman (1905). Omitting the Jews and taking the gross figures for Greater London (six million people), we have 372,264 men worshipers and 607,257 women worshipers. Most people are under the impression that the women outnumber the male worshipers by three or four to one. They are not even two to one. The above is an exact analysis of their proportions in a typical large city of an advanced modern civilization. And we must not forget that at the time women outnumbered men in the general population by about a million and a half. When we make allowance for that fact, we see that the greater religiosity of women merely means, at the outside, that three women go to church for every two men.

To get a little nearer to the truth we must examine this disproportion in different sects. There is no such thing as a typical religious psychology. The influences are quite different in different individuals, and we see this at once in these London figures. In the Church of Rome the women are more than twice as numerous as the men: in the Church of England less than twice as numerous: in the other churches much less than three to two. And where the local church is in a wealthy district—where the men are generally college-educated and the services are more attractive esthetically—the proportion of women worshipers reaches four to one. Taking four churches in the wealthier part of London, two Roman Catholic and two that call themselves English Catholic, the figures are:

Brompton Oratory: 267 men and 1,105 women.
Carmelite Church: 276 men and 807 women.
Holy Trinity: 160 men and 880 women.
Christ's Church: 249 men and 1,034 women.

The first of these was at the time the most ornate and wealthy Catholic church in England: the third was a ritualist Protestant church in the same wealthy district, and the Bishop of London was preaching there on the occasion of the census. In educated districts the Roman Catholic Church has habitually two to four times as many female worshipers as male.

The Nonconformist (Baptist, Wesleyan and Congregationalist) churches, on the other hand, have a disproportion of the sexes which is only slightly greater than their disproportion in the general population. In fact, we may say generally that Protestant or Evangelical churches in working class districts show (allowing for the larger number of females) little disproportion of the sexes. Here are the gross Protestant figures for three very large working class suburbs:

East Ham: 4,996 men and 7,048 women.
West Ham: 11,130 men and 16,230 women,
Ilford: 4,585 men and 6,309 women.

In these districts, moreover, where the churches are not rich, where the music and "art" are poor and the men not well educated, even the Catholic women are not nearly twice as numerous in church as the men.

There is no reason whatever to think that London differs from American cities in this respect. In the large cities of what are called Catholic countries—there are scarcely any such—it is different. In Paris there are four women in church to one man. But in Protestant cities the proportion is likely to be about the same as in London. Susan B. Anthony once wrote that women form "from two-thirds to three-fourths of the membership of the Churches of America." She had no statistics to support that opinion, and we must be guided rather by the exact London statistics. Except where there is a special artistic attractiveness about the services, women-worshipers are not nearly twice as numerous as men-worshipers.

As the figures are loaded by this heavy disproportion of the sexes in ritualist places of worship, let us consider these first. It is quite a mistake to suppose that you explain it all by saying that woman is more emotional than man. Experimental psychology has shown, as I said, that she has not got a finer sensibility, a greater acuteness of sense-perception, than man, but it is clearly true that she is more emotional. Her functions and her sympathetic nervous system imply that. But there are several other things to be considered.

One is that priests make far greater efforts to secure female worshipers in wealthier than in poorer districts. The women are daintier and have ample leisure and more attractive homes. Visiting rich women is a delight to the priest: visiting poor women is—I have, remember, lived in the clerical world—a drudgery. Moreover, the visiting priest sees the women four times as much as he sees the men, and even the more pious women have their sense of his high sacerdotal character enhanced by sex-consciousness. The man is busy, he has lived in a skeptical atmosphere from college onward, he has no particular urge toward a priest of his own sex (he commonly distrusts him on account of his afternoon visits), and he has, as a rule, to leave his money to his family. The woman is the opposite in every respect. In other words, the fact that she is far more exposed to suggestion is the first thing to take into account.

Moreover, when we are explaining this heavy disproportion of the sexes in artistic ritualist churches, we have to consider another very important circumstance. Boys are nowadays rarely sent to sectarian schools, but girls are sent in very large numbers to be taught by nuns. From their teens onward the brother and sister are apt to come under quite different influences. The boy talks to other boys of every religion or none. The girl in a much higher proportion is expressly put in an environment which will promote and harden the habit of church-going. I do not mean that this great difference in the use of authority or suggestion explains the whole disproportion of sexes in ritualistic churches. The woman is more emotional than the man, and the express aim of these churches is to gratify her emotions. Yet, clearly, there are very many things to be taken into account besides her emotions. Priestcraft does not merely influence her more than it influences man. It is used against her far more than against the man. Considering that her education also is defective, she has far less chance of escaping. Already, as we are altering the college education of girls, we are rapidly lessening the disproportion of women in ritualistic churches.

These women, however, are a small minority. What concerns us more is the fact that generally, allowing for the fact that women far outnumber men, three women are religious to two men. What do we make of this? The exact figures I have given make the problem much smaller than most writers on the psychology of religion suppose it to be, and we need point only to a few influences or impulses to explain it.

That astute and fearless student of sex-matters, Mr. Havelock Ellis, has considered this situation (in his Man and Woman), but he started with the usual exaggerated idea of the religious disproportion of the sexes—though he incidentally reminds us that of six hundred sects described in a dictionary of religions only seven were founded by women—and I think this has colored his theory. He looks principally to the innate conservatism which the division of labor in family lite, especially in pre-civilized days, has given to woman. This and her greater emotionality and suggestibility, he thinks, explain the psychology of religion in this respect.

I distrust this theory of conservatism when I notice that the new sects (Theosophy, Christian Science, etc.) overwhelmingly attract women to their ranks. At all events, let us try first a less theoretical explanation.

We shall surely not be pushing an idea to extremes, but regarding the plain facts of life, if we say that the interest of the minister of religion makes him depend far more on the woman than on the man. He wants the children. From the fourth century onward it has been a tradition in the Christian Church that, if you have a mother or grown-up daughter zealous in a home, you have the best chance of securing the others. Priests will even (in broad language) urge wives to use their sex-attraction (by refusing or grudging it) in inducing a husband to go to church; and, in any case, hers is the chief influence on the children. It is, surely, an indisputable fact of life that she is exposed far more than the man is to priestly pressure.

Moreover, quite apart from wealth and education, the sex-instinct counts. The priest prefers women to men: women are drawn to priests far more than men are. Further differences arise from occupation and education. The man's business does not promote the frame of mind which church-going requires, while the monotonous work of the woman rather disposes her in favor of church-going. The man listens all his life to very free remarks about clergymen, religion, and sex, and such conversation rarely occurs in the presence of women. The man has had a more practical and realistic education, in school and in business, while the woman has much less occasion to develop the critical side of judgment. Quite a number of such contrasts could be enumerated.

In fine, there is strong confirmation of all this in the fact that, in proportion as we reduce the difference in education and environment between the sexes, we are reducing the disproportion of the sexes in religion. This generation is very apt to forget that the present comparative freedom of women Is a new thing. Two generations ago woman had, as a rule, from babyhood to old age, an entirely different experience from man. Now she gets the same education. She sports, smokes, drinks (since prohibition was adopted), swears, hears funny stories, has a club, works in an office, jazzes. . . . Ancient custom, lasting almost until this generation, explains more than psychology. It still lingers to a great extent. Many a man still regards the church mainly as an Insurance Society for the integrity of his property—the faithfulness of his wife and chastity of his daughter—and urges them to attend, while he goes to the club. It is a very complex question, yet simple in the sense that all the factors are very familiar matters. Woman goes to church far less than is generally supposed, and there is no need to seek mystic impulses in her nature to explain the slight disproportion of the sexes at worship.