Opinion

What's the Only Country in the World Where Men Claim They're More Religious Than Women?

It's long been conventional wisdom that women identify as more religious than men. But our surveys show Israeli Jewish men turn that assumption upside down. Why do Jewish men in Israel seem more observant than Jewish women?

A Jewish worshipper uses his mobile phone to record worshippers covered in prayer shawls as they recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during Sukkot. October 19, 2016
\ BAZ RATNER/ REUTERS

Among scholars of religion in Europe and North America, it has long been conventional wisdom that women are more religious than men. That’s because survey results show that women in many countries pray more often, attend religious services more frequently, and are more likely to view religion as very important to their lives. These patterns are most prevalent among Christians.

There is only one country among the 84 analyzed in a 2016 Pew Research Center report where men are consistently more religious than women by these measures: Israel.

Israel is the only country surveyed in which men are more likely than women to pray daily. Source: Pew Research Center surveys, 2008-2015
Pew Research Center

Our additional analysis (recently published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, a peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences) shows that 40% of Israeli men attend religious services at least weekly, compared with 21% of Israeli women. Three-in-ten men in Israel (30%) pray daily, compared with 24% of women. And 39% of Israeli men say religion is very important to them, compared with 33% of women.

These figures come from a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 and 2015 among 5,601 Israeli adults selected at random from all parts of the country, including areas inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Druze. But the gender differences are driven mostly by Israeli Jews. Among Christians and Druze in Israel, men are no more religious than women on any of the measures.

Among Israeli Muslims, men are more likely to attend religious services weekly or more often, but women are more likely to pray daily and say religion is very important in their lives. Outside Israel, Muslim men also tend to attend worship services more frequently than women, yet are not more religious by other measures.

For example, in Afghanistan, Muslim men are 84 percentage points more likely to worship weekly – the largest gender gap we have found in religious attendance anywhere in the world – yet Afghan men are no more likely than women to say religion is very important in their lives. Jewish men in Israel stand out because they seem to be more religious than women by numerous measures.

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Not surprisingly, synagogue attendance is where the differences between Jewish men and women are most stark: Israeli men who describe themselves as Haredi [ultra-Orthodox], Dati [religiously observant] or Masorti [traditional] are 30 percentage points more likely than women in those same categories to say they go to synagogue at least weekly. (Among self-identified Hilonim, there is virtually no gender difference in synagogue attendance, as just 1% of secular Jewish men, and practically no secular women, go to synagogue weekly or more.)

The fact that Jewish men go to synagogue much more often than Jewish women is unlikely to surprise many Israelis, because it reflects ancient norms of behavior embedded in Jewish law. Traditionally, women do not count in a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish adults that is necessary for public worship. And, while Orthodox Jewish men are required to pray three times a day, women do not have the same obligations (although they have other obligations).

But in our study, we also examine responses to survey questions on which there is no obvious expectation that men and women should express devotion differently.

In Israel, Jewish men more likely than women to go to religious services % who say they attend synagogue at least weekly. Note: Statistically significant differences are highlighted in bold
Pew Research Center survey conducted October 2014-May 2015

For example: Do Jewish Israelis avoid riding in vehicles on Shabbat? Do they view themselves as observing all aspects of Jewish religious tradition? Do they keep kosher? These are the kinds of questions on which experts say there is no reason for Jewish men to behave differently from Jewish women.

Yet there are small but significant gender gaps on some of these questions, and wherever a gap emerges, Jewish men seem more observant than Jewish women.

For example, about four-in-ten Israeli Jewish men (39%) say they do not ride in vehicles on the Sabbath, compared with 33% of Israeli Jewish women. Men are also more likely than women to say they strictly observe all aspects of Jewish religious tradition (25% vs. 17%).

On other questions, the differences are not large enough to be considered statistically significant. For example, Jewish men and women in Israel are about equally likely to say they keep kosher, both inside their homes (64% vs. 62%) and outside their homes (54% vs. 50%).

Of course, if survey questions had been designed to focus on the traditional religious obligations of women, we could have found ways in which Jewish women seem more observant than men. For example, the survey asked Israeli Jews if someone in their household always lights Sabbath candles (64% of men said yes, compared with 62% of women). But it did not ask if they themselves light Sabbath candles; there is little doubt that women would score higher than men on such a question.

Jewish men wearing traditional prayer shawls pray during the Passover holiday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. April 21, 2008
AP

Still, the example of Israel challenges the conventional notion – widely asserted for many years by scholars in the United States and other Christian-majority countries – that women are always more religious than men.

In the survey data from Israel, we can see plainly that Jewish men and Jewish women are expected to express their religious commitment in different ways within the Orthodox Jewish enviroment dominant in Israel. Religious law and cultural norms encourage Jewish men toward certain public expressions of religiosity, such as regular synagogue attendance, while women have other obligations, such as keeping family purity laws.

This is not evidence that, in their hearts, Jewish men actually are more religious than Jewish women, or vice versa. On the contrary, the Israeli example shows that religious tradition often includes strongly gendered norms of behavior, and thus it is wrong to assume that one of the sexes is intrinsically "more religious" than the other.

Conrad Hackett is associate director of research and senior demographer at Pew Research Center. His expertise is in international religious demography, sociology of religion, and how religion relates to factors including gender, fertility and education. Twitter: @conradhackett