While it is difficult to know precisely whether or not religious beliefs differ in relation to males and females, it is evident that religious practice and participation does show relatively clear gender differences. This is true across all forms of religious organisation. Almost two-thirds of churchgoers are women. However, as with social factors like class and age, it is clear that there is no overall pattern of male / female religious attendance, since there are evident differences between denominations. For example: For the Anglican Church, the male to female ratio is approximately half and half. For all Christian churches the male female ratio is approximately twenty to eighty percent.
While women are more likely than men to be involved in religious organisations, it is relatively clear that, in hierarchical terms, men tend to dominate the most significant positions in any religious organisation. This tends to hold true across the majority of the world’s major religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.
In most religions, women tend to be portrayed in terms of their “traditional” social characteristics. The “Virgin Mary” in Christian religion is a good example here. Although a powerful figure as the Mother of Christ, her power, is ideological rather than political, the virtues of purity, chastity, motherhood and so forth are personified through her as ideals for womanhood.
In relation to non-Christian religions, Giddens “Sociology” notes:
“Females appear as important figures in the teachings of some Buddhist orders…but on the whole Buddhism, like Christianity, is an overwhelmingly male-created institution dominated by a patriarchal power structure in which the feminine is most closely associated with the secular, powerless, profane and imperfect.”.
An obvious example drawn from Christianity might be Mankind’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the result of female duplicity.
“According to the book of Genesis, God first created man. Woman was not only an afterthought, but an amenity. For close on two thousand years this Holy Scripture was believed to justify her subordination and explain her inferiority for even as a copy she was not a very good copy, there were differences. She was not one of his best efforts”.
While women, as has been noted above, feature strongly in both religious participation and, to a certain extent, imagery, it is evident that there has tended to be a very marked inequality between males and females in terms of positions of power and authority within religious organisations. Although some sects have allowed women to “preach and teach”, the majority of the world’s major religions have tended to relegate women to relatively minor roles in their organisation.
In relation to Christianity, the decision, in November 1992 by the Church of England to ordain women as priests is a significant development to note. This decision was not taken lightly and has lead to a great deal of conflict within the Church. While the Church of England has traditionally been more “liberal” regarding the position of women within its organisation, the Roman Catholic Church has resisted pressure to ordain women, tending to fall back upon the argument that to do so would be blasphemous. Christ “ordained” twelve disciples, none of whom were women, therefore, women should not be allowed to be ordained.
Once again, within a wide variety of sects, women tend, in the main, not to feature in the highly at the top of organisational hierarchies, although there are exceptions to this general rule. The diversity of sects perhaps makes it difficult to generalise about participation along gender lines. However, given that women tend to become involved in all types of religious activity with greater frequency than men, there is little reason to suppose that, in broad terms, sect membership does not conform to this norm.
If it is difficult to estimate the numbers involved with New Age cults, it is doubly difficult to estimate with any degree of certainty the ration of male to female involvement. The “private sphere” of cult activity relates to traditional forms of gender roles for women, motherhood, the home, and child rearing. New Age philosophy contrasts the concept of Nature unfavourably with a modern technological world, which tends to be characterised as masculine.
Historically, where concepts of Nature have been employed, the role of women has tended to be seen in terms of their “essential femininity”; that is, as naturally different creatures to males, more attuned to the supposed natural rhythms of life and so forth. Thus, within New Age cults, women tend to be afforded a much higher status than men in terms of the various philosophies on which these cults are based, which is one reason that explains higher female involvement.