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The Gender Gap in Religion

What does it mean that many more young women than young men are leaving American churches?


Young women are leaving American churches in droves. A new survey from the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates what some have already begun to speculate: As young women move politically left as a group, they also become more irreligious. 

AEI’s survey of some 5,500 Americans of various ages examined the sexed breakdown of which Americans are leaving churches of every denomination to identify as “disaffiliated.” Per the survey, Millennials, Generation Xers, and Baby Boomers who left their childhood church numbered more male than female, by 6 to 14 percentage points. Generation Z flipped this; the majority of disaffiliated are female by 8 percentage points. The same survey subjects seemed to blame the church’s lack of feminism: Nearly two-thirds of Generation Z women in the cohort disagreed with the statement that “most churches and religious congregations treat men and women equally.” The conclusion from these two findings, presumably, is that churches should become more egalitarian to win over young women. 


There are many problems, of course, with letting the opinion of modern irreligious women override centuries of Christian theology. But what is more interesting here is how neatly this picture maps onto another interesting development in our modern era, that of feminized higher education. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a bombshell report titled “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College.” The report detailed the ever-widening education gap between men and women: Both in acceptance rates and graduation rates, men are falling far behind women. Even those schools putting a gentle thumb on the scales have not been able to close this gap. 

What might it mean for young women to outnumber young men at elite universities, while young men outnumber young women at church? Certainly, these two pieces—women leaving church and men leaving college—say something about the relative status of men and women today, and perhaps also about the two sexes’ penchant for prestige. To be a Christian in America today is undeniably low-status, and all the more so if one ascribes to any form of orthodox theology. High status jobs, meanwhile, are cordoned off by advanced degrees, and therefore inaccessible to men who do not graduate college. (It is worth noting the difference between high-status jobs and high paying jobs: Real estate, trucking, and trades jobs are highly lucrative, but do not infer the social status of titles like “professor,” “lawyer,” and “doctor.”) Young women leaving church might be doing so due to a staunch commitment to egalitarianism, but more likely they are leaving because of a more general sense that church is not cool. 

Most young women, and indeed most young adults today, are more readily shaped by peers and power than by deeply held moral convictions. This squares with the education trends, too: The atmosphere on most college campuses is not merely irreligious, but often anti-religious. Students have great negative incentives to leave the faith while pursuing an advanced degree. This might begin at the peer level, but it is also often advanced by faculty and staff, since the general milieu is one which views religion, especially Christianity, as a belief system opposed to intelligence. The men who have left higher education might be influenced by the same phenomenon, but in the opposite direction: Once they have rejected the prestige of the Ivory Tower, what is there to lose, in terms of social status, by becoming or staying Christian? As it turns out, not much. Indeed, young men today are developing parallel status economies quite comfortably, and quite without regard to what young women think of them. 

It should be obvious here that the conclusion is not to stuff women in a closet to keep them Christian. Rather, it is unmistakable that the education to be found in most elite institutions of our day is not worth a fraction of the tens of thousands of dollars too many have paid for it. If the result of higher education for women is not increased humility, wonder, and curiosity, of the same sort that drove men and women to God in earlier eras, we can safely assume that they are not being taught much of worth. 

Another piece worth considering in this puzzle is happiness. Religiously affiliated Americans are, apparently, happier; they are also more likely to be married, and less likely to get a divorce, which factors probably contribute to that happiness. Happiness is an ambiguous term, and very poorly measured by surveys, and it is worth asking, as my colleague Nic Rowan did recently, whether “happiness” is the point. Nevertheless, the term used by sociologists is helpful for a broad-brush analysis of something that Christians themselves have never needed a survey to understand: That is, young women leaving the church are trading it for a worse life, not a better one. 

It is right to look at these trends and have pity. In terms of status, higher education achievement, and religion, there exists a real gender gap. One half of young Americans are less likely to be brainwashed in college, less likely to take on enormous debt for a job, and more likely to find purpose and satisfaction in religion. The other half are women.