Studies examine religious attitudes toward gender equality, sexual orientation

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

New research suggests that religious affiliations in both the United States and worldwide correlate with gender equality and views toward gender and homosexuality. Landon Schnabel, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, published two recent articles considering the effects of religion in the aggregate on gender equality and the evolution of American evangelical views on gender and homosexuality.

In “Gender and homosexuality attitudes across religious groups from the 1970s to 2014,” Schnabel considers the views of American evangelicals, who traditionally erect moral boundaries on issues such as gender and homosexuality, to distinguish their community from those outside their religious tradition.

Landon Schnabel

Landon Schnabel

“I was fairly certain there would be differences in gender and sexuality attitudes across religious groups in any given point in time,” said Schnabel. “But I wanted to understand how the attitudes of different religious groups have changed compared to one another over time.”

Using General Social Survey data to compare attitudes toward gender roles and same-sex relationships, Schnabel found that evangelical attitudes toward women are different than other religious groups but move together over time. Evangelical and historically black Protestant views toward same-sex relationships are different than other religious groups, and diverge over time.

The separate findings suggest that evangelical views on gender and sexuality are decoupled. Evangelicals are adapting to standards of gender equality but continue to distinguish themselves with negative attitudes toward same-sex marriage.

“Conservative Protestants aren’t a majority and laws that many evangelicals and historically black Protestants disagree with can get passed,” Schnabel said. “But conservative Protestants still compose a third of the public and, since the legalization of same-sex marriage, we are seeing reactionary actions that disadvantage sexual minorities. In almost all of the cases of denial of services to same-sex couples, those refusing services are conservative Protestants.”

In “Religion and Gender Equality Worldwide,” Schnabel moves outside of the American religious context and looks at the effect of world religions at the macro level of equality. While most sociological research on religion evaluates the effects of individual religiosity on views of gender or sexuality, Schnabel’s research looks at the religious compositions of countries and subsequent macro-level gender equality.

He finds that the proportion of non-religious people in a country is distinctly associated with greater gender equality. Further, women in a country with a higher number of non-religious peers are more empowered.

“Countries with more non-religious people are better for women,” Schnabel said. “There are some small differences in the relationship between Christian and Muslim populations on gender equality, but the main distinction I found was between non-religious populations and people of all religions.”

Schnabel found the effect of non-religion is similar for both the United Nations and Social Watch indices of gender equity.

“One might assume that development explains both secularism and gender equality, and development does account for some of the relationship,” said Schnabel. “But even when accounting for societal development, the more non-religious people in a country, the better that country is for women.”

Schnabel’s findings also dispel the Western critique of a strong correlation between Islam and the poor treatment of women.

“Despite popular rhetoric in the Western world about Islam being bad for women, there are only small differences between the effect of Christianity and Islam on gender equality when accounting for societal development,” Schnabel said.

There are, however, large difference between the major world religions — Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — and non-religion. Countries with higher proportions of non-religious people consistently treat women more equally than countries with almost exclusively religious populations.

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