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Is religion's decline making space for women's equality?

SALT LAKE CITY — A Pew Research Center study released April 22 finds that people across the globe say their country has increased in diversity and gender equality while at the same time the role of religion has become less important and family ties have weakened.

The study surveyed over 30,000 people in 27 countries.

In the U.S., it finds 71 percent are in favor of more gender equity and 68 percent say gender equality has increased over the past 20 years. It also reports a majority — 58 percent — of Americans say religion plays a less important role today than it did 20 years ago.

The exact link between these two phenomena — rising gender equity and the changing role of religion — is the topic of much debate.

In an April 2017 article, City University of New York professor Peter Beinart comments on a cultural departure from religion in the U.S.:

“Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.”

Beinart explains that this separation from religion has results on the political left as well.

“In 2016, the least religiously affiliated white Democrats — like the least religiously affiliated white Republicans — were the ones most likely to back candidates promising revolutionary change.”

A cultural movement away from religion could offer the possibility of change in other areas, such as gender inequity, as the shift in focus allows society the space to address neglected issues, Beinart writes.

" Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. "
City University of New York professor Peter Beinart

Religion itself can also be a driver of the trend toward gender equality.

While religion is historically seen as perpetuating gender norms, society often overlooks feminism’s roots in those seeking equality within religious practice, explains the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

And women of faith have long been integral in changing gender inequality, argue Rachel Koehler and Gwen Calais-Haase of the Center for American Progress. As women assume leadership positions within their faith communities, serve in public office and advocate for immigrants and against sexual harassment, religious women make a societal space for women to flourish.

Additionally, Courtney McCluney writing for the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan suggests that because churches are not regulated by government policies seeking to amend wrongs toward women, congregations make their own decisions about putting women in religious leadership positions. Within many denominations, including predominantly black churches in particular, women are fighting against traditional religious patriarchy.

Efforts to promote religious freedom also have been integral to creating a greater platform for gender equality around the world.

A 2014 study by researchers from Georgetown University and Brigham Young University found that governments denying religious freedom contributes to economic instability — and this also impacts gender equality. Countries with severe religious intolerance affect women’s financial empowerment by limiting their ability to participate in the economy, according to the World Economic Forum.

The restrictions present in religiously hostile environments threaten elements necessary for sustainable economic development, such as entrepreneurship — a component women often participate in both in the U.S. and around the world.

This correlation suggests that in places of religious tolerance — including religious indifference — women have increased opportunities to thrive.

" For millenniums we’ve placed a divine stamp on discrimination against women, insisting that inequity is actually sacred. "
New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof

Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, writes: “(W)omen’s status, power, wealth, and life choices are stronger/better in the most secular societies on earth today, and weaker/poorer in the most religious."

He also suggests a clear relationship between religious decline and the rise of gender equality:

“(T)he scriptures of major world religions contain explicitly misogynistic passages that cannot be equated to any similar such sentiments in modern, secular-humanist manifestos or declarations.”

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Zuckerman suggests that religion currently plays a lesser role in society than it has previously because many traditional religious tenets are so disparate from today’s social practices. This contrast has resulted in the present-day shift that enables increased gender equality.

Whether one is religious or a proponent of gender equality, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof writes that because religion is changing, society is also:

“For millenniums we’ve placed a divine stamp on discrimination against women, insisting that inequity is actually sacred. But just as religion was initially used to justify slavery but later to inspire abolitionists, faith is now evolving from a rationale for suppressing women to a means for empowering them.”