sex differences logoThe biological evolution of sex in our planetary ecosystem is a complex story covering millions of species and billions of years. The human species further complicates this story with the bio-cultural evolution of sex and gender in complex social niches. Religion and spirituality have played important roles in this process, both influencing and being influenced by sex and gender differences. This project employs perspectives from biological and cultural evolution, developmental biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, social construction, cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, and ethics to understand the intricate multi-directional influences among sex, gender, religion, and spirituality. The Sex Differences and Religion Project has several components. (1) An examination of sex-based differences in religious experiences, using surveys and neuroimaging. (2) The generation of two comprehensive annotated bibliographies, one containing resources relevant to the biology of sex differences, including the genetic and developmental basis for sexual dimorphism and intersex morphology, and the other containing resources relevant to the links among sex, gender, religion, and spirituality. (3) The generation of a cross-cultural dataset supporting phylogenetic analysis of the cultural evolution of religion. (4) A bio-cultural-social-ethical analysis of the controversies surrounding sex differences, sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual norms, intersex, and the social construction of gender, particularly as these complex issues influence and are influenced by religion and spirituality. The Sex Differences and Religion Project is led by IBCSR Directors Patrick McNamara and Wesley Wildman with the support of Boston University PhD student and IBCSR Doctoral Fellow Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk.

Key personnel: Wesley J. Wildman, Patrick McNamara, Luke Matthews, kate Stockly, Stephanie Arel, Megan DeFranza.

Sex on the Margins

Conference at Boston University

Sex on the Margins: Navigating Religious, Social, and Natural Scientific Models of Sex Differences







Hosted by the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion and Boston UniversityFebruary 24-26, 2017.

Co-sponsored by the Graduate Division of Religion Studies, the School of Theology, the Albert & Jessie Danielsen Institute, and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University

Conference Organizers: Stephanie N. Arel, Megan DeFranza, Kate Stockly

In Consultation with: Jennifer Wright Knust (Boston University), Carrie J. Preston (Director Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, Boston University), Wesley J. Wildman (Boston University)


"Sex on the Margins" Conference brought together scholars to examine how our growing knowledge of sex, gender, and sexual diversity impacts binary models of sex that continue to hold sway in the majority of religious and natural scientific examinations of human nature.

Religion and sexism

sexismFor many in the West, religion seems to oppress women. Conservative Christians not uncommonly reject the idea of female clergy, educators, and leaders. While this may (all too) roughly characterize Christianity, the question remains as to whether other religions fare any better. Drawing upon world-wide data, covering most of the world’s religions, Stephanie Seguino (University of Vermont) indeed found a correlation between how one views the importance of religion (whichever religion that may be) and one’s attitudes about gender inequality.

Religion, gender, and age

Happy coupleRecent polls conducted by the Gallup Organization (2006) as well as the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" (2008; hereafter “Pew Survey”) have shown that women and older Americans are more likely to self identify with, and belong to, an organized religious tradition. According to the Pew Survey, all Christian traditions have a higher percentage of female membership and all other traditions have a higher percentage of male members than the national survey total. A majority of Americans self report as belonging to a Christian tradition. Many religious groups are disproportionately older than the total sample. For example, according to the Pew Survey, approximately half of all mainline Protestants and Jews are over 50 years old.

Religious premarital sexual attitudes in Kenya

kenyan girlMost people know that Christians (especially conservative Christians) typically oppose a host of sexual behaviors, including premarital sex. However, all too often what most people know tends to come from their immediate context and not from careful empirical study. To see if there really does exist a correlation between Christianity and opposition to premarital sex, sociologist Stephen Gyimah (Queen’s University, Canada) and colleagues investigated the sexual attitudes of Christians in Kenya, finding that Pentecostals were most opposed to premarital sex.

Religion plays an important role in the lives of gay Americans

serious prayingGiven the number of mainstream Christian leaders who have publicly decried homosexuality in recent decades (think Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, to name just a few), you might expect that gay Americans are about as likely to be Christian as they are to, say, speak fluent Urdu. But a new survey suggests that you'd be wrong. The Barna Group, a research organization based in California, recently released a report indicating that a strong majority of homosexuals self-identify as Christian and consider their faith to be central in their lives.

The gender gap in US church membership

church blue skyWalk into a typical American church on a Sunday morning and you are likely to find more women than men. There is nothing particularly new or even surprising about this trend, but if you compare the gender composition of evangelical and liberal churches you just might notice an interesting - and perhaps puzzling - reversal of the usual pattern. Unlike more socially conservative, and even moderate or “Mainline” churches, liberal congregations actually have more men than women in the pews. In fact, according to data from the Pew Forum’s 2008 Religious Landscape Survey, evangelical Protestant churches are 53% female while liberal churches are 54% male.