Women pray more than men do. The 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that two-thirds of all women surveyed pray daily, while less than half of all men surveyed do. The Pew survey was unusually large, accounting for over 35,000 Americans, but gender differences in prayer frequency have been found before (notably by Paloma and Gallup in 1991). In fact, the observation is so common that among evangelicals, we hear it repeated as a cliché.
Why do women pray more? Some argue it's because women are more conservative, that they stick more to tradition, while others believe it's because women feel more responsible for their families' health and well being than men do.
As an anthropologist studying religious behavior, I have a different explanation: Women pray more because women are more comfortable with their imaginations, and in order to pray, you need to use your imagination.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that God is a product of the imagination. I am instead noting that to know God intimately, you need to use your imagination, because the imagination is the means humans must use to know the immaterial. This, by the way, is something the church fathers knew well. For Augustine, the road to God ran through the mind. It is our own peculiar era that equates the imagination with the frivolous and the unreal. That is why contemporary Christians sometimes get nervous about the word imagination. But they shouldn't. C. S. Lewis knew so well that the imagination was a path to God that he entitled a chapter of Mere Christianity "Let's Pretend." "Let us pretend," Lewis writes, "to turn the pretence into a reality."
For the past 10 years, I have been researching the way evangelical Christians talk with God and experience prayer as a dialogue in which they talk to God and God talks back. I have talked with hundreds of people, and interviewed many of them quite carefully. I have read prayer manuals and participated in prayer groups. I've followed new Christians as they began to pray consistently, and I've sat with prayer warriors and talked to them about what they do and feel.
What I saw was that people who felt comfortable with a back-and-forth conversation with God had learned to have that conversation by using their imaginations. At the beginning, they often said that they were confused by what it meant to listen for God. As one congregant remarked to me, "In the beginning, people would say to me, 'Do you hear God?' And I'm like, heck, I don't know."
But then these Christians did what their pastor suggested: they set out a (real) mug of hot coffee for God in the morning, and sat down with their own mug, and imagined that they were talking to God. They picked up a sandwich, walked over to the park, sat down on a bench, and imagined that God's arm was around their shoulders, that they were talking to God as their best of friend. They stood in front of their closet and asked God what shirt they should wear that day. Most of them knew that this was artifice, at least in part, and particularly at the beginning, they were cautious about how seriously to take it. Still, they saw these practices as a technique to listen for God in their minds—to turn their attention away from the outer world and to wait patiently for thoughts that they felt might really be from God. "I try to listen to God in the little things," one woman told me, "so that I learn to listen to him about the big ones." After a few months, people would say that they recognized God's voice in their minds the way they recognized a voice on the phone. "You know it's your mom when she calls, right?" someone explained. "Well, that's the way it is with God."
But some people said that they never heard God in this way. They asked people to pray for them in a house group so that they would be able to hear God speak. They made depressed little comments about how they were different from other people. Most of these people were men.
That's because men of our time are—generally speaking—less comfortable with their imaginations than women are. Early on, when I noticed these differences between those who heard God easily and those who did not, I began to interview people carefully about their experience of God and of prayer. I also gave them a psychological scale for "absorption," which measures a person's capacity and interest in being caught up in the imagination. Those who experienced God more intimately and interactively were more likely to score more highly on absorption. They were also more likely to be women. On average, whether you look at Christians or at secular undergraduates, women score more highly on the absorption scale than men. My research suggests that this affects their ability to experience God intimately in prayer.
Our culture raises men to take less joy in the imagination. Men read fewer novels. They play with children less than women do. It is important to understand this difference in socialization because sometimes men who cannot hear God feel like bad Christians. They can feel that God does not love them as much as he loves their wives, even if they know that sounds silly. My work suggests that this has more to do with the way our culture teaches them to use their minds than it does with their inherent worth. It suggests that Christians should nurture men's imaginations, and that this nurturance will help them to pray more readily, and to know God more intimately as God the Father desires.
Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. Her most recent book is When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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