Sociologists have long suggested that Christian women are more religious than men, but Blake Victor Kent wondered if this discrepancy has something to do with gender differences and intimacy.

A former pastor who grew up in the evangelical church, Kent took interest in how gender roles were articulated abstractly but then lived out differently. He saw a disconnect. For example, he noticed that some evangelicals draw firm theological boundaries around formal leadership but then allow women to lead informally all the time.

During graduate school, some prominent research on gender caught Kent’s eye and made him wonder if sociologists were missing part of the story. A study by John Hoffmann and John Bartkowski found that women are more likely than men to view the Bible as the literal Word of God. The authors viewed this result as a comment on female social standing in the church, a woman’s way of asserting her faith in a culture that won’t accept her leadership. But Kent thought it might have more to do with a person’s belief in the simple biblical truth that God is near us.

There are some differences in how men and women relate to God, which Kent argues could be cultural. His analysis, however, found that men and women who experience an intimate relationship with God are more likely to have a literal view of the Bible.

Kent, now at Harvard Medical School doing postdoctoral research on religion and health, recently published this passion project along with Christopher Pieper, a colleague from his alma mater, Baylor University. Their study compared men’s and women’s answers on the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey on two sets of questions: how intimate they feel with God and how they view the Bible

Kent spoke to CT about what he thinks pastors and ministry leaders can learn from gender differences in the context of spiritual intimacy.

The survey results give three ways of viewing the Bible: skeptical, interpreted, and literal. Can you explain these orientations?

We want to make the categories a little more nuanced than the authors of the other study did. They collapsed multiple categories of answers into two options. Either you’re a full literalist, or if you say anything else, you’re a non-literalist. We expanded that into three categories instead of two. The first category is “The Bible is the literal word of God.” The interpreted category is “The Bible is entirely true, but it takes interpretation to fully understand its meaning.” The third category we call “skeptics,” which is two different categories combined into one. One is “The Bible contains some human error,” and the other is “The Bible is a collection of myths and legends.” There’s also a fifth one that says, “I don’t know,” but these answers were not included in the study.

How do you define a “literal” versus an “interpreted” understanding of the Bible?

Literalism is an interesting variable. In some ways, people are talking about their true views of Scripture, but in some ways, they are also making a statement about their religious or political identity. So most people who say they are literalists, when it comes down to it, aren’t actually literalists. They still choose to interpret portions of Scripture in a selective way. The New Testament talks about women not wearing jewelry and women wearing head coverings and literalists would say, “Oh, well, that’s a cultural thing, and we don’t do that anymore.” So literalism means something different to different people.

What did you find?

The main thing is: Yes, women are likely to report higher levels of literalism, but when we account for people’s attachment to God, we find that that relationship goes away. It’s not so much that women are more likely to be literalists, but people who experience a secure, personal, intimate relationship with God are more likely to be literalists. If you take a man and a woman who report the same level of closeness to God, there is no difference in their likelihood of being literalists. So then you get into questions of socialization: Why do we find that women are more likely to seek that intimacy than men?

Article continues below

So that gets into attachment theory. Can you explain how that relates?

Attachment theory, which is a psychological theory developed in the 1960s, posits that the dynamics of the relationship you have with your primary caregiver in the first four or five years of life tend to set the tone for how you relate to people for the rest of your life. If I have a warm, secure relationship with a primary caregiver, I’m likely to carry that into future friendships, workplaces, or a marriage, and I’m likely to carry that into how I perceive God. If I have this anxious or avoidant orientation, despite my best intentions, I’m wired to be not quite as trusting or open, so that carries into those close relationships, including my relationship with God.

You mentioned something particular about adolescence in the paper. Can you elaborate?

One of the interesting things about attachment theory is that at a young age, boys and girls don’t attach any differently. What we observe is that as kids get older, they start to diverge in how they attach and relate. We see this in contemporary Western culture. In a marriage that doesn’t have a huge amount of relational intimacy, the research shows that women are going to be more dissatisfied than men are. That hasn’t always been the case.

Historically, views of male friendship were very high. Aristotle talked about platonic relationships between men as the highest form of friendship. Aelred of Rievaulx, a monk and theologian, talked of spiritual friendship. In Scripture, we think about Jonathan and David and what we observe as their intimate friendship with one another.

Even in contemporary culture—I used to live in China, and it’s very common to see two men who are friends walking down the street armin-arm or holding hands. I recognize that not everything comes down to socialization. There may be some biology that exacerbates or promotes some behaviors, but in the paper, we primarily argue that there’s a differential in the socialization of men and women, and that results in adult men engaging with God a little differently than women.

Let’s talk about the implications. What does your research suggest about adult ministry?

First, as a sociologist, the data says what the data says. Anything we try to draw from the study is going beyond what it says. But as a person of faith and a former pastor, there’s a chance to try to draw some conclusions from here. I’ve engaged with a lot of people who have really benefited from thinking about these things in terms of attachment.

Let’s say a believer really strives to connect with God but for whatever reason never quite feels it. There can be self-recrimination: “Maybe I’m failing. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe if I do the following spiritual practices, it will all come together.” Insight from attachment theory says that in many ways, how we perceive God in an emotional way is a little bit out of our control. I’ve done training with churches on attachment to God and had lots of conversations with people one-on-one, and the general reaction is a sigh of relief.

Probabilistically, 60 percent of the population tends to be securely connected and 40 percent are in this anxious or avoidant category. So it’s a large minority of the population that tend to experience relationships in this way. This can be a starting point for growth and conversation.

Article continues below

Given what we know about the socialization of boys, how can we think about their discipleship?

There are a couple of approaches. One is to try to minimize the differences—try to help boys see that it’s emotionally and spiritually healthy to connect with other people and to God and to be open and vulnerable about feelings. The other approach some people have taken is to accept that “hey, in this cultural moment, we have these differences, so let’s just try to gear ministry and programs toward meeting those approaches.”

For example, have you heard of “fight church”? There are people trying to connect with men by literally having fight club at church. It’s like we can punch each other in the face and wrestle and do it as a way of connecting and having a manly spirituality.

In the early- to mid 20th century, you had this movement called “muscular Christianity”—evangelists that were trying to emphasize the masculine qualities of faith, like fighting for the good, fighting social ills. More recently, you had John Eldredge and the Wild at Heart movement. Mark Driscoll has sort of fallen by the wayside, but a lot of his success at Mars Hill was taking young men and saying, “Hey, this is what faith is for men.”

Trying to connect with men in those ways isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But treating those behaviors as if they’re some kind of essentialized difference that cannot change is probably the wrong approach. We can say, “This is where we are culturally; let’s also talk about where we want to be culturally.” We can think about how we raise and socialize our kids to get to that place.

Will there be any follow-up studies looking at a different aspect of your data?

The follow-up I’m most interested in doing is not a survey analysis but a series of interviews. Essentially, I want to figure out the relationship between how people connect with God and how they connect with the people around them. And when you experience a deep, meaningful connection with God, does that in turn inform how you connect and relate with people around you? When you find connection with God, does it spill over to your friendships, your marriage?

Similarly, if you were feeling alienated from God but you get into a church or a relationship that helps you connect emotionally and be more vulnerable, does that in turn help you start reconnecting with God in a way that you’ve been missing? I suspect that probably happens both ways, but I’m interested in hearing people talk about it retrospectively from a young age.

That would be very interesting.

I think it would be very informative. There’s a word I love called concatenation. As something changes in one aspect, things change in parallel in another aspect. In a sermon I really love called “How to Change,” Tim Keller talks about the concatenation of the fruits of the Spirit. They tend to not happen in isolation. When you see changes in self-control, you also see changes in gentleness. I suspect that the types of attachments we have in relationships between parent, God, work, spouse, and children also work in that way.

Rebecca Randall is the science editor for Christianity Today.