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May 18 2011

Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex

A new study shows that religious people have as much sex as atheists, but with less sexual satisfaction and more guilt.

SexandSecularismDo atheists have better sex? Yes. According to science, that is — and more specifically, according to the recently released “Sex and Secularism” study.

In January 2011, organizational psychologist Darrel Ray, Ed.D. (psychologist for 30 years and author of The God Virus as well as two books on psychology) and Amanda Brown (undergraduate at Kansas University, focused on sexuality and sex therapy) conducted a sex survey of over 14,500 people — atheists, agnostics, and other people in the secular community. The survey was looking at religion, atheism, and sex: how religion affects sex, how leaving religion affects sex, whether lifelong atheists feel differently about sex than people who have recently deconverted, and so on. The report — “Sex and Secularism: What Happens When You Leave Religion?” — is on the Internet, and if you want all 46 pages of the naughty details, including the charts and graphs and personal stories, you can download it free (you just need to register on the site).

But if you just want to know the gist?

Leaving religion improves people’s sex lives.

A lot.

Atheists and other non-believers, as a whole, experience a lot more satisfaction in their sex lives than they did when they were believers. They feel much less guilt about their sex lives and their sexuality. The sexual guilt instilled by so many religions tends to fade, and indeed disappear, when people leave religion — much more thoroughly than you might expect. And according to the respondents of this study, non-believers give significantly better sex education to their kids than believers do.

Now, when it comes to people’s actual sexual behavior, religion doesn’t have nearly as much impact as you might think. Religious and non-religious people have pretty much the same kinds of sex, at pretty much the same age of onset, and at pretty much the same rate. Believers are just as likely to masturbate, watch porn, have oral sex, have sex outside marriage, and so on, as non-believers are, and they start at about the same ages. So it’s not like religious sexual guilt is actually making people abstain from forbidden sexual activity. All it’s doing is making people feel crummy about it. And when people leave religion, this crumminess decreases — at a dramatic rate. Believers and atheists are having pretty much the same kinds of sex… but when it comes to the pleasure and satisfaction experienced during this sex, it’s like night and day.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex. To find out more about the new “Sex and Secularism” report on the sexual effects of religion and the lack thereof — and to find out my analysis of the report and its implications, both for believers and for atheists — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

36 comments

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  1. 1
    Denise

    *nod* I have the report open on my desktop, as it is relevant to my research.
    Also, I received my gift from Jay last week, a signed copy of the Best Erotic Comics 2009. I hope someday I get to meet you in person and say *Thanks* directly to you. :-)

  2. 2
    llewelly

    Denise | May 18, 2011 at 04:56 AM:

    I hope someday I get to meet you in person and say *Thanks* directly to you. :-)

    Speaking as someone who is always reluctant to meet people, I am very glad I met Greta and Ingrid. They were witty, intelligent, knowledgeable, and generous to a fault. Not only did they buy a beer for me, but when the group bar tab came up $15 short they covered it.

  3. 3
    Spacefall

    You know those silly things people post on facebook or whatever that say Xs do it better and then give a whole bunch of implausible reasons? It bloody figures that the atheist one would be “Atheists do it better — and we can prove it! With science!” :)

  4. 4
    Sean

    I felt rather skeptical about this survey after taking it, but I actually find the report quite interesting. It’s a good exploratory venture.
    I’m a bit skeptical about people’s memories though; probably many atheists who felt more sexual guilt will remember their homes as having been more religious, or people who rate their homes as having been more religious will remember their sexual guilt better. And there’s a correlation/causation thing. Say someone had a crappy sex life when they were a 16-year-old Catholic, and a much better one as a 21-year-old atheist? Is the better sex life due to deconversion, or age, or having gone to college, or…?
    I find the stuff about deprogramming from religion interesting. I remember that I didn’t really understand how hung-up I was about sex until I was exposed to queer communities. It was really rather a relief, like there was a way that I wanted to think about sex that I couldn’t quite reach without some outside reassurance that it was normal and OK.

  5. 5
    Chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com

    It’s interesting seeing how the different religious groups correlate with levels of guilt about sex. Catholicism falling in the middle kinda makes sense to me though. I grew up in Texas and so I knew more fundamentalist Christians than I would like to admit. (Fortunately I live in California now.)
    In the US specifically, Catholicism strikes me as one of the more liberal Christian denominations, even if their Roman counterparts are pretty fundamentalist. In Texas at least, the most fundamentalist Christians were almost always from protestant denominations, mainly Church of Christ and Baptist, not from Catholicism. This is reflected in the survey, I think, because the survey seems to be pretty US-centric (self-selection bias, etc). US Catholicism may be more overtly focus on guilt than others, but I think the more fundamentalist protestant denominations are better at actually instilling guilt about sex in it’s followers because the followers themselves are more likely to be funadmentalist about their faith.
    Judaism really surprised me though. I would have expected guilt levels to be much higher. Maybe it’s related to Judaism being a minority religion in the US?

  6. 6
    MrJohnGalt

    Rapists, pedophiles and necrophiliacs also probably experience less guilt and more satisfaction in their sex lives. However, this would not tend to confirm or refute the truth of their theological beliefs. I would also suspect that one’s age, the appearance and physical health of one’s sexual partners would have a significant effect on one’s sexual satisfaction, and those factors clearly were not controlled for in this alleged study.
    In short, the study was not “science.” From all appearances, it was just an atheist psychologist’s attempt to justify his predetermined conclusion and induce others to become atheists by the promise of pleasure unrelated to the belief.
    Why not just promise 72 virgins?

  7. 7
    Greta Christina

    Judaism really surprised me though. I would have expected guilt levels to be much higher. Maybe it’s related to Judaism being a minority religion in the US?

    I think it has more to do with Judaism actually being a fairly sex-positive religion. In Judaism, sex is seen as a mitzvah — a kind or good or beneficial act, something God wants you to be doing. (As long as the sex you’re having stays within the rules, anyway.) That’s pretty different from the more common Christian teachings… which is that sex is pretty bad even if it’s the kind of sex God approves of, and you should avoid it if you possibly can.

  8. 8
    MrJohnGalt

    That’s pretty different from the more common Christian teachings… which is that sex is pretty bad even if it’s the kind of sex God approves of, and you should avoid it if you possibly can.
    How common are those Christian teachings? A link to some large denomination’s official position might be helpful. I also question the generalization about Jewish teachings — there are plenty of sects which do it through a hole in the sheet.
    I imagine Hugh Hefner would have to be included among the secular sexers. The Playboy philosophy is certainly guilt-free, and I’ll assume for the sake of argument that the sex is satisfying. But so what? Promiscuity, adultery, polygamy, STDs, objectification, and a general lack of commitment are also part of that philosophy. That it’s secular doesn’t automatically make it great.
    I would also point out that a good number alternative secular “lifestyles” seem to depend on guilt to make them satisfying. It’s the “naughtiness” that draws people to them. Whether that guilt is a remnant of religious attitudes, or merely the secular shame that makes most people uncomfortable about shedding their clothes in public, it is part of what makes many private sexual practices more, rather than less, enjoyable.

  9. 9
    Freemorpheme

    JohnGalt, The “hole in the sheet” canard is an old wives’ tale, not actual Jewish practice, even among ultra-Orthodox sects (and while those sects might have their hang-ups about sex, this is not really traditional). The Talmud says that it is a man’s obligation to please his wife, and that “a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife.”
    Interesting, shariah has some similar teachings…so Christianity may just be an odd one out. (Not to say that Islam and Judaism don’t also have some more negative things to say about sex and women, not to mention a lot of rules that modern folks aren’t so happy about – like no touching, period, until marriage!)

  10. 10
    Freemorpheme

    @Greta – I have been trying to find the source for the relatively famous study that concluded that evangelical women had the most satisfying sex lives of all Americans. It may have been part of the famous 1994 U of Chicago study – do you know of this one? Any thoughts on it?

  11. 11
    Greta Christina

    How common are those Christian teachings? A link to some large denomination’s official position might be helpful.

    Matthew 19:12.
    Mark 12:25.
    Corinthians 1 7:5-9.

  12. 12
    MrJohnGalt

    Greta,
    Dunno. I don’t anything particularly guilt-inspiring, anti-sex or even relevant in any of those passages. More to the point, I’m not aware that any anti-sex interpretation of those passages is common in any Christian denomination. Indeed, I doubt many people outside of this comment thread have ever read them. I’ll have to read Dr. Ray’s report and see what hard data he has on the number of Christians who read those verses, interpreted them in an anti-sex way, became atheist (or Jewish) and had “better” sex.
    Yeah, I had read the Snopes piece on the hole-in-the-sheet myth before posting, but thought it might be helpful to spread some rumors about what people think goes on in Orthodox Jewish sex anyway. As Dr. Ray demonstrates, what’s important is to come up with a pre-conceived notion about other people’s sex lives and then repeat it incessantly without proof. Speaking of which, how about that Jewish prayer men recite about thanking G_d there weren’t born women? I bet that has turned a lot of Jewish women off sex.

  13. 13
    Amy

    Mr. John Galt,
    You must be pretty dense to not know why people who grow up in a Fundamentalist Christian Sect (FCS) might experience guilt during sex.
    I grew up in an FCS, and there is plenty of guilt to go around. First off for the girls, we are told that we should make sure to dress “appropriately” so we don’t tempt the boys (we couldn’t wear shorts or tank tops, even during summer on field trips). We’re also not allowed to be alone with boys (even if we’re sitting around watching Veggie Tales, yeah, we got in trouble for that one time).
    We were all told that it’s wrong to have sex before you’re married (this teaching leads to a LOT of early marriages, like 17 and 18 year olds getting married). In fact, I remember getting a lecture one time, that was reaffirmed by my mom and step-dad, that even holding hands can lead to sex.
    My boyfriend told me about when he went to CFNI (Christ for the Nations International). The boys were not allowed to masturbate. If they found out anyone was and they didn’t stop, or if they were having any kind of sex, they could get expelled. The boys had to have “accountability partners” to make sure they weren’t masturbating. Also, when he was an RA, he had to tell another guy that he found porn on his computer (they monitor your internet use for stuff like that).
    These were all things that used to cause enormous guilt for myself and for my boyfriend when we were believers. We weren’t part of the same denomination either. I’ve been to Methodist and Church of Christ, they have the same attitude toward sex (don’t do it unless you have to). My boyfriend grew up Pentecostal, but CFNI is Baptist (I think). So that’s four denominations right there with unhealthy and guilt-ridden attitudes/teachings about sex.

  14. 14
    Amy

    Mr. John Galt,
    I also want to say that your comment comparing consensual adult sexual relations with “pedophile, rapists, and necrophiliacs” is quite disgusting.

  15. 15
    Ichthyic

    John Galt “Imagines” and “supposes” and “suggests”
    It’s pretty clear John Galt has quite an imagination.
    and very little actual understanding based on anything empirical.
    In short, John Galt… your imagination fails to impress.

  16. 16
    Ichthyic

    As Dr. Ray demonstrates, what’s important is to come up with a pre-conceived notion about other people’s sex lives and then repeat it incessantly without proof.
    Says the man who admittedly hasn’t read the paper.
    Do you also go on Amazon and write book reviews of books you haven’t read because you don’t like the conclusions they make?
    phht.

  17. 17
    Amy

    @ Icthyic
    He also obviously hasn’t read the rest of Gretta’s article either, because she talks about the problems with the paper as well.
    p.s. Are you the same Icthyic who comments on Pharyngula?

  18. 18
    Ichthyic

    you mean there are others??
    I thought I was the only representative of the fishpeople to make it this far! ;)

  19. 19
    Amy

    I think I’ve posted at Pharyngula once and have since forgotten my username and such. I read it everyday though and often read the comments. I comment some on here, FriendlyAtheist, Debunking Christianity, and I used to post a lot at rhrealitycheck. I usually go by phoenix or Amy (sometimes AmyC).

  20. 20
    Greta Christina

    I don’t anything particularly guilt-inspiring, anti-sex or even relevant in any of those passages.

    The passages specifically say that it’s better to not have sex than to have sex; that sex within marriage is a second-best option for people who can’t tolerate celibacy and will sin (i.e., have sex outside marriage) if they don’t get married. How is that not anti-sex?

    Yeah, I had read the Snopes piece on the hole-in-the-sheet myth before posting, but thought it might be helpful to spread some rumors about what people think goes on in Orthodox Jewish sex anyway.

    Okay. You are getting one warning.
    Do not ever, EVER, do that in my blog again. Posting opinions and “information” that you know to be mistaken and don’t agree with, simply to stir up shit, is a textbook definition of trolling. You are walking on very thin ice here anyway, as many of your comments are borderline hateful. I accept and even encourage lively, civil debate in my blog. I do not tolerate hate, bigotry, or deliberate trolling. Again: This is your one warning.

  21. 21
    Ichthyic

    The passages specifically say that it’s better to not have sex than to have sex; that sex within marriage is a second-best option for people who can’t tolerate celibacy and will sin (i.e., have sex outside marriage) if they don’t get married. How is that not anti-sex?
    I’m guessing it wouldn’t be deemed “anti-sex”… if one was already effectively celibate, by choice or no.
    Not implying anything about Mr. Galt at all, no siree.

  22. 22
    DA

    I do think Galt is (maybe accidentally) correct about one thing, that Judaism=sex positive while Christianity=sex negative is a generalization that one could find some huge problems with pretty quickly. My best friend being a secular Jew and almost all the Jews I know being high-holiday Jews, I think perhaps American Jews’ tendency towards a sort of lip-service (as opposed to American Christianity’s huge fundie streak) would tend to be a factor here. However, if you spend any time talking to the “frum” Jews or just looking at what goes on in Orthodox communities in Israel, the woman-hating, sex-averse atmosphere comes through loud and clear. The hole in the sheet is an antisemitic urban myth but it’s actually less disturbing than some common Haredi practices.
    I realize I often just come in
    here to comment that “No, Buddhism/Taoism/Judaism/Hinduism are all just as nuts as Christianity/Islam”. Sorry if I seem contrarian about that, I really do love this blog.

  23. 23
    Stegman

    Ray is a quack. He is not actually a Psychologist, and this was not a scientific survey…it was a self selected group from the PZ Myers and other atheist blogs.
    This just gives fodder to theists.

  24. 24
    Ichthyic

    He is not actually a Psychologist
    orly?
    From Greta’s essay, describing Ray:

    …psychologist for 30 years and author of The God Virus as well as two books on psychology

    are you saying he’s NOT a psychologist, or are you saying he doesn’t have a doctorate in psychology?
    two different things, if even the latter is accurate, which I don’t know myself.
    even so, all that said, ANYONE can do science.
    please do pick apart the methodology specificly wrt to the targeted survey group, the results, and the conclusions reached.
    are the conclusions reached an unreasonable read of the results?
    From reading the study, they don’t appear to be to me.
    some people have some sort of weird, knee-jerk reaction to things they apparently haven’t even bothered to read.
    huh, go figure.

  25. 25
    Ole Phat Stu

    May I just point out that you cannot pray aloud when your mouth is full? The converse is also true ;-)

  26. 26
    Mykroft Agnomen

    Sex is better if you’re not restricted to the “missionary” position…

  27. 27
    MK

    This is like saying that whites have higher IQs than blacks. It simply isn’t valid to use group nouns that way, even accompanied by “on the whole”, to refer to statistical differences.

  28. 28
    MK

    Ray is a quack.
    Prove it.
    He is not actually a Psychologist
    Nor truly a Scotsman.
    and this was not a scientific survey…it was a self selected group from the PZ Myers and other atheist blogs.
    How would a “scientific survey” of over 14,500 nonbelievers be conducted?
    What exactly is not scientific about self selection? Do you have any idea how “actual” psychologists work?
    This just gives fodder to theists.
    Oh, the concern!

  29. 29
    shonny

    Stegman: This just gives fodder to theists.
    As in ‘theists like me’?

  30. 30
    noisician

    Darrel Ray has an Ed.D. in Psychology. He was a clinical psychologist for 10 years, then went on to be a consultant in organizational psychology.
    The National Science Foundation has recognized the Ed.D. as equivalent to the Ph.D.
    A difference is that the person going for an Ed.D. is typically interested in practicing while the person going for a Ph.D. is more interested in research.
    (source: google)

  31. 31
    Tacroy

    Q: Who is John Galt?
    A: Who cares?

  32. 32
    GroovyJ

    Comment: “Rapists, pedophiles and necrophiliacs also probably experience less guilt and more satisfaction in their sex lives.”
    Response: “when it comes to people’s actual sexual behavior, religion doesn’t have nearly as much impact as you might think. Religious and non-religious people have pretty much the same kinds of sex”
    In other words, rapists, pedophiles, etc. are just as likely to be theists as atheists, and thus should, if anything, help the theists out (since you affect the average more if you are further from it.) Of course, this assumes that they do feel no guilt, which is questionable – many people feel just awful about things, but do them anyway.
    Comment: “I would also suspect that one’s age, the appearance and physical health of one’s sexual partners would have a significant effect on one’s sexual satisfaction.”
    Indeed they would. Of course, there are two ways this could go – either, atheists and theists average out about the same in these areas, or they do not.
    If they average out about the same then large random samples is all the control you need to get accurate results.
    If they average out different, then they might actually affect things, but ONLY because atheists are healthier or have more attractive partners – either one of which would be harder to explain than the results we obtained, and would still result in better sex.
    After all, if the study had shown that atheists enjoy their food more, and you then showed that no, atheists just have more money, which allows them to purchase a higher quality of food, it might point to a problem with the study, but at the end of the day it just means that atheists have more money AND better meals.
    The only way your comment could point to a legitimate problem is if you could show that there was an intentional sample bias – for example, if the religious people were all collected from an old-folks home, while the atheists were collected by sampling college age liberal arts majors. Of course, I’m pretty sure if that were the case someone would have noticed already.
    Atheists, after all, actually care about facts.

  33. 33
    the chaplain

    I’ve registered and will download the book. Losing our religion was the best thing that ever happened to our marriage. Even though the deacon and I always had a good relationship, sexual and otherwise, when we were believers, the shedding of our superstitions allowed us to be more completely open with and accepting of each other. Everything is better without gods – especially sex.

  34. 34
    Paul Murray

    Interesting cover. Why a woman on the front? Why not a man? Because women are automatically about sex, in a way that men are not.
    Sexism everywhere.

  35. 35
    Angelika

    oi. actually I 1st found/saw/read the AN-article and then headed over to you to see what you wrote/think/make of it here ;)
    food-for-my-thoughts – thank you !
    it took me loads of self-reflective courage and after 2 yrs now I am able to say & be “I am atheist”.
    absolutely no looking back.
    @Paul Murray – alas IMO // thats the way it is sold in the androcentric, heteronormative mainstream // my non-american 2cts

  36. 36
    D M Mulvihill

    So do you really expect me to believe that someone who thinks God is virus is going to be unbiased. I think if you parsed out the data between males and females, you might get some interesting results. Women, who tend to be more religious, prefer monogamous relationships whereas men, who tend to be more atheistic, or least irreligious, are naturally promiscuous. You could have some interesting discussions about gender, sex, and culture if you explore this a little deeper, but unfortunately this seems to be nothing more than what I call propaganda research, something made to look like science to ‘prove’ a political point.

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