This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Leaving religion doesn’t change people’s sexual behavior very much — but it vastly improves how they feel about it.
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.
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.
Okay. Before anyone squawks, I’ll start the squawking myself: There are some demographic problems with this study, and it shouldn’t be relied on as the absolute final word on this topic. In particular, the participants in the study aren’t statistically representative of the population: they’re statistically representative of whoever heard about it on the Internet, and they’re disproportionately represented by readers of the hugely popular atheist blog, Pharyngula. (In fact, in several places throughout the report, the researchers themselves freely acknowledge the limitations of their research.)
But that being said: The results of this report that aren’t new? They’re entirely consistent with the results of other research. Lots of other research, both on human sexuality and on religion/ atheism. And that makes those results a whole lot more plausible. As researcher Darrel Ray told me, “Our data is virtually identical to other national surveys on the basics of when and how people start sexual behavior.” (Citations of those studies are in the report.) Yes, it’s virtually impossible to get completely accurate, statistically representative information about human sexuality under any circumstances: there’s not really any ethical way to get information about sex other than relying on people’s self-reporting, and it’s a topic that people tend to, you know, lie about. But on the reliability scale of human sex research, this report seems to rank on the higher end.
You might also argue — as I myself did when I first saw this research — that atheists are often pretty hostile to religion, and aren’t going to give a fair assessment of their sex lives when they were religious. I think this is a valid question, and one that’s worth investigating: in fact, I sincerely hope this report is the beginning of research into this topic instead of the end of it, and I’d be very interested to see studies of people who are currently religious and how they see their sex lives. (I’d be especially interested to compare the “Sex and Secularism” results to people who have converted from one religion to another, and whether they view their sex lives differently with the new religion.) But I’d also point out that the atheists who responded to this survey didn’t give homogenous answers. Not by a long shot. Their responses varied a fair amount, depending on which religion they used to belong to, and how intensely religious their upbringing was. Their responses ranged from “ZOMG, my sex life totally sucked and now it’s beyond awesome, I was blind but now I see”… to, “Meh, it’s a little better, but it’s really not all that different.” So the idea that this report simply reflects a knee-jerk atheist hostility to religion… it’s worth considering, but it’s probably not what’s going on here.
So what is going on here?
What, specifically, does this report say?
And what is its take-home message — both for believers and atheists?
Atheism Is for Lovers
If there’s one take-home message from the “Sex and Secularism” report, it’s this: Atheists fuck better. Or rather: Atheists have a better time fucking. They feel less guilt about it; they experience more satisfaction with it; and the effect on their sex lives of leaving religion is almost universally positive. Believers of almost every stripe — Mormon to Islam, Mennonite to Methodist, Catholic to New Age — reported a significant improvement in their sex lives after becoming non-believers.
These differences do vary based on the religion. According to the “Sex and Secularism” report, some religions have a harsher impact on people’s sex lives than others. People raised as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, ranked much higher on the sexual guilt scale than people raised as, say, Buddhists and Episcopalians. (And no, we shouldn’t just assume that Catholicism is the guiltiest party. In fact, when it comes to which religions make its practitioners feel guiltiest about sex, Catholicism lands pretty much smack in the middle. The top of the list is Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and Baptist. One of many results from this report that run counter to conventional wisdom.) And a similar pattern shows up again and again throughout the report. Conservative religions have a much more harmful effect on people’s sex lives than more moderate or progressive ones — in terms of guilt, sexual education and information, the ability to experience pleasure, the ability to accept one’s sexual identity, and more.
But with only two exceptions — Unitarianism and Judaism — atheists experience less sexual guilt than religious believers of any denomination. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being no sexual guilt and 10 being extreme sexual guilt, atheists and agnostics ranked at 4.71 and 4.81 respectively… and except for Unitarianism and Judaism (which ranked slightly lower, 4.14 and 4.48 respectively), all other religions ranked higher in sexual guilt: from 5.88 for Lutherans, to 6.25 for Hindus, to 6.34 for Catholics, all the way up to a whopping 8.19 for Mormons.
And sexual guilt doesn’t just go up with more conservative religions. It goes up with more religiosity, period. The more religious your upbringing is, the worse your sexual guilt is likely to be. Of people raised in very religious homes, 22.5% said they were shamed or ridiculed for masturbating (to give just one example)… compared to only 5.5% of people brought up in the least religious homes. And of people raised in very religious homes, 79.9% felt guilty about a specific sexual activity or desire… while among people raised in the least religious and most secular homes, that number drops to 26.3%. That’s a huge, huge difference.
But one of the most surprising conclusions of this research? Sexual guilt from religion doesn’t wreck people’s sex lives forever.
According to conventional wisdom — and I will freely admit that I held this conventional wisdom myself — religious guilt about sex continues to torment people long after the religion itself has lost its hold. But according to the “Sex and Secularism” report, that’s rarely the case. Once people let go of religion, people’s positive experiences of sex, and their relative lack of guilt, happen at about the same rate as people who were never religious in the first place.
Ray was surprised by this result as well. (Surprising results — a sign of good science!) “We did think that religion would have residual effects in people after they left,” he told me, “but our data did not show this. That was a very pleasant surprise. That is not to say that some people don’t continue to experience problems, but the vast majority seem to shake it off and get on with their sexual lives pretty well.” So letting go of religion means a rebound to a sex life that’s as satisfying, and as guilt-free, as a sex life that was never touched by religion in the first place.
Now, some hard-core religious believers might argue that this isn’t a good thing. “People SHOULD feel sexual guilt!”, they’d argue. “These kinds of sex are bad, mmmkay? God doesn’t like them. People should feel guilty about them.”
But it’s worth pointing out two things. First of all, the activities being studied in this research are, from any rational perspective, morally neutral. This report isn’t looking at rape, or non-consensual voyeurism, or groping people on the subway. It’s looking at masturbation, oral sex, non-marital sex, homosexuality, etc.: sex acts and sexualities that are consensual, egalitarian, reasonably safe, and harmless to society. The taboos against them are just that: taboos. If there were ever any solid practical or moral reasons behind them, they’re buried in the mists of history. And different religions have entirely different sets of these sexual taboos: some religions denounce some sex acts and accept others, while other religions accept Column A and denounce Column B. Without any apparent rhyme or reason. If God has a message for us about who and how he wants us to boff, he’s not being very clear about it.
And maybe more to the point: According to the “Sex and Secularism” report, religion has essentially no effect on people’s actual sexual behavior. Atheists and believers engage in the same practices, at basically the same rate, starting at essentially the same age. We’re all doing pretty much the same stuff. Believers just feel worse about it. As Ray told me, “Our data shows that people feel very guilty about their sexual behavior when they are religious, but that does not stop them: it just makes them feel bad. Of course, they have to return to their religion to get forgiveness. It’s like the church gives you the disease, then offers you a fake cure.” So the argument that religious sexual guilt is good because it polices immoral sexual behavior falls down on two fronts. The sexual behavior it’s policing isn’t actually immoral… and the policing is almost entirely ineffective.
Oh, by the way? This improvement in people’s sex lives when they leave religion? It isn’t just about sexual guilt. It shows up in many aspects of people’s sex lives, such as (to give just one example) their willingness to share sex fantasies with a partner. And, most importantly, it shows up in people’s assessments of their sex lives overall. This is primarily true of people who had been heavily religious before their deconversion. On a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being a sex life that was much worse after leaving religion, 10 being a sex life that was much improved — people who’d had the most religious lives averaged at the very high number of 7.81, and 61.6% gave an answer of 8, 9 or 10 — greatly improved. People with little or no religion in their life before they became atheists mostly report that their sex lives didn’t change that much.
In fact, for the handful of atheists who reported that their sex lives worsened when they left religion — 2.2% of participants — almost all tell the exact same story: Their sex lives got worse because… well, to put it bluntly, their partners or potential partners were still religious, and now that they were atheists, they weren’t getting any. Their spouses got upset because they’d become atheists; their pool of potential sex partners dried up. As one respondent commented, “My wife said to me, ‘How can I sleep with someone who doesn’t share my faith?’” And another, somewhat more waggishly: “When I was a Christian I could lay any girl in church, now that I am an atheist, they won’t even talk to me.”
And perhaps one of the most powerful messages in this report — if one of the least surprising — is the decidedly negative effect of religion on sexual education and information. People raised in more strongly religious homes ranked the quality of their sex education as significantly worse than people raised in less religious homes: 2.4 on a five-point scale, as opposed to 3.2 from the less religious folks. And more religious kids were less likely to get sex information from their parents than the less religious ones — 13.5%, as opposed to 38.2% — and more likely to get it from personal sexual experience and pornography.
In case the irony of this is escaping anyone, I’m going to hammer it in: The highly religious, “family values” crowd are more likely to get their sexual information from porn and fooling around… while the less religious folks are more likely to talk to their parents. And in case anyone’s wondering why sex information is being included in this study on sexual happiness: Accurate sex education and information has been consistently shown to be one of the cornerstones of a happy, satisfying sex life.
Which, again, atheists are a lot more likely to have.
Well, the most obvious message should be: “Come on in — the water’s fine.”
In debates with atheists, many believers will argue for religion on the basis of how good it makes them feel. They’ll argue that religion is emotionally useful, psychologically useful, socially useful: that religion gives people a sense of meaning, moral guidance, comfort in hard times, etc. It’s an argument that drives many atheists up a tree — myself included — since it has absolutely nothing to do with whether religion is, you know, true. (Believing in Santa Claus might make kids happy and better-behaved, but you wouldn’t argue that people should keep putting cookies by the fireplace on Christmas Eve well into their adult years.)
But if this report is to be believed, then this argument is conclusively shown to be bogus… even on its own terms. At least when it comes to sex. (It’s probably bogus when it comes to the rest of our lives as well — or rather, it would be bogus if our society didn’t privilege religious belief and treat atheism with bigotry and contempt. Countries with higher rates of atheism actually have higher levels of happiness and social functioning than more religious countries. But I digress.)
Religion doesn’t make people happier. Not in the sack, anyway. Religion makes people less happy. Leaving religion makes people happier. There’s no reason to hang on to beliefs you don’t actually believe in and that don’t actually make sense to you, just because you can’t imagine a happy and fulfilling life without them. We know that leaving religion can be a scary and painful process… but once it’s behind you, life is good. And the sex is great. Come on in. The water’s fine.
And what does report this say to atheists?
Again, I will make this very clear: The fact that atheists fuck better has no bearing whatsoever on whether atheism is correct. And atheists should not pretend that it does.
But when believers make the argument from utility — when they argue that religion is important and necessary because it makes people happy — we don’t have to just tear our hair out and say, “Does not! Does not!” We can print out this report, and hand it to them with a smile.
A satisfied smile.