It’s only been a decade or so since social scientists even began to recognize “non-believers” as a legitimate demographic. Sadly, there have only been a few studies designed to discover the nature of a “typical non-believer.” Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus, and research assistant Amanda Brown of Kansas University, have put together a monumental survey of American secularists with a special emphasis on sex. (For the full report, go to IPCPress.com.)
A number of the results were consistent with what many of us already suspected, or knew intuitively. There were also some surprises. (I’ll get to them in a minute.) Overall, there were two major themes that were of particular interest to me:
- All other things being equal, leaving religion is one of the best ways to improve your sex life.
- Religious instruction has a negligible effect on behaviors, but a massive effect on guilt and decreased pleasure.
A noteworthy disclaimer: This is a non-random targeted sample of secularists, so much of the demographic data must be considered within that context. However, within this targeted population, the data are robust. Among the notable qualities of the respondents:
- 69.4% male and 29.7% female with .2% intersexed and .7% answering “other.” This is slightly biased towards male compared with random surveys.
- 47%, 30 or younger and 61.1%, 35 or younger. This is biased towards younger secularists which is consistent with the observation that this is an especially tech savvy population, and also hints at the effect of atheist blogging and general visibility on the internet.
- In the younger category, women were over-represented, which says something valuable about the power of secularism to undo the repression of religious sexual indoctrination and allow young females to discuss and think about their sexuality openly.
- “Alternative Sexualities,” mainly gay, bisexual, and lesbian, were also over-represented. It is impossible from this survey to ascertain a direct causal line, but intuitively, it seems that this might point to religious repression, and the comfort level secularists feel in “coming out” compared to religious environments where such lifestyles are demonized and practitioners persecuted.
- Respondents were far better educated than the average population, with over 70% having higher degrees.
I mentioned surprises. Here’s the biggest one for me: Evangelical Christianity is a gateway to atheism. Yeah, I know this isn’t about sex, but it’s a shocking and exciting result. Of the formerly religious respondents, the two former religions running away were Catholicism and Non-denominational Christianity. (For you foreigners, “Non-denominational” is code in America for “Evangelical.”) Let me put that another way: Within this population, Evangelical Christianity is one of the two religions most likely to produce atheists.
Upon reflection, there’s logic to this. Evangelical Christianity is extremist. It is the most likely to espouse Young Earth theology, which is easily disproven. It is the most likely to advocate taking away civil rights for the glory of Jesus, altering the Constitution to discriminate against gays, and many other extreme political positions. In short, it’s the one most likely to offend educated people’s sensibilities.
This is strong support for the claim that educating the religious is extremely important. It’s especially important for diffusing the absurd extremism we are seeing too often in the news and on Capitol Hill.
Ok. I’ve made you read way too much that has nothing to do with sex, and I apologize for that. Let’s get to the juicy details.
- Guilt over sex is directly correlated with the extremism of the religion. Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists are the most heavily guilt-laden religions. Unitarianism, Judaism, and Buddhism are the least concerned with your sex life.
- In “guilty religions,” 80% of respondents felt guilty while engaging in normal sexual activities. In non-guilty religions, 74% did not feel guilty.
This observation deserves some discussion. It is not just an observation of feelings. It’s also philosophy. The conservative religions believe that it’s good to feel guilty. Guilt, they say, is God’s way of preventing us from doing things we ought not do. If that is true, then we should expect to see guilt as a powerful predictor of sexual abstinence.
We do not. In fact, we see that like abstinence only education, guilt indoctrination is highly ineffective. For masturbation, which is a private activity, there was only a 2.8% difference ascribed to guilt indoctrination. For sexual intercourse, there was only a 9% difference at age 18. At age 21 (the age at which nearly everyone is free from parental interference with sexual activity) there is virtually no difference at all between the guilt-religions and the non-guilt religions.
The strong indication is that it is not guilt which keeps young people from engaging in sexual activity. It is parental interference. Once believers have reached majority, there is no significant difference between them and their non-religious peers in practice.
There is another very important point to make here. Being non-religious does not equate to sexual deviance in young people. That is, both guilty religious, non-guilty religious, and secular youth all do approximately the same things. The only difference is guilt. Not behavior. Guilt is like carrying six extra bags on the plane, none of which contain anything you need for the trip. You’ll still get there, but it’ll be a pain in the ass, and you’ll annoy everyone around you.
More interesting findings:
- Religious people are far less likely to share or act out fantasies with their partners. Mountains of sex research demonstrate that fantasies are a healthy part of a fulfilling sex life.
- Surprisingly, the indications are strong that leaving religion can significantly reduce guilty feelings and sexual inhibitions. I have long believed that religious indoctrination screws up people’s sex lives permanently. It appears I may have been wrong. Only 16.6% of those who left a guilt-heavy religion report feeling guilty in their secular sex life. This is very encouraging news.
- In agreement with this finding is the startling number of people whose sex lives improved dramatically after leaving religion. Of those who reported strong religious induced guilt while religious, 61.6% said their sex life was greatly improved since leaving religion — an 8, 9, or 10 on a scale of 1-10.
Of special note here is a potential confounding variable. Of the respondents who had left religion, most had found a sex partner who shared their non-religious views. It is possible that the guilt effect is negatively influenced by a religious partner. Intuitively, it seems very likely that a non-believer who stays with a highly religious partner will experience second-hand effects of religious guilt. More research is needed in this area.
There’s a lot of interesting information in the full report. If you’re not into reports, Darrel is moving towards the release of his fourth book, which will focus on sexuality and religion and no doubt include the most salient details of this survey.
In summary, this survey of well educated, tech savvy and generally young secularists lends strong support to the following conclusions:
Guilt is ineffective at changing sexual behaviors, only in decreasing pleasure while participating in them.
Evangelical Christians are one of the best targets for “re-converts” to non-belief.
Religions are highly effective at strong-arming gays, lesbians, and bisexuals into hiding or suppressing their sexual identities.
Leaving religion is strongly correlated with a significant improvement in your sex life.
- The Results of an Atheist Sex Survey (friendlyatheist.com)
- Misinformation and Facts about Secularism and Religion (secularnewsdaily.com)