There is a study currently being touted on the web and in the press that purports to show that atheists have better sex lives than the religious. I first heard about it on a post on Mike’s (a somewhat frequent commenter here) The A-Unicornist where it was titled ‘Atheists have better sex than believers’ – a title, in all fairness, he has backed away from. Nonetheless it provoked a rather lengthy conversation about the veracity of such a poll. I cited a number of readily apparent flaws in the ‘study’. Problems include:
- The source. Mike makes this out to be an ad hom, but the person conducting the poll (and touting its results) isn’t a university researcher or a professional pollster, he is psychologist Darrel Ray, the New Atheist author of The God Virus. As a poll taker, there is an obvious conflict of interest there – he is looking for an outcome that would cast atheism in a good light (and what better light than great sex!). Now this doesn’t necessarily disqualify his findings, but it does impinge upon him an obligation to demonstrate his bias is corrected for by the polling methodology. As we shall see, no efforts appear to be made in this regard.
- The group polled is also problematic. To conclude that one group is happier with regard to an aspect of their lives than another, it is probably important to poll members of both groups; that didn’t happen here. The only people polled were atheists, the majority of whom claimed to be members of some former religious group. This is like polling only divorced people about whether they are happier married or unmarried, and concluding people are happier if they are unmarried. They were asked to compare how happy they were with their current sex lives to their sex lives as believers, and most (unsurprisingly) were happier.
- The means of soliciting those to be polled is extremely problematic. Notably, people were solicited for the poll at PZ Myers well known atheist site Phyrangula. PZ Myers often brags about his ability to skew polls by soliciting participation on his website. So rather than a random sample of individuals in this group, this study represents a self-selected and highly motivated group of advocates representing a skewed slice of a group that is already a small minority of society.
The demographics of the group is hardly representative of society as a whole, and somewhat explains the results achieved. Though Darrel Ray has done a terrible job of publishing the methods and demographics of the group, they appear to be available from some sources:
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.
So a significant portion of the respondents were young tech savvy single men, a number of whom were adherents to alternative sexualities. This is hardly representative of any general population and so it tells us nothing about the happiness of an average person when it comes to sexuality and religious adherence. It is however more representative of atheists as whole though, who tend to be “younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated from wider society.”
- The survey equates freedom from guilt with happiness and better sexual experiences. The problem with this sort of conclusion is that it doesn’t tell us why the person felt guilty to begin with. For example, if one of these young men felt guilty about soliciting prostitutes, and as a result of rejecting religious belief felt less guilty about doing so, does it follow he was having ‘better sex’? He might feel better about having sex with a prostitute, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that his experience is better compared to others who choose not to do so.
I could go on with the problems of this ‘study’. For all their claims of being rigorous adherents to good science, which they hold to be the most reliable form of knowledge, the New Atheists who are advocating this study are proffering the shoddiest science imaginable. But I don’t think their goal is to advance knowledge, but to sell atheism – and as we all know, sex is the primary method in our society of doing so. As one New Atheist advocate of this put it, “This report, people, is our sales pitch”.
The reality is that there are a number of good studies out there that concern happiness and it’s connection to other factors. For example:
So contrary to the very flawed New Atheist study, multiple objective studies indicate happiness and good sex are tied to marriage, commitment, and having a strong faith.
So I guess as a Christian with a loving wife and family who is dedicated to following Christ, I appear to be the happiest person I can be. J