Atheism and Sex

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:

Married people tend to be happier than singles, and have more sex than singles (as a Christian, I would hope so!)

– The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners is 1

Married men tend to be happier

Religious people tend to be more happy, and the more committed you are, the more happy you are.

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

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15 Responses to Atheism and Sex

  1. Living Life Without a Net says:

    Darrel’s methodology and population statistics are readily available for free download on his site… which I mentioned in my article. Please don’t misrepresent him in this matter. If bloggers choose not to include them, that is not Darrel’s doing.

    69.4% male and 29.7% female with .2% intersexed and .7% answering “other.” This is slightly [!]biased towards male compared with random surveys.

    Why the exclamation mark? It is slightly biased towards male compared to other similar (non-secular focused) studies of sexuality. Men tend to answer sex surveys at around 6:4 compared to women. 69:29 is slightly biased.

    This demographic is expected, since men tend towards secularism more than women in most random surveys as well.

    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.

    Did you not finish reading the survey? It directly addressed this question, and association with highly guilt-oriented religion was practically a 1:1 correlate with high guilt before secularism.

    This conclusion was independent of “alternate sexuality,” or other “deviations,” if that’s what you’re trying to get at.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Darrel’s methodology and population statistics are readily available for free download on his site… which I mentioned in my article. Please don’t misrepresent him in this matter. If bloggers choose not to include them, that is not Darrel’s doing.

    No one is including them because they are difficult to access. I am open to being provided with a readily accessible copy.

    Why the exclamation mark? It is slightly biased towards male compared to other similar (non-secular focused) studies of sexuality. Men tend to answer sex surveys at around 6:4 compared to women. 69:29 is slightly biased.
    This demographic is expected, since men tend towards secularism more than women in most random surveys as well.

    If one wants to compare a set of responses to the actual experience of the population of religious people to secular folk, one would hope for a sample that is closer to 50:50.

    Did you not finish reading the survey? It directly addressed this question, and association with highly guilt-oriented religion was practically a 1:1 correlate with high guilt before secularism.

    This conclusion was independent of “alternate sexuality,” or other “deviations,” if that’s what you’re trying to get at.

    You seem to miss the point entirely. Guilt or lack thereof is not necessarily coordinated with ‘better sex’. A person who feels less guilty about indulging in internet porn because he is less religious is not necessarily having better sex than a religious person. Thus the many headlines that shout “Atheists have ‘better sex lives than followers of religion who are plagued with guilt” are misleading. They may be less guilty about their sexual activities (whatever form they take) but it doesn’t follow that they are ‘better’.

  3. Living Life Without a Net says:

    No one is including them because they are difficult to access. I am open to being provided with a readily accessible copy.

    I already told you. They are downloadable for free and available to the public. Did you not read my whole post? I provided the link. In the first paragraph.

    If one wants to compare a set of responses to the actual experience of the population of religious people to secular folk, one would hope for a sample that is closer to 50:50.

    I’m sorry, but you don’t have a very good understanding of how this kind of study works. I encourage you to spend some time in a university library and survey the results from similar studies. Disparate populations are the norm for this kind of survey method, and the method’s reliability is robust and well documented.

    Guilt or lack thereof is not necessarily coordinated with ‘better sex’.

    Are you serious? Are you really serious? Beyond the fact that the study in question directly addressed that fact and discovered a robust correlation, there are plenty of corroborating data:

    Derflinger J. Sex guilt among evangelical Christians in the 1990s: An examination of gender differences and salient correlates of sex guilt among married couples [e-book]. US: ProQuest Information & Learning; 1998.

    Woo J, Brotto L, Gorzalka B. Sex guilt and culture-linked barriers to testicular examinations. International Journal of Sexual Health [serial online]. July 2010;22(3):144-154.

    Lamb S. Review of ‘The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt’. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy [serial online]. May 2003;29(3):244-246.

    Mosher D, Vonderheide S. Contributions of sex guilt and masturbation guilt to women’s contraceptive attitudes and use. Journal of Sex Research [serial online]. February 1985;21(1):24-39.

    Langston R. Sex guilt and sex behavior in college students. Journal of Personality Assessment [serial online]. October 1973;37(5):467-472.

    This is me just digging the first few out of a long, long list…

    They may be less guilty about their sexual activities (whatever form they take) but it doesn’t follow that they are ‘better’.

    I honestly don’t know what else to say. You’re wrong, and that’s not a matter of opinion. Guilt is and has been for some time positively correlated with less enjoyment of sex. Check your university library, not your pastor on this one.

  4. jackhudson says:

    I already told you. They are downloadable for free and available to the public. Did you not read my whole post? I provided the link. In the first paragraph.

    I know where it is, behind a registered firewall. It’s just not very transparent.

    I’m sorry, but you don’t have a very good understanding of how this kind of study works. I encourage you to spend some time in a university library and survey the results from similar studies. Disparate populations are the norm for this kind of survey method, and the method’s reliability is robust and well documented.

    As much as I appreciate the subtle “You’re too stupid to understand how magnificent this study is” dig, I have spent plenty of time in university libraries, and you have answered none of the major criticisms I leveled in my post. The reason this poll is self-published by a New Atheist advocate is because no reputable scientific journal would publish such tripe.

    Are you serious? Are you really serious? Beyond the fact that the study in question directly addressed that fact and discovered a robust correlation, there are plenty of corroborating data:

    Again, you seem completely oblivious to the point, which makes your list irrelevant. Are you really contending that if one’s idea of ‘good sex’ is to solicit a prostitute on Craigslist that it matters whether one is guilty about such behavior? Does the lack of guilt make such behavior ‘better’?

    If not, then ‘good sex’ isn’t merely about guilt or lack thereof – guilt, like pain, is an indicator which can prevent us from pursuing activities that are harmful. We can override both guilt in pain, but doing so in the long run doesn’t actually address the issues that caused them to begin with, and ends up hurting us more.

    I honestly don’t know what else to say. You’re wrong, and that’s not a matter of opinion. Guilt is and has been for some time positively correlated with less enjoyment of sex. Check your university library, not your pastor on this one.

    The point wasn’ that guilt can’t reduce enjoyment of sex. Pain can reduce the enjoyment of one’s life, and one can overcome pain with drugs or alcohol – that doesn’t how ever make one’s life better.

    In the same way, guilt can be dealt with by simply ignoring the wisdom that tells us certain sexual behaviors are harmful. But that doesn’t make sex, or one’s life, better.

  5. The Judge says:

    I struggle to believe anyone could take seriously a statistical study on “happiness.”

  6. jackhudson says:

    Well, this isn’t too surprising – I anticipated the criticism of academics:

    “His results make a lot of sense — why people who are religious emphasize guilt in sexual behaviors,” said Tara Collins, president of a multidisciplinary group of researchers at Kansas University’s psychology department, who gave Ray feedback after he presented his survey results.

    Collins and others were impressed, but they did express concern about his causal statements and urged him to make some modifications. Ray, she noted, had not looked at the satisfaction level of those who continued to practice their faith.

    His research will not be published by an academic institution because it has not been peer-reviewed.

    But, Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of two books on the subject of sexual behavior in adolescence and young adulthood, said Ray used unscientific methods.

    “It appears that it was a ‘fill it out if you want to’ kind of survey that is not random, not nationally representative, and relies entirely on self-selection,” he said. “In other words, they have data from people who felt like filling out a survey on atheism and sex. As a result, I am not surprised at their findings.”

    Regnerus, in his book, “Forbidden Fruit,” said he had found a connection between religiosity and anticipated guilt among teens who had never had sex.

    “Otherwise, most of what we know about this is hearsay or guesswork,” he said.
    He also said Ray was not an “established” researcher at a university, where most studies of this kind are carried out. “I don’t fault the author for running the survey he did, but it does display research methods which do not meet the standards of most published social science.”

    Like I said, the lauding of this ‘study’ by atheist advocates reveals how little concern they actually have for good science.

  7. […] the criticisms being leveled at the recent study on sex and secularism is the assertion that there is no established correlation […]

  8. Adam says:

    My wife was the co-author of this study. If you read it closely (which you haven’t) you’ll realize that this was only a first draft, but after 5,000 purple took it in only a few days we had to go with it and only made statements we could back up with results. Many original hypothesis we had weren’t confirmed. We didn’t try to gery results to push our “agenda”. It was legitimate. It was only ever intended for atheists and secularist to compare their feelings after leaving religion towards sex. Remember, some had worse sex after leaving religion. We plan to create a website soon to post peoples’ comments. They were heartfelt, honest, and many very sad. Please don’t guess at our intentions. We never claimed this to be the definitive answer. We are just trying to start a conversation in an area that’s been previously ignored.

  9. jackhudson says:

    I have no idea what the intentions of the authors of the study may have been – I only know that the methodology was horribly flawed, and this can by no means be considered a scientific study of the matter. And as I posted above, apparently academics agree.

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  11. kenetiks says:

    Wait, wait wait. How in the world does someone quantify a “better sex life”?

    Would the entire exercise not be highly subjective to begin with?

    To me, even if this study was highly accurate; I don’t find it useful or relevant. Or did I completely miss something?

    And Jack, your comment that “married men are happier” is just as irrelevant beyond the subject in question as this study would be to me.

    Of course your comment should have read “…married men appear to be happier in the company of others out of sheer terror of spousal reprisal.”

  12. jackhudson says:

    Of course your comment should have read “…married men appear to be happier in the company of others out of sheer terror of spousal reprisal.”

    Yeah, my wife was standing over my shoulder when I wrote that.

  13. […] Far be it for me to suggest that a survey conducted by the North Korean government might not be the most objective source for such information – then again, it can’t be that much worse than some other recent surveys. […]

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  15. Nerdsamwich says:

    Jack, you seem to be working from a non-standard definition of “good sex”. It appears to be leading to confusion, so let me help you out: the accepted metric for quality in a sexual encounter (how you can tell whether or not it was “good”, and how “good” it was) is level of enjoyment. Now you can argue on the same page as the rest of us. No more need to ask, “Is it really better?”

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