Do Atheists Have Better Sex?

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.

Do atheists have better sex?


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.

Happy atheist
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

Hot sex handbook
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.

Religious symbols
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.

Human sexual behavior
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.

Focus on the family
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.

Happy Endings

So what should this research say to believers?

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?

Smile there is no hell
This report, people, is our sales pitch.

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.

Do Atheists Have Better Sex?

14 thoughts on “Do Atheists Have Better Sex?

  1. 1

    Then they’ll immediately flip to the equally absurd argument that we only became atheists so we could fornicate etc. without fear of God.

  2. 2

    From which, Nemo, we can make very clear moral arguments:
    1) Why would a benevolent God forbid something that does no harm and much good? Indeed, why would he forbid it after making it so important to mental and physical health?
    2) The argument that fear of God should motivate behavior is an implicit threat. When a human is obeyed because of threats and fear, we call that person a bully or a dictator. We consider it virtuous, or at least smart, to resist such people when possible. Why should the rules be different for God?
    Neither of those go to the issue of whether God exists, either, but many people – me included – consider morality a very important issue in arguments about religion. And remember that even if you fail to convince your opponent in a debate, you might still convince the audience. Behind every vocal debater making posts, there are ten lurkers, just reading and thinking.

  3. 3

    Then they’ll immediately flip to the equally absurd argument that we only became atheists so we could fornicate etc. without fear of God.

    Nemo: They probably will. To which we can answer — in addition to what Robert said — that, if you trust the results of this study, religious restrictions on sex don’t have any effect on sexual behavior. Atheists and believers do pretty much the exact same things sexually. Atheists just have a better time doing it.

  4. 4

    I’m skeptical of this study. They only surveyed atheists, who knew what the survey was about, could easily guess that this was the expected result, and had a personal interest in this being true.
    Heck, if this is the study I think it is, then I took it, myself, online. I didn’t think much of it then, either.

  5. 5

    Some of the results are probably reliable enough even with the huge demographic skew, but I think some — particularly the statistic that people’s sexual behavior is the same whether they’re religious or not — are pretty suspect. People who are serious about following their religion’s sexual mores are highly unlikely to have even heard of the study, let alone responded to it.
    I don’t doubt that there’s a high percentage of religious people who, as this study suggests, do all the things non-religious people do but feel guilty about it. But I suspect that a survey with more even representation would reflect some overall difference in sexual activity, because of the not-insignificant number of people who do abstain where their religion tells them to abstain.
    I participated in this survey, and I liked doing it and like the results, but the more loudly it gets proclaimed the more uncomfortable I get with the sampling problems.

  6. 6

    I remember seeing a one-man show. He was obviously quite *ahem* active in his local gay male scene, yet still regarded himself as Catholic. He said he would confess every week that his sins were ‘gay sex, gay sex, gay sex’ and the priest would assign him to say ‘hail Mary’ so many times, and eventually he wondered if he could just do the ‘hail Mary’ pre-emptively.
    I found this genuinely puzzling. If he was a true believer in Catholicism, why was he committing a “sinful” act so frequently, and if he thought gay sex was not immoral, then why did he believe anything else about Catholicism? I suppose he might believe and figured gay sex was worth going to hell… but I suspect this is probably just an illustration of human irrationality.

  7. 7

    Lynet and Ginny: Yes, there are sampling problems, which the researchers themselves acknowledge. And this should be the beginning of this research, not the end of it. But I’m not that concerned about the possible inaccuracies you point to. Here’s why.
    Lynet: Yes, atheists might be inclined to give religion (and religious sex) a bad rap. But there was a great variety in how former believers in different religions answered the questions. If the answers just reflected a knee-jerk atheist antipathy to religion… why would that be? Why would former Mormons, former Catholics, former Muslims, former Jews, etc. respond so differently?
    And Ginny: The results gathered from this study about the sexual behavior of religious believers are consistent with the results of lots of other research about human sexual behavior. So there’s no real reason to think it’s skewed (at least, not any more than any of the other research). Also, you’re assuming that current atheists weren’t serious about their religion when they were believers… and I don’t think there’s any reason to think that’s true.

  8. 8

    I thought the differences between different religions were really interesting, too. Although I don’t know representatives of all the religions from the survey, I’ve heard Catholic and Jewish acquaintances make jokes about how much guilt there was in their respective faiths/cultures. I was surprised to see them show up at the middle and bottom of this ranking. Shows how little I know, maybe – I was raised vaguely Protestant, and I guess I don’t know much about what it’s like to really be steeped in “my own” religion, let alone any others.
    And also, is this an answer (one answer, the beginning of finding one answer) to the question, are all religions equally crazy? Or maybe, equally unhealthy?

  9. 9

    And also, is this an answer (one answer, the beginning of finding one answer) to the question, are all religions equally crazy? Or maybe, equally unhealthy

    Robert: That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought of those two pieces being connected in that way… but maybe they are. If it’s true that some religions have a worse effect on people’s sex lives and sexual mindsets, and make them more out of touch with the reality of human sexuality… maybe some religions have a worse effect on people’s lives and mindsets generally, and make them more out of touch with all sorts of realities. Interesting. I’ll have to think about that one.

  10. 10

    I’m disappointed that they counted Judaism as a monolithic bloc. I would expect vastly different results from Orthodox Jews compared to Reform or even Conservative Jews.

  11. 11

    As a lifelong atheist, I can honestly say the only time I’ve ever felt guilty about sex was when I accidentally kicked a guy in the head.

  12. 12

    Great piece Greta. I agree there are some methodological problems with the study, but overall it seems reliable enough to draw conclusions from. It at least applies to me. I see sex as something very positive in my life. I have a loving partner and we really get a long great in bed. I never ever feel guilty about having sex. It’s something personal, I’m not hurting anybody, it’s healthy and fun. No problems!
    This article reminded me of a line in a bloodhound gang song:
    You and me baby we ain’t nothin’ but mammals / So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel. :p

  13. 14

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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