Is Nothing Sacred? Religion and Sex

From Psychology Today:

For adults, their sexual strategies appear to determine their level of commitment to religion. People who are inclined toward monogamy choose to be religious, because traditional religions provide support for a family lifestyle, and discourage promiscuity. Promiscuity poses problems for family life from both the husband’s and the wife’s perspective. If there is a lot of promiscuity in the local society, then husbands (and their resources) may be easily tempted away from the responsibilities of fathering and family.

Men are, after all, notoriously easy, as attested to by data suggesting they have very low thresholds for a one-night stand, for example (Clark & Hatfield; Li & Kenrick, Kenrick et al., 1990; 1993). But if so, why would men, married or otherwise, want promiscuity discouraged? Weeden links that to paternal uncertainty: a married man is investing heavily in his offspring, and in a totally promiscuous society, the odds would be higher that his female partner’s children might not be his.

Not everyone wants strong constraints on sexuality, though. Highly educated people often wait many years past puberty to settle down, as they delay starting a family for up to a decade while attending college and graduate school. Those individuals do not want strong prohibitions against premarital sexuality and birth control because it would mean they’d need to remain celibate for many years, and completely suppress their post-pubertal sexual urges until they get their Ph.D., M.D., or law degree, and then wait a little longer until they find a partner with whom to settle down. Weeden has suggested that the links between religion and reproductive strategy account for many of the heated moral conflicts between the religious right and the irreligious academic elitists on the left.

Several large data sets now provide results consistent with this view of reproductive religiosity, suggesting that people’s preferred mating strategies strongly influence their attraction toward, or repulsion from, religion. Weeden finds that the normally high correlations between religious beliefs and other moral attitudes shrink if you control for people’s attitudes towards sex. And Mike McCullough, another prominent expert on the psychology of religion, finds that many people tend to become especially religious during the years when they have children, and then to become less devout later in life.

The reproductive religiosity model helps solve another logical puzzle. It has often been presumed that men use religiosity to control women’s sexuality. But then why is it that women are much more likely to embrace religious beliefs than are men? This becomes less puzzling when one considers that, because of their intrinsically higher initial investment in offspring, women are less likely to benefit from a sexually unrestricted strategy, and more likely to benefit if men’s unrestricted inclinations are kept in check. On this view, women may be actively choosing religion rather than being passively enslaved by it.

* people trust religious people more than non-religious people. However, they did a clever study in which they gave judges information not only about someone’s religious beliefs, but also about their mating strategy. The results suggest that, if you know an atheist also happens to be a committed monogamist, you would trust that person more than you’d trust a religious person who is non-monogamous. Those findings suggest that the distrust of atheists is driven in large part by presumptions about their mating strategies

* Our ancestors’ reproductive success depended not only on finding a mate, but also on maintaining a long-term relationship with that mate, caring for their children, developing a network of friends and relatives to protect and assist one another, and winning the respect and trust of those friends and relatives. And religion has intimate connections to every one of these fundamental human goals.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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