Research: Atheists Have Guilt-Free Sex, People of Faith Don't

THE NATIONAL BEDROOM—The just-released Sex and Secularism study was conducted by Kansas University undergraduate Amanda Brown and Dr. Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist and the author of The God Virus: How Religion Affects Our Lives and Culture, a fact that pretty much augurs the study’s conclusions, which are bound to raise some hackles among the religiously faithful.

After surveying over 14,500 secularists about their sex lives—with an emphasis on “attitudes and behavior related to sexuality and religion including religious sexual guilt, parenting behavior, sex education and sexual satisfaction before and after leaving religion”—the study’s key findings were conclusive, if controversial:

• Sex improves dramatically after leaving religion.

• Sexual guilt has little staying power after leaving religion.

• Those raised most religious show no difference from those raised least religious in their sexual behavior.

• Those raised most religious experience far more guilt but have just as much sex.

• Religious parents are far worse at educating their children on matters of sex.

• Religious guilt differs in measurable amounts according to denomination.

The authors admit the study was not perfect. It was conducted online, with respondents self-reporting their responses to questions posed, and all of the participants self-identified as currently secular, which could imply a certain motivation on their part to paint a rosy picture of post-religion sexual bliss. But again, the sheer number of respondents goes a long way to make up for its methodological weaknesses, and the authors freely admit the purpose of the study was to test six specific hypotheses:

1. Religions’ use of sexual guilt is measurably greater in conservative religions and less in liberal ones.

2. People feel the sexual guilt taught by their religion but sexual behavior shows no difference from those with less guilt.

3. Religiously conservative parents will be less effective at teaching their children about sex than more secular parents.

4. Children raised in highly religious homes will receive poorer sexual education.

5. Leaving religion has a positive impact on sexual satisfaction.

6. Religion has continuing negative consequences on individuals after they leave.

While five of the six hypotheses were supported by the study’s conclusions, there were some surprises for the researchers who “expected to find those who left religion [experienced] residual effects of guilt for years after. Surprisingly, those who had been out of religion for several years reported few residual effects with great sexual satisfaction. Many indicated that leaving religion had a strong positive impact on their sexual satisfaction.”

In terms of sexual activity, the study concluded that people have sex regardless of religious training or upbringing, and that even though religious people experience far more guilt about sex they do it just as much as non-religious people. They also love their pornography.

“Most religions preach strongly against pornography so it is reasonable to think that porn use would be less among the more religious,” the authors said in a statement issued May 15. “This survey found that porn use is quite high in all groups and is a key source of sex education for religious teens. The most religious teens said they got their sex education from porn 33 percent of the time, the less religious 25.2 percent of the time. The survey found that 90 percent of men were using pornography by age 21 with no significant difference between those most and least religious. For women, over 50 percent were using porn by age 21 and 70 percent at age 30, with little difference between most and least religious.”

Despite the porn use, the survey found that 50.2 percent of more religious teens got their sex education from personal experience versus 42.2 percent of less religious teens. In other words,” the authors concluded that despite religious admonitions against sex before marriage, “children raised most religious are experimenting with sex more than those raised non-religious.”

Dr. Ray’s religion-critical pedigree will no doubt fuel the inevitable condemnation of the study by those most threatened by its findings, but in fact its timing could not be better. As America’s war on sex once again heats up as the country slides toward another presidential election, with cultural conservatives once again raising the impending specter of a country in a desperate moral (economic, cultural and artistic) decline that can only be countered by the national embrace of religious teachings, a study that at least gives voice to thousands of people who have found the sexual light, so to speak, only after leaving the faith, adds to the “debate” a sound perspective that has thus far been sorely missing.

Hopefully, the consideration of religious guilt as a possible mitigating factor for so-called sex and porn addiction also will be furthered by the findings of this research, but we’re not holding our breath. The addiction model is too attractive an explanation for a society that has become so comfortable being uncomfortable with sex. And it pretty much goes without saying that both politically and culturally, organized religion is not about to let go its guilt grip on the psyche of so many.

The fact that guilt doesn’t actually work is besides the point. We’re all sinners, after all. If we don’t feel guilty about engaging in sin, why have sin at all? Guilt is the desired emotion, the psychological endgame. Without it, organized religion would have no foundation on which to exist, and Carrie—as well as any number of other horror/slasher movies that count on sexual excess as the justification for a horrific, untimely demise—would never have been made. In that sense, guilt is the spice of life, the salsa of sex, the pepper of prurience—and one of life's truly bitter-sweet desserts, best served in moderation.

The Sex and Secularism Report can be accessed here.