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Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex

A new study shows that religious people have as much sex as atheists, but with less sexual satisfaction and more guilt.

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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 "Sex and Secularism," 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 hardcore religious believers might argue 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.

And maybe more to the point: According to the 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 percent 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.

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