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New survey studies sex after Atheism

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Is there sex after atheism? You betcha! Among primate species humans rank near the top where having sex is concerned and very little keeps us from demonstrating that fact. Bonobos may do it more frequently but it's doubtful they obsess about it as much. As far as humans are concerned though, individual and cultural responses to sexuality have been bread and butter for psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and others for a long time now and probably will be for a long time to come.

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One of the latest entries in the field is a survey done by organizational psychologist Dr. Darrel Ray and Kansas U. undergraduate, Amanda Brown. It's entitled Sex and Secularism and is intended to look into what happens to people's sexual behavior and attitudes after they've left religion behind. I ran into Dr. Ray on May 1, at the Los Angeles Festival of Books where he was promoting his last book, The God Virus. It was just a couple weeks before the public release of Sex and Secularism (May 15) and Dr. Ray was excited about its findings. After exacting a promise from me not to reveal anything about the survey until after its publication (promise kept, doc!), Dr. Ray gave me the lowdown about it.

"Hugh," he told me, "I couldn't believe the size of the response we got. When we first put our survey online, we were hoping to collect 300-400 responses which we could use to refine the questions for a final version if necessary. We expected it would take about a week to collect that many but by the next morning we'd received over 2,500 responses and more were piling up every hour. Rather than throw away all that data, we decided to go with the survey as it was. By the time we finished collecting data, we had 14,500 secularist participants."

From the study overview (study available at www.ipcpress.com in pdf format):

The Sex and Secularism survey was conceived as a means of taking a look at both secular sexual behavior as well as understanding the differences between those who have been secular all their lives and those who have more recently left religion. In addition the survey collected other information on secularists.

Key findings (from the IPC Press press release):

1) Sex improves dramatically after leaving religion.

2) Sexual guilt has little staying power after leaving religion.

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

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

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

6) Religious guilt differs in measurable amounts according to denomination.

(Charts of some of the results can be viewed in the slideshow at left.)

Dr. Ray told me that one of the surprises from the study was that the residual effects of sexual guilt fade so quickly once people leave even the strictest religions. He'd expected they would last for years. Another surprise was the changing demographic of who is leaving religion.

"The fastest growing demographic leaving religion is the under 30 age group," Dr. Ray said. "That's no surprise because it's shown up on lots of other surveys. What is surprising is which religions are losing people to secularism faster. Catholicism used to be the front runner but now, for people who've left religion in the last five years, non-denominational Christian churches are the leaders. They and the Catholics are responsible for 46.7% of all new secularists. It's way out of proportion to their representation within the general population and no other group even approaches their numbers."

Dr Ray has written a bit elsewhere on "Why This Research is Important." Here's a few quotes:

...We have worked hundreds of hours analyzing the data and writing and rewriting the report, going over it with academics, taking feedback and criticism and incorporating a lot of it. Why is this report important enough to spend this kind of time on? Secularists don’t know a lot about their own community. Unlike Baptists or Catholics, we don’t have entire organizations dedicated to researching membership and developing programs to infect more people with religion. No one is asking what are secularists like? Are we same or different from the general population? How are we different from religionists and what happened when we left religion? What religions did we belong to before we left? How many religions did we try out before becoming secular? Are there any residual effects of religion after we become secular? How often do we have sexual fantasies? How kinky are we and do we share these with our partners? Do religious partners inhibit sexual satisfaction?

We think these are important questions to ask. If, as we believe, religion has similarities to disease, there should be signs that people are somehow different – better or worse – after getting away from the disease. Because almost every religion seems obsessed with sex AND psychologists and other social scientists seem reluctant to explore sex and religion, we felt it was an ideal place to start...

In recent years there has been research on happiness in the US which seems to indicate that religionists are more happy. The research is poorly done and does not take into account that the happiest countries on earth are secular and that no god is making people happy but the social connections made in church are. This report is one of the first to show that there is real behavioral benefit from being non-religious.

You can read the survey report itself with the text of the questions, the demographic information, data, goals, summaries, etc., here at www.ipcpress.com. It should be noted, Dr Ray says, that because participation in the survey was voluntary rather than a controlled, random sampling of secularists, results have to be viewed as suggestive rather than scientifically rigorous. That being said, it is a trailblazer and provides a lot for future researchers to chew on.

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