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Penn Psychologists: Sexual Attitudes Can Predict Religiousness

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(credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A new study out of the University of Pennsylvania reveals some interesting finds about the relationship between one’s beliefs on sexual behaviors and their religious beliefs.

The research, which was done by senior researcher Jason Weeden and professor Robert Kurzban of the Department of the Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, reveals that a person’s attitudes toward reproductive and sexual behaviors are far more predictive of how religious they are than their attitudes towards things like lying, cheating or stealing, which have to do with “cooperative” morality.

The study’s leaders reportedly used data from the World Values Survey, a massive global study that asked nearly 300,000 people from more than 90 countries to answer questions about their views on culture, religion, politics and morality. One section of the questionnaire asked respondents how much they felt certain behaviors could be justified. The questions were then divided into those dealing with “cooperative” moral questions, such as “lying in your own self interest” or “cheating on taxes,” while the other dealt with sexual and reproductive issues like abortion and premarital sex. Respondents’ answers to questions in these two categories were then compared with their answers to questions about religion, such as how often they attended services or their belief in god.

What researchers found is that people’s feelings about sexual behaviors could be used to predict how religious they claimed to be, while their feelings towards so-called “cooperative” morals were less reliable.

While “it’s clear that people in religious groups cooperate…it’s never been clear that religious groups are more cooperative than other kinds of groups. In fact, you can learn a whole lot more about who is religious by asking them about their reproductive morals than about their cooperative morals,” Prof. Kurzban said on the Penn website.

The results are interesting, researchers say, because evolutionary psychologists studying the influence of religion in everyday life are typically split into two groups – those that think religion’s essence is to promote cooperative behaviors and those that think the attraction of religion has to do with sex and reproduction.

“The usual story is that being raised in a religion causes you to have certain beliefs about abortion or premarital sex,” Kurzban said. “We think the causality works both ways. The major story most people miss is that the way people want to live can have a big impact on whether they want to be religious or not. People want to live their lives a certain way, and then look around to see if being religious helps them do that.”

In other words, if you want to get married, settle down and have a large family, you may be more attracted to religion because it fits with your sexual/reproductive beliefs and lifestyle. Conversely, if you’re a college kid who is looking to party and date around, “all you’re getting from a religion is a bunch of hassles…in the real world what happens is that those people stop going to church, even if they were raised religious.”

Still, the study’s leaders stress that while the correlation between sexual attitudes and religiosity was consistent all over the globe, it varied in strength depending on region. While wealthier nations like the U.S. showed strong ties between reproductive attitudes and religion, those living in poorer countries tended to be fervently religious and more conservative sexually, but not as conservative cooperatively.

To read more about the study, click here.

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