Rituals and Sex

How religious rituals may serve as a reproductive strategy

Posted Dec 07, 2013

Got your attention? I thought the sex part might grab you. What do rituals—specifically religious rituals—have to do with sex? Quite a bit actually. Not that religious rituals are rife with sexual innuendo or subtle erotic symbolism (maybe some are but that’s beside the point). Instead, some recent research indicates that religious rituals may serve an important reproductive function—that is, they may be central to a reproductive strategy involving high-investment, high-fertility, long-term commitment—you remember, the old get-married-stay-married-and-raise-a-bunch-of-kids thing that a lot of folks did before Twitter and Honey Boo Boo came along and made our lives so much more meaningful. Well, apparently there are a few straggling social Luddites out there keen on practicing this archaic lifestyle and regular attendance at religious rituals (i.e. going to church on Sunday) is pivotal to the plan. (Most of the aforementioned Luddites, by the way, are happier, healthier, and wealthier than the rest of us “modern family” types, if other social science research is to be believed).

In 2008, Psychologist Jason Weeden (now at the University of Pennsylvania) and colleagues did a large scale correlational study looking at the predictors of religious participation (more simply—why do people go to church?). Interestingly, they found that the best predictors of church attendance were attitudes on sexual morality. If one believed that extra-marital sex was wrong, marriage and children were good, and abortion was immoral then he or she was likely to be found populating the Sunday morning pews. Well, of course, you say—isn’t that what most churches are preaching these days? Maybe so, but Weeden et al.’s findings suggested that sexual mores compelled church attendance, not the other way around.

In 2011, Weeden and colleagues found something similar regarding attitudes on recreational drug use; those most likely to condemn the occasional snort or toke in others were those with traditionalist sexual attitudes. So strong was this connection that it trumped other predictive factors such as one’s political views, health, or safety concerns. Now why should I care about your personal chemical recreational activities and why would the source of my concern be sexual in nature? That’s where reproductive strategies come in. It’s not that recreational drug use is immediately harmful to the sexual traditionalist. It’s that it is symptomatic of a growing social threat—promiscuity.

From an evolutionary perspective what people really care about (although not necessarily at a conscious level) is reproductive success. Different strategies can be employed in the pursuit of that success. Promiscuity is one possible strategy. It offers males the opportunity to inseminate multiple females, while potentially providing females with access to the resources of many males. But rampant promiscuity conflicts with a high-investment/long-term commitment strategy where faithfulness is critical. Husbands need faithful wives to ensure that her offspring do, in fact, carry his genes. Wives need faithful husbands to ensure that his resources won’t be diverted to another woman’s progeny. But faithfulness is a risky bet in a social context of widespread promiscuity (just as casual sex partners become frustratingly rare in a context of high-faithfulness). Hence, practitioners of both strategies have an interest in molding society to better suit their reproductive interests. Monogamists, however, have a powerful ally in their corner – religion.

praying for good mate?

Both bars and churches have their rituals. Be warned, the rituals you frequent may define the life you lead.


Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R., What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals, Evolution and Human Behavior (2013).

Weeden, J., Cohen, A. B., & Kenrick, D. T. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 327–334.

Kurzban, R., Dukes, A., & Weeden, J. (2011) Sex, drugs, and moral goals: Reproductive strategies and views about recreational drugs. Proceedings of the Royal Society – B, 277, 3501-3508