Study: Religious college students have less frequent sexual activity and fewer sexual partners

Scientists are investigating whether evolved mating strategies could be a driving force behind religious belief. As part of that investigation, a new study has found that religious college students tend to prefer a long-term mating strategy over a short-term mating strategy.

The study, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, was based on the concept — called the Reproductive Religiosity Model — that religious groups help facilitate monogamous long-term mating strategies by promoting fidelity and punishing promiscuity.

The researchers conducted two separate surveys of nearly 500 undergraduate students in total. They found a negative correlation between religious commitment and unrestrictive, uncommitted sexual behavior. Students who said religion was more important tended to have less frequent sexual activity and fewer sexual partners.

“Most persons assume that religious persons, especially Christians, will have more conservative views on human sexuality,” the study’s corresponding author, James Van Slyke of Fresno Pacific University, told PsyPost. “My research suggests the possibility that there may be evolutionary factors involved in this relationship, such that evolved features of human mating strategies will be related to their religious beliefs and behaviors.”

“Religious commitment is negatively correlated with short-term mating strategies (more partners, higher frequency of sexual activity), which supports the hypothesis of a positive relationship between religious commitment and long-term mating strategies (fewer partners, higher commitment to the relationship).”

Most religions promote monogamous behavior, but the Reproductive Religiosity Model suggests that the relationship also runs in the opposite direction — that people can be attracted to religion because of their mating preferences.

But the next step is to better examine why there is a correlation between religion and long-term mating strategies.

“The big question that needs to be addressed is causation,” Slyke said. “Since my study is correlational, I can speak to relationships between the variables but not whether mating strategy causes religious commitment. Additionally, it is most likely the case that mating strategy will influence rather than determine religious commitment. So the big questions in the future will be when and how does mating strategy influence religious commitment and behaviors and what is the extent of that influence.”

Slyke was interested in studying the topic because of previous research.

“My dissertation was in an interdisciplinary field known as on the cognitive science of religion (The Cognitive Science of Religion, Routledge, 2011), which looks at how evolved cognitive adaptations influence religious belief and behavior,” he said. “As I got interested in that field of study I also got interested in evolutionary psychology, especially mating strategies, which lead me to a study by Weeden, Cohen, and Kendrick (2008) entitled ‘Religious attendance as reproductive support.'”

“In that article, they found that in the US General Social Survey the strongest predictor of religious attendance was sexual behavior and among a smaller sample of college students sexual morals were more closely linked to religious attendance than other moral issues. Based on this research, Weeden et. al. suggested the reproductive religiosity model, which states that religious attendance is driven by factors associated with long-term mating strategies.”

“A colleague of mine, Jason Slone had suggested something similar in an earlier essay (Slone 2008). Slone and I became interested in expanding these research paradigm in the cognitive science of religion and I got to join Slone as an editor on a book that tries to put forward mating strategies and other theories from evolutionary psychology to empirically investigate religion (The Attraction of Religion: A New Evolutionary Psychology of Religion, Bloomsbury 2015). So this empirical study is an outgrowth of my interest in looking at the relationship between evolutionary adaptations and religious functioning.”

The study, “Short-Term Mating Strategies Are Negatively Correlated with Religious Commitment: Exploring Evolutionary Variables for Religiosity at a Small Christian Liberal Arts College“, was also co-authored by Andrew Wasemiller.