Field of Science

Religion and losing virginity - no relationship among Scottish teens

A survey of kids from 16 secondary schools in the Lothian and Grampian regions of Scotland has taken a look at the factors related to first sexual intercourse.

Among a whole basket of other factors, the study authors found that Christian kids were 25% less likely than kids of no religion to have had sex. What's more, kids who were not religious or were unsure were 30% more likely to have had sex than kids who were religious.

But it turns out that it's not their religious beliefs that cause this difference. Rather it was their social environment. Religious kids are different from other kids. After taking these circumstantial differences into account, there was no effect of religion.

What did matter? Family type (natural parents, step parents etc), parental monitoring, school enjoyment and, strangely, how much spending money they had (more money = earlier).

But most of all, they found they couldn't really explain why some teens have sex earlier than others. Even with all the factors combined, they could only explain 15% of the variation among these kids.

Anyway, this is an interesting study because more similar studies are done in the US. There, there is a widely held belief that, if only kids were more religious, then they wouldn't engage in risky sexual behaviours.

This assumption is pretty dubious. Writing in the New Yorker last November, Madeleine Talbot described a pretty complex picture, and not at all flattering for the advocates of religion.

At the end of last year, a US study found that virginity pledgers not only lost their virginity as readily as non-pledgers, but that they also engaged in more risky sex (because they got no proper sex education).

In the Scottish study, only 37% of the kids said they were Christian (over 60% said they had no religion). Even more remarkably, 90% said that they were not religious!

That's a very different picture from US studies, of course. Why that's interesting is that the 10% who said they were religious must've really meant it - they weren't just saying it to please the interviewer.

And even in these dedicated believers, religious belief had no effect on sexual behaviour. That's a pretty powerful finding.

Suzanne C Penfold, Edwin R van Teijlingen, & Janet S Tucker (2009). Factors associated with self-reported first sexual intercourse in Scottish adolescents BMC Research Notes, 2 (42)


  1. I would like to see figures of kids who consider themselves religions from West Central Scotland. We have a shameful history of secretarianism in Glasgow and the area's surrounding. Would be interesting to see how they differ from the East and the Borders.

  2. Tom, thanks for writing this blog. I enjoy reading it a lot, which I'll admit might have something to do with the fact that the papers you blog about confirm my personal conviction that religion is not a good thing for people and society in general.

    However, not familiar with the field of psychology, I do wonder how you choose the articles that you blog about. Do you pick any and all papers on the psychology of religion, because there aren't more than that, or do you pick the cherries? I would highly recommend that you clarified this in the interest of objectivity.

    Or even better, a serious meta-study of the papers "pro and con" religion would really be worth reading, whichever way the conclusion would point.

  3. Hi Bjorn, I try to pick up anthing of interest that I can. My own opinion is that religion has good effects and bad, so I'm just as interested in the studies that show it has good effects. I've posted before about how religious belief can make people more honest, and also the health angle.

    The thing is though that religion is very complex. The question is not 'is it good or bad', but rather 'in what way is it good or bad'.

    I try to pick studies that are counter-intuitive or interesting for some reason. For that reason, I probably do focus on the ones that show religion doesn't have the effects everyone assumes it has. To be honest, I think that fairly reflects the academic literature though!

  4. I see. I don't know the literature on the subject, but I can of course understand if you cannot cover all the new papers that come out (could have been that only a few a published, though).

    Concerning "good or bad" I think both questions are interesting. Do you think meta-study pitching the good effects versus the bad would be feasible?

  5. I think the problem is defining religion and also defining 'good'! For example, religion services increase in-group allegiance at the cost of decreasing acceptance of out-groupers. Is that good or bad? Depends on the circumstance and your perspective.

    In the US, conservative protestants have lower incidence of sex before marriage, but higher incidence of teenage pregnancies. Good or bad? I have my view, of course.

    But this isn't a feature of religion in general. Although religions in general do seem to increase the fertility rate. Which might be a good thing in Europe but a bad thing in places with a positive natural growth rate.

    Although in principle some kind of overview is exactly what I would like to do. Part of my motivation for reading all this stuff and writing about is, one day, to try to pull it all together into some kind of coherent picture!

  6. Another consideration is that cause and effect are difficult to untangle. Looking at the current study, religion was associated with later onset of first sex. But not after controlling for other factors. What that implies is that having 'no religion' is associated with one of those factors listed - probably whether or not the child is with their natural parents (more likely in religious families), ad this indirectly feeds through into sexual behaviour.


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