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)
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