Does Religion Make Men Soft?: A look at faith, sex and machismo

Behold the male of the species. He’s known for his fantastical feathers, his see-me scales, and all those come-over-here calls. In birds, mammals, fish and […]

Behold the male of the species. He’s known for his fantastical feathers, his see-me scales, and all those come-over-here calls. In birds, mammals, fish and humans alike, males are the showier sex. Toms, Dicks and Harrys are known for being impulsive, taking risks and pounding their chests in feats of strength—all showy signals designed to entrance the fairer sex. In addition, males have also made more records and committed more violent crimes than females, again, all in the effort to woo.

A forthcoming study in Evolution & Human Behavior looks at the relationship between these sexual strategies and religion. In it, researchers claim that thinking about the Man Upstairs makes men down here…well, a little less manly.

Traditionally, it’s been thought that males have more of an urge to show off because it facilitates their ultimate biological goal of mating with the most women possible. This makes sense when you consider the different costs men and women incur in bearing children. Males can do as little a bed a woman to reap the genetic benefits. (In fact, one wonders how much time Ismail Ibn Sharif, a 15th century Alaouite sultan who sired over 850 children, actually had to spend dolling out fatherly advice.) Women, on the other hand, incur nine months of hard time, er, pregnancy with each baby, followed by more months of lactation and even more months of being their baby’s alpha and omega. Simply put, it costs women more to have children, so they better get the most out of each one. This means that they typically won’t go in for a man who hasn’t expressed his investment, and by proxy his willingness and ability to help invest in and care for their offspring.

Are you reading Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping?

In reality, though, who we pursue and which strategies we use to pursue them is the output of a much more complex biological equation, one that includes everything from information about the depth of the mating pool to how inviting someone’s shores might look. There are men who want nothing more than a committed, loving relationship and there are women who want nothing more than to notch their bedposts into toothpicks.

Lead author of the study, University of Miami evolutionary psychologist Mike McCullough, sees these different sexual strategies as points along a continuum. On one end, you have the unrestricted strategy characterised by multiple, uncommitted partners, low fidelity and low investment in offspring, should any arise. On the opposite end, we have the restricted sexual strategy, which is all about sexual exclusivity, marital fidelity and major investment in the little ones. I’d like to be able to say that they could all just get along but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather, it favours members of each strategic community to mingle amongst themselves, and only themselves. Besides the rewards of finding a person with the same mating values as you, there are costs to co-mingling.

Restricted-strategy males are especially in danger were the two to mix. Men are less certain of their paternity as it is, and it’s a big biological waste, to use the technical Darwinian term, to parent a child who isn’t theirs. Not that women get off easy. Having a bunch of what the restricted ladies of the 1950s might call “hussies” afoot increases the chances that their men might invest their resources in another woman. It’s only logical, then, that natural selection favoured the evolution of a mating psychology of like-with-like preferences.  More than like-with-like, though, it seems that restricted strategists really want to – and benefit from – keeping their anything-goes foes out.

Recent data points to one way they’re going about this: religion.

Why the Lord won’t buy you a Mercedes Benz… 

According to the paper, “high fidelity/parental investment strategists are using religious communities and their interlocking systems of beliefs and behaviors as devices for raising the social costs of sexual promiscuity for others.” In short, they’re making it harder to pursue the alternative strategy, which makes things safer for them. This “our way or the highway” thinking is often evidenced in the disapproval and even condemnation of those freer with their love, so to speak. Religious groups have gone so far as to murder abortion providers, while socially conservative politicians cut-off funding to groups that might possibly maybe sort of provide them. And the evidence shows that disapproval of promiscuous behaviours bears the strongest relationship with showing up to church on Sunday.

Evolutionary psychologists began to put this religious thinking under the microscope. In 2010, Robert Kurzban and colleagues published a paper that showed, when you control for which sexual strategy someone espouses, the relationship between his political ideology and attitudes about drug use plummet. In other words, it’s not your political views that make you sign up for or condemn sex, drugs, rock and roll; it’s your sexual strategy.

It makes no biological sense that someone completely unrelated to you would care about what you do on your own private time. But when you realise that what you do – your promiscuous sexual strategy, for instance – can legitimately threaten what someone else is working on, then this third-party policing makes a little more sense. Based on this evidence, McCullough and his co-authors formulated an idea: If people with restricted sexual strategies really do utilise religious rules and communities to deter and discourage others from pursuing alternative sexual strategies, then perhaps making people think about their religious beliefs might put them more in the restricted mindset. Both sexes engage in sex-specific behaviours – like men revving their Lamborghini engines or arm wrestling in the next booth over – to catch a possible mate’s attention. These showy tactics are the province of an unrestricted sexual strategy, so it just might work that thinking about religion dampens the desire to show off one’s own manliness.

In fact, this might be even more relevant for men; even though females are the more religious sex, religious doctrines might be trying to suppress the innate male biological response to sow so many seeds, meaning that God-thoughts can take their Lamborghini revs from 160mph to a screeching halt. In this metaphor, women just aren’t compelled to drive that fast. Keeping with this metaphor even further, seeing women on the street would make a man put his pedal to the metal. Quite the opposite of becoming less showy, even seeing a photograph of an attractive female makes him up his external manliness.

Of Gods and Men

Two of the behaviors most associated with male showiness are a propensity to discount the future (i.e. to choose a smaller reward to be delivered rightthissecond over a bigger reward later) and a desire to display one’s physical prowess, a phenomenon McCullough and Co. decided to investigate by using a handgrip task and seeing how long men could hang on for. What they found was that men, however religious they claimed to be, were all affected by thinking about religion, God and the afterlife. Compared to the males in the secular and control groups, men who wrote essays about religion, read an essay supporting the existence of an afterlife, or were implicitly exposed to religious words, not only discounted the future less – meaning they were better able to patiently wait for bigger rewards later than taking the small cash now – they also hung on to the hand-grip for less time, too.

It has been theorised that religion not only helps those with restricted sexual strategies mobilise against non-likeminded others, but that their beliefs might also support some of the tenets of the restricted strategy as well, like exclusive commitment to one partner and high investment in your child. In line with this Reproductive Religious Model, the brainchild of psychologist Jason Weeden, it now seems that even thinking about religion increases the kind of behaviour a restricted sexual strategy demands—at least in men. This finding fits with a recent article in Psychological Science, which tested another, similar theory of religion: religion as a cultural adaptation promoting self-control. In short, these researchers found that men and women who were implicitly exposed to religious themes exercised greater self-control, which the men must be doing in McCullough’s study as well when it comes to discounting the future and feeling a need to show off.

After all, males dedicated to maintaining a happy home should know better than to blow their money on whatever sexy, showy product they see now so that they can eventually pay for their children’s university bills later, unless they want there to be hell to pay with the wife.

So perhaps, in a way, religion is helping to heal a division—not the one between the members of different sexual strategies, but the schism between a man’s better judgment and his pants.

About Jaimie Krems