In this week’s podcast episode of Mating Matters, “The God Who Clubs,” how religions have impacted dating, mating, marriage and reproduction. Dr. Wendy Walsh explains how the sex rules created by religions increase reproduction and even grow membership. Hint: the more punitive the God, the faster a religion grows.
Watch a short introductory video:
Or, read the full transcript below:
Dr. Wendy Walsh: What’s God got to do with our bedroom antics? This is Dr. Wendy Walsh. I’ve always wondered how religions grow their membership and I realized, it has to do with the sex rules. The rules that all religions create around dating, mating, and marriage.
This is Mating Matters!
Welcome to Mating Matters, the podcast that looks at human behavior through a lens of reproduction. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh, and I believe most everything we do is designed to increase our mating opportunities.
This episode is called “The God Who Clubs”, and we’ll explore how religion has created clubs with rules around love, sex and marriage.
Religion, just the word alone can conjure up a host of feelings. Depending on which religion you were raised in, if any at all, and your ability to fit in with its teachings. The word religion might evoke anything from memories of punitive lessons filled with shame to warm feelings of songs, prayers, and a supportive community.
Grammy winner Mandisa, in her ode to cancer patients sings to the best of religious support in her heat song, “Overcomer”.
[Mandisa’s Song Playing 00:01:20 to 00:01:32]
You might be surprised to learn that religiosity has been associated with longevity. Religious people tend to be healthier and live longer. That’s partly because of the mandate to live a healthy lifestyle that comes with most every religion. Clean living is the rule of the day.
There’s also the healing power of social support. Isolation is not good for humans. And to take that one step further, on a deep psychological level, God can become a secure attachment figure.
The Australian Christian Group, Hill Song United, holds the record for having a song that spent 61 weeks at number one on billboard Hot Christian Songs Chart. Their song. “Oceans” talks about God as a feeling of security.
[Hill Song United’s Song Playing 00:02:16 to 00:02:29]
But the early days of religion formation, were less about a loving God manifested psychologically as a secure boyfriend, and more about tribal affiliation. You know, religions are the ultimate tribes. In our evolution, religions created group meaning, cooperation over food procurement, in-group rules of conduct. In short, religions helped people trust each other. No matter where you travel in the world, if you meet someone who shares your religion, you feel you can trust them. You both follow the same set of rules.
Dr. Denise Martin: Tribal affiliations are very strong with the religions because if I know you, I feel safer. If I don’t know you, I don’t feel as safe. Who is my neighbor? You know, we have a lot of time … I’m Dr. Denise Martin, and I am assistant professor of religion and African American studies at Loyola Marymount University.
I am a cultural and historical scholar of religion. So, that means that I study religions in their context, in their history and in their culture. And I do that with pretty much what we call the Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: As a historian, Dr. Martin studies the religions most commonly seen in western culture.
Dr. Denise Martin: Who do I associate with and my tribal/religious affiliations tell me who it’s appropriate to mingle with, and who it’s not. A lot of that throughout the Bible, the Hebrew scripture than Christianity.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And some of these tribal loyalties and conflicts still play out today.
Ryan Bell: In the United States, we don’t live in a polytheistic world anymore, but we do still see this kind of our God – their God thing. Religions develop out of the need for in-group loyalties and outgroup hostilities. And so, yeah, this is a way of creating a safe tribal community by saying God’s on our side and by staying loyal to our gods. God will protect us and make us strong. And we even see, you know, remnants of that in current politics today.
My name is Ryan Bell and for 20 years, I was an evangelical pastor. Today, I call myself a humanist. Which to me is like, you know, the best that Christianity has to offer without the supernatural part.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: According to former pastor, Ryan Bell, besides creating trusting bonds, religions also serve to create strict group conformity. This was necessary as we evolve from small tribes to larger groups, where we couldn’t recognize all the members.
Ryan Bell: At its heart, religion is about social control, about keeping people in line. It’s about punishment and reward.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But religions do one other thing really well. They expand their membership. Some religions do this through amazing recruitment strategies.
[Pastor Preaching 00:05:27 to 00:05:30]
Religions are also especially good at increasing their membership through human reproduction. The founding fathers of most religions (and yes, they were mostly men), either consciously or unconsciously created rules around sex that increase the chances that their membership would multiply. Most religions have rules around premarital sex, marriage, birth control, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and even masturbation. And to enforce these rules, a punitive God, of course.
Ryan Bell: And so, right, I think this punitive God is the God who will punish you if you step out of line, but will reward you if you stay in line. And it’s a powerful social motivation, has been for thousands of years.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: It’s known that religions with the most angry God who promises an afterlife of hell tend to grow the fastest. God is a big cop in the sky is a psychological concept that developed to instill fear in religious congregants who might want to break the rules or cheat.
[Muslim Call to Prayer 00:06:31 to 00:06:35]
For instance, the Muslim call to prayer. In many urban centers in the world, it blasts out from loud speakers five times a day, to remind devout Muslims to stop and pray. Evidence from psychological studies shows that the Muslim call to prayer serves another purpose. When the call to prayer is amplified particularly loudly, senior markets or places of business, people are much less likely to cheat.
The same probably goes for church bells. A reminder to be a good person, God is watching.
[Church Bell 00:07:08 to 00:07:12]
I should also add that once religions become very established and congregants have intergenerational transmission of rules, yes, ashaming grandma or father, God becomes, well, less like a judge and jury and more like a loving parent. In a moment, you’ll hear a Catholic scholar give a decidedly modern take on the old “sex outside of marriage is a sin” rule. But back in the old days when the Bible, the Torah and the Koran were written, rules of conduct were designed to increase reproductive odds.
Here’s Dr. Denise Martin.
Dr. Denise Martin: Yeah, when we talk about the commonalities in the different religions, the different Christian religions, we can pinpoint things like marriage is the ideal union and children are a gift from God. Children are the way to live out the plan that God has for humanity as part of our salvation, in fact. And in particular, the Mormons have a particular way of looking at procreation as this divine mandate. But overall, the different Christian groups really come at this as God has ordained a certain way for us to live. We should be married, one man, one woman, and make children.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Marriage of course, helped more children to live, to grow up. Having two people with a biological interest in offspring always increases survival odds. And if sex outside of marriage isn’t allowed, sex inside of marriage also has plenty of rules too, particularly for women, depending on the religion.
Dr. Denise Martin: in Christian marriage, you’re giving yourself to one another. Your body is not just yours anymore. So, you give yourself to your husband, he gives himself to you. And so, if he asks you and you do have a headache and you don’t want to have sex right then, you do it anyway.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: There’s a reproductive reason for this.
Dr. Denise Martin: The social pressure is you don’t want him to go outside of the marriage. That would be your fault if you’re not enough for him. And then his seed could go somewhere else and not stay in appropriate places such as the religion, the household is now defiled.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In the Jewish faith, fear that the seed will be sent outside of the household is less an issue than the seed must be controlled within the household. While Christians are told they can have as much sex as they want at any time of the month in the marital bed, unless they’re practicing natural family planning and want to skip ovulation week, Orthodox Jewish couples have a fascinating practice designed to build up sexual desire and prime them for fertilization.
Mia Adler Ozair: I am Mia Adler Ozair and I’m a clinically licensed psychotherapist, and I happen to have a specialty in working with Orthodox Jewish couples in marriage as well as dating and sexuality.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And Mia Adler Ozair practices what she preaches.
Mia Adler Ozair: I am an Orthodox observant, practicing Jew, and between my husband and I, we have nine children. So, we are both … it’s the second marriage for both of us. So, it’s three of mine, four of his, and two of ours.
In the Jewish faith, there are significant rules around sexuality and sexual relationship within the context of marriage. Of course, it is absolutely assumed that there is not only no sexual relationship before marriage, there’s literally not even touch. People do not even hold hands. There’s no physical contact whatsoever before the wedding night.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And after the wedding, the rules around love and sex relate to a woman’s menstrual cycle. During menstruation and for about five days after, the husband and wife create physical space between each other.
Mia Adler Ozair: And it is to the extent that they do not share a bed. They do not hand things to one another. It’s really looked at as a window of opportunity to focus on the friendship and the spiritual nature of the relationship, and to put the physical aspects of it aside. And then of course, what happens when you can’t have what you want? It becomes much more desirable.
So, what tends to happen in this cycle, within the relationship around the woman’s menstrual cycle, is that not only does it set them up physically for pregnancy because you know, typically you’re coming back together at a time of a woman’s ovulation period. But at the same time, you’re also creating this one thing. This is kind of longing because you’re, you know, “forbidden” to have any kind of contact with one another physically …
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Ah, yes, the word “no”. The world’s most powerful aphrodisiac. Religions have used it well to grow membership. No sex except if it’s with another member of the church. No premarital sex, no divorce, no birth control and no abortion. No, no, no, no, no.
Sex researchers have long known that attraction plus obstacle (in this case, the word ‘no’) equals major sexual arousal. I mentioned that most religions founders were men. Yes, a kind of patriarchy. So, the rules were slanted to benefit men a little more than women. Think about it, a woman can only actually have a baby about once a year. But theoretically, a man can have a baby every single day if he has access to plenty of women.
According to Dr. Martin, in Christianity, men had leeway on the sex rules that has amounted to a sexual double standard.
Dr. Denise Martin: There’s a thing called prostitution, right? So, of course, if you’re going to go be with a prostitute, no, you’re not marrying her. The men would have had more freedom to have sex with multiple partners. Of course, they’re supposed to marry and have a family with a woman who’s been identified as appropriate. But of course, we see in the Bible, there are stories about women who are prostitutes or alleged prostitutes. So, we know that was going on and they were not marrying them in any way, shape, or form.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And this sexual double standard puts a lot of pressure on women.
Dr. Denise Martin: Your job is to receive your man, receive his seed and you know, conceive his children and give birth. I mean, of course, now in more progressive time, we don’t have people saying that quite that way. But there are fundamentalists and evangelical kinds of Christians who really do still understand like, you know, your marriage isn’t complete unless you have children. You as a woman are not complete unless you’re a mother.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And not only a mother. Women are also expected to be the holder of men’s sexual boundaries. Even today, here’s a clip from a YouTube video of a podcast called the Marriage Mentor by Jolene Engle and her husband Eric Engle.
Jolene Engle: … is your God’s girl first and your husband’s second. So, you take your marching orders and your authority is from the word of God and you live that way. And as a result, in pleasing God, your husband should be pleased unless he goes off with his perversions and tries to get you to sin.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: As if holding the boundaries in the marital bed isn’t enough, the burden of chastity remains on women when they are single. In historic times, a father guarded his daughter’s eggs, preventing access by a man outside of the religion or a man who couldn’t support his offspring. But in today’s age, with a highly sexualized media and pressure on young women to look like Instagram models and please their porn exposed boyfriends, life can be psychologically painful.
Dr. Denise Martin: In order to navigate being a good girlfriend or a boy or a young man, she opens herself up to some sort of sexual activity because she wants the boyfriend. But she has to also navigate this other side maybe that she’s gotten from her family and her church, that says, “Good girls don’t, God will be unhappy with you if you have sex.” So, she’s got to figure out, “Okay, how can I do this?” And so, one of the things that we see young women and young girls doing is having oral sex, not thinking of it as real sex. Having anal sex because you can’t get pregnant these ways and there will be no one to tell the tale.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: The pressure to be cute yet virtuous, sexy, yet chased is probably the greatest female double bind that can lead to a host of mental health problems that express themselves as eating disorders, cutting and even physical illness.
Dr. Denise Martin: So, then you become sexy and hot. But then if you actually like any of it, if you actually become empowered by any of it as a teenage girl, even late teenage girl, now, you’ve slipped over into the hoe.
Girls were cast out, girls were relegated to sex work, prostitution because you are no longer an appropriate match for any man.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: It is a fortunate woman who is able to navigate around all the landmines, protect her eggs until marriage, and with no sexual experience, become this sexually fruitful wife. But what if she were attracted to women? Or what if a religious man were more attracted to another man?
Dr. Denise Martin: The rule in Christianity regarding homosexuality is that thou shall not be homosexual.
Mia Adler Ozair: In terms of homosexuality, the Jewish religion in general, does not accept it. It is not permissible.
Ryan Bell: Homosexuality is definitely not God’s plan. Going back even to the beginning of Genesis, where a man and a woman are created by God and designed to procreate.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Today, there are many forms of religions with openly gay pastors and welcoming and inclusive churches for members of the LGBTQ community. But when all the sex rules were originally set up, growing membership was the goal and being gay wasn’t seen as a way to do that.
I should tell you here that anthropologists speculate that same sex orientation stayed in our human gene pool because mothers who had a gay brother or sister had more offspring who survived. Childfree adults who could lend a helping hand (say gay uncles or aunties), also tended to their own genes that were carried by their nieces and nephews. Of course, gay people also had their own children (wink, wink).
Dr. Denise Martin: Religion gives the blueprint for procreation. We all just grow up feeling like, “Oh, I’m going to have babies, I’m going to have babies, I’m going to have babies.” And then the religions reinforce that.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: If homosexual behavior was off the menu in most religions, how about a natural human behavior called auto sexual arousal or more simply, masturbation?
Dr. Denise Martin: The Bible says about wasting one seed. If you’re a man, that you are definitely not supposed to do that. Because the idea is that that’s the way you procreate. God has given humanity sex as a way to procreate. So, to masturbate for example, or to have sex with someone and pull out or to have sex with women you don’t intend to make children with, is a way that you’re wasting something precious that God gave you for the purpose of creating children.
Touching yourself is the gateway to the devil or the gateway to hell, and warns women in particular, about pleasuring herself. That she should not because that button, that button is Satan’s doorbell, and you don’t want to ring it.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Religions also involved tribal warfare. Groups of humans fought over food, water, and territory. And even while at war, reproduction was a goggle. The oldest weapon of war, one sadly still used too often today, is rape.
Ryan Bell: Rape, it desecrates the woman and makes her impure essentially permanently. You see it in the Hebrew scripture, in the Old Testament, Christian Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. You see rape used as a weapon to violate an entire community of people. You see it in the war in the Middle East with the Yazidi women being raped by Isis soldiers.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Besides taking marriageable young women off the market within their own tribe, thus, reducing reproductive opportunities on the enemy’s side, rape was also a chance to plant one’s own seed in a rival.
Ryan Bell: Rape could result in children and children for the conquering side and of course, make the woman unavailable to her own community. Given that she’s now tarnished, she’s not really eligible to bear children for her own people.
Dr. Denise Martin: When we think about the legacy of rape as a tool of religious warfare, of course, we have to think about domination and power. It’s not enough that I just take your stuff. It’s that I leave my mark upon you and your women, and I enter your gene pool. You won’t know whose babies those are. They might be mine. Now, I have really done something to you that’s going to last with you for generations.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Have you noticed that I haven’t been talking about Catholics much? I saved it to the very end for a couple of reasons. One, I’m a recovering Catholic myself. And I admit, I’ve got a little PTSD over the shame based messages about sexuality from my own childhood. Yeah, Billy Joel, you know me.
[Billy Joel’s Song Playing 00:20:51 to 00:20:59]
But the other reason that I waited to tell you this, is that I recently met a Catholic sex and marriage counselor who blew my mind just a little bit. First of all, let me say, that I personally think that Catholics win the gold medal for growing the flop through procreation. I mean, think about it, they sent missionaries around the world, told people not to have sex and if they did, to not use birth control. Ooh, that sexy aphrodisiac word “no”. I think they even invented the missionary position.
Boom! Millions and millions of Catholics were born all around the planet. But remember, I mentioned that once religions become more established, the psychological concept of God becomes a little more loving.
Dr. Greg Popcak: My name’s Dr. Greg Popcak. I’m the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. I’m the associate professor of Pastoral Studies at Holy Apostles College. I host More to Life on SiriusXm 1:30. I’m author of over 20 books on relationships, psychology and spirituality.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Dr. Popcak says in today’s Catholic Church, there really aren’t a lot of rules.
Dr. Greg Popcak: Oddly enough, the rule is to love another person. And of course, we define love as working for the good of another person.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Has the Catholic God become less punitive? Well, this seems to be the way Catholic scholar and counselor Dr. Greg Popcak explains the sex rules. Which he calls “ethics”, but he says in modern times, an ethos applies. God as a punisher is replaced by individual conscience and compassion.
Dr. Greg Popcak: Behavior that comes from the heart, right? So, I could not cheat on my wife because I don’t need the hassle of having an affair and what a pain in the butt that would be to cheat on my wife, and then I be faithful, right? But that would be an ethic. An ethos is I don’t cheat on my wife because I love my wife.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: He says that a misunderstanding exists about Catholicism because of one historic French Bishop who trained a lot of Irish priests. His name was Bishop Jansen, and he, apparently, polluted sexuality with rules. Therefore, Irish Catholicism that dominated the US Catholic culture, became a punitive ideology; Jansenism.
Dr. Greg Popcak: So, they got infected with this Jansenism. Ireland got infected with Jansenism, brought it to the US. That’s not really Catholicism. In fact, like I said, Jansenism was denounced twice as a heresy by the church. Jansenism tends to be this very rule-bound, you know, “God’s going to get you! Sex is bad, pleasure is awful,” sort of perspective on sexuality that really is contrary to what the core of Catholic thinking about all this stuff really is.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In fact, Dr. Popcak explains the Catholic rules. You know, the big Catholic “nos”. No premarital sex, no birth control, no abortion as a positive thing.
Dr. Greg Popcak: You know, so saving sex for marriage is good for human flourishing. You’re talking about no contraception. That doesn’t mean no family planning by the way. What it means is let’s not treat healthy functioning parts of the body as if they were a disease. And let’s stop treating children as if they were a disease. You know, let’s value life.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Maybe the Catholics have simply rebranded. Their rules are now called soft rules. Oh, and even these have been known to increase membership through reproduction. The Catholics do it as well as all religions do it.
Dr. Denise Martin: Well, I would say the obstacles that religions put in place, the rules, definitely create a certain desire, right? And early marriage because life expectancies were short anyway. And so, it creates within people a desire to hurry up and mate.
Mia Adler Ozair: The Torah specifically provides with a commandment – and I’ll use that term loosely. In Hebrew, the word is mitzvah. It’s actually a positive commandment meaning, it’s like you get bonus points, right? It’s one of those things that in the faith, is looked upon as God smiling on you, if you will. If you procreate, right? You bring additional Jewish kids into the world.
Ryan Bell: Faithful Christian families should have more children, as many as they can.
Mia Adler Ozair: Be fruitful and multiply.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Of course, religions do a whole lot more than just increase membership. For billions of people around the world, religious organizations provide coping strategies against fear and pain. They create comforting structure for many. They help the poor and religions tend to be a safe haven of likeminded people for health enhancing social support. But they wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t created a near perfect formula for human reproduction. And may the babies have the last laugh.
Thanks for listening to Mating Matters. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh.