Saturday, February 21, 2009

Are asexuals nonreligious?

In 2004, a paper on asexuality was published titled ) Asexuality: Its Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample. If you’ve ever heard the statistic that about 1% of the world’s population is asexual, that comes from sensationalistic journalists misinterpreting this paper. (If you actually read the paper, the 1% is only supposed to be representative of the U.K., and the author believed it to be low.) It has been hugely important because it gives journalists something scientific to cite in articles about asexuality, and they can interview the author—who is both knowledgeable about and sensitive to asexuals’ concerns.
There is another statistic in that paper that strikes me as particularly interesting. One question that was asked is whether asexuals were more religious than sexual people. Two measures of religiosity were used—religious affiliation and frequency of religious participation. There wasn’t compelling evidence that asexuals were more likely to be a member of a religion (the proportion was slightly higher than for sexuals, but p=.398 hardly constitutes compelling evidence, but the difference in religious attendance was statistically significant.) Bogaert proposed two possible explanations for this: extreme religiosity makes asexuality more likely (or less likely to admit to feeling sexual attraction) or religious asexuals are more likely to be more religiously active because they feel more welcome than sexuals in contexts with strict sexual prohibitions. There is another possibility, related to the second: it is possible that religious asexuals are more likely to be active in a religious community to find community in the absence of a partner.

Yet, in the asexuals community, a very different trend has been found. In early 2008, AVEN conducted a survey of its members, and out of 205 answers to a question about religion, 51% reported having no religion, 28% reported affiliation with a Christian group, and 11% belonged to another religion (i.e. Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan.) Although there is no “control group” (for lack of a better word) of sexual people to compare it to, the impression that many in the asexual community have is that these numbers are very much disproportionate with the general population. As such, there is a widespread belief that asexuals—as seen from AVEN—are less likely to be religious.

As part of a study conducted in 2006, some researchers from the University of British Columbia conducted interviews with 15 asexuals (11 female and 4 male), and then analyzed the interviews for themes. (Some of the results can be found in a presentation they did at the Kinsey Institute.) One of the themes they reported concerned religion, noting the trend seen on AVEN that there is a disproportionate number of atheists, though it isn’t clear if this was found by looking at their sample of interviewees or by accepting at face value comments from the interviewees, one of whom they quote:
“I think [atheism & asexuality] might be related. I do think that because asexuals are forced to realize that they are different and they know they are different than everybody else, they have to think about something that is perfectly natural for everybody else, I think it does sort of encourage a nonconformist streak in people to where if they have any tendencies whatsoever to be skeptical, then they are going to go that way…And a lot of religions place a lot of value on marriage and appropriate gender roles to include sex, so you can imagine somebody growing up asexual who doesn’t want to have a relationship or who doesn’t want to get married or doesn’t want to be fruitful and multiply…It would be easier for them to reject the religion and become atheist.

So we have an inconsistency: in the probability sample, asexuals were not less likely to be non-religious, and those who had a religion were more likely to regularly participate, but on AVEN the exact opposite seems to be found. How do we deal with this?

The main ways to account for this are either 1) differences in methods for determining who is asexual and 2) differences in how someone came to participate in one of the polls. (In a study, these would be called the operational definition and sampling procedure respectively, but I don’t feel these terms are appropriate for discussing participation on AVEN and informal observations made there.) It is unclear how reliable the results of Bogaert’s paper are because of numerous methodological shortcomings. (If you want to know what these are, I would recommend simply reading the paper because his discussion there of these problems is quite good. The only major problem I know of that he didn’t deal with is the practically problematic nature of his operational definition—people who’ve never felt sexual attraction don’t know what sexual attraction feels like, so assuming that everyone understands the same thing by “sexual attraction” is a flawed assumption, especially for this population.) On AVEN, by contrast, there are people who have experienced sexual attraction and identify as asexual, including people who used to feel it but no longer do and people who have felt it but only a little and rarely.

My guess, however, is that the difference does not stem from this. Rather, I suspect it to arise from differences in “sampling.” First, there is the question of where. In Bogaert’s study, data came from people living in the U.K. Even if the connection between asexuality and religiosity is correct, that study would only show it to be correct for people residing in the U.K. The relationship between asexuality and religion is going to depend on the particular religion(s) and the broader social context. Consequently, even if asexuals in the U.K. are more likely than sexuals to be religiously active, this does not mean this relationship holds in the U.S. or in France or in South Korea.

People on AVEN often have a sense that the asexuals there are less likely than the general population to be nonreligious. But what general population? The US? Sweden? Earth? It is a well known fact that people in the US tend to be much more religious than their Western European counterparts, and the reasons for this are unclear. Enlightenment ideology long held that as education increased, technology developed, and countries modernize, people will come to understand the folly of religion and it will go away. This prediction has proven to be completely wrong.

Perhaps the reason for the perceived relative nonreligiousity of asexuals is because US asexuals (where religiousity is relatively high) are comparing US population to an AVEN population consisting of people from a number of different countries, many of which have much lower religious participation? Alternatively, even if people on AVEN in fact are less religious on the whole than the general population, is this related to their asexuality? Maybe it is more related to age, socioeconomic background, or other variables affecting who spends lots of time on the internet? The point is that AVENites might not be less religious than the general population, or, if they are, it might have nothing to do with asexuality.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the trend seen on AVEN is real—avenites (who are predominantly asexual) are considerably less likely than the general population to be religious. Moreover, let’s assume this is not simply the effect of demographics of internet users. How could we account for this?

The first set of options would be that people who experience little or no sexual attraction are less likely to be religious than sexual people. Were this true, one option would be that nonreligious people are more likely to become asexual. I’m not really sure why this would be the case, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone support it, so I’m going to dismiss it without further consideration. Another option would be that being asexual (sometimes) causes people to become nonreligious. This is the position taken by the interviewee quoted above. This is conceivable. However, there is another option which seems to me so likely to be correct, and so I feel that there is nothing to be explained with regard to the relationship between asexuality and religion.

My hypothesis: religious people who experience little or no sexual attraction are less likely than nonreligious people to go to AVEN or, if they find it, to actively participate. First, I suspect that, though they will likely feel strange on account of their asexuality, if they grow up in a context where they are expected not to have sex rather than in a context where they are expected to have sex, religious asexuals will, on average, feel less strange on account of their asexuality than their sexual counterparts. As a second prediction of this hypothesis, religious asexuals will, on average, identify as asexual later in life than nonreligious asexuals, if they ever identify as asexual. (For a longer explanation, see Once upon a time, there were three asexuals and comments.)

At present, we simply do not have the data to decide between these options. However, my own hypothesis seems plausible enough to me, along with the others, that I feel there is no relationship to explain.

Ily wrote a recent post about asexuality and atheism, and since I had already been working on this piece, I figured I might as well go ahead and post it as a response. Many of my thoughts are similar to what commenters said there.

1 comment:

Ily said...

Your hypothesis makes sense to me. It's funny that on a blog like "Things White People Like", there is no statistical backing for the writers' claims whatsoever. But whenever I write about things asexuals like, everyone is saying that the survey isn't scientific, we don't have enough data, etc. But there are a lot more statistics about white people than about asexuals. I guess it depends what direction you're coming from, whether it's to entertain, inform, or both. I do want more good surveys and studies, but I also think that the lack of them shouldn't stop us from making guesses, as long as they're not harmful to anyone.

So, that doesn't 100% relate to your post, but I thought it deserved a comment :-)