No, Watching Porn Is Not Going To Make You Religious

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
This week, the internet has latched onto a new study suggesting a link between the amount of time we spend watching porn and how religious we are. "Watching Porn Is Making You Religious," everyone seemed to shriek. But the takeaway is much more complex — and fascinating — than those headlines would have you believe.

For the study, published online earlier this week in the Journal of Sex Research, Samuel L. Perry, PhD, at the University of Oklahoma analyzed data from the Portraits of the American Life Study. This included data from 1,314 participants collected once in 2006 and once in 2012. In addition to basic demographic questions, respondents were asked how often they viewed porn and how religious they were (e.g. how often they had doubts about their religion, how important God or spirituality was to their lives, and how often they attended services).

Results showed that, overall, those who watched more porn were less likely to be very religious than those who had never watched porn. But within that, a surprising pattern emerged: Those who watched porn at least once a week actually became more religious in the six years between the data collection points, while those who only watched a few times per month became less religious. And, surprisingly, the finding held true across genders.

"For religious people who look at pornography quite frequently, they may resolve the cognitive dissonance by being super-religious in other areas of their life, like prayer and worship attendance," Dr. Perry told Refinery 29 via email. "These people may be saying something like, Okay God, I may be disobeying you in this area of my life, but look at all the religious stuff I'm doing over here! So it becomes another way to resolve the cognitive dissonance without them having to give up the behavior or become less religious."

However, the curve here is U-shaped, meaning that those who became religious after watching more porn also started out being more religious. And that, friends, is the key: As their porn-watching increased, they reported having more doubts and going to fewer religious services. But when they got up to watching it a few times per week, they reached a sort of guilt peak, potentially causing them to return to thoughts of religion.

"It only holds true if the participant was already somewhat religious, because I think the finding is likely due to religious guilt and compensation," says Dr. Perry. "Lots of pornography-viewing will not cause irreligious people to be more religious over time."

That means those headlines are taking things way farther than they were meant to go. "I'm a little concerned that the media coverage has focused more on clickbait sort of slogans that will grab readers," says Dr. Perry. "Basically, I'd want to get the message across that I mostly found what I expected — that people who never used pornography tended to be more religious later on compared to people who did, by most measures. While the curvilinear finding with porn frequency and prayer or worship attendance was a surprise, my data can't really answer why that's going on, and the best I have is educated guesses."

So there you have it. Go ahead and enjoy your weekend porn-viewing without fear (or hope) of ending up in church on Sunday.
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