Iconoclastic, witty, and insightful, Dr. Darrel Ray’s works are must-reads. In the following interview, he gives readers an inside look into fundamentalism and its warped view of sex.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You grew up in a Christian fundamentalist family in Wichita, Kansas. From a youth perspective, what’s running through a child’s mind as they’re growing up in this environment?
Dr. Darrel Ray: As you’re growing up, you’re being taught a whole lot of things, one of which is the language you’re speaking or you’re going to speak. There aren’t any children that sit around thinking, ‘I wonder why mom isn’t teaching my Chinese, or why am I not learning Zulu.’
Jacobsen: [Laughing] That’s right.
Ray: At the same time, you’re learning a lot of other things–how to have polite manners at the table, how to treat other people, and what beliefs govern the household.
To a child, language acquisition and religious acquisition are happening at the same time and they are not going to question why they are not being taught Catholicism or Buddhism. They accept their parents’ beliefs at this age.
In a hunter-gatherer society–from which we’re only separated by a few thousand years–children are genetically and biologically wired to listen to their parents.
If there’s a lion out there that can eat you, you’d better listen to your parents when they say, ‘Don’t go into that bush over there, because there’s tigers and lions that might eat you.’
If Mom and Dad turn around the next day and say, ‘Don’t go into that bush over there because there are demons that will send you to Hell,’ how does a child know the difference?
Jacobsen: They don’t.
Ray: They can’t. So, by age 10, kids have programmed all those kinds of ideas without the ability to critically analyse them. Once they’re embedded in your brain, they’re embedded deeply and, often, permanently.
Notions like Hell can profoundly scare a child who goes to a Pentecostal meeting where eternal damnation is described in explicit detail.
It can easily trigger responses that are no different than those triggered by the threat of a lion. Your brain is going to respond to that threat, whether it’s the threat of Hell or the threat of a lion eating you.
‘Your brain is going to respond to that threat, whether it’s the threat of Hell or the threat of a lion eating you’
I work, we work, with a lot of people who are dealing with the fear of Hell. They’re atheists, but they were raised in families like the Westboro Baptist Church.
Even as adults, they still wake up in a cold sweat at night from their nightmares. We know now that’s probably related to post traumatic stress disorder.
In fact, Dr. Marlene Winnell, pioneer psychologist over in the Bay Area, renamed it ‘religious trauma syndrome’ because she could see from her work that the post-traumatic stress of somebody coming back from a war zone in Afghanistan looks a lot like the stress people had being raised in religious environments from early on. That’s a long answer to a short question.
Jacobsen: Tell me a little more about Recovering from Religion.
Ray: We help people deal with the consequences and trauma of leaving religion. Let’s say a 40-year-old with 2 children now recognises that everything he was taught is a bunch of phooey, what does he do now?
He has already raised his kids religious. His wife is still religious. Who does he turn to? He certainly can’t go talk to his minister. I started Recovering from Religion in 2009 and we’ve since grown phenomenally.
We now have a hotline somebody can call and say exactly what they feel. We get calls from religious people. We get parents. Parents, for example, will call us and say ‘We love our child, they say they’re an atheist now and we found you on the Internet. We want to respect our child, but we don’t know how to deal with it because we’re Catholic or we’re Jewish or we’re Buddhist.’
We have small group meetings all over the world. People meet about once a month, talk to each other about recovering issues. We have many other programs.
But the short answer is we’re helping people deal with the trauma and consequences of leaving religion.
Jacobsen: What personality factors or variables play into the rate at which someone can recover? Is the level of general intelligence, or the degree to which someone can adhere strongly to engaging in executive function behaviour, a factor? Grit?
Ray: I write extensively about that in my book, The God Virus. It has little to do with intelligence. That’s not say to intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it. There are five major personality components in human beings. Four of those components do not correlate at all with religiosity.
The fifth one, however, does–curiosity, and openness to new experience. The research seems to show that the less curious you are, the less open you are to new experience, the more likely you are to be infected with religious notions of any kind.
On the other hand, children who are raised by parents who are religious, but who are open to curiosity, are going to be constantly asking ‘Why?’
It’s hard to infect that kid or keep them infected because they keep asking the wrong questions. The other child, the one who’s not open to new experience and who isn’t particularly curious, they don’t ask those questions in the first place.
Generally people go through a phase, anywhere from two to three years, where they deal with that dissonance, that conflict between emotions that say, ‘There is a hell,’ or emotions that say, ‘God is watching me all the time.’
Logic says, ‘That’s crazy.’ But it takes quite a while–sometimes a lifetime. Like I said, I got people dealing with it who have been nonreligious for decades.
I don’t think there’s a formula. With Recovering from Religion, we take people where they are. Obviously, we don’t give them personality tests or IQ tests or anything. But IQ does correlate with curiosity and a willingness to have new experiences. There is the phenomena that the more educated you are, the less religious you’re likely to be. 94 percent of all the top scientists in the United States are atheists.
The God Virus
Jacobsen: You use the term ‘infected’ when talking about children. Does that come from Richard Dawkins’ use of the words ‘viruses’ and ‘infections’ to describe religions?
Ray: My book The God Virus was largely inspired by an essay he wrote back in 1989 called “Viruses of the Mind.” This metaphor has been around since he wrote his book The Selfish Gene back in 1976.
Dawkins is a biologist. Daniel Dennett is a philosopher. Sam Harris is a neurologist. None, however, is a psychologist. Nobody is looking at it from an anthropological, sociological, or psychological point of view.
So, I basically stole Dawkins’ notion of a mind virus and applied it specifically to religion. He quite approved of it. I met Richard several times and he likes the book, The God Virus, likes its specific application, from a psychological perspective.
Jacobsen: Who have been your unexpected, even religious, allies with Recovering from Religion and the Secular Therapy Project?
Ray: With Recovery from Religion, we are appreciative of Unitarians. While they may be somewhat religious, they can be secular too.
Secular Jewish organisations have also been good allies. Other groups include the Satanic Temple and Flying Spaghetti Monster. People like that love us. Those are all groups that we have some alliances with, that we cooperate with.
The LGBTQ community is one of our biggest allies, and vice versa. So many people in the LGBTQ community have been disfellowshipped or thrown out or in some way, ostracised by their families and their community.
As a result, other gay church members start asking questions. How many gay music directors and choir directors get exposed and kicked out of their church because they are gay? Now, they’re looking for a community, looking for a place to land. We’re one of those places that’s easy to find on the Internet.
When they find us, they’re on their way out, or somebody outed them and now they’re searching for answers to questions. We are here for them. If they want to stay Catholic or whatever, all we do is listen and help them find solutions. We aren’t in the business of de-conversion.
The beautiful thing is that in 2009 there was no organisation to call.
The only person you’d probably talk to maybe were psychologists. And you certainly wouldn’t talk to your minister. Now, we are here. We have an enormous resource page on our website. We have hundreds and hundreds of links and resources for people in every walk of life, and from every religion. We’re expanding rapidly as we speak. That’s the first answer
As for the Secular Therapy Project, there are real people out there, real psychologists, real social workers who still believe you can pray the gay away. There are psychologists who went to seminary and learned that homosexuality is a sin, being a lesbian is a sin, being trans in a sin, and so on.
They believe this and they practice it. In their practice, they still use Jesus to heal people. It is crazy and dangerous. If a person comes into a practice and says, ‘I’m depressed’ and the psychologist says, ‘You’re depressed because you’re an atheist. You’re depressed because you turned your back on Jesus,’ that certainly doesn’t help the depression. That’s what we faced, and I faced that in 2010, and 2011. After my book The God Virus came out, people who had never heard of me said, ‘Help me find a good psychologist. The last psychologist I went to sent me back to church, or the last psychologist I went to said I need to get Jesus.’
‘If a person comes into a practice and says, “I’m depressed” and the psychologist says, “You’re depressed because you’re an atheist. You’re depressed because you turned your back on Jesus,” that certainly doesn’t help the depression’
I started looking and it’s impossible to find a secular therapist–no therapist admits they’re an atheist.
The notion of a Christian counsellor has ballooned in popularity over the last 20 years. Entire programs have been developed around Christian counselling. Some of them are Biblical Christian counselling.
There’s no science behind this stuff and yet these people are getting insurance money. They’re licensed. They’re certified in various states. So, I realised that I’m going to have to do something about this.
I started the Secular Therapy Project in 2012 and got a website and database developed. Now, people around the country, and around the world, are coming to us. We just opened our database to the international community. Now a therapist in South Africa, Germany or any other country, can register with us.
We have four highly qualified therapists on our vetting team. If you were a social worker and you wanted to become a part of our database, you would apply. You’d have to prove two things to us. One, that you’re secular. We need evidence of that. We look at what groups you belong to or descriptions on your webpage. Second, you need to prove to us that you use evidence-based methods and are licensed, if appropriate, in your area.
So, once we’ve established you’re bona fide, we let you into the database. Then if I’m searching for a therapist who is secular, I can go into the database. I can register for free. All of this for free– free to the therapist, free to the client.
I can find out if there’s anybody in my zip code or anywhere close to my zip code, like a Match.com between therapists and clients. But it maintains confidentiality and anonymity for the client and for the therapist.
Jacobsen: What is the perception of atheists in the larger society?
Ray: Atheists are the most hated ‘religious’ minority in the United States, even more so than Muslims. It’s funny, but that’s what the few trusted religious surveys have shown for quite a few years now.
Jacobsen: How has religion infiltrated what should be otherwise evidence-based institutions?
In the United States is, places like Liberty University or Regents University, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s institutions respectively, and other institutions, like George Fox University, are all fundamentalist colleges and universities.
They have created new programs for family therapy. They are religious institutions teaching family therapy or psychotherapy methods and requiring people to adhere to their theological perspectives throughout their training.
For example, at Brigham Young University, a Mormon Institution, if you are a Ph.D. or Master’s level candidate, you would have to sign a statement saying you will not masturbate and you won’t have sex outside of marriage.
These folks graduate from that college and go out into the world of practice. What are they going to teach people? How are they going to get over their own hang ups around masturbation and help somebody who’s having a lot of sexual guilt?
Religion and sex addiction
Jacobsen: Is sex addiction a real thing? Why do religions, especially Abrahamic ones, try to restrict and direct the sexual activity of young people, especially the women?
Ray: I believe sex addiction is a religious construct. It is not a psychological or scientific construct. In fact, the definition of hypersexuality has changed precisely because it is so difficult to define. Is somebody masturbating 10 times a day hypersexual? If it doesn’t interfere with his life or her life, then they are not hypersexual. In the Catholic worldview, however, masturbating even once makes you a sex addict.
All patriarchal religions have discovered over the centuries that the best way to control people is through their sex and sexuality. I use the term ‘guilt cycle’ in my book The God Virus.
Religions teach you, from an early age, that sex is bad, that masturbation is bad. If you do it, then you’re going to hell: Jesus is watching you.
There’s a voyeuristic God out there who wants to see everything you do and is going to condemn you. I often tell Christians that if you’re a believer, and you have sex, then you have a threesome with Jesus. He’s watching you the whole time.
Patriarchal religions teach you that your own body is your enemy. Look at the story of Adam and Eve.
Women are temptresses and they succumb to temptation. This is present in many religions, not only Christianity. Control of women’s sexuality is a top priority. It starts early on with girls being taught about the religious concept of virginity.
Virginity is not a biological concept. At all. It’s a religious concept. So, what we do is we teach girls that virginity is precious, God owns your virginity; in other words, you do not own your own body, and losing your virginity is a dangerous thing.
You must guard it carefully. Of course, on the opposite side, it assumes that boys are out to get your virginity; that you must protect yourself; that you keep your legs together with an aspirin between them.
All these messages are present purity culture, especially among fundamentalists, but it pervades our whole culture. And when we have people going into our schools right now teaching abstinence only, it is not only unproductive, but most of the messages are guilt messages aimed at girls.
The guilt cycle is further perpetuated when kids explore their sexuality through masturbation and feel compelled to confess. Mitt Romney, when he was bishop of the Mormon church, most likely had to listen to 12-year-old kids telling him if they masturbated.
Then that kid is handed an 8-page piece of literature, from which I quote in my book Sex and God, that uses euphemisms to condemn masturbation, ‘Don’t tamper with the factory.’
Your genitals are a factory for creating sperm (in the case of a boy). It’s going to do its thing and you shouldn’t mess with it. Don’t touch your genitals. And Mitt Romney was giving this thing to people.
Jacobsen: What’s the most bizarre sexual taboo that you’ve come across in your research on sex and religion?
Ray: Oh, that’s an easy question to answer. Most Christians say to secularists, ‘You want to be secular because you want to act like an animal. You want to have all the sex you can.’ Let me tell you something.
There are almost no animals on this planet that can have sex whenever they want to. Humans, bonobo apes, chimps, and dolphins can have sex whenever they want to.
But my dog only mates when she’s ready to procreate. That insect that’s getting ready to hatch out of its larva this spring is only going to have sex to procreate.
Most animals in this planet only have sex to procreate. In other words, when the Pope tells you to have sex only to procreate, he’s telling you to have sex like an animal. He’s telling you to have sex like an animal because most animals only have procreative sex. We and the few species I just named, can have sex whenever we want.
As a human, I have sex whenever I want to, and masturbation is a big part of being human. When the Pope says nuns cannot have sex their entire lives, that to me is one of the most perverted sexual things you can ask a person to do.
Jacobsen: Do most people who become nuns or priests self-select or is there reinforcement or encouragement at work?
Ray: They’re somewhat self-selected at an early age before their hormones start flowing. Many, many priests tell me that they committed their life to God when they were only 12- or 13-years-old.
Self-selection does play a role, though. About one percent of the population probably meets the criteria of being asexual. I am guessing that priests and nuns are more likely to be asexual than the general population.
Asexuality and the clergy
Jacobsen: What are the criteria for asexuality?
Ray: If you are asexual, you have no interest in sex at all. Maybe 1% of the population is asexual.
Jacobsen: That’s a lot of people.
Ray: There is probably a large percentage of that population that is situationally asexual. People have told me after they got divorced that they had no interest in sex for three years. Then suddenly their sex life comes back, their libido comes back.
If that one percent of people, however, are self-selecting to become priests, then they have a huge advantage. They’re not interested in sex and never will be interested in sex. So, they’re going to make great priests. But the problem with that is they’re also going to be great priests standing up in front of everybody else and saying, ‘You can’t masturbate. You can’t have sex.’ It’s easy for them to say!
I have no interest in Game of Thrones but I don’t dictate that preference to others.
The fact is that most of those priests are not asexual, though.
I’ve interviewed so many priests. They commit themselves to the church at 12 or 13, often at the behest of their parents because Catholics love to have a boy in the family who’s a priest. That gives them lots of status in the Catholic community. And so, the kid at 12 or 13, under parental pressure and family pressure, goes to an all-boys seminary and in the all-boys seminary, there’s a lot of homosexual activity going on.
These boys are discovering their sexuality at that time, even as they’re going through their celibate and abstinence-only indoctrination. They are being programmed to sexually respond in that environment. That’s a big part of where the pedophile priest issue comes from. My own research and that of others has verified this.
It is the way they’re being trained as boys, because our brains are designed to look for what is the appropriate sexual behaviour and sexual object in our culture.
That’s why what is attractive and beautiful in one culture is not attractive and beautiful in another culture, because the brain has been programmed for that cultural expectation.
An insect or a bird knows exactly who to mate with. We don’t. We must learn that. If your brained is turned on to learning who to mate with when you’re 13, 14, 15, and you’re in an all-boys seminary, or all girl’s nunnery, and you look around, all you see are boys, or all you see are girls, your brain is going to imprint in that environment.
Your brain thinks you should focus your mating behaviour on the kind of sex objects present at that time in your brain’s development. It’s done at a biological and neurological level.
Sexual selection across cultures
Ray: Every culture seems to have a body type that is more prevalent. An extreme example is something called ‘steatopygia’ in Africa. Women with gigantic bottoms.
Now, why do women in certain tribes of Africa have this? Whereas you go to Wales and you look at women there, who, on average, have much larger breasts than women in other places? Then in Asia, women are very petite in both departments. So, you must ask the question,’Why is there such a massive difference in body types across cultures?’ And part of that has to do with what we’re talking about. We literally are breeding ourselves.
There is sexual selection going on right within our own species and different cultures highlight what is sexually attractive in their culture. Then those people tend to breed more successfully. Their offspring tend to carry those characteristics generation after generation.
It’s fascinating to know we’re doing to ourselves what we do with cattle and what we do with dogs. We’re self-breeding. And it’s because the brain is programmed to look around and say, “What is attractive? What is attractive in my culture?”Males and females, starting from around 12 to 13 years of age, have their brains programmed to ask, 0What is the right thing in this culture?’ Once they’ve locked in on that, then that becomes their sexual focus, probably for the rest of their lives.
It is especially true of men. The research shows that men fetishise much more quickly and completely and for much longer than women do. So, if a man has a breast fetish, he locks in on that. He’s probably going to have a breast fetish for the rest of his life.
Sexual fluidity and monogamy
Jacobsen: What are some universally attractive characteristics?
Ray: I’m not sure I can answer that. Humans are the most sexually flexible animals on the planet. There’s almost no other species nearly as sexually flexible as ours. There’s a good book called Sexual Fluidity. It came out about 5 years ago.
It’s a long term study of women and shows how women’s sexual behaviour changes rather dramatically over a lifetime. A woman who may describe herself as straight in her teens may describe herself as bisexual in her 20s and lesbian in her 30s then back to straight in her 40s.
It’s amazing how fluid women’s sexuality is. Men do not seem to be nearly as fluid, but they are still fluid within that window of time that I’ve spoken about when the brain is being programmed.
Humans want variety, constant variety. That’s partially what drives our consumerist society. We’re always looking for the new thing; we always want the latest technology, the newest car, a different colour or shade of lipstick or whatever.
It’s the same thing that drives our sexuality. One of the problems with religious sexuality is its strict prohibition of fluidity of any kind.
The fact is, there’s no human society on this planet that’s monogamous. There’s never been a time in human history that was monogamous. I give talks about this all the time. I ask my audience. Let’s say there are 400 people in the room.
I’d say, ‘How many of you know someone who is monogamous?’ And I bet half the hands will raise up. Now, I say, ‘If it’s not you, how would you know?’ And almost all the hands go down. People lie about their sexual experience, especially women, because sexual experiences are shamed in our culture. Women are shamed for being sexual.
The one size fits all religious straitjacket works for people who have a low sex drive, low level of curiosity, who are asexual, or someone who buys into the religious stuff about staying married to your spouse for the rest of your life.
The rest of us, we don’t want to have deal with that. That’s why the divorce rate is so high. The divorce rate is higher among the most religious. The more religious you are, then the more likely you are to be divorced.
Religion and sexual guilt
Jacobsen: Do religious people tend to experience more guilt with regards to sex?
Ray: Oh, there’s a lot of shame and guilt that they don’t know how to deal with. So, they act it out and that leads to divorce.
You might look at David Barash and Judith Lipton’s book, it’s a great book called The Myth of Monogamy.
Or read Dr. Marty Klein’s essay called “You’re Addicted to What?” Or you might also be interested in Dr. Marty Klein’s book called America’s War on Sex. It’s an interesting look at politics and statistics and practices of America and sexuality.
And of course, if you’re interested in the sex part of it, go look at my book, Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. There’s a lot of people starting to write about it. The reason I wrote both of my most recent books was because I wasn’t seeing anybody talking about this stuff, especially sex.
Nobody wants to challenge the religious notions about sexuality in our culture. And nobody wants to challenge therapists that are using nonscientific approaches to therapy that cause more problems.
The first rule of medicine is ‘do no harm’ and yet psychotherapists out there are exacerbating the psychological problems that people are having that were initially caused by religion.
As a therapist, my colleagues verify this. 80 percent, probably more, are dealing with sex problems directly related to religious training.
Religion, atheism, and community
Jacobsen: Are there any aspects of religion that you find admirable?
Ray: Religion can bring people together as a community. But this is not unique to religion. Humans are social creatures. We want community.
We want a place where our children can be taught, where they can be safe. And churches claim to do that for people. Unfortunately, once you get in the church, then your children are going to be taught things you probably don’t want them to be taught.
Where’s the secular person going to go? Too many secular people say, ‘I went back to church because I wanted a community. I don’t believe a word that minister is saying.’ But the problem is you’re putting your children through Sunday school where they’re being taught some nasty stuff.
God created genocide, killed everybody on the planet through this cute little story about Noah’s Ark or another cute little story like murdering all the children for making fun of a prophet.
Sunday Assembly is a secular movement out of England. It’s sputtered a bit, but it’s working in some places. Oasis started about 3 years ago. It’s bringing secular community together as well. It’s a weekly meeting on Sunday morning at 11 o’clock where mostly atheists, secularists, and humanists, all come together and have a blast listening to a lecture on an interesting topic, hearing some good music.
There is childcare, which is really important. All churches have childcare. We’ve got childcare. The minute you add childcare to the formula, your population doubles or triples. It’s amazing to see how many people come to these things.
We’re getting 200 people showing up every Sunday. Houston is getting 150 people showing up every Sunday. Now, it sounds crazy and people say it sounds like an atheist church. Oh, no, it’s community, like the Rotary Club is a community
Nobody calls them a church. Our focus is on education, science, and philosophy. We have great speakers, people who challenge your thinking process about stuff like death. What does death mean to an atheist?
We have presentations on polyamory. Now, what church is going to let you talk about swinging or polyamory?
Jacobsen: Not many.
Ray: You would be shocked at the number of polyamorous in the atheist community. About 30 percent of our group in Oasis is poly or poly friendly. The fact is, there’s probably poly people in churches too.
They couldn’t say it. Or they’d get thrown it. Does that answer your question?
Jacobsen: That does, and I’m out of them. So, thank you much for your time, Darrel.
Ray: My pleasure.