Religion and Mating Strategies in Evolutionary Perspective

This entry was written by Hayley Vassallo as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive
Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Human mating strategies are known to differ significantly between societies and both males and females. The former are argued to show more risky behaviours than the latter to attract mates. Intrasexual competition in males generally involves impulsive behaviours such as risk-taking, aggression and competing for status (Peterson 2018). Religious communities are argued to impact these sexual strategies by favouring restrictive and less risky sexual strategies (such as monogamy) (McCullough et al. 2012). The Reproductive religiosity model can be used to explain human mating strategies in religious communities. Throughout this essay I will be outlining some of the current literature surrounding this topic.

Main text

Reproductive Religiosity Model

The Reproductive Religiosity Model (RRM) is based on competitive reproductive strategies in religious environments. The model commences with the understanding of the moral rules governing a given society. These morality circumstances have differing effects on the individuals, dependent on the sexual strategies pursued within that society (Hone & McCullough 2015; Weeden & Kurzban 2013).
Natural selection allows for individuals to understand the sexual strategies used in their society, and the affect they will have on their fitness regarding reproductive success. Specific cognitive traits that process this type of information have been selected for allowing one to process information on mating pool conditions (McCullough et al. 2012). It is these cognitive mechanisms that allow individuals to migrate to like-minded sexual strategists. For example, in societies where monogamy and high-commitment sexual relations are less practised, ‘risky’ male sexual strategies are favoured and often result in high fitness payoffs. However, in other societies, predominantly those with strong religious belief systems, these strategies are argued to be somewhat restricted and unfavoured, through consequential social costs and minimised reproductive success (Hone & McCullough 2015).
This can be explained by the RRM. An example of this is individuals engaging in more restricted sexual strategies with an emphasis on committed partnerships, higher fertility and parental cooperation. These individuals are more vulnerable to promiscuous sexual activity impacting their reproductive success, differing from those pursuing more promiscuous sexual strategies, who are likely more susceptible to those pursuing more restrictive sexual strategies, also negatively impacting their reproductive success and fitness (Weeden & Kurzban 2013). As a result of this, those practising more restrictive reproductive behaviours are more inclined to surround themselves with like-minded sexual strategists to minimise the threat of promiscuity and increase their reproductive success, and those with less restrictive strategies surround themselves with similar strategists (Hone & McCullough 2015; Weeden & Kurzban 2013). This model is consistent with observations of religious communities.

Religious societies and sexual strategies

Religious communities arguably promote restrictive mating strategies more than they do increasing morality and cooperation within groups (Weeden & Kurzban 2013). Such communities are argued to favour monogamous, high commitment relationships by integrating moral pressure and social costs to downplay and restrict casual sex, abortion and infidelity (Hone & McCullough 2015). Such unfavoured reproductive strategies are often viewed as threatening to religious sexual strategists because they lead to lower paternity certainty and male parental investment. (McCullough et al. 2012).
Contemporary data from the United States suggest that high fidelity and parental investment reproductive strategists are utilising the strong belief systems of religious communities to downplay the types of unfavoured behaviours associated with promiscuous reproductive strategies by increasing the social costs within the communities. The strong condemnation of individuals within the community engaging in sexual promiscuity and other factors contributing to low fidelity and low male parental investment (i.e. male promiscuity and birth control) are argued to influence the downplay of intrasexual selection between the male populations (McCullough et al. 2012).


Analyses of data collected from the World Values Survey suggests that individuals with a strong belief in a personal god and the afterlife are more strongly associated with restrictive sexual strategies than they are of other morality concerns (i.e. lying and stealing). This supports the argument that restrictive sexual strategists may utilise religious lifestyles to encourage and support more monogamous mating strategies, resulting in higher reproductive success and cooperative parental investment from both parents (McCullough et al. 2012).
Weeden and Kurzban (2013) set out to understand the connection between religiosity and restrictive sexual strategists, and cooperation in 10 international regions. No correlation between religiosity and increased cooperation was found, however, they did suggest a significant statistical relationship between highly religious regions and poorer regions with more restrictive sexual relationships (Weeden & Kurzban 2013).
McCullough et al. (2012) also tested this relationship. They argued that although women are known to be more religious than men, male sexual strategies are downplayed in view of religion. 102 female and 78 male students were selected to participate in questionnaires, having completed a religious commitment inventory prior to the experiment. The findings suggest that experimentally activating awareness about beliefs of god and the afterlife reduced the male participants impulsive behaviours for immediate rewards for larger rewards in the future. This is indicative of religiosity resulting in the downplay of ‘risky’ mating strategies in males. Furthermore, the men’s physical strength was also tested and was found to be reduced. However, the study does not factor in the differences in religiosity amongst the students, nor control conditions that also manipulate behaviour, such as the police. A further limitation to this study is that the results were acquired using American students, thus the results can cannot be generalised to other samples (McCullough et al. 2012).
Hone & McCullough’s (2015) report aimed to replicate the previous study, specifically male hand grip endurance. The authors found no correlation between religiosity and strength in males, labelling the previous study as a type 1 error (or false positive) (Hone & McCullough 2015).


Religiosity is argued to increase cooperative, altruistic and restrictive mating behaviours across many societies (Peterson 2018). Although there are many studies suggesting that religion influences male sexual strategies, specifically involved in regulating male mating behaviours in intrasexual competition, there are other studies which suggest no correlation between the two variables, as stated above. Thus, the question of whether religiosity has an impact on lowering the risky behaviours utilised by men during intrasexual selection is still up for debate, requiring more research (Hone & McCullough 2015).

Literature cited

McCullough, M.E., Carter, E.C., DeWall, C.N., & Corrales, C.M. (2012). Religious cognition down-regulates sexually selected, characteristically male behaviours in men, but not in women. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(5), 562-568.
Hone, L.S.E., McCullough, M.E., (2015). Does religious cognition really down-regulate hand grip endurance in men? A failure to replicate. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(2), 81-85.
Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2013). What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(6), 440-445.
Peterson, M.B. (2018). Reproductive interests and dimensions of political ideology. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(2), 203-211.

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