What makes men lose their religion as they get older? According to a new study published last week in the scientific journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, the answer may have less to do with their religious backgrounds or changing circumstances of their lives — and more to do with sex.
At least, the study found, the levels of two important sex hormones relate directly to levels of religious devotion, according to a summary of the study — led by sociologist Aniruddha Das — by the scientific news site Science Daily. In an “analysis of over 1000 men, Das found that men with higher levels of the sex hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in their bodies had weaker religious ties,” the study found.
The hormone testosterone is present in both men and women, though levels of the hormone are higher in men, according to Psychology Today. While testosterone helps the body build muscle and maintain red blood cell levels, according to a report by the Sex MD site, it is also linked to sex drive.
Lower levels of testosterone in men, scientists believe, couple with increased levels of the “female” hormone estrogen — also present in both men and women — is linked to a decline in sexual desire as men get older, according to the site Medical Daily.
While testosterone is produced by men in the testicles, DHEA is generated by the adrenal gland and is necessary for the production of testosterone. DHEA is also believed to play a role in the aging process, and in maintaining mood. In fact, DHEA supplements may be more effective in treating some forms of depression than anti-depressant medications, according to The Mayo Clinic.
But men who maintain higher levels of both hormones show lower levels of interest in religion, the new research shows. The study took data from 1,000 men between the ages of 57 and 85, and analyzed their saliva and blood samples for levels of the hormones. The researchers then asked the men a series of questions about their religious practices, such as how often they attended religious services and whether they socialized with members of the clergy.
The study found that the men with higher levels of the sex hormones had generally weaker ties to religion.
“Religion influences a range of cultural and political patterns at the population level. Results from the current study indicate the latter may also have hormonal roots,” Das explained. “There is therefore a need for conceptual models that can accommodate the dynamic interplay of psychosocial and neuroendocrine factors in shaping a person’s life cycle.”
But the researchers also proposed a theory about why sex hormone levels might be linked to religiosity in older men. Higher sex hormone levels may help men maintain their interest in sex, but they also may cause men to shy away from social activities, Das told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.
“There is literature connecting men’s testosterone levels with more ‘antisocial’ activities, aggression, cheating in marriage, etc.,” he told the paper. “So if you have those tendencies, you might want to avoid institutions of “social control” and, at least in the U.S., religion is pretty much the strongest of those.”
A Gallup Poll taken in 2017 found that two-thirds of Americans, 67 percent, can be classified as religious, with 37 percent described as “highly religious.” The poll found religious divides over political lines as well, with 51 percent of Republicans falling into the “highly religious” category, compared to only 32 percent of Democrats. Of the Americans described as “highly religious,” nearly half — 48 percent — described themselves as supporters of Donald Trump.
Could these political divisions be caused by differing sex hormone levels? Das said in the study that more research is required before reaching definitive conclusions.
“Without systematic exploration of these linkages, life course theory remains incomplete and potentially inaccurate,” Das said. “More research is therefore needed on the reasons why androgen levels influence a person’s religious connections, and on the role that hormones play in structuring the life trajectories of older people.”