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In the name of the father: the links between religion and paternity

Questions of cuckoldry and fidelity have always existed – and comfort has come from religious customs. More Good Foundation

Religious leaders and holy texts share deep preoccupations with sex and reproduction. From Islamic purdah to Jewish menstrual purity laws, to Vatican neuroses about everything from contraception to masturbating nuns, it isn’t difficult to see in all major religions a masculine obsession with reproductive control.

Religion and sex have had a complicated relationship since the very beginning. Adam & Eve, 1504. Albrecht Dürer.

But how did religion and reproduction become so entangled? Perhaps it’s just a hangover from a simpler time, near the genesis of religious beliefs, when sex and reproduction were more straitened. Or maybe societies do better with strong – apparently divine - rules and laws about marriage, fidelity and paternity.

Or perhaps religions arose as a way for the powerful and the anointed to control the reproductive lives of others – particularly for men to control women’s sexual behaviour and reproduction.

We may never get to the bottom of all these questions, but new research suggests religious practices can very effectively assure paternity – the aspect of reproduction that undoubtedly causes men most anxiety (especially in the post-Viagra era).

Sexual conflict

I’ve already violated the first rule of polite conversation by mentioning sex and religion. What about politics? One need only look at the polarised sexual politics of election-year America and the so-called Republican War on Women to see evidence that politics seldom segregates neatly from the intoxicating sex-religion cocktail.

One reason these issues so deeply divide otherwise civilised people is that this is one area where it might be impossible for most women and men to see entirely eye-to-eye with each other.

I have written several times before about evolutionary sexual conflict theory. Basically, men and women cannot have identical evolutionary interests. In matters reproductive, what’s best for the goose almost always turns out sub-optimal for the gander.

  • When should a couple start having sex?
  • How often should they do it?
  • How many babies?
  • How close together should those babies be?
  • Should we use birth control?
  • Should an accidental conception that endangers the mother be aborted?
  • What if that danger includes domestic violence?
  • Or poverty?
  • What should a couple do if one partner loses their libido?
  • Or falls in love with someone else?
  • What should a partner do if they suspect their lover is sleeping with somebody else?
  • Who gets custody of the kids in case of divorce?

Even a couple of happily married octogenarians – the kind occasionally wheeled out to advertise superannuation products – will have experienced some friction over these questions during their relationship.


In an ideal world they would have resolved these issues equitably, in a mature understanding that there may be no solution that meets both of their needs perfectly.

But for most normal couples these questions cause almost all the pain and heartbreak endemic to adult life.

They also happen to be questions about which holy books and holy men have plenty to say. Not everything they have to say benefits men at the expense of women. For example, Christianity helped institutionalise monogamous marriage - a change that yielded society-wide benefits.

According to Cardinal George Pell:

St Augustine claimed that the sacrament of marriage was developed to constrain men to take an interest in their children.

Yet in the details of how religions preside over marriage, and the ways they chime in about affairs in the home and in society, they almost always tip the scales in the masculine direction. The Pell quote, in fact, comes from a breathtakingly convoluted op-ed marking the 50 year anniversary of the contraceptive pill. Pell argued that the decoupling of sex and procreation has left women and society substantially worse off. It’s a complaint regularly heard from men.

Fidelity and investment

In general, families – and the societies where they live - do better when fathers take an interest in their children and invest, alongside the mother, in feeding and caring for the family. Both parties in this kind of relationship make compromises, foregoing better opportunities that may arise elsewhere in order to benefit from one another’s contribution to family life.

Great Beyond

The details of these deals vary massively among cultures and between couples, but they share this essence: each partner buys the investment of the other with a degree of fidelity. Sexual jealousy exerts such a potent emotional force over us because it regulates two of the biggest evolutionary losses our ancestors ever risked: losing a partner’s investment, or rearing the genetic progeny of somebody else.

Women tend to notice when they have a baby: labour pains and vaginal delivery will do that. For most of human history, as the old saying goes, maternity has been a matter of fact, whereas paternity has been a matter of opinion.

Women have also evolved a most remarkable capacity to conceal from men when they are ovulating. This keeps men guessing, and ensures they stay interested - and working hard - throughout the monthly cycle.

But it also means men have evolved a hair-trigger sensitivity to the chance of being cuckolded. Which is why new dads seldom find jokes about cuckoldry or paternity testing all that funny.

That need no longer be the case, of course. Cheap and reliable paternity testing can now erase paternal uncertainty. Paternity tests have become a weapon in sexual conflict. A double-edged sword.

Paternity tests give mothers the tool they need to pin down former partners and make them meet their child support obligations. Instead of a lengthy and humiliating interrogation of a mother’s sexual past, DNA tests return the spotlight to the putative dad.

And men can resolve, one way or the other, if the children they are raising or supporting are really theirs. For many men – including those who have been cuckolded - no greater injustice can exist than a father raising or paying child support for a child who is not his genetic offspring.

As a result, some fathers’ rights groups advocate compulsory genetic paternity testing at birth. There are no simple answers in terms of how we should wield the newly-acquired paternity tools, and this is an area where the law will need to adapt very quickly.


Is that you, Daddy?

How many children really are sired by somebody other than the guy they call Dad? Among men concerned enough to get paternity test, one men’s rights groups claims the number is as high as 25%. A sensationalist mid-90s pop-science offering called Sperm Wars popularised the idea that up to 10% of children are the product of “extra-pair paternity”.

In reality, the unbiased number is below 5% in most circumstances. But it isn’t fixed. The proportion of babies conceived in cuckoldry varies in places and time because cultures differ in how tightly they regulate extra-marital activity, and especially in the power men (and their families) have to monitor and control women’s behaviour.

Which is where religions come in.

My colleague Jaco Greeff at the University of Pretoria sent me a paper this week in which he shows that fewer than 0.73% of Afrikaner children are sired by someone other than the guy who thinks he’s the dad.

Greeff and his collaborators suggest that the strict religious norms and dominance of the Dutch Reformed Church in Afrikaner society might have reduced the frequency of extra-marital sex. Being a religious leader is an even surer way of ensuring paternity than being merely a devout member of the flock. The only study to reveal an even lower rate of extra-pair paternity estimated a rate of 0.4% among the offspring of Sephardic Jewish priests (Koanhim).

It needn’t be the doctrine of the religion, and the threat of divine punishment, that regulate paternity. The customs that build up around the religion are just as important. This is neatly illustrated by a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA on paternity and religious customs among the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa.

Like many other religions, the traditional monotheistic faith of the Dogon includes menstrual taboos. Men fear they will lose their virility if they come into contact with a menstruating woman. And so their wives usually exile themselves to special huts when menstruating.

A Dogon menstrual hut, from Kani Bonzon, Mali. Erwin Bolwidt on Flickr

This conspicuous action allows a man and his relatives to keep regular tabs on where each woman is in her fertility cycle, making it substantially more difficult for a woman to conceive by another man when she subsequently ovulates. It also makes it hard for her to deceive her husband about a child’s paternity.

According to the paper by Beverly Strassman and her colleagues, this custom keeps cuckoldry in check. Genetic tests indicate that children of women who used the huts conceived only 1.3% of their children by men other than the father. This is one of the lowest estimates on record, and significantly lower than the 2.9% among women who did not visit menstrual huts.


Intriguingly, Islam and Christianity have started to spread among the Dogon. Although these world religions include many features designed to assure men of their paternity, five times more children (about 4%) of Christian mothers were conceived in cuckoldry than among traditional-religion Dogon mothers who used the menstrual huts.

The recent transition to Christianity appears, in this case, to raise the level of extra-pair paternity, probably due to a release from the traditional ways in which men monitored women’s fertility. This is not to say Christianity elsewhere isn’t as effective in this role. Dogon Christians retain many other Dogon customs, including polygyny.

But Christian women neither attend menstrual huts, nor are they compelled to report the onset of their menstruation to their husbands. These women, freed from the old paternity-assurance customs, but not yet fully immersed in the traditional Catholic or Protestant customs appear freer to conceive by men other than their husbands.

Menstruating Muslim women also do not attend menstrual huts, but they are required to notify their husbands and they are not allowed to pray. Thus, Muslim husbands can track the fertility cycles of their wives and take closer interest in their behaviour. Interestingly, the level of extra-marital paternity in Muslim families was about twice that in the traditional religion but less than half of what it was in Christian families.

The wound

Questions of paternity, cuckoldry and fidelity are just part of the perennially open wound inflicted by sexual conflict. That wound reveals our evolved insecurities and fears. A low rate of cuckoldry is neither “good” nor “bad” per se. For fathers, security of paternity is undoubtedly comforting, and it seems as if many religious customs are designed to provide that comfort.

But that comfort can come at a considerable cost to women. Marginalisation, seclusion and harassment don’t even begin to scratch the surface. The reasons women seek extra sexual partners might be beyond the imagination of some men, but that is a story for another time (you might start here).

And when religions, laws and other institutions favour men’s interests at the expense of women, the cost can (and often does) leave society worse off over all.

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