Atheism: Bringing the Sexy Back

By Sean Carroll | September 24, 2009 11:34 am

It would be amusing to just have a contest asking people to guess what the vertical axis on this chart is supposed to represent.


The answer is, “reply rate to first-contact messages on an online dating site, as a function of words appearing in the message.” In particular, the site OkCupid, which has a handy rundown of which words and phrases are most likely to garner a reply to an initial contact. (Via FlowingData.) The average response rate is 32%, so you can see how using some specific word increases or decreases your chances of success. Apparently mentioning “God” is a big turn-off, although calling Him by a proper name is slightly helpful. But nothing works at turning a stranger’s head quite like bringing up His complete lack of existence.

Other useful hints: real words good, fake internet words bad. Complimenting personality/intellect good, complimenting looks bad. Being specific is good, especially if it involves physics, heavy metal, vegetarianism, or zombies. Hey, I’m just the messenger here.

  • Julianne

    I think it’s because athiests, like earth girls, are easy.

  • Sili

    I think the word you’re looking for is “desperate”.

  • Sean

    Atheists are definitely easy. But they consider that to be an explicit virtue.

  • Mandeep

    So of course — it would be highly interesting if the same holds on the big sites like eHarmony or This would tell us something significant about the direction of the culture in the coming years, methinks..

  • Chad Orzel

    The graph is sort of useless without some information about the frequency of the uses of these words. If a large fraction of the site’s users mentioned Jesus in their messages, then you would naturally expect that the response frequency would be very close to the mean, while a small number of people mentioning atheism would be more susceptible to statistical fluctuations.

    Some of the other comments suggest that they had some sort of frequency threshold in mind when they picked the words, but they didn’t say explicitly what it was (at least, not that I noticed in quickly skimming the post). The overall frequency with which the terms are used is important information, though.

  • EasyAtheist

    Am I easy because I’m an Atheist… An Atheiest because I’m easy, or is it spurious?

  • Sarah

    Interesting that atheism was the 2nd most used religious term, ahead of “jewish” or “muslim”. Maybe atheists don’t mind putting themselves out there for a date rather than rely on divine intervention?

  • Norwegian Shooter

    I agree with Sili, the post title is pure bait. I wish atheism=sexy was a meme, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

    Mandeep, eHarmony is explicitly Christian, so I wouldn’t think it would mimic OkCupid. In fact, I’m sure the sample size here is pretty small. If you could get data from, then that would say something.

  • EasyAtheist

    The article mentioned the sample and even with the small pool (300 or so posts) it probably represents an adequate sample. I think what can be read into it is that in these forums is simply that what works is:
    1. Candor/Specificiy in self-description. (Atheism may or may not be popular, but it’s something you might want to state up-front)
    2. Intriguing / unusual over generic/everyday. (Atheism qualifies as the former like “Tatoo” – strange that the positive influence of atheism is similar to that of heavy metal rock… We’ll need to think about that)

    Now if I were an apologetic, heavy metal, band playing, easy atheist – then I might be very successful.


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  • EasyAtheist

    I think I agree with Targuman most. Certain groups have been trying to increase the marketability of Atheism. I always thought we had a really poor pitch:

    Customer: So what happens when you die?
    Atheist Evangelist: Well… You’re dead.

    Not very effective, but this new data could put a positive spin on this somewhere.

  • Liam

    The study only looks at response rate though. Perhaps the word “atheist” just gets a high response rate but not a high positive response rate…..

    but healthy skepticism is sexy as hell in my opinion.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    This data has become my response to Pascal’s wager.

  • JD McKenzie

    Sarah says, “Interesting that atheism was the 2nd most used religious term…” Please note Sarah and others that atheism is not a religion or a religious word. Atheism denotes the lack of religion. Real atheists use reason and provable knowledge to forge our way through understanding our murky universe. We do not meet regularly on given days to discuss our non-religion. We do however have insightful discussions with anyone who wants to come out of the dark ages and see our wonderful cosmos as it really is.

  • rep

    God is not Jesus. Jesus is the son of God. Big difference :-)

  • Eugene

    Hey! I am an Atheist!! That’s Atheist with a capital A!

    Have I told you I am an Atheist?

    (waits to be jumped upon by a bevy of beauties).

  • Heidi

    Atheism is not more sexy than religion, not getting preached at is more sexy than a die hard zealot or hypocrite (those in the Bible Belt who attribute everything to God but don’t bother going to any church, wtg folks!).

    I’m Catholic, but I’d take an Atheist over another Catholic any day.

  • Sarah

    JD – I was only using the terminology used in the survey itself….

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  • JJ

    Maybe Atheists are simply more prevalent to the online dating community. Religious people have churches to meet people, plus religious people are most likely incompatible with Atheists, and vice versa. Therefore, they stick to their own kind in their own communities. Think about the kind of people that use those sites, they’re either desperate, failed in previous relationships (likely because of their own personalities), or just looking to hook up. In this case, maybe the correlation is that Atheists have relationship issues because of their own attitudes and personal views. Maybe all the religious folks get into and stay in relationships longer, therefore there’s less of them on the site. With a large number of Atheists on there, no wonder they get the most replies.

  • Christopher

    This post is bigtime flamebait.

    As a ‘liberal’ Christian, atheism is not a turn on.

    As a ‘guy’, the belief that a non-believer is easier to get into the sack might be.

    But I don’t think that’s true.

  • Bevy of Beauties

    Jumps on Eugene.

  • Nim

    Does being a “guy” mean you’re a man in disguise?

  • Nathaniel

    I would imagine that “Atheist” provokes as much responses as it does simply because not a lot of people know much about atheism and they’ve got a lot of questions. Atheists are interesting becuase not many people know about them. It may also be that Atheists find it hard to find other atheists to date and resort to online dating as a result. It may also be that atheists are less likely be as sexually repressed as the average christian.

    What would be really useful would be whether or not these comments were positive or negative.

  • Gretchen

    I think people telling other people that they are atheist, is just today’s form of posturing. Sort of like Oscar Wilde and his cigar.

  • Rich

    This study makes a lot more sense when you understand that, as far as dating sites go, OKCupid is kind of, well… weird. I think everybody I know who’s been on it (myself included) has some relatively bizarre story to tell about it. That its userbase is self-selective towards skeptics does not surprise me in the slightest.

  • Carolune

    Given that marriage plays a big role in the religious communities cited, and therefore people get married more frequently and stay married with more determination (!) than atheists, there is a cultural selection bias in the people who use such a site….
    Which is not to say that atheists are unhappy: using dating sites has grown out of being a niche market for the desperate.

  • Candice

    I’m a member of OKCupid, and the site does have a very particular set of users. From my experience, the number of atheist, skeptic, GLBT, polyamourous, vegan, general outlier on graph of “normal” society is quite high in comparison to other dating sites. Which, since I’m a bisexual, atheist, skeptic, poly lady, is also why I’m a member of their site to begin with…

  • Fyrehead

    Maybe atheism works for an initial contact in two ways
    1) The Contactee is atheist as well…
    2) The Contactee is not atheist, but fells the need to
    a) combat the evil of atheism and reply
    b) probe further into this way of life to understand how it is the opposite of their own way of life guided by G-d, and yet its adherents are happy?!?

  • Luis

    Why is it better to date an atheist? Well, that’s easy. Imagine it is Sunday, 9:30am.

    Christian spouse: honey, wake up, shave, shower, have breakfast, and put on your nice clothes, all within the next hour. We need to go to church!


    Atheist spouse: let’s sleep for a bit more. Then we can frolick in bed for a bit before going somewhere nice for brunch.

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Ian

    Anyone for science?

  • Cartesian

    The problem is that some persons on this kind of sites are making their selections with some limits seized by informatics and without a real knowledge of what is important in order to decide these limits, for age for example, but afterwards some think they do have to respect their choice even if it is not good ; what is a problem relatively to what is happening in a usual contact (where it is not possible to be so precise). On an other side it is a good way to find the persons who are really looking for somebody even if they are not living very close to us.

  • greg

    This is the third unrelated site I’ve seen this on, aside from when it was originally posted on OKC, where I’ve been a member for quite a long time. The site definitely attracts alt-lifestylers and geeks, so while the data might not be representative of society as a whole, it’s definitely an interesting look at the crossing grounds of various social groups.

  • Rob Knop

    I can propose a mechanism : atheists don’t meet potential romantic partners at church….

    (After all, church is where I met my wife!)

  • Bee

    Possibly it’s not because of the words, but because of the characteristics correlated with people who would use these words? It’s hard to extract something like writing style and intelligence by using a computer program but I think there’s a well documented correlation between atheism and education.

  • jr

    yeah, correlated with the kind of education you get these days
    instead of learning something about history – oh but they are busy
    rewriting history.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Previously I knew zero about OKCupid, but it appears highly likely, given what’s said above, that selection bias is entirely sufficient to explain the trend. See, I’m a sexy skeptical atheist type, and I’m really turned on by Occam’s big long razor.

  • Spiv

    JJ, Candice, etc: The idea that atheist relationships are less stable, or that religious marriages are stronger is directly against the data. Atheists have the lowest divorce rate of any ‘religious’ group:


    Religion % have been divorced
    Jews 30%
    Born-again Christians 27%
    Other Christians 24%
    Atheists, Agnostics 21%

    As for atheists being easy? I have my doubts. Most of us seem to suffer from being generally impossible.

  • Eshto

    Thanks Spiv. I was going to point out that more religious people get divorced. Probably has something to do with the fact that for them, marriage means mindless conformity to an age-old tradition, and actual love or compatibility comes second.

    Besides, we all know the easiest girls are the ones who were raised with abstinence-only education (also the likeliest to accidentally get pregnant, especially as teens).

    I am an atheist and 100% monogamous. I would suspect atheists are more popular because we THINK.

  • Vinay Pai

    Hey, I work for OkCupid (I’m the CTO), and did a lot of the analysis that went into that blog post. Thanks for the link to our blog article! Since there were a few questions about sample sizes and such I thought I’d post some info on the methodology.

    Since that article was written for a general audience, it doesn’t talk a lot about the math or other details, and the explanations are a bit simplified. Firstly, even though we talk about “how many messages a word appears in”, we actually weighted words by the inverse of how many different people a given sender contacted, to prevent results from being skewed by people who copied and pasted the same message to lots of people. We also discarded words that didn’t appear in hundreds of messages from different people, and ones where the deviation from mean wasn’t enough for a 99.5% confidence level.

    It’s true that we’re smaller than (for now :)), OkCupid has a lot more member than many people realize… over a million only counting still users who have active accounts and log in regularly, so sample sizes are not really an issue for most kinds of analysis. Moreover, it isn’t really the niche it used to be a few years ago, with growing numbers of people in all demographics. Of course, it’ll never be a uniform sample over the entire population, so what applies to OkCupid may not always apply to, say, eHarmony.


    I will get my OBE (over bloody eighty) next year, so I have had a lot of time to ponder and my aethiest views have not altered since the age of 16 – at a c of e boarding school. God, heaven etc is a wonderful fantasy but that is all it is – where is the evidence ?

  • Sean

    Vinay, thanks for chiming in. Folks around here do enjoy their mathematical details sometimes.

  • bilbous

    this probably says more about the self selecting sample of online daters than the religious preferences of daters in america

    but that would detract from you baiting and illogical message

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  • The Lone Haranguer

    Vinay, what are the figures for ‘millionaire’, ‘yacht’ and ‘three wolf moon t-shirt’?

  • samir johna


    I believe you have it wrong!
    Living 34 years of my life in Iraq, I know Muslim would top the chart. They are behind here due to sampling error here.

  • Jonny P

    Of course, theists will ignore this evidence and will keep mentioning God in their first-contact messages.

  • chalmers

    I tried OKCupid and do find a healthy skepticism sexy, but all the women in my area put their religion front and center, which scared me away from the site entirely.

  • Casey

    “…married more frequently and stay married with more determination (!) than atheists…”

    Actually, Caralune, divorce rates among Christians are higher than atheists, but thanks for showing your ignorance.

  • chalmers

    As are abortion rates.

  • Alfred

    When you start throwing Allah, Jesus, and God around in your very first message, you’re pretty much admitting you’re crazy. I remember that when I was entering college, they gave us a survey and one of the questions was “Are you a born again Christian?” I pretty much determined that it translated to, “Do you want to get rejected?”

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  • Lou

    Buddhists are religious folks who do not believe in a Creator. So if a theist is one who believes in Creator, a Buddhist is an atheist (a-theist) ). But being an atheist should be distinguished from being non-religious (or from being “non-spiritual,” take your pick.)
    Also, one need not be superstitious to be “spiritual,” or “religious.” Whether there is a divine reality is one thing, but wether the ancients who wrote the world’s scriptures knew what we know about biology, astronomy, geology, chemistry, geography, etc., is quite anothe thing altogether. To take it faith that they knew more than us on those things is the height of superstition. We don’t need to connect a belief in a divine reality with ancient beliefs that are simply wrong and definitely NOT inspired by some anthopomorphic deity!

  • Arthur Ice

    Mandeep. this definately does NOT hold on eHarmony. as all there ‘research’ on “personality index’s” are based around some pop psychology. the result? if you are gay they won’t allow you to sign up (they specifically reject applicants for those they think will be hard to match, or those who are to disimiliar from there research groups) there argument is that gays will have a different matching algorithm and they haven’t done the research for it…there answer for atheists? apparently religious people where those they did the research on and so we would have a different matching algorithms also.

    some how i find there answer…..stupid.

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  • just some guy

    selection bias – says a lot of good things about OkCupid.

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  • Laughingatignorance

    @ Julianne

    I’m 19 a virgin and damn sure ain’t due to the lack of plenty oppurtunities, guess I’m a bigger challenge then the majority of christian. I would get mad, but I expect nothing more of people who beleive in a fictional deity. Any of you non-virgins see you in hell anyway cause your loving god is going to make you fry on the justification you did not follow his word. HA so humorous. LUCIFER LUCIFER LUCIFER That’s my god. Or Shiva i praise her daily. Please, excuse the wavering. I digress to my main point your an idiot, but it’s ok cause Jesus loves you.

    P.S. as well as my god lucifer

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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