The Surprising Truth About Atheist Parents

Dale McGowan, the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, recently conducted an unscientific poll of atheist parents to get their thoughts on religion, humanist communities, and their children.

The results were very surprising to me.

Here’s just one example of what Dale found.

The question: “In general, how religiously observant is your extended family?

I know Richard Wade often hears from atheists who have to deal with notoriously religious extended families. I get emails from people frequently telling me about conflicts they’ve had with religious people at family gatherings. You would think this is a major problem.

But the data suggests otherwise:

Just over a quarter of respondents (25.5%) report an extended family that is moderate to intense in its religiosity. My surprise is partly an artifact of reportage — the vast majority of my own correspondence and contact with secular parents comes from those in a deeply religious extended family.

Over a third of respondents (35.2%) are in an extended family that ranges from secular to mildly religious, while the largest proportion (39.2%) are in a situation of significant variety, either split along two or more sides of the extended family or scrambled up within the whole.

So while the problem does exist — and it’s awful when it’s your own family going through it — it may not be as bad a problem as we thought it was.

Here are some of the other questions Dale asked:

  • Have your children experienced any significant outside religious pressure or indoctrination?
  • Which of the following best describes your feelings about your children’s eventual worldview?
  • If a secular parenting community was established in your area, what (if anything) would make it especially attractive to you?

Before you look to see what the respondents said, I urge you to guess what the responses were.

Like Dale says, this may not be scientific, but there’s no reason to think the results are all that inaccurate. If it is indeed a decent snapshot of atheist parents and their families, then we have to rethink how difficult our situation really is.

  • http://twitter.com/Arduinnae Arduinnae

    Are you really surprised? Look around you, count how many people are crazily into religion. Chances are, they are somewhere in the minority. Now imagine that any one of them could have an Atheist child, I’d say it’s more likely that parents won’t have a whole lot of religious conflict in their lives. In fact, other than the “I wish you’d baptise X,” I’d say it’s probably just seen as a topic best left alone. Most families will avoid this kind of conflict.

    As to why you get so much mail from parents in these situations, this makes sense as well. A parent whose relationship with their extended family is a source of conflict and stress will be lacking an important support network, so they will seek alternative support – in this situation, that means you and Dale McGowan. The people who are getting all or most of the parenting help they need from their own parents and extended family won’t have the same need to seek you out.

    Honestly, I found nothing surprising about this survey.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Hemant wrote

    So while the problem does exist — and it’s awful when it’s your own family going through it — it may not be as bad a problem as we thought it was.

    …there’s no reason to think the results are all that inaccurate.

    In fact, we know nothing whatsoever about that from these data–there’s no reason to think the results are accurate, either. Please, please don’t draw conclusions, even tentative ones, from these kinds of data. They only mislead by allowing us to pretend that we know something we do not in fact know. At best McGowan’s work points to potential results, but I’d really like to see data from a properly designed study. On a single fast reading there are a couple of what appear to be internal contradictions in the results reported, and that’s troubling.

  • Karen

    This was interesting, I enjoyed reading it.

    I’m not surprised that it was mostly women who responded since it’s primarily women who are raising the children. That hasn’t really changed over time.

    We homeschool our kids and I started a secular homeschooling community here. Now what I’ve found surprising is that while there was an onslaught of joiners, there have been few participants when organizing events. No one shows!

    I transferred ownership of the group to another mother a year after it started and it’s not really changed. I think it might be enough for these families to know that others are out there, but their social circle remains whatever it was before.

    For me, it brought other mothers into my life and there is a core group of parents who still meet up (we have a Heathen Moms group) and my personal friends have come mostly from that list. However, not my children’s friends. That’s what I have found interesting. Personal belief or non-belief when it comes to social interaction is not as important to my children as it is to me. They like who they like. Personal prejudices abound in all walks of life, I suppose. I’ve been very aware of that lately and try to no longer look for friends from any specific point of view but only from the standpoint of chemistry and connection, not secularism or belief.

  • Pandora’s Box

    I think those not struggling with religious conflict in their extended families wouldn’t mention it either way, leading you to the impression that people are always telling you they have family religious conflict. Maybe they even do, and are simply more drawn to your site than otherwise.

    The majority of americans really don’t get that actively involved with their religious beliefs.

  • littlejohn

    None of this surprises me. My father was an atheist; my mother was nominally a Catholic, but wasn’t observant.
    But my sister and I, who are lifelong atheists, were forced to attend Episcopal (Anglican) services until our late teens, when we were old enough to simply refuse.
    I don’t know what our parents were thinking.
    We both made it clear we disliked church and never believed a word of it.

  • Shane

    this may not be scientific, but there’s no reason to think the results are all that inaccurate

    Actually, that’s exactly what it means to be “unscientific”–the results probably are inaccurate. There is no reason to think the results mean anything at all. I have to agree with RBH: don’t try to draw any conclusions.

    I know Richard Wade often hears from atheists who have to deal with notoriously religious extended families. I get emails from people frequently telling me about conflicts

    And people who offer their services as mechanics often get people coming to them with broken cars. That doesn’t really tell you anything about the general state of car repair in the world because it is a completely biased sample of the population.

    The written feedback may have some value (possibly in designing a future study), but the numbers are useless. Someone would need to take the time to design and perform it properly.

  • beckster

    I did have trouble answering some of the questions about religious extended family when I answered the survey. For example, only about half of our family is religious so I could choose that option, but the ones who are religious are extremely religious and we have had to deal with all sorts of problems. I choose that we had a real mix of religious belief, but we still have significant issues when dealing with the members of our family who are religious. It is a tough question to answer with multiple choices. I could write an entire essay on it!

  • Erp

    To littlejohn,

    Perhaps your father intended the forcible attendance as a vaccination. It seems to have worked.

  • http://whoreofalltheearth.blogspot.com Whore of All the Earth

    I’m an atheist parent with extended family members who run the gamut from atheists to New Age to devout Mormons. We don’t live near any of them, so it doesn’t come up all that often.

    I did, however, have a reader of my blog once send me a message implying that I would be neglecting my children’s education if I didn’t read them the Bible.

  • Parse

    Self-selection bias is my guess as to why Richard Wade only hears the worst of the worst cases – just like you don’t go to the ER for cuts and scrapes you can treat yourself.

    As for the study, though, it only takes one ‘very religious’ person to make your life hell. One parent or grandparent can remind you each time they see you that you’re going to burn for your lack of faith, one religious brother or sister to consistently raise religion at the dinner table. Therefore, I’d say that the problems exist – or at least have a chance of existing – in anybody outside that 25.5% (those of with a secular family or mild to moderate religiousness)

  • cathy

    Yeah, though I would wager, unlike this sample, most atheists are not “raising 1-2 children (38 and 39%, respectively), most are in a two-parent home (89%), and the largest percentage (39.4%) are in a big city suburb.” Rich white people study and we all know that rich white people get away with ‘quirky’ worldviews easier than the rest of us and have more social power over what schools and services themselves and their children use. I wonder if these people were sending their kids to low income publics schools and trying to get aid to survive in poverty or homelessness, their answers would take a complete 180.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Man… what’s with all the griping in the comment section lately?

    Obviously, this is not scientific.

    @RBH, @Shane — Just because it’s not scientific doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false data.

    Until a real study can be conducted, this is all we have to work off of. And based on the atheist parents I’ve talked to and the (many more) atheist parents Dale has talked to, having issues with religious extended family members is a frequent problem. But *maybe* it’s not as frequent as we thought.

    I’d be curious to find out (more accurately) how pervasive that problem really is.

    And I’m well aware that the people writing Richard and me are self-selected.

    If you read what I wrote, I’m not saying they’re representative of everyone. But those problems do exist and we can’t ignore that.

    @cathy — This is not a sample of all atheists. This is a self-selecting sample of atheist parents.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I was one of those self-selecting atheists who participated in the survey. Throughout most of my life, I’ve never really consciously thought about atheism. (No real family or peer pressure). I simply was unconsciously atheistic. It was only when I had some conflict with my wife wanting us to go to church that I started seeking out atheist blogging sites. Even though my conflict has gone way (wife no longer insists on going to church) I have retained the habit of going to the friendly atheist web-site.

  • Richard Wade

    I hope the survey is accurate because the letters I get, many of which I answer privately, can be horrendous. If the family lunacy and strife I read about is not as widespread, good. Let’s look into it further, to be sure.

    I’m grateful to Dale McGowan for the considerable effort he gave to do this. Unscientific studies are often a necessary precursor to scientific studies, because having only a vague impression or a felt need about a phenomenon may not be enough to justify the time and money to design and execute a scientific study. The prototype studies can also give insight into the unique design problems inherent in measuring a particular phenomenon.

    I hope this sparks the interest of someone with the expertise and resources for the next level of study.

  • Claudia

    this may not be scientific, but there’s no reason to think the results are all that inaccurate

    Actually, that’s exactly what it means to be “unscientific”–the results probably are inaccurate

    Absolutely not true. Data can be 100% accurate and non-scientific. Data is scientific when it is collected in accordance to a certain method that is there to ensure its accuracy. By saying that a poll is non-scientific you are saying that it does not have a guarantee of accuracy. It could still be accurate, the same way certain “alternative medicine” can be effective without proper testing, you just have no reason to trust that it is.

    Does that make the poll worthless? That depends on what you use it for. Self-selection is a big problem in polling, especially polling small groups. Keep in mind that studies like those that show that children in gay families are about as well off as children in straight families mostly depend on self-selected samples because there simply aren’t enough families, or good enough book-keeping on them rather, to find them blindly. Does that make those studies worthless?

    This is a study of someone in active secular parenting who wants to better serve others in active secular parenting. Therefore a self-selected sample of active secular parents is not that bad. However if you want to extrapolate to all parents who are secular, that’s another matter, since there’s no reason to believe that most secular parents give religion much of a thought. For instance I’d bet you wouldn’t find nearly as high a proportion claiming to educate their children on different world religions and myths at home.

  • liz

    it would be interesting to see what the results would be if you went to the extended family of these specific atheists. i know for a fact that my mother would probably say their is a huge conflict, where as i pretty much ignore the ‘conflict’ for the most part.

  • Richard Wade

    This brings to mind something I’ve been noticing in several of the letters I’ve received lately. Whether or not it is common enough to be a trend, I have no idea, but I’m planning on writing about my very unscientific impressions at a later date.

    Several writers report that prior to their atheism coming to light, their families were not particularly religious at all, attending church services only on holidays, and religion having very little presence in their daily lives.

    But the moment that one person in the family is revealed as an unbeliever, several of these families suddenly become very religious, increasing their church involvement and demanding that the unbelieving member do so as well. My impression is that they think “Oh no, we have an ugh, atheist in our midst! We really screwed up by being lax, and now we have to fix it.”

    So the results of a poll like this might accurately reflect the particular moment in which the poll was taken, but it might not be a reliable predictor of the extended family’s attitudes in the longer term. If an atheist member comes out, the secular to mild to moderate sections of the pie chart can sometimes rapidly shift to more intense religiosity.

    What percentage? I have no data. But for the atheists in these families, it’s 100% of what they’re going through.

  • Heidi

    @cathy: Is there some reason that *you* didn’t take the poll? Were you absent the day Hemant posted the link? I took it.

    And yes, I am sending my “kids to low income publics schools and trying to get aid to survive in poverty or homelessness.” Thanks for asking.

  • Dan Covill

    I notice that a large percentage are looking for like-minded groups for support in secular parenting.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – take a look at the local Unitarian/Universalist Society. They encompass a wide range of beliefs (including atheism), they don’t push any doctrine, and their “Sunday School”, called Liberal Religious Youth, is generally an un-biased introduction to the world’s religions. Our kids got a lot out of it, and yours will too.

    BTW, the LRY is a lot more Liberal than it is Religious. It’s also possible that the name has changed in the 40 years since my kids went there.

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    None of this suprises me.

    Clearly the people who contact you and or Richard asking for help or descibing their bad circumstances are going to be the ones experiencing trouble. SO of course, they’re going to have a *much* higher representation of people with highly religious families.

    The atheists with not-particularly-religious families are less likely to experience the sorts of difficulties and dilemmas that require attention. So it’s hardly suprising that you hear from them much less.

    this may not be scientific, but there’s no reason to think the results are all that inaccurate

    There’s also no particular reason to expect that the sample is representative.

    [Self-selected convenience samples rarely are]

    Just because you don’t know which directions it’s biased in doesn’t mean the biases are absent…

  • muggle

    What extended family?

    That would have been my response. Was there any factoring in for secular parents who have either been disowned or have disowned their family, religious or not?

    Religion at family gatherings was a non-issue because I disowned by religious wacko fundy nutcake of a parent long before my daughter came into existence.

    And, for what it’s worth, I was a single mother who struggled to live in middle class neighborhoods for the schools and wasn’t on or seeking any kind of assistance.


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