Why Aren’t Atheist Parents Raising Atheist Children?

I’ve been seeing this image a lot over the past week:

Hey! We’re at the bottom of the list when it comes to retention rates! That’s bad, right?

Not quite.

Where did that 30% number come from? When the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted its massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, only 432 people surveyed said they were raised as atheists — a very low number. Of that batch, only 131 of them still considered themselves to be atheists. That’s 30%.

But where did the rest of the people raised as atheists go? According to a Georgetown University (Catholic) research blog, “Of those raised as Atheists, 30% are now affiliated with a Protestant denomination, 10% are Catholic, 2% are Jewish, 1% are Mormon, and 1% are Pagan.” Also, 20% became Agnostics or “Unaffiliated.”

In other words, about half of the people raised as atheists still didn’t believe in God as they grew up — but it’s a pretty small sample size we’re talking about.

None of this is new information — it’s been around for a few years — but it’s causing a lot of gleeful religious types to think there’s something wrong with atheism because we’re unable to pass on our “traditions” to our children.

And that’s part of the problem with the reporting. They’re treating atheism as if we keep score by how many of our kids remain “in the flock.” We’re not Catholics. We don’t have Sunday schools. We don’t indoctrinate our kids “into atheism” from a young age. We don’t have “traditions” to follow. Atheism isn’t attached to any particular cultural identity. Many atheists parents, I gather, encourage their children to think for themselves and not believe in something just because their parents believe it.

We don’t “raise our children as atheists” because that’s forcing our beliefs onto them — and that’s not something many of us want to do.

But damn near every atheist I’ve ever met became an atheist despite his/her parents’ attempts to raise them in a particular religion.

That’s what this graph doesn’t mention. All of these faiths ranked higher than us are still losing members — but many of them stop believing in God altogether. It’s not like people are leaving the faith of their parents to become Hindus.

Here’s another way of looking at the same data (PDF) — but instead of focusing on individual families, it focuses on what you were as a child compared to what you are now.

In that situation, our numbers are growing by a long shot, far moreso than any faith tradition:

We have nothing to fear. If we force atheism upon our children, they’re bound to rebel. If we teach them how to think critically, it’s possible they may not want to adopt the exact same belief system as us, but they probably won’t start believing in nonsense all of a sudden.

But when you force a faulty belief system onto children, they may very well realize how wrong their parents are and become atheists down the road.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/TortugaSkeptic A secret red slider

    It could stand to be broken down a little more yet. My understanding is that Buddhists, Quakers and Unitarian Universalist groups all include atheists along with other faith based outlooks.

  • Candr

    indeed.  im a atheist-unitarian universalist.   

  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com/ D-Ma

    It also bears pointing out that many Atheists “convert” to a religion for love.  They meet someone who is a Catholic or Jew and they go through the motions to convert so they can marry.  Does that mean they actually believe?  I doubt it. 

    And as you point out Atheists don’t indoctrinate their children to believe specific things.  They allow them freedom of thought.  Many of those numbers who still identify as affiliated with a particular religious group may not be practicing nor believing.  But there’s so much pressure and fear tangled up in disassociating with the group they just continue to identify as whatever their childhood group is.  As far as I’m concerned this really means nothing.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Everybody who self-identifies as an atheist actually is and atheist. But there’s good reason to believe that many people who self-identify with various religions are also atheists (just look at the Clergy Project!)

    In American society, there are powerful reasons to claim some sort of religious affiliation, and there are many people who do so simply out of habit when asked. I’ll bet a lot of people who follow this forum have checked the “Christian” box on census forms or identified themselves as such fairly unreflectively, despite being atheists (or realizing later that they never really believed).

    I’m convinced that all of these types of surveys over represent religious affiliations and under represent atheism.

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    I suppose it’s just a bias on my part, but I can’t believe that the total numbers for bona fide atheists are so low.  Between the rallies, conventions, youtube channels, millions of books sold, etc…. it seems like there’s something the data isn’t telling us. Maybe it’s the way the surveys are worded, or maybe we’re really just that small on the map and it’s just easy to forget that in the age of the interwebs. Either way it’s just odd… 1.6%? Really? 

  • Octoberfurst

     As someone who has participated in all three of those religons I can say you are absolutely right. There are atheists in all of them.  (Especially Unitarian Universalism where surveys have show that half of the members are atheists/agnostics.)

  • advancedatheist

    Phil Zuckerman in one of his books quotes from an American woman he interviewed who experienced culture shock when she visited Estonia. Apparently Estonia has turned into a “Jesus who?” society like something from science fiction. Many Estonians don’t know how to pronounce Jesus’ name in their language, and they consider the Jesus story some obscure, alien myth. Yet Estonians seem to function just fine without Jesus in their lives, and they enjoy democratic government and living standards similar to those in other European countries. I don’t see how the children who grow up in this environment will become religious if they lack exposure to religious beliefs and practices.

    The fact that we have enough atheists around, including ones from multigenerational godless families, to allow demographic generalizations about us will discredit the Fantasy Atheist (FA) model promoted by generations of theologians. According to theologians, the FA grows up as a traditional theist — “Everyone believes in god as the default state because god has imprinted that knowledge on our hearts,” or words to that effect — yet one morning this individual perversely decides to have a meaningless life from then on by disavowing this knowledge. For the rest of his days the FA then struggles with angst, nihilism, despair, the abyss, purposelessness and so forth, apparently like a teenager going through a Goth phase or something. Yet despite this chronic dysthymic state, the FA also somehow manages to engage in swinging, promiscuous sex, though I don’t see how to reconcile the two claims about the consequences of becoming an FA. 

    Yet we can see that real atheists don’t behave that way at all. So theologians counter that we’ve just compartmentalized our atheism while running on the fumes of our former theism to stay emotionally and morally functional. After all, nobody could practically live as an atheist because of the allegedly horrible results.

    So how do theologians explain the existence and good condition of atheists who grew up that way, and who therefore have no tradition of theism to draw upon? 

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I think that’s particularly true with religions that are more culturally deep rooted.  How many still identify as Hindu or Jewish, not because of their theology, but because of their cultural identity.  I think I’d even extend that somewhat to Catholics.  I’ve met people who identify as Catholic, but seem pretty agnostic, and certainly not ‘practicing’ their faith.

  • The Captain

    C Peterson, makes a good point about people still identifying with a religious group while really not believing anymore. But I wanted to note another potential flaw in the data, and that is some of theses “atheist may not have really been atheist to start with.

    Now before I hear “No true scotsman” 20 times, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m instead referring to something I have come across quit a lot talking to born again Christians. Many of them have a tendency to overplay their “pre” born again life as way more “depraved” than it really was. I have personally talked to several people (and you can read many, many examples of this on web blogs and testimonials too) who will tell you they where drunken, womanizing, drug addicted Atheist prior to their conversion. Yet when they tell you specifics, it turns out they would get real drunk a few times on the weekend, smoked a joint once a week in college, got a blow job twice after a party, and just didn’t go to church for 5 years. 

    There seems to be a sort of contest in a large part of the many hard right christian sects to “out born again” the others. It’s like there piety depends on how far they convince others they have come, and to do that they seem to completely over blow how “low” they where in the first place. And how can they get much owe (n their minds) than begin an Atheist? Also you need to remember that for many of the hard right fundamentalist, liberal non-born again churches are “Atheist” to them.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Considering how many people equate atheism with the certainty that God doesn’t exist, it’s no wonder.  I’ve never believed in any gods, but only started using the atheist label about five years ago.

  • Laila Loca

    I’m an atheist who sent my son to Presbyterian pre-school and Catholic school in first grade. I let him go to Sunday school with his friends. I didn’t express my beliefs to him until he was a pre-teen, and explained I wanted him to make his own choices. He’s 28 now, and an atheist.

  • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

     There are a lot of people, including a lot of nonbelievers, who think that “atheist” means that you are certain that no gods exist. It’s a standard even Richard Dawkins says he doesn’t meet, but the idea is out there that this is the only way to be an atheist. So a lot of people who lack any belief in gods but aren’t absolutely certain that none exist identify as agnostics instead (and look down on self-identified atheists as being “just as bad as religious people, because they claim to be sure of something they can’t know.”  Sigh.)

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    So you are saying “No true Atheist” embraces angst, nihilism, despair, the abyss, purposelessness, swinging promiscuous sex, perversion, Goth or Vandalism, meaninglessness, and ignorance.

  • nickandrew

    I brought up my kids to regard god and jesus (etc) as imaginary from the time they first started to mention them. I think it’s important that they start from a position of skepticism. The default position for a skeptic is a lack of belief (in whatever claim, particularly the more outlandish) and I wouldn’t want my kids to have to go through the difficult process (as I’ve read here and on other blogs) of being indoctrinated into belief in early life (even passively, through friends/school), and having the anguish to discard those false beliefs later in life.
    Consequently my wife and I are open about what we believe, and more importantly, why we believe it. The kids have been exposed to all the main arguments for and against the existence of deities. If in the future they conclude that the evidence for some god or other is compelling, they will believe. Until then, I have confidence that the kids won’t be fooled by prominent false beliefs (Christianity) or hucksters (Scientology).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Playing with the similar data over in the GSS for the “Nones” (which include atheists, agnostics, and nothing-in-particulars), it looks like the conversions occur roughly proportional to the level in the population during the formative 16-25 year age — possibly due to marriage, possibly because one’s peer group is about as influential as one’s parents for belief development. Which means, if the current demographic trends to irreligion continue, then the problem will tend to diminish.

    Another piece of data comes from Hunsberger and Altemeyer’s “Atheists” study, somewhat confirming Hemant’s guess about tendencies in child-rearing practices. When asked about they raised their children, in the sample one in two modestly active believers said they tried raising their children to have the same beliefs, as did two in three regular churchgoers and sixteen in seventeen fundamentalists. In contrast, about one in four non-churchgoing believers, one in seven atheists, and about one in thirteen agnostics said they tried. A thirty percent retention rate starts to look relatively good, if you consider less than half that number even tried.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Our friend Kurt Cameron often touts his prior atheism as some kind of authority on the subject.

     Also you need to remember that for many of the hard right fundamentalist, liberal non-born again churches are “Atheist” to them.

    I was recently in a thread in which one person was quoting the 1.6% as evidence that atheism is wrong, since there are so few of them.  And another was claiming that one who believed in God would never have an abortion.  Doing a quick napkin calculation, that’s an abortion per child bearing aged atheist per year! (that’s using the 1.6, not all ‘non Christians’, but an abortion per year, or every two years, for your child bearing life, they’re both ridiculous).

  • Rwlawoffice

    I find interesting all of the justifications for why children raised in an atheist family only 30% of the time stay that way as adults. These grasps at reasons other tan the obvious are from people that rely only on evidence and rationality for their beliefs. The only thing these numbers show is that as adults 70% of these children find that atheism is something they no longer think is true. I find that wonderful and not so surprising at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Actually, the US Census form doesn’t ask about religion. Only name, age, sex, and race for the short form; the long form asks some more questions, such as about education, employment, income, and what place they’re living in, but religion isn’t one.

    It was considered a church-state separation thing. 13 USC § 221 makes it unlawful for the Census to ask about religion in the mandatory questions, so they don’t even bother asking individuals. They can ask religious groups about their membership numbers (13 USC § 102), and did such an indirect survey from 1906-1936; but they haven’t done so lately. 

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    I wonder if anyone has conducted a study showing a correlation between the acceptance of the LGBT community and the rise of non believers here and in Europe. It appears that as homosexuality has become more widely accepted and tolerated, by the general society, that there also has been a direct proportional increase of nonbelievers. Though the inverse may also be in play here considering the theistic communities (at least here in the US) harsh campaign against the LGBT communities desire to acquire civil rights.

  • Coyotenose

     Good job dishonestly ignoring most of the post. If you’d actually read it for comprehension, you’d have noticed that your cherry-picking was already shredded in the body.

    And if you could Math, you’d notice even without bothering to read the rest that since atheists make up a small percentage of the population and theists a large percentage, your myths are losing the battle over time. Badly.

    I do accept at least that you are an authority on grasping for justification.

  • Glasofruix

    “Kurt Cameron”

    You spelled “idiot” wrong, but hey, everyone makes mistakes once in a while :p

  • advancedatheist

    No, I say that the Fantasy Atheist promoted by theologians displays those characteristics. I’d like to meet that sort of atheist, because off-hand I don’t know any. I can’t say categorically that such atheists don’t exist, however. 

    I also have to admit the cleverness of theologians for poisoning the well for anyone within their influence who toys with the idea of becoming an atheist, though I suspect their propaganda about atheists’ sexuality often backfires. Of course, if a young man from a christian background interprets the propaganda as advertising the sexual advantages of atheism, becomes an atheist himself and then tries to pick up a woman like Rebecca Watson at an atheist conference, he’ll find out the hard way that his religious instructors lied to him about the easiness of atheist women.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

     Well now you’ve met one.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Maybe it means the desire to believe in something is a dominant gene.

    (yes, I know enough about genetics to know that if there is a genetic connection to faith, it’s not ‘a gene’)

  • Kodie

    For the rest of his days the FA then struggles with angst, nihilism,
    despair, the abyss, purposelessness and so forth, apparently like a
    teenager going through a Goth phase or something. Yet despite this
    chronic dysthymic state, the FA also somehow manages to engage in
    swinging, promiscuous sex, though I don’t see how to reconcile the two
    claims about the consequences of becoming an FA.

    Drugs of course.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Rwlawoffice is a troll. He’s got virtually hundreds of thousands of comments here and the more we engage him the more he trolls.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Depends on how you define ‘troll’.  If you mean “person who the majority of the forum disagrees with” then sure.

    If you mean “person who makes comments to just to get a reaction and start a fight” then, no, I don’t agree.  I mostly disagree with Rwlawoffice, but he’s not trying to start fights for the sake of starting fights.  The real trolls we get tend to be ‘drive by’, and never stay long.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Buchy/542338898 James Buchy

     In my ever-so-humble opinion, “agnostic” is a weak term created to avoid an argument or ridicule. In my travels, I have never heard of an atheist who was so sure that a deity did not exist. My statement “I don’t believe god exists” does not automatically imply that I know for sure.

  • Kodie

    I was raised in an “atheist” household but not to be skeptical. My grandfather, a vocal and opinionated atheist, had a lot of influence on the set-up, but we were mostly secular. All I knew about atheism was that we (my parents) didn’t go to church, we had an aversion to “bible-thumpers” and “holy rollers,” and basically (but not deeply) absorbed the message straight from my grandfather that it was a money-making racket. I had neither analyzed this or thought a lot about it until I was on my own. Aside from Christianity, my mind was free to roam to become attracted to other magical faiths. Was I anti-Christian? I guess so. But I didn’t live in a world where I had to be protected from it. I leaned more into the adolescent attraction to paganism/pantheism/wicca – nothing too deeply, nothing I joined or “became” – and probably that alternative medicine bullshit.

    As far as I can tell, my sister is still into the new-age/Western Buddhish stuff at least a little. I thought if I stayed a little longer on the phone with my brother a few weeks ago, he might have something to say about conspiracies, although I think he identifies as an atheist. We’re not raised to be atheists. That’s not to say I wasn’t an atheist then, but I’m not the same uh, “worldview” as I was raised in. I reasoned that out for myself later on. I might not have, and been flaky.

    I think we shelter ourselves off here from the community of atheism. How many hundreds or thousands of people are talking about it on the internet all the time? That’s not a lot. Not every atheist is a strong, vocal, and/or reasoned atheist. I wasn’t raised to be skeptical. I was raised to respect authority and keep my mouth shut and listen, by someone who is probably an atheist. I feel like we marginalize other atheists from the conversation or expect them all to be intelligent, well-spoken, emotionally stable. Not all of them are bothered by religion, they just don’t believe any of it. It’s not rational to expect, out of all the atheists, that they’re all like “us” and have the values to pass along to children all the skepticism they need to make up their own mind the way we expect them to. It just seems like there are a lot of atheists now, on the internet, talking almost exclusively about it that we generate an illusion of what an atheist must be like.

  • Phil Bellerive

    Me too.

  • Kodie

    It’s hard to believe anyone is that obtuse except on purpose; he’s like an intellectualized version of DG. Reading comprehension failure, dodging the point, etc. I’ve seen Christians (or other religious people) able to carry on a discussion without resorting to either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=584900031 Ellin Park

    I’m an atheist and I have some nihilistic views. Though I wouldn’t say I “struggle” with that. It’s a philosophy…

  • Marguerite

    “It also bears pointing out that many Atheists ‘convert’ to a religion for love.  They meet someone who is a Catholic or Jew and they go through the motions to convert so they can marry.  Does that mean they actually believe?  I doubt it.”

    I grew up as an agnostic. I converted to being a Lutheran when I got married. Now that my husband is gone, I’ve slowly gone back to my unbelieving ways and become an atheist. I really was a believer, or at least thought I was, but I will admit it was pretty easy for me to lose my belief, and now I wonder what the heck I was thinking. But yes, I think conversion for love probably accounts for a large number of those who convert– there are more theists in the world than atheists, so we are statistically more likely to wind up marrying theists, and societal pressures mean that we’re more likely to convert to theism than theists are to convert to atheism.

  • pureone

    You embrace ignorance? weird.

  • Onamission5

    You described my spouse to a ‘t’ here. He was not raised with any particular belief set, although if you asked his elder family they’d say they were christian. They just wouldn’t be able to tell you what kind, nor remember the last time any of them had been to church or read the bible, they just know they are supposed to say christian and haven’t ime bothered to examine their beliefs to figure out if that’s true or not. Neither of his parents are religious in any sense, or at least they are not outwardly religious toward their children. One could definitely say he grew up in an irreligious environment.

    My spouse was one of those spiritual but not religious people when we met. I was (timidly) self described as an atheist, because I’d been raised fundamentalist and had significantly more occasion to overtly question what I’d been taught than he did. If you asked him now, he’d claim the label of atheist, because now he knows what it means and realizes it applies to him even though he isn’t the in your face kind.  Before he just had not thought about it and probably would have clicked off one of the “other world religion” or “non-denominational”  boxes rather than claim his atheism. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    Go back, actually read the post, and then try and reword your failed attempt at gloating. Assuming you’re actually capable of understanding things that don’t necessarily go your way. 

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    to me atheism is not about complication like religion, it is about simplification, I am aware of (I embrace) my lack of knowledge and thus I am increasingly becoming ignorant of things I don’t know. As time has progressed I have found that I am more irreligious if not apathetic about religion. So knowing more about religion (less ignorant) would be counter productive for me.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Apatheism is the highest or most simplistic state of ignorance an atheist can achieve. Once the atheist acquires this enlightenment he is then ready to embrace the Absurd.

  • Badmotherfukcker

    Maybe its because the children of atheists don’t have hyper-religous parents to push them towards atheism.

  • advancedatheist

    So in other words, you’ve let christians tell you what “atheism” means. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Oh, and the Pew data showed that a small fraction who identify as atheists believe in God. Thus, “Everybody who self-identifies as an atheist actually is an atheist” is also inaccurate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    The Altemeyer/Hunsberger “Amazing Conversions” study did ask a related question; the intolerance of some religious to (EG) homosexuals tended as the single largest cause of doubt in their sample.

    It’s probably a factor, but also probably just one contribution among a whole cluster of smaller pressures; they asked about a bunch of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    More accurately, there’s a genetic contribution (~50%) toward authoritarianism; and a high-RWA attitude appears one of the major factors predisposing someone from a highly irreligious upbringing to later become highly religious.

  • 3lemenope

    And as you point out Atheists don’t indoctrinate their children to believe specific things.  They allow them freedom of thought.  

    I don’t think this is true as an all-encompassing statement. I’ve certainly met atheists who were absolutely uninterested in freedom of thought or its propagation, and hostile to free thought in child rearing in particular.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Seriously, I think we can consider the number of self-identified atheists who believe in a god to be in the noise. “Everybody” is accurate within the margin of uncertainty. And it really doesn’t matter if the Census asks about religion… my point is unchanged.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    There are also people who are technically atheists but still believe in fairy tales.  e.g. Raelians.

  • Joseph Smith

    My wife and I are raising our little girl with the idea that we will expose her to as many safe religions as possible. I am an atheist and my wife is Presbyterian. We both agree that education is everything. We also have discussed that she will be supported no matter which way her philosophy takes her. Teaching your child to listen to what they are being told and question it respectfully is not only a key to helping them be a better person but also a more educated one as well. I do have to say that us paying attention to numbers like this not only puts us in a position the religious groups want us in but makes us look like them as well. I just want to see people thinking about what they are told. If they read the bible and still think it is the true word of some god, at least they read it and thought about it.

  • Patterrssonn

    Hell I’d forgotten all about the Raelians, I remember I used to see their weird swastika/star of david symbol around Montreal in the 80′s. I never had a clue what it was supposed to symbolize and I suspect the Raelians didn’t either.

  • Bryan

     Sounds to me like this person gained their nihilistic views him/herself. Don’t be a dick.

  • Rwlawoffice

    I read the entire post and understand it well. It is the same attempt to justify the facts as expressed in the comments. Small sample or not, the study showed that of those raised in an atheist household only 30% stayed that way as adults. Instead of trying to explain the reasons why the numbers are wrong a better discussion would be why these people are changing their beliefs. Apparently they no longer think it is true and that according to the next statistics find that Christianity is true.

    As to those between the ages of 18 and 29 leaving the Christian faith it is happening and it is something that needs to be addressed. Historically it has always happened but it is happening in larger numbers with this generation.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I hope you’d at least agree that someone raised in a Baptist home becoming Lutheran isn’t the same as a becoming an atheist.

    In the same sense, someone raised in an atheist home becoming an agnostic or ‘secular unaffiliated’ isn’t viewed as a big loss for the team.

    Having said that, I obviously disagree with the “needs to be addressed”.  And I’m probably hypocritical in that I wouldn’t have noticed an atheist saying we need to “address” the numbers in some way.

    I guess if you feel a church is not presenting itself truthfully and accurately, then sure, that needs to be addressed.  But none of should want our numbers to grow for the sake of our numbers growing, or ‘winning’.  Our numbers should grow (or shrink) based on what people decide on their own.

    Of course that’s not an attitude more religious will take, since for you souls are at stake.  But atheists don’t think anyone is going to go to hell for attending church.  They’ll just miss out on- oh, wait.  It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting here arguing online.  Sigh.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    This just in: maybe you can bribe kids to day in church?

  • brianmacker

    You can’t become “increasingly ignorant” unless you have alzheimers. Just by reading my comment you are reducing your ignorance.

  • brianmacker

    Huh? Atheism just means you don’t believe in a deity or deities. No reason you cannot hold any other belief in addition to that. There are irrationalists, nihilists, and every other kind of ist except theist.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    How exactly are they defining “raised as atheists?” I see potential for a lot of confusion there. Does it mean a person who had a secular upbringing? A person who was raised by atheist parents? Or a person who was raised to identify as an atheist?

    On the one hand, I could be considered to have been raised as an atheist. I grew up in a totally secular home and had no god-concept in my head until I was around 7. I was only exposed to it through outside influences, such as television and books. No one told me that gods were real, and I never started believing in them.

    On the other hand, my parents are not atheists. They have quite a few supernatural beliefs of their own. And they never whispered a word about critical thinking or skepticism. There was no conscious effort to raise me as an atheist, and my atheism was of the default kind during my earliest years, before I had sufficient opportunity/intellect to critically examine the claims of various religions.

    I can easily see how someone raised the way I was could flip in the other direction and start believing in gods. They might claim to have been “raised atheist” (as Christian converts are fond of doing), even though there might not have been any education or even direct exposure to the concept of atheism during their childhood.

    I’m not sure how much useful data can be derived from this study without knowing more about the participants’ childhoods.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I can relate! I definitely wasn’t raised to be skeptical. Sometimes I wonder how I came to be such a skeptic. I’ve been a confident atheist ever since I realized that other people thought gods were real. Why did I have that reaction, when most children would have come to the opposite conclusion? Lack of indoctrination surely helped, but there’s got to be something more. Presented with an overwhelmingly theistic culture, I was utterly disbelieving. Maybe it was a combination of things: personality type, brain wiring, and just sheer luck.

  • Kodie

    I think for me, a combination of luck, the internet, and my irrepressible curiosity and perhaps innate skepticism (or being fooled enough times that I just hated looking stupid, falling for things anymore, that I taught myself to be). One thing I sort of remember is, as you say, around 6 or 7, realizing other kids had something called a “religion” and going to church and CCD; I was pretty much older than that when I understood just exactly what people believed, that they really believed all that nonsense I’d heard about in the meantime. As for the other strange beliefs I tried out, I do think I got a pretty poor science education in public school and probably a little too little power or autonomy for a teen/young adult that I wished to be magical (fwiw, I think it’s a common phase at that age for similar reasons). That’s an embarrassing episode of my life, but I’m glad, I think it helped me sift through the less obtrusive junk on my own, and come out the other side a more critical thinker in general.

  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com/ D-Ma

     Of course there are exceptions to everything.  People can be closed-minded whether they are religiously affiliated or not.  Most Atheists are not. 

    I suppose that’s the trouble with painting with a broad brush.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I think there must have been some innate skepticism on my part, too. I clearly remember setting traps for the Tooth Fairy when I was 6 years old. I liked the idea of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny too much to try to catch them, but I think on some level I was always disbelieving. I recall one Christmas exclaiming “Santa, if you are real, thanks for the presents!”

    And perhaps there was an element of simply assuming that all other people were just like me. Even after I learned what religion was, it took me several more years to realize that other people actually believed it and took it seriously. Maybe it was a certain naïveté that allowed me to remain such a convinced atheist. I didn’t understand that atheism truly was the minority position.  

    It’s strange because I wasn’t like a lot of other people who come to atheism through science. I never had much of an interest in science, and I was a very obedient, quiet, rule-following “good girl.” I didn’t tend to question authority. Yet I seemed to be impervious to conversion. I just always thought the religious people were crazy, long before I could articulate why.

  • Kodie

    Even after I learned what religion was, it took me several more years to
    realize that other people actually believed it and took it seriously.

    I think this is when I’m supposed to say “It’s like we’re twins!” I have just about exactly everything you said, the same. I remember categorizing people’s religions as mostly their make-up, like their nationality. I did know people who weren’t Christian or Catholic too. A lot of my neighbor friends had to go to CCD though, and I wanted to go too, but I didn’t know what it was, I thought it was like roller-skating or soccer. I asked my mom why I don’t go, she said because we’re not Catholic, and that was that. My sister later became best friends with the oldest daughter of born-agains, and I found the little scripture-y cartoon things curious, like.. I wouldn’t say intriguing on an intellectual level, but I think that’s the first time I saw religious “literature” (it was a pocket-sized comic book, really). My impression of it was that you memorize it, like nursery rhymes, but not contemplate on it or feel anything. Yes, religion, all of it, is simply memorizing important quotes and sayings and not thinking at all. Pretty sharp analysis for a 13-14 year old. Another few years before it dawned on me that these people take this stuff seriously.

  • 3lemenope

    I didn’t mean to be nitpicky; of course there are exceptions to every formulation. What I mean is, I don’t even see grounds to endorse the “most” formulation. It’s kinda like scientists and bias; scientists may perhaps be better than the average person at noticing and controlling for their own biases, but they aren’t as good at it as they think they are. Likewise, atheism can arise due to skepticism and a commitment toward evidence-based belief formation, but people who become atheists this way often overestimate (grossly) just how freethinking they are, especially when it comes to their kids’ belief development. Oftentimes, the method itself becomes a psychological trap; because a parent arrived at a conclusion using what they believe to be a superior decision-making strategy, they are less likely to accept a denial of the conclusion of that process, especially when it comes from their own children.

    This is not to say that any other segment of the population one cares to point to is any better on this metric; it is more a simple feature of being a human parent. I think that people’s intuitions about how they would handle particular milestones with their children’s development in light of their own values, ends up being generally quite a bit different than when they actually reach that milestone. Parents have biological urges which push towards irrational levels of protectiveness and those instincts tend to be quite powerful; often more powerful than a parent’s general social and ethical held values. There are, of course, parents who can overcome that instinct and accept their children’s decisions about religion, metaphysics, ethics, and other matters even when they markedly differ from their own, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

    And then there’s the likely fact that most atheists are not skeptics or freethinkers, that their atheism is a form of apatheism; I’d expect to find no correlation whatsoever between holding an apatheist-generated atheism and any commitment towards supporting childhood exploration of ideas and acceptance of the conclusions that the child makes (whereas at least I’d be willing to concede that one might find a weak correlation in the case of skeptical atheists). These atheists tend to be invisible in a community like this because they don’t seek out communities that have to do with atheism (ironically, because they don’t care).

  • Rwlawoffice

     My point was that the church should address the reasons why people are leaving as adults whatever those reasons are.  Not for the sake of numbers for numbers sake, but for their sake as individuals.

  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com/ D-Ma

    Perhaps you’re right.  For myself, I don’t particularly mind if my children decide they love Jesus.  I know there are particular flavors of Christianity I wouldn’t want my child to cling onto because I know they are particularly harmful.  Flavors which subscribe to inerrancy and having to submit to certain doctrines which demean women. It is a parent’s job to steer their children.  I’m not just going to p0p them out and expect them to teach themselves.  Yes, I’d offer them what I can from my own life experience.  That is much different than telling them what they must believe, never allowing them to be exposed to dissenting opinions, and not allowing them to formulate their own.

    Indoctrination is exactly what the definition says it is:


    — vb
    1. to teach (a person or group of people) systematically to accept doctrines, esp uncritically

    It is not wrong to share your beliefs and opinions with your children.  It is wrong to drill into them your beliefs as though they are fact and teach that any other is wrong.  I don’t know any Atheists who do this.  I don’t think any of us would say we don’t have biases. I think what we’d say is that most of us wouldn’t militantly insist on a particular belief from our child. I stand by that.

    Having said that, if they did choose that there wouldn’t be a darned thing I could do about it and it wouldn’t make me disown them. 

    I think we may just need to agree to disagree about this.

  • Kodie

    Because you believe they are making a huge mistake that will cost their eternal salvation. Why does it matter to every Christian that everyone else get saved, and why is it up to superhero Christians to save them from not being saved? The ego is very involved in all of this. 

  • 3lemenope

    I agree with everything you just wrote, except that I have had the experience of knowing atheists who attempt to compel and/or indoctrinate. One of the regulars over where I normally hang out has recounted how her grandfather financially blackmailed her family into raising her in a secular manner, for just one example.

    I personally don’t understand the instinct to disown or attaint children for their private belief decisions, but then there are conversations like this. It’s not an isolated thing.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    If I saw a blind person stepping off a curb in front of a Prius, I’d grab her.


    If I was walking down the sidewalk and I kept having people grab me because I’m about to step on a crack, at some point I forget about the fact that that person really believes I’m going to break my mother’s back, and just want to scream at them, and maybe even dance on a crack out of spite.People aren’t trying to ‘save me’ every day.  But when they do, trust me, my back has long since broken under the weight of the accumulated straw, and it’s all I can do to hold back yelling obscenities at them.

  • Rwlawoffice

     I will be the first to admit that Christians should not attempt to spread the Gospel in a way that is rude or intrusive.  In my opinion, it is a wonderful message, there is no need to corrupt it with bad behavior.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Jesus gave Christians the great commission to go and preach the Gospel to all people.  So it should not be an ego thing we should be doing it because we are called to so. When it becomes an ego thing for the person it is not being done with the right heart or for the right reasons and that is a problem.  Another reason I express the Gospel is because I truly believe in it and believe that following Christ has its benefits in this life, not only on our salvation. 

  • Kodie

     Why is it so obvious for me to see, but you can’t see it. You think you know for sure, better than anyone does, that you have been called and they haven’t, and it’s up to you to save them, not the other way around. You believe something you’ve only heard about from other people, and can’t prove any of it. Why should anyone waste their time on this endeavor? Because (a) god for some reason can’t reach anyone without a human interference, (b) has endowed every single Christian with the purpose of accumulating more people to be saved and to have similar purpose, and finally (c) to make money for the church.

    You’re a pawn who hears voices like a crazy person. Nobody should take you seriously, and it’s your ego that wants to believe you’re not just a pawn, but saved, that it’s real and not just a scheme. Furthermore, there wouldn’t have to be anything called an “atheist” if not for you nutjobs circulating your crazy and trying to make your crazy club bigger and richer. Nothing happens after you die.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Kodie, you can keep telling me that you think  I am wrong and that is okay. You are entitled to your beliefs. I will continue to believe what I believe to be true and will happily share that with others.  At the end of the day we all make our own choices.  That is the free will we were all given. I wish you well.

  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com/ D-Ma

    Yikes.  Maybe it’s just because I can’t think of anything my kid could do to make me not love/care for them.  Even if they murdered someone I can’t see myself hating/disowning them.  I’d tell them they were wrong.  I’d understand that there are consequences that go along with murder and there’d be nothing I could do about it.  But shun/disown?  Ayee!

  • Kodie

    So I see, you insinuate that children of atheist parents leave atheism because it’s not true but found something else that is (you said something to the effect of you not buying our “excuses”) – but turn it around, and it’s the numbers of children of Christian parents who do not self-identify as Christians that’s concerning you, because Christianity is still true and they won’t be saved. There’s that ego again!

  • Kodie

    recounted how her grandfather financially blackmailed her family into raising her in a secular manner

    That’s me. I just find it weird that when you put it like that, financial blackmail is a running theme. I also find it weird that people (who are atheists, gathering in forums like this and others) seem to automatically assume a lot of things about atheists, like they aren’t authoritarian. Religion has a lot of problems, but hardly a monopoly on the ugliest of human behaviors. My grandfather was an intelligent, ball-busting man with a weird sense of humor. I didn’t hate him but I was intimidated by him. He also disowned his own family and I never met them; they were Catholic immigrants and lived through the Great Depression. So I don’t really blame him for being that way, and I’m essentially glad in retrospect that I didn’t have to have a religion, and I knew that from an early age. I disagreed with him once. ONCE. I had to work out this ‘god’ stuff for myself by first considering whether it was true, and it pissed him off, but he didn’t disown me.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Of course I believe Christianity is true. Just as atheist believe that no God is the truth.  Believing in the truth is not exclusively a Christian thing. the ironic thing is that being a Christian should be the farthest thing from ego driven.  In our faith we give up ourselves and live for Christ.  At its core it is a selfless faith not driven by ego at all. Granted it is not always practiced that way, but the tenets of the faith are not built on selfishness at all.  

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Ego is not the same as selfish.  Spending time to try to share the gospel is not an act of selfishness IMO.  But knowing one can’t be wrong is ego.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Pretty similar backgrounds! I don’t actually remember much about religion from elementary school. I think I had mentally categorized it as a television/book thing, since no one seemed to talk about it in real life. If I knew kids who went to church or Sunday School, they didn’t mention it to me. My only real memory of religion was of wishing I could celebrate Hanukkah. I thought being half-Jewish would be the perfect solution because then I could have both Christmas and Hanukkah. 

    I guess by the time I was11 I had acquired rudimentary knowledge of most of the major world religions, but I think I was still a few years off from realizing exactly how seriously people took it. I guess I figured it was something people did because of tradition, and not because they sincerely believed it. But I was lucky to grow up in a diverse area with little evangelical presence. That probably helped me have such a secular childhood. I wasn’t the odd person out because of religion.

  • Kodie

     Sure you can. You can stop reading the newspaper and caring what other people are talking about, for one example. “Reading brianmacker’s comment” is not an exercise in reducing ignorance unless “what brianmacker thinks” is how to become educated or knowledgeable. It arguably adds one point but doesn’t affect the subtraction of other points, if one is decided to chase the freedom of not knowing or caring anymore about stuff they used to care to learn about. I mean, I get it, totally. I love knowing stuff, but try to keep a balance on how important it is to me practically to know things I would go back and not know if I could. Like your comment.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I don’t find it surprising, but for different reasons. We live in an overwhelmingly theistic culture that is permeated by the assumption of an invisible, supernatural realm. Culture is a huge influence on children, even those who are not directly indoctrinated, as is peer pressure. If most people around you believe something, it makes it easier for you to consider that it might be true: witness Mormonism in Utah.

    And I don’t think most atheist parents label their children the same way religious parents do. A Muslim parent will say to their child: You are Muslim. A Catholic parent will say: You are Catholic. A Jewish parent will say: You are Jewish. But atheist parents rarely (in my experience) specifically label their own children as atheists and tell them that they must not believe in gods.

  • Kodie

    Would you say “lying” is bad behavior? Uh… gloating?

    Why is religion spread by word of mouth? You don’t have a product to demonstrate, you’ve been recruited by appeals to your ego to get more people to church, your ego that says you get to live forever if you keep doing that, the ego that fears disappearing forever. Why isn’t Christianity evident? All these people buzzing about their magical invisible friend has so amazingly never produced evidence for any of it. But they have been chosen and graced and commissioned to tell their neighbors, co-workers, guy sitting next to him on a bus, atheists on an atheist blog, like a salesman sees a mark.

  • Rwlawoffice

    Kodie you certainly cannot speak for me as to why I am a Christian so please do not try and tell me it is because my ego is being stroked. As for evidence, I have said this before, there is plenty of evidence to support a belief in God and the work of Jesus . I get that you don’t accept that evidence. That is your free will not to.

  • Kodie

    I don’t accept what you call evidence to be evidence, and that you consider it evidence does tell me more than you think I know about you. 

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Oh, definitely. Take the religion with the highest retention rate. I wonder how many of those 84% actually believe in the pantheon of Hindu deities, and how many just really don’t want to upset their parents by abandoning Hinduism and adopting a different worldview.

  • brianmacker

    Yet, you did reduce your ignorance by reading my comment even thought the point of the comment went right over your head. That’s whether you care or not. At the very least you now know my opinion which reduced your ignorance. Failing to read the newspaper doesn’t automatically increase your ignorance. You still know what you already knew. I’ve stopped reading about all sorts of things that I used to read about but that doesn’t increase my ignorance on those subjects. Just because I haven’t cracked open a book on population genetics in 30 years doesn’t mean I’ve become increasingly ignorant.

    I can understand with your attitude and failure to be able to reason (and thus follow such a simple comment) that you wouldn’t like it. Laughably your snide comment concedes what you dispute when you write the last two sentences. If you didn’t learn something from the comment there wouldn’t be anything for you to “go back and not know”.

    My comment was true although if you want to nitpick I could have listed other things that could make someone ignorant like strokes, and brain tumors.

  • brianmacker

    … and it is possible to become increasingly aware of areas that one is ignorant of but that’s not what he wrote.

  • Kodie

    I could choose one of two things – to engage you in this discussion, even though it isn’t very important or productive, or I could ignore it and you. I’m not going to ignore you this time, but probably next time. Maybe I should have the first time. How much do you or this discussion matter to me, or whether you think you can teach me anything, or I waste effort making this matter more than it does, even if I go away learning less than I would have if we didn’t discuss for a while, but possibly stupider for having bothered.

    I don’t know what he meant by it, but to me, becoming increasingly ignorant would be to decrease engagement, stop filling the voids with pretending to know any more than we started with, assessing how much good it does to engage or how nice it is to leave the world to keep spinning and not have to care what happens. Do I care if “brianmacker” thinks I’m an idiot? How is this convo making either one of us decreasingly ignorant? They’re just words, and you sort of pretend this will stick with me, I can’t unlearn what I’ve seen. I can so unlearn it, might take a few months at the most, but I’ll forget having this conversation and I won’t have a tumor. Better to just ignore this kind of nonsense in the first place, but that’s my fault.

  • Kodie

    It’s also possible to be too pedantic and ask for literal clarification from an apathetic person’s choice of words instead of figuring it out and/or just getting on with your life.


  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I had an Indian neighbor who taught voice.  She invited us to a recital for a student (not hers) in which she did the singing.  It was a huge event with with hundreds of people.  Great Indian food and music, and deities everywhere.  What I thought was interesting was that in the program the student thanked her parents, and teachers, and Jesus.  I had no idea where Hindu ended and Christian began.  And no idea how that person would answer the questions “What is your religion”.

    It reminded me of an old Pagan friend from Scotland, who had a Book of Shadows dating back many generations of his family.  He said that when Christianity came to the British Isles, his family embraced it as more to celebrate.  They didn’t get rid of Samhain and Yule, they just added Christmas and Easter.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Alzheimer’s or Dunning-Kruger.

  • brianmacker

    I get it. You are a rebel who doesn’t want to know nor care about the meanings of words. You seem to believe that when you use improper meanings of words that makes one profound or something. Yeah, my two sentence comment really took an enormous chunk out of my life and good thing you are here to get me back on track. Of course, because you don’t own your words you are now going to come back and claim some other deeper meaning.

  • brianmacker

    They are not “just words”. If you sign a contract that you read and later forget the terms of the contract then you can’t go in front of a judge and claim ignorance of those terms. You can certainly claim that you forgot about them but you are not ignorant on the subject. Ignorance implies no exposure. Just because you forgot something doesn’t make you ignorant.

    What possible intellectually honest reason would one have for using a word incorrectly? I had no problem with Bubba’s post except the silly idea that one can increase ones ignorance. sentence one expressed that objection and sentence two proved it. Of course I was assuming that the reader knew the definitions of the words. Bubba certainly has the option of saying he picked the wrong words, and he might be perfectly fine with writing “becoming increasingly aware of areas where I am ignorant”. I didn’t think he was stupid, just maybe picked the wrong word. That happens for all sorts of reasons like being interrupted while writing, to name one.

  • brianmacker

    I know there’s an insult there and I appreciate the ambiguity as to target. I’m as apathetic as you are in clarifying that.

  • brianmacker

    I find you comment ironic because apathist atheists go to such great lengths in refining their definitions to distinguish themselves from other kinds of atheists. So you are criticizing me for making pedantic the pedantic. Meanwhile not criticizing the hypocrisy of apathists for going to the effort of explaining themselves.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    No, I’m not trying to insult anyone here.  I’m just saying people in general  can increase their ignorance even when reading.  I’m not following the discussion in detail.  Too apathetic.

  • brianmacker

    Oh, I didn’t think you were seriously taking that position. So how does a ill informed know-it-all increase their overall ignorance by rejecting new information because they think they know better? I don’t see how getting rejected by the American Idol judges but still believing you are gods gift to the world of music counts as an increase in ignorance. The contestant goes in ignorant of how bad they are, and if the criticism doesn’t register they leave, in the worst case, as ignorant as they arrived.

    Even if it did register that perhaps they were unaware of certain things musical that still counts as an education. Regardless of whether they actually learned anything in area.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I was thinking more alongthe lines of a creationist reading AiG.

  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com/ D-Ma

     In retrospect I shouldn’t have said ‘most’ or lumped people together as a group whatsoever.  It’s just that most of the Atheists I’ve encountered don’t seem to be very authoritarian.  I don’t hang out on specifically Atheist blogs  very often.

    It occurs to me that people’s personalities and life experiences determine whether or not they are authoritarian or any number of other traits they might possess.  In my experience, because I came from a fundamentalist background and slowly shed that to become un-authoritarian(is that a word?), it seemed to me that authoritarian types were drawn to religion(specifically Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) because it gave them permission to be that way.  It told them that was the correct way to operate in the world and that is was perfectly normal to be that way.  Atheism offers no such instruction.  You just are what you are – good, bad or ugly.

  • Kodie

    Religions are made by faulty humans, who then justify their faults, but that doesn’t mean religion causes people to be faulty. He was raised in a huge Catholic family and apparently never got his way. I don’t know when he stopped being Catholic wrt my mom’s upbringing, but she is the same. I don’t have any kids, but I’m kind of both ways. I like to think I would be a fair parent, open communicator, but in practice, I’m hard on myself and everyone else. Alternately, I’m extremely soft on myself too, which causes other problems. I’m still a product of that environment.

    I might add that not both of my parents are authoritarian; my dad doesn’t care for organized religion, it just seems whatever he thinks is personal to him and not really evident, and I don’t remember my other grandparents being religious in any outstanding way. My other grandfather prayed once over Easter dinner and I got kicked under the table for snickering, I had to be no older than 7. That’s the only time.

  • Kodie

    I realize the second sentence contradicts the first; what I mean to indicate is that it’s hard to tell whether religion makes behavior or results from behavior. Behaviors certainly can stand outside of a religion if that’s how you’re raised, and becoming an atheist doesn’t automatically make someone more considerate, just like it doesn’t make someone more immoral.


  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com/ D-Ma

     I totally get that.  I was basically correcting myself and saying that it seems to me that maybe religion can but doesn’t necessarily cause certain behaviors.  I know some people who have become authoritarian against their nature because the Bible told them so.  And I know some people who were attracted to religion because it told them it was okay to be authoritarian.  In other words, they were already that way, religion just affirmed them for it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    The fraction of “atheists” who believe in God is on the order of (but larger than) the fraction of Christians who don’t believe in God. There’s a lot more Christians, so the head-count impact of the fractional anomaly is larger. However, that seems a bit of a double standard.

  • brianmacker

    So like if a virgin reads some hard core porn then that increases their virginity.

  • raerants

    But I wanted to note another potential flaw in the data, and that is
    some of theses “atheist may not have really been atheist to start with.

    I’m also thinking of people who are de facto atheists, who never gave it much thought and thus could be swayed to religious belief, as opposed to the (I presume) target audience of this blog, who are given to rational and skeptical analysis.

  • Avantika

    Buddhism is not a self-proclaimed religion. “Buddha” isn’t, nor ever was, considered to be “God”, rather a teacher, and Buddhism; a way of life.

  • pnht

    I find even the 52% number shockingly low.  Fortunately, I’m batting 1000 with 3 of 3 staunch atheists even though they are surrounded by religious family members.

    Hopefully as atheism becomes more and more prominent the retention level will become much higher.

  • Jerrod Henry

    No shit. Its like trying to stick a barn in a golfball hole!!!