How Many People Are Religious Because of the Peer Pressure?

(via PostSecret)

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.

  • Luce

    Too many

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I was a  brought up a baptist, and getting a full body baptism in front of a church full of people was a very, very intense experience. Kinda crazy and very intense.

  • mikespeir

    Most, right?  Do I win something?

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I can’t find any studies done on the subject, but it’s a fascinating question.  I suspect that an accurate ratio would vary by age group.   It seems that the ratio might turn out to be significant if only because some churches employ such things as shunning to bring their members into line. 

  • Sindigo

    All of them, to a degree. I can’t imagine that if you explained the story of Jesus (for example) to someone who’d never heard it before it would make any more sense than believing Harry Potter died for our sins.* Peer pressure in this case is just another name for a collective delusion.

    * I haven’t read the last book. If it’s a spoiler, I didn’t mean it to be. ;)

  • Zach Johnson

    Judging by the microcosm of children, probably quite a few.

    After a sleepover at a friends house my seven year old son told me he wanted to be a Christian. He’s a ‘natural’ atheist, my son – meaning he just hasn’t been indoctrinated into any faith – but he’s also quite the little rationalist (he once carefully explained to me how it’s almost impossible that anything like bigfoot really exists), so that seemed more than a little out of character. After digging a little, my son didn’t think there was any truth at all to the god stuff, he just didn’t want his friend to not like him because he wasn’t a Christian.

    Very simply – of course it’s not true, but I want them to like me. That sort of thing is mutually reinforcing too, so it serves to push down doubt and talk of dissent. 

    (For revenge I’ll be playing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos for the kids when they’re over at my place. We’ll see who ends up having the more difficult conversation with their kid.)

    • memartinez

      Are you serious??? Is that what you are teaching your son?? to be revengeful? Just look around and see how amazing  our universe is!  Did you create it? Someone created it, and it wasn’t me and I don’t think it was you.
      Even geniuses (Einstein, Planck, Mendel) have recognized that there is a higher being responsible for the creation of everything around us.
      Teach your child to be thankful, open-minded and respectful of others ideas and beliefs. Then, we would have a better world. 

      • Kodie

        That’s what you get from Zach’s story? A higher power is a rumor. He’s teaching his son not to believe rumors even if it makes his friends like him more. You’re pretty insulting for someone who is preaching respect for others’ beliefs – as long as you believe in god, it’s ok to be that way?

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

        Did you create it? Someone created it, and it wasn’t me and I don’t think it was you.

        Your bias is showing. Why on earth would you assume that someone created it?

      • Sindigo

        Even when their beliefs are demonstrably false?

      • Drakk

        Thankful of the fact that the vast majority of the world believe in bullshit? I don’t think so.

      • Wilzard

        I am raising my 5 year old son and almost 3 year old daughter as skeptical atheists as well.
        I am also explicitly teaching them they should respect people but not necessarily people’s ideas or opinions.
        They will be open minded enough to be capable of considering novel ideas but not so open minded that any nonsense can take root.
        If my children’s friends and their family attempt an indoctrination, or even perform a bit of witnessing you better believe I would respond in a very similar manner. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, good idea.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Religion isn’t natural- it’s an institution created by men which exploits the spiritual feeling most people feel under certain circumstances. It deliberately utilizes social techniques as control mechanisms.

    Without peer pressure, there would be no organized religion on any meaningful scale. Without childhood indoctrination, there would be no organized religion on any meaningful scale. So in my view, the answer is that all people are religious because of peer pressure, either directly (the pressure they themselves feel to conform) or indirectly (because there would be no religions to join without the pressure others feel to maintain them).

    Less technically, and more along the lines I think the question intends, I do think many people are members of their particular religion for social reasons (which includes peer pressure) rather than any deep philosophical beliefs. Just consider how readily people change their religious affiliation when their social circumstances change- a new town, a new spouse, etc.

    • Kodie

      One thing to consider is that most people seem to think there’s something else, some kind of god or gods. I don’t know if that comes from their own limitations in thinking or from growing up in a culturally religious environment (aside from whatever religious diversity exists or doesn’t exist there). People who are in between or have a religious friend get invited to church, and probably end up joining that church unless they are immediately uncomfortable right away about something, like the dress code or attitudes about women or homosexuals, or just sniff the BS or it’s weird with snakes or something. People like to try new things with an open mind, but don’t set out to explore the possibilities of other ideas if they’re comfortable with the first one and they already have a friend to meet up with there. This applies to joining any cult or weird new age “empowerment” thingie or trying homeopathic medicines. If your friend says this cures something, you may not be able to say that it’s nonsense, and you try it, and tell your friend that it worked just fine.

      I’ve thought of religion as in the same category as self-help and dieting – you get one person who found amazing results with something and they are going to bother the hell out of you to stop what you’re doing and try it. I knew someone on a forum long ago that was like that with her low-carb diet. She lost about 40 pounds and no more than that, and pretty much thinks it’s the answer to everyone’s prayers. I lost about 65 pounds eating a lot of spaghetti. I don’t recommend anything to anyone, because low-carb probably is right for some people. It’s just not “THE” holy grail of diets. Similarly, Christians are made to feel as though they are specially chosen to mission to people, as far as I can tell, some of them practically constantly. They don’t think of other possibilities for people, and they can’t think of any way their beliefs don’t apply every single opportunity they get to sell it. Are they effective? To some people. Just to get you off my back, I might go to your effing church.

      Another thing I think about the peer pressure of belonging to a religion – whole towns that go to one church are pretty leery of outsiders who don’t go. People who might rather not go, or go to a different church, have no options if they want to get along and not be ostracized. This, I can’t help but think, may contribute a lot to the notion that atheists are just rebels. God is obvious to them, and knowing some people just have to go against the trend, not because they’ve thought about it and found it’s not for them, but just to be different, apply it to people who deny something that’s obvious to them, and feel insulted about their personal preferences and tastes. Especially, you have to think about adolescence, because parents who thought they were doing a good job just can’t believe their teenager has thought it through, and more likely to believe they are just going through a stage. A dangerous stage where sex and drugs are the most appealing, and you know that’s why everyone wants to deny god, right? The legend they’ve all built up about non-believers IS the very definition of peer pressure. Only fools deny god, you don’t want to be considered a fool by everyone in town, do you?

    • Sindigo

      Though I agree with you, in the spirit of honest inquiry I question your assertion that religion isn’t natural. That it has gained such a hold over mankind kind of intimates to me that maybe a belief in god(s) is hard-wired to a degree. Of course, that makes a god’s existence no more likely but it’s an interesting field of inquiry.

      Also, I’m not sure of the validity of the idea that religion deliberately uses social techniques as control mechanisms as that implies an agency. I tend to think of ritual and ceremony developing over time (ironically, evolving I guess) to include social techniques.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        I didn’t suggest that theism of some sort isn’t natural- quite the opposite, I think there is compelling evidence that spiritual or theistic feelings represent some sort of side effect of our brain wiring or chemistry.

        I said that religion is an unnatural thing… a human construct that exploits the feeling of spirituality.

        Religions become more formal and structured over time, with the development of increasingly complex (and arguably absurd) ritual. That ritual doesn’t come from anyplace except the leadership, and I think it’s part of the mechanism designed to control the laity.

        • Sindigo

          Ah I see what you mean now. I wasn’t spotting the distinction. Agreed. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating area of study.

          I’m still not sure that the rituals are entirely passed down from the leadership though. I feel sure that I could think of some examples of rituals having evolved simpler, less absurd practices if a)it wasn’t so late here and b)I’d had more sleep. I shall give this one some more thought…

          • Kodie

            Well, getting married and having children is something most people do anyway. Did the clergy decide to perform the ritual or did the ritual (and all the other rituals performed as part of the ceremony) just sort of arise as a cultural custom? We say things now “symbolize” something or other, fertility, for one example. I’m sure that arose from a superstitious belief that these symbols/rituals caused fertility, where most people don’t really need that much help, and in modern times, fertility is something a lot of people would rather wait than incur immediately. The symbols still exist in modern wedding ceremonies.

            But marriage between one man and one woman, and married sex is a ritual, and one that most people used to do anyway. The significance of it is heightened to a holier significance. That everything else is a sin – homosexuality, premarital sex, children out of wedlock, etc. So they’ve taken a normal social ritual and turned it into “the way things have to be, and god prefers”.

    • Drhoward53

      Outstanding insight into the reality of religion.  That and the truth that Lenin, and others before them knew (I’m looking at you Rome!)

       ” Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.”
      Your parents did this to you, because their parents did it to them ad infinitum.

  • JenL

    That’s certainly why I got baptized *when* I got baptized.  Left to my own devices, I’d have gotten around to it a few years later.  But every other kid in my age group in the church was getting baptized – what just-barely-a-teen kid is going to say “nah, sorry, not yet”?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Ditto! I was baptized at the age of 11 or 12 because that is what everyone did. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I didn’t understand any of it other than getting in a white robe which I was naked underneath, getting dunked in water and then everyone could see my naked body.

      Awesome time in my life I tell you.

      • Sindigo

        Is that Bangor in Wales? What time of year? Good god man, what have they done to you?!

  • Annie

    Most.  Organized religion benefits from people not thinking for themselves. 

  • allein

    That’s probably why I did the whole confirmation thing in 8th/9th grade. I was involved with the youth group and that was just the next thing we did. It wasn’t so much “pressure” as just going with the flow (I went to a United Methodist church with a pretty easy-going congregation). I don’t know that my parents would have been all that upset if I didn’t do it; my brother was never confirmed and I don’t remember him getting any grief over it from them.

    When I was a kid, religion was something we did on Sundays. We went to Sunday school and church most weeks, but religion wasn’t really a part of everyday life (no bible reading or bedtime prayers or anything like that). After church we’d change into play clothes and go play outside, or read a book, or do homework, or whatever. When I was older I was involved with the junior choir and then youth group, and then confirmation classes in 8th grade (ended with confirmation in early 9th grade). My parents stopped going to church a year or so after that, so I stopped going, too, because I didn’t have a ride and it clearly wasn’t that important to me to ask them to take me. Later in high school I volunteered in the church nursery, which was always 2 weeks in a row and then however many weeks off depending on how many volunteers they had on the schedule, but I didn’t go to church on the off weeks. When I went to college I drifted further away from it (no car, couldn’t walk to the Methodist church from campus, and didn’t care enough to take advantage of the school’s shuttle service to area churches), did the Christmas and Easter thing for a while, and eventually stopped going at all. I haven’t actually been to a church service (aside from weddings and funerals) in at least a decade now. My parents, especially my mother, got involved in church again several years ago and occasionally she asks if I want to go for Christmas services or whatever, but at least she doesn’t push it when I say no. The most I have to endure is grace at holiday dinners (which we never even did when I was a kid).

    In retrospect, I don’t think I was ever a Believer-with-a-capital-B, but it wasn’t until about 6 years ago (around the time The God Delusion came out in paperback) that I really started to think about what I actually believed, and realized that I didn’t, and hadn’t for some time. I’ve never “come out” to my parents or anything like that; they don’t press the issue, so I’ve never felt the need to tell them.

    • Sindigo

      I have a pretty similar story to you, or maybe your brother though I’ve been an out Atheist for some time. My mother was always religious but my Dad got more so later in life. I don’t remember him really coming to church with us when we were kids but he’s there every week now. Even helping out with the services and whatnot. I’ve often wondered why the renewed interest in him, maybe it’s the fact that he’s that closer to the grave but religion isn’t something we’ve ever been comfortable talking about in my family. Well, I always was but no-one else.

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

    The vast majority, I would imagine. Most people are forced to be involved with religion when they are young children. By the time they’re old enough to think critically, they have  a decade or so of indoctrination under their belt. What kid has the intellectual strength and internal fortitude to go against their parents, clergy, and peer group? It’s hard even in adulthood. For those without strong religious beliefs, it’s much easier just to go with the flow and do what people expect of you.

  • Justin Miyundees

    I have a nephew that’s currently “in the slammer” for some stupid decisions combined with bad timing.  Go figure, when a judge puts you on probation, he’s actually serious about it – this live and learn life lesson has moved, unfortunately, into a stage of incarceration upon which I fully expect some well intentioned (and financially motivated) evangelist to capitalize.  I mean, you gotta build the flock or you got no one to fleece – off to the jailhouse for some fertile (troubled and desperate) minds.  

  • NewAtheist

    This picture is erie, looks exactly like my baptism at the age of 8 (when everyone else in my church did it). As I’ve looked back on my church experiences as a child, I’ve gotten chills at the amount of effort that goes into brainwashing the children, who in turn keep the adults in line. Songs about how Jesus acted, how we’re supposed to act, think, feel & believe. Songs about how daddy is supposed to work and mommy is supposed to stay home. Songs about how mommy is supposed to stay sweet & sunny no matter what. Songs about what we’re supposed to do on Sundays. And to hear those lyrics come out of little children, who believe it with a frightening zeal, is almost children-of-the-corn erie. “I’m so glad when daddy comes home, glad as I can be!” or “Mother dear, I love you so, your happy smiling face is such a joy to look at! You make home a lovely place!” Gives me chills to think of the programming I went through… no wonder it was so hard to overcome!

  • http://twitter.com/nocash000 Jeremy

    If god did not exist I am pretty sure man would seek to create one regardless of peer pressure.  As we grow apart from our parents it leaves a hole to be filled and the common response is to fill it something more powerful than parents like a creator or higher power.  It’s perfectly rational to conclude this all on ones one with out external influence.  I call denial for anyone that claims differently.  Man has been doing it for 1000′s of years, it must be natural, instinctual.

  • anonymous

    It seems to me if your told something exists enough times, your going to believe it exists.   

  • Rizza

    A lot of people do. Maybe everyone when you think about. This is what I’m going through right now, which lead me to this site. I became a secret skeptic atheist ever since I started college. I majored in Space Science and that’s when it hit me. One day I was watching a Stephen Hawking film and he uttered the words that gave me a new perspective, “There is most likely no afterlife.” “Huh” I thought. Then I gave it deeper thought and had an epiphany. With the super collider, and just plain common sense, in my mind, my brain couldn’t make room for a god. And I felt really guilty that I was thinking in this way because I was raised as a Christian. I tried to believe in god again but I couldn’t. It was a struggle. I had always questioned religion, but I had never put any thought into not having an afterlife as even a possibility. But it totally made sense. I looked at the world around me and my own mortality differently, which made me a little depressed for a while. I felt really guilty when I viewed extremely religious people in a condescending way. I also felt guilty about having to pretend to be a believer and annoyed about being pressured to go to church from my family and friends. Sharing any thoughts that go against Christian beliefs in the African American community, especially in the South, is “social suicide”, so I couldn’t talk to anyone about my thoughts.

    I’ve started to simply identify as an agnostic. I can keep my sanity by just keeping an open mind about the “possibility” of an afterlife. And if there is none, technically it won’t matter anyway.

    P.S. I don’t look down on Christianity or any religion, and my beliefs don’t have to be others beliefs. This was just my personal spiritual/ non-spiritual journey.

  • Mitchell McConnell

    This more or less sums up my own experience. While I was away at college, my mother and brothers “got saved”. Of course, when I was home, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on me to also “get saved”. The pressure was mostly from my mother, and although I see her technique now, at the time I was not able to resist. And even in the broader society, there is some pressure to conform to existing Judeo-Christian norms, e.g., grace at meals, benedictions at public events, etc.

    I can only imagine how difficult it would be for my brothers, who are actively involved in their churches with their wives and children, to suddenly “discover” that they no longer believed. I am pretty sure they would keep up appearances rather than deal with the social and personal pressures dropping out would cause.


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