Why Do Pastors’ Kids Leave the Church? A New Poll Investigates… by Asking the Pastors

How likely is it that preachers’ kids will lose their faith? Is it any different from the general population?

The Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, just published the results of its study of pastors’ children to see whether it was true that “those who’ve grown up closest to the church are the quickest to leave it.”

Here’s the big takeaway:

Two out of every five pastors (40%) say their child, age 15 or older, went through a period where they significantly doubted their faith

Overall, one–third of pastors (33%) say their child is no longer actively involved in church. Yet when it comes to the rejection of Christian identity altogether, the occurrences are even less.

When pastors were asked if their children no longer consider themselves to be Christians, only 7% said this was “accurate” of their kids — that’s less than one in 10. This compares to the nationwide prodigal rate of about 9% among Millennials.

I think it’s important to point out here that all of these results came from telephone conversations with pastors, not their children. It’s not that the pastors were lying, but I suspect you would’ve gotten some very different responses if you talked to their children. If 40% of children seriously doubted their faith, according to their fathers, how many more went through a period of doubt without their parents even knowing about it? How many still go to church now despite being an atheist?

The Barna Group asked those same pastors why they thought their kids struggled with faith and we get a list of seven reasons:

Surprisingly, “They realized the whole ‘God’ thing was a sham” isn’t an option… though “self-discovery… resulting in rebellion” is.

I guess none of the pastors think it’s possible that their children would ever say to them, “Dad, I believe you’ve dedicated your life to a lie.”

There’s no doubt that PKs have it rough. They’re under significant pressure to follow in their pious parents’ footsteps, and many may leave the faith as they form their own paths. (Hell, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair‘s son became a hard-core Christian later in life, too.)

But this study overlooks the possibility that many of these numbers are serious underestimates because the kids just never communicated their true feelings with their parents — or the parents refused to believe their children would just get rid of their faith for reasons other than personal problems or bad influences.

Interestingly enough, there’s a difference in responses between white churches and black churches:

When broken down into types of congregations, the pastors most likely to agree their children have faced significant doubt are pastors serving white congregations (43%) or mainline churches (51%). In contrast, the pastors least likely to say this describes their children are pastors serving non–white congregations (25%) or non–mainline churches (37%).

You might argue that this lends support to the idea that religion is strongly intertwined with black/Latino cultures, making it harder for preachers’ kids from those traditions to tell their parents they’re walking away from the faith, lest it sound like they’re turning their backs on their cultures.

If you really want to know what it’s like being a pastor’s kid, ask them. Don’t ask their parents. I suspect you’ll find that logic and reason play a bigger role in why they walked away from the church than even the hypocrisy they saw from within.

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.

  • Dianne

    What is with “father” and “dad” in your text? My husband left his faith after his mother became a minister.

    • Art_Vandelay

      “Androgynous example of a parent figure, I believe you’ve dedicated your life to a lie,” would sound kind of silly.

      • Dianne

        ‘I guess none of the pastors think it’s possible that their children would ever say to them, ” I believe you’ve dedicated your life to a lie.”’ The subject is already in the sentence, the “dad” is unnecessarily gendered

    • Eve

      It may have something to do with the fact that the vast majority of pastors / priests / whoever are male. While I certainly support the idea of a neutral word choice, finding one would likely make it more of a clunky sentence. I sincerely doubt that Hemant was making any sort of misogynistic gesture with this, nor would he be ignorant of the fact that yes, some women do fulfill the roles of ministers. Besides, English isn’t exactly a language with a lot of gender-neutral words, as Art_Vandelay exemplified.

      • Dianne

        I do not believe it was intentional. But I believe it was sloppy, since the source never mentions the gender of the parents.

        • The Other Weirdo

          Nor does it really have to. If I read an article that says, “7 out 10 road crews are afraid of getting their work boots dirty,” I am well within my rights to assume those 7 are men. I mean, sure there might be exceptions.

          • Dianne

            You as a reader, are allowed to assume what you will, but as a reporter summarizing a survey, it is disingenuous, to make up details.

            • The Other Weirdo

              Is this a fight really worth having, given that the key operative word is ‘pastor’ and not ‘man/woman’?

              • Dianne

                I think the discussion is worth having, that is why I posted on it. If you do not think it is worth conversation you would have stopped replying

                • The Other Weirdo

                  I am interested in the conversation about the battle, not the battle itself.

            • loopsyel

              I don’t think that anyone made up details here, certainly not to pass of as a fact attributable to a source. Hemant is just imagining a plausible example: the example of a kid whose father was a pastor.

              What are the consequences to readers of this site? “Oh, no. People might think that pastor is a role specifically for men, and then there’d be too big an influx of the antithesis, female atheists!”

              As most of us are enlightened readers, who the hell cares about the gender of the example?

              As some of us are not as enlightened as we think we are, this discourse would not be happening had the example parent been Mom. Of course, you are free to prove me wrong when his next example references an unnecessarily female parent.

              • Dianne

                “If 40% of children seriously doubted their faith, according to their fathers…” This is a an assumed fact, not just an example. The consequences, though minor, are the continued repression and dismissal of women in every role, including as commenters here.

                Also, I provided edited text above without a gender, not changed to mom.

                • loopsyel

                  Yeah, that’s a bad oversight and should be changed. I missed that one. I thought we were just talking about the “Dad, I believe you’ve dedicated your life to a lie” line.

                  I must say, though, that Hemant’s one of the last people I’d say had an established gender bias, especially given past body of writing here. So I’d be happy to join your complaint on that particular line in hopes that he’s more considerate in the future.

                  But really, are you one who would have also commented had he used “mothers” and “Mom”?

                • Dianne

                  Probably, since it would weirdly throw under the bus the obvious majority of pastors. The info-graphic is weird in the display of a larger woman, usually signifying leadership. I was curios about that.

                • loopsyel

                  Yeah, certainly in the “mothers” case. Ok. Cool. I look forward to seeing anybody making such comments in the future.

                  I figure the large woman figure is their view child, distantly separated from the church and surrounded by a cloud of issues.

                  We just had a civil internet discussion. Neat!

                • Dianne

                  Thanks! That was fun!

      • Dianne

        Also, according to the only survey I could find on the subject 50% of all associate pastors are female http://www.uscongregations.org/survey-associate-pastors.htm

        • The Other Weirdo

          You’re complaining about other people making up details, yet the word ‘associate’ appears only in your post. The log, your brother’s eye and all that jazz.

          • Dianne

            I’m not making up details. I found a source, of related data. I gave my reasons for posting it.

            • The Other Weirdo

              No you didn’t, and it’s not even a source, since it speaks exclusively about associate pastors, whatever the hell that is. Also, you make it sound like 50% means anything. Yet, according to the very source you cited, on average, 76% of all parishes of various denominations of stupidity have no associate pastors. So, your 50% represents less than a quarter of all churches, and in the case of Mainline Protestant, about 21%.

              In other words, we are still justified to assume when someone says ‘pastor’ or ‘priest’, the subject of discussion is a man. Just like with my example about road construction crews. They also don’t seem to have the same duties as regular pastors, so equating the two seems wildly disingenuous.

              • Dianne

                1. This article is not about one pastor, this is a survey of many pastors, some of whom probably are women. It does not give the details, but the fact that, the original article remains gender neutral is telling.

                2. An associate pastor is still a pastor, like an associate attorney is still an attorney.

                3. My point wasn’t to prove that women are 50% of all pastors, but they exist, and shouldn’t be swept away.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  You’re telling me that if I walk into 100 Catholic churches, I will hear 57 sermons by women? I call shenanigans on that idea.

                  Edit 1: My mistake, I should have said, “100 Catholic churches with associate pastors.”

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  Associate pastors in all church sects across the US, not just Catholic ones. And if 20% of all pastors in the US are female, then yes, gender neutral pronouns are best. That’s an awful lot of people to make invisible.

                  Stop being deliberately obtuse. You know better.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  I missed a phrase. Should’ve said, “100 Catholic churches with associate pastors.”

                  Obtuse? Did you even read the survey that was linked? It specifically says that 57% of all associate Catholic pastors are female. Now, I am not 100% up on the minutiae of idiot belief terminology, but I am told that associate pastors are just like pastors, only, you know, associate. So, given my mistake above, the question remains: hos many sermons are read by women in Catholic churches?

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  And Dianne’s point still stands. Associate pastors exist, many of them are women, and in some congregations associate pastors give sermons, though clearly not in all of them. I’m not sure why giving sermons came up at all, truthfully, considering that this blog post is about pastors in general not only those who give sermons. When you assume all pastors are male, you render invisible these women, and that is bad.

                  Also, I know full well that in non-conservative Christian sects, women can be and are ordained as pastors and lead congregations (not just as associate pastors, but full ones). When dealing with a gender-mixed group, use gender neutral pronouns. It’s not that fucking hard.

                • poliltimmy

                  About as hard as it is for you to refrain from profanity maybe?

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  I use profanity and obscenity* deliberately and to make a point.

                  Did you have one? A point, I mean? Pointing out profanity or other “offensive” language in order to ignore what the person is actually saying is a classic trolling and silencing technique, but it is also evidence that you have nothing of import to say.

                  *This is technically obscenity, by the way; there is nothing profane about fucking, just obscene. And even obscenity is culturally mediated. If you’re going to try to derail, at least get your terminology straight.

                • poliltimmy

                  Pardon me, but isn’t this whole thread is about an “offensive” word?

                • Dianne

                  I wasn’t offended. The article is factually inaccurate. I think Atheists should stick to the facts. Psst. you should too.

                • poliltimmy

                  Where in the article, except the hypothetic presented that he alludes us to believe he was only a talking about male pastors? Psst, he doesn’t.

                • Dianne

                  I have quoted this twice before, but because you are not reading a whole thread I’ll re-post “If 40% of children seriously doubted their faith, according to their fathers,…” That is an asserted ‘factual’ clause in a question.

                • poliltimmy

                  I stand corrected. But the assumption that pastors are men is based in the reality of probability. And I believe that is what Weird was trying to say.

                • Dianne

                  But a mixed group does not default to being male. That is mild, but constant social sexism. There are ways of describing mixed gendered groups.

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  No. It’s about an incorrect word and one that (inadvertently) causes harm to people because it makes some people invisible.

                  I don’t find the term “fathers” offensive at all. Do you?

                • poliltimmy

                  I was simply and sarcastically pointing out that old habits are hard to break.

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  No you weren’t. That’s okay. I’m used to trolls. I know I was less fun than many people.

                • poliltimmy

                  You know my mind, over net no less. I bow to soothsayer and the sacred wisdom that comes with it. I can definitely believe you are no fun!

                • Dianne

                  Says the person, who ‘read my mind’, about being offended. Pot! Quit calling the kettle black.

                • poliltimmy

                  You cried foul, not I. It is his blog and he can write how he wishes. This man is one of feminisms best allies. I know deep in my heart no sexism was intended. I think he is being unjustly called out.

                • Dianne

                  I know Hemant is an ally. That is exactly why I called him out. We all need to be made aware of our inherent biases occasionally.
                  Also, it is just a factual error, like any other in a blog post. People don’t get up and arms to defend other obvious factual errors.
                  I never “cried foul.” I called out an error.
                  Thanks for trying to silence me by diminishing my voice

                • poliltimmy

                  “What is with “father” and “dad” in your text?” You obviously had issues with both his ‘bias’ and his hypothetical. Now you want to split the hair an uncouple the two from your original statement.

                  “Thanks for trying to silence me by diminishing my voice” Oh, now I am persecuting you by disagreeing? good grief. Grow up!

                • Dianne

                  Yes, my first response to the post asked a question, giving the benefit of the doubt to Hermant. I did have a problem with it, it was factually inaccurate. This is nothing new.

                  Disagreement is awesome! I love it. But you are using disparaging terms. You are the one implying that I am crying and now a child. Maybe you should learn how to have a civil discussion, without belittling insults.

                  edit: how did this end up out of the thread?

                • poliltimmy

                  I never insulted you, except in your head. You talk of civil discourse, yet you high five a person with a trashy mouth that they believe is a badge of honor. Yes, a childish thing to do. Sorry, but your words and actions do not match. There is a term for people like this, but I chose to be more civil and not use it. Nobody should have to express themselves by your list of official words and terms. Profanity excepted.

                • Dianne

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastor “gives advice and counsel to people from the community or congregation.” I think you are conflating priest and pastor

                • Guest

                  So, all the important jobs are still held by men? Got it, and the original article and points stand.

                • Jennie

                  No, you will not. But this comment belies your ignorance about how things work in non-Catholic churches. There are thousands upon thousands of associate pastors, many of them women. The Catholic church is only one church (albeit a big one) and even they have female youth pastors sometimes.

    • Sweetredtele

      Paul is clear that women cannot be ministers/priests and the majority of ministers are men. I realize that has changed, one must specify gender even when using “priest” since the Episcopal church started ordaining women.

      • Dianne

        I’m not sure I understand what you are saying.

        • The Other Weirdo

          It means that any woman who becomes ordained in a Christian church of any kind is directly breaking a commandment by one of the primary founders of the faith.

          • Dianne

            So is every Protestant. So what? The church changes it’s mind on a lot of things.

            • The Other Weirdo

              So what? They beat us over the head with that supposed moral bedrock of life, the Bible, yet they are free to just ignore stuff that’s in it because it’s… what, inconvenient? We atheists are told over and over that we can’t know morality, that even if we do, it’s ever-changing and uncertain and not grounded in anything permanent because we are sinful people who can’t know good from evil even though Eve went and ate an apple and was cursed with knowledge of good and evil and that was why humans were kicked out of paradise and then Jesus had to come along and got nailed to a tree for saying wouldn’t it be great if we could just be nice to each other and now we owe him to saving our sinful, undeserving souls and… but Jesus! Yet, magically, they can just change their minds. I think not.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                The ones with female pastors are a lot less likely to think that. Just FYI.

                I refuse to join the No True Christian game. It’s a losing one for everyone, especially non-Christians. I don’t think all Muslims are Wahhabi. I don’t think all Jews are Hasidim. And I don’t think all Christians are fundamentalist evangelicals. That doesn’t make people not Muslims, Jews, and Christians if they aren’t that extreme, though. Every religion picks and chooses, every sect within every religion picks and chooses, and just because some of them claim they don’t doesn’t change that fact. Are they still wrong about the existence of gods? Yes, yes they are. However, that doesn’t make them as bad as their extremists. I refuse to tar with that broad a brush, and I think you should stop doing so as well.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  Nor am I doing what you think I am doing. However, I am not going to make excuses for them. Sure, most of them(some of them? What are the numbers? Given the sheer numbers who believe in the literal Adam and Eve, the Flood and the miracles, can we really say for sure?) aren’t as bad as the fundamentalists. That doesn’t mean that they are not breaking their own commandments which are hard-coded in their own holy book. Maybe they don’t know those passages are there. Maybe they don’t care. It doesn’t matter because the presence of those passages is incontrovertible. If it makes people uncomfortable that they are breaking their faith’s commandments, either they shouldn’t break them or they should find a different faith.

                  Excuses. That’s why you are in the situation you are in, because people have been making excuses for them, and have allowed their excuses for themselves and others of their ilk to go unchallenged. Maybe they are not as bad as the fundamentalists, but they’ll still back a fundamentalist over an atheist candidate for office. So, what then?

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  See above. I’m through with this. I think religion is a net negative to the world, but I’m not going to claim all religious people are as bad as their extremists nor am I going to get involved in deciding who is and is not a true member of their religions.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  Well, that’s good, because I wasn’t doing that.

                • smrnda

                  On the issue of female pastors, there are churches who treat Paul as fallible since he’s not himself god and he’s writing personal correspondence, so they do the take what they like and not what they don’t with him. So a female pastor isn’t contradicting that type of Christian religion.

                  Fundamentalists can’t do the same because their approach to the authority of the text is different.

                  I don’t want to imply that all Xtians must be fundamentalist literalists, since that isn’t true, and I don’t regard the ones that aren’t as being inconsistent for that reason alone. I think you can eventually show that everybody is picking and choosing scriptures based on their own moral judgments, but I’m also not into No True Xtian.

              • KMR

                Liberals don’t ignore stuff in the Bible. They have a different interpretation of Paul’s letters which they base on genuine scholarship.

                • smrnda

                  True.

                  I think, in the end, that approach is flawed since it ends up just being cherry picking, but I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s invalid.

                • KMR

                  I have no real opinion on the approach although I find some arguments genuinely interesting. At any rate it isn’t correct to say that all those who genuinely believe scripture allows for women to hold leadership positions in the church are disobeying commandments. They don’t believe Paul’s writings in that area are commandments in the first place.

                • smrnda

                  Good point, better than mine.

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            Oh please, atheists especially don’t get to play the No True Christian game.

            • Dianne

              Thanks, Feminerd for being eloquent with the rebuttal.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                I try. Thanks for the compliment of eloquence!

            • The Other Weirdo

              And putting words in my mouth. I never said any such woman wasn’t a true Christian. I said they are breaking a commandment. Frankly I am getting tired of getting spanked with the Bible by believers who then proceed to ignore whole swathes of what it says.

              Admittedly, I’m in a bad mood. Apparently, I am allergic to reading Encyclicals, and the June one pissed me off royally, with its utter reliance on biblical quotes having been told by several Catholics that they don’t take it as seriously as, say, the Protestants do.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                Okay that’s fair. And I agree that women pastors are clearly breaking some New Testament orders/commandments.

                I was just unsure why it was relevant, since all Christians break some New Testament orders/commandments. They have to, since they contradict all over the place, and it’s impossible to do them all.

                Also, Encyclicals suck. True story. You shouldn’t take out your bad mood here, but I totally understand why you’re in a bad mood. Go have some hot chocolate, maybe with some “additions” (I like raspberry liqueur and Galliano, myself). That’s my pick-me-up, anyways.

              • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

                Dude, take this and chill…

  • http://twitter.com/stillrobdavis rob davis

    I think the anonymity of the PK’s is important, too. I would guess that a large percentage of PK’s aren’t going to tell most people what they really think or feel.

    • new_atheist

      This may be true for many. But, it certainly wasn’t for me. I had no problem telling people I knew, and even my Southern Baptist pastor father, that I was an atheist.

      But, that could be because, for me, it happened in my late 20s, after I had already built a life of my own and was no longer living under their roof.

      • http://twitter.com/stillrobdavis rob davis

        I’m surprised all the time by how many older people are still, literally, scared to tell their parents, family, friends, etc. that they are no longer Christians. It’s sad.

        • ahermit

          I have no problem being openly atheist with friends and my siblings but I haven’t made that leap with my parents. Im in my 50′s, they’re in their 80′s. They’re good people and it just doesn’t seem worth upsetting them.

      • TCC

        Oddly, I have exactly the same experience as new_atheist, down to the Southern Baptist minister father, deconversion in my late 20s, etc. But yeah, I don’t know that it’s necessarily that uncommon for PKs to come out as atheists.

  • invivoMark

    “9% – Worldly influence or peers”

    Guys, that’s us! We’re making a difference! Hooray!

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Totally read that in Mikey’s voice.

      • invivoMark

        Well good, because it was typed in Mikey’s voice!

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          So is it just me, or was he a total stoner?

  • new_atheist

    Atheist PK here!

    • TCC

      Likewise!

  • E’llise Tucker

    I am an atheist PK. It has put a significant strain on the relationship between my father and I. Though my father has never actually heard my reasons of why I left the faith, (he won’t listen) I can tell you it wasn’t because he was never home, rebellion, or unrealistic expectations (though the expectations put on me was unreachable). I left the faith because I discovered science and what it really meant to be moral. I am not saying religious people aren’t moral, but the morals I had growing up were just a carbon-copy of what my father told me. What he read and interpreted from the Bible. I never thought for myself. I was raised in a typical Christian conservative home. Gays are bad, women answer to men, evolution is evil etc etc. When I began to think for myself and actually read the Bible, I discovered it was contradictory and morally lacking. I discovered that I was more moral than the god I was supposed to be getting my moral direction from. It took me a long time to abandon my faith and embrace reason, but I am glad I am here. I have never been more happy.

    • TCC

      As someone who went through a similar experience, I’m glad you’re here, too.

      • E’llise Tucker

        Thank you. I wish there was a community for atheist/agnostic/skeptical PK’s to get together.

        • TCC

          There does appear to be a Facebook group for atheist PKs, but it looks sort of defunct. Maybe we should invade and liven up the joint. ;)

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I think most people who identify as Christian (or some other religion) do so mainly because of their cultural ties, not any deep belief. Most Christians are casual Christians. What that means is they might or might not go to church occasionally, and mouth certain lines when the occasion requires it, but otherwise they simply don’t give it much thought. When you operate that way, your [shallow] beliefs are unlikely to change.

    But if you grow up in a household where a parent is a pastor, there’s a good chance that religious ideas get discussed, that they are much more central to everyday life than is the case for most people. As we all know, the single most effective way to generate atheists is to examine religious beliefs closely.

    This survey seems very unscientific, so I don’t make much of it. But I do think the question of what happens to the kids of pastors is an interesting one. You have an interesting collision of a higher level of early indoctrination with a greater opportunity to question beliefs.

    • allein

      I’d be interested to see how my friend’s nephew turns out (he’s only 8 now). His mother is a Presbyterian minister, I’m not sure if his father is a pastor now but I remember that he was applying to the Princeton Seminary back when they were first married, and last year his mother remarried a woman who is a UCC minister. So he’s got 2, maybe 3, clergy parents, extended family who are fairly religious, but is obviously being raised with some pretty liberal theology.

      • Anna

        Liberal Christians seem to have a hard time keeping kids in the fold. The childhood retention rate for Congregationalists (UCC) is only 37%. Presbyterians is 40%.

        http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-chapter-2.pdf

        • islandbrewer

          Personally, I view liberal progressive churches as halfway houses on the path to atheism (as do a lot of fundamentalists and conservative christians). Once one finds the most of the bible ridiculous and rationalize it as metaphor, atheism is just a short hop away.

    • Paul (not the apostle)

      I really think you are right on the money there. I learned all the explanations and all the verses. This was something discussed every day. The more you know and think about the beliefs the less it makes sense. I could never accept “just believe”. I know the bible better than anyone else in my church and it still does not make sense

    • http://reasondecrystallized.blogspot.com/ extremities

      You’re definitely on to something, here. One of the reasons that I became an atheist is that, as an MK, I took christianity seriously as a truth claim worth giving up my childhood for rather than just as a culture … thing … that everybody just sort of did. And once you REALLY BELIEVE it rather than just going along with whatever, you begin to notice its incongruities with reality as it is known to be.

  • islandbrewer

    So, this was a survey of pastors about their own children.

    I would love to compare that to the numbers reported from the actual children of pastors.

    • E’llise Tucker

      Exactly.

    • invivoMark

      It’s obviously going to be accurate. After all, most Christians think that atheists just hate God and want to sin a lot, so Christians are clearly the best source of information about atheists.

      • islandbrewer

        Yeah, they totally have me pegged! Now, excuse me, I’m off to the Sin-o-drome for my daily gluttonous orgy!

        • The Other Weirdo

          The IHOP?

        • baal

          Have you tried the gluten free orgies?

          • Jim Jones

            The roast suckling baby is delicious.

    • skyblue

      Yes, and I think this happens quite often: person tells their parents they’re an atheist, parents respond “Oh, no, you’re not, you believe in God deep down, you’re just confused/angry/hurt…”

      So I suppose it’s not surprising to see that low 7% figure, but I think it’s highly inaccurate – that’s only going to be the families where the parents have fully accepted and come to terms with their children’s lack of belief.

  • ZeldasCrown

    This reminds me of a post over at Love, Joy, Feminism discussing a survey of home schooled childrens’ socialization, which was ascertained by asking their parents rather than asking the children whether they felt they had friends outside of siblings, or if they felt well socialized. I suppose this is due to the nature of the structure of power within these communities-the husband/parents (whomever is in charge of the people you actually want to know about) supposedly knows all that goes on in their household, and is in total control, so the folks organizing these surveys probably don’t even see the need to talk to the kids.

    • smrnda

      I’ve heard this defended on moral grounds that the parents, or specifically the father, is the appropriate spokesperson for the family, and trying to access the family outside of that person is morally wrong.

      Which means real data can’t be acquired by these means, but I’m thinking in an authoritarian culture, a father’s *opinion* of whether a child is well socialized DETERMINES whether the child is or not.

  • atheistpk

    Another atheist PK here–and definitely not something I talk to my parents about, so yeah, I’m Exhibit A for the problem of interviewing pastors about their kids’ beliefs.

  • dsmith

    Because over 40% have either left the church or have no affiliation I suspect, of that number, many of the sons and daughters are ostracized by their Christian family. That’s usually the way it works. All that love those who hate you (or your beliefs) is rarely practiced.

  • Keta

    The last person they should be asking about this is the parents. I’m sure my experience as a PK is not unusual in that I was hardly forthcoming with my parents about my doubts, conflicts, and eventual lack of belief. In fact, I would never have told them directly about my unbelief. Instead, I inadvertently outed myself at my grandmother’s funeral – awkward!

    • The Other Weirdo

      What? Talk to an actual apostate? The Devil you say.

      • Derrik Pates

        The devil, the devil.

  • Jessica Suave

    Atheist PK here as well. I played the game for my entire childhood and most of my adult life for my parents sake. I figured dad could handle it, but not mom, so I figured I’d let her die believing I was an Xtian. However, eventually I realized she wasn’t planning on dying any time soon and I was growing mighty weary of listening to the endless Jesus talk so I finally owned my infidel status. Not that it’s put any breaks on the constant bible thumping, but at least I don’t feel obligated to play along any more. As for reasons why, the entire concept of religion made no sense from a logical standpoint. I had no atheist friends or influence growing up… I just came to the conclusion on my own, through study, observation of life, and common sense.

    • Keyra

      Wouldn’t it be better to ask her questions about it rather than jump to conclusions?

      • Jessica Suave

        I’m sorry, ask who questions? My mom? Might be hard to believe, but after 40 years I can pretty well predict my mom’s moves before she even knows what she’s going to do. And, she reacted as expected. Her first response was a horrified “And all this time I thought you were smart.” I’m pretty much considered the village idiot of the family now.

        • Jim Jones

          > I’m pretty much considered the village idiot of the family now.

          My irony meter just exploded.

        • Timothy McLean

          Sorry to hear that.

          Well, um…yeah, that sucks.

  • Docsjohn

    pastor’s
    kid here.. atheist.. general doubter in pentecostalism from the
    outset.. set about justifying our family faith, then just christianity,
    then just theism, before finally ditching it altogether.

    what is annoying is that friends claim that i changed after the loss of my father to cancer. this, despite me never believeing in tongues or prophecy, even as a child in a hardcore pente family. My conclusion may have been hastened by that though.

    Still in hiding though. Family would make things difficult, and here in India,
    family is paramount. strangely, my efforts to convince myself of the
    truth of christianity led me away from it. Its tough living a lie!
    No issues with dad. he was sincere and kept away from church politics, which is as dirty if not worse than regular politics. He was a great man and inculcated the love for reading in me, which is a really big deal. the 90s Indian pastor dad in Dubai as he was, he wasnt against accumulation of knowledge which many present day leaders are.

    My sister is extra devout though. into theological degrees despite having a masters in science. beat that.. both extremes.

    • Jim Jones

      > into theological degrees

      Which ones? Mine is in phrenology with a minor in dowsing.

      • Docsjohn

        Bible college, Masters in Theology M.Th. Indian Bible Schools of some sort. That, after a Masters in Biochemistry. She grew more devout(if she could be, what with speaking in tongues from age 9 and all that) after dad’s death. I was already identifying as Christian rather than Pentecostal. This might have accelerated my drift away.
        I do miss the music sometimes. I still listen to Christian music sometimes. Some of it is quite good!

        • Jim Jones

          > Some of it is quite good!

          Especially the bits they stole (“How Great Thou Art” is a folk tune). But much of it isn’t and there’s plenty of great secular music.

          • Docsjohn

            yes I love lot of the secular music, but having grown up singing in church and leading worship sometimes since dad was a pastor, I kind of miss that feeling. How great thou art was one of my favourites!

    • Anna

      You learn something new every day! I had no idea there were Pentecostal Christians in India. I imagine it’s a relatively small community?

      • Docsjohn

        it is small by percentage. christians are 2% of India’s huge population. in that pentecostals are a minority, primarily from the southern Indian state of Kerala. you might see a few Indian Pentecostal Churches in the US too! I’ve got lots of relatives in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, etc who go to Indian Pentecostal Churches, Church of God, etc. I was brought up in a 4th generation Church of God family of pastors. My great grandaddy converted in the early 1930s. Grandpa and dad were pastors. But its quite a boisterous community here. The largest growing faith apart from Islam in many parts of India.

  • Darren

    I know a few PKs of this kind. One that comes to mind is the son of a fairly well-known Evangelical leader. This son himself pastored for a while. He’s in the closet about his lack of faith. I don’t know how many people know but I believe it’s very few.

  • ORAXX

    I’m guessing the number of kids who have abandoned religion is considerably higher than the preacher-parents of these kids realize. I suspect there is a goodly number of people keeping their true feelings in the closet, to spare both themselves and their parents unresolvable grief.

  • KMR

    This doesn’t tell us a lot about pastor’s kids. It does, however, tell us quite a bit about their parents.

  • Marcus Aurelius Girl

    I am a PK and I am now an agnostic (though I do NOT believe the Christian god exists). Being a PK was miserable for me. If I was upset or having a bad day, my parents would get me in trouble for not being always happy and gracious to the church people. It was “an embarrassment” to them for me to cry or be moody. I had to go to church three times a week, regardless of homework situations. One time, I missed a Wednesday night because I was studying for an AP test and my parents were so “disappointed” in my “bad decision” to miss church. The other thing I hated was how my parents were friendly and loving at church, but once they got home, they were hypocritical and bitter about life. They always had a cynical, negative attitude about the world. My dad hates Hollywood and movie theaters. I was very restricted in my life, not even being allowed to date until three months before I graduated high school. I think this restriction was part of the reason that I lost my faith. Once I found freedom in my thinking and actions in college, the ways in which I was indoctrinated no longer made sense.

    • Jennifer Lakewood

      I have found that the most religious people (no matter what religion), the more they hide from the public, pretending to be kind and loving, but, in reality, they are either breaking laws or breaking spirits (by “spirits”, I mean, insulting their own kids and not looking after their best interests).

  • Paul (not the apostle)

    As a PK, I rejected the faith of my father (now deceased) because of the inconsistencies found in scripture. I got tired of tying logic and language in knots to support the supposed consistency of scripture. As an earlier writer wrote I found I could be more moral and consistent than the god of the bible. For example it took a couple thousand years for Christians to figure out that slavery was wrong. I point out that the church has never led on moral issues. Only after society declares that something in right or wrong does the church adjust their interpretation of scripture, then they claim to have been out in front I am old enough to see that with civil rights, interracial marriage, women voting and on and on. I recently told my gay nephew that in his life time the church will reevaluate their position on homosexuals. However I would never tell my 80 plus year old mother. There is a good chance that telling her my true position would kill her. I admit that maybe I am just clothing my cowardice in compassion. I am in the process of disentangling myself from the church. The difficulty here is that my wife and many of my friends are still fundamental Christians. I challenge those around me to use reason to evaluate all claims. That is enough to make people uncomfortable and I have no doubt in the near future this will all come to a head. Please try to understand how difficult it is for someone that has been raised, married raised children and has many business and friendship relationships in the church to unwind it all. Keeping my mouth shut as to the full measure of my doubts is the only chance to move this along a a pace that can be managed. Along the way I have caused many Christians to start thinking critically about their beliefs. This is something that only someone on the inside can accomplish. But ask 50 people who know me what I really believe and only about 5 will come close to being accurate. Along the way thanks so much for this site. It give me more support that you can imagine.

    • Posting81

      You seem miss understanding meaning of slavery in bible what is people who borrow and own it to lender called slave, it’s not just enforce people to be slave just to living, but more than that. It’s odd that people think slavery is over, but not so, it’s still slavery alive even in amercian, it’s called Credit Card, debit, bank, ect…when people borrow money loan for housing or whatever, that person become slave, most people don’t see or think this, but it’s slavery because they are bound to paid and service bank, debit, credit, ect, thing is bible in Torah, where God command to be free every 7 year limited, but this world won’t let people go 7 year, even there is law limited, still there is collected agent buy cheaper and get more profit from even 9 year is up, but still renew anyway in credit report, it’s would be wise not to think know all there is it in bible, but only found out there more than that by reading in hebrew, understanding, It’s often you might think you are more moral than bible of God if you only study bible, but if you study, understand outside of bible and history along it, lost book, you might find God in bible is more righteous than you think. problem is that today many bible don’t tell more detail why this or that, it’s as chruch in 400 AD choice what go in and what not go in bible, also, bible didn’t show or tell detail people living in that time (throwing stone is like a gun, people might think it’s mean to throwing, what about gun that police or military using? those people do not had techonoly of weapon war back in time, so throwing stone is frist step line of gun tree, so many more ahead. I think it’s foolish to think men think men are far more righteous than God of bible, only bible or book show limited detail when men wasn’t back in time, when he not there at time. Now I wasn’t chirstian anymore, but I’m aware that too many self pride men think he is better than God in bible, but it’s was not so, men missing because they think they know all there is in book, when there is more information out there, more truth out there than a bible/book, not only that but time aso. Bible didn’t tell whole detail why or how is this come to be. Depend on person’s experience and perceive what based they know.

      • TCC

        You clearly have not read the Bible. The slavery it refers to is not the metaphorical slavery of being indebted to someone; it is literally owning another human being as property, which you could buy or sell and even pass on to your children (provided they weren’t ethnically Hebrew). Only Hebrew slaves (people who agreed to what amounted to involuntary servitude) were freed at each Jubilee.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          And even then only the men. Women and children born into slavery were still slaves.

      • Paul (not the apostle)

        There are many things in the bible that were COMMANDED by god that any person of morality would find disgusting. I guess it is OK to destroy entire populations except for the young women which you can rape if you wish; I have read it all many times, studied Greek and heard every explanation for over 50 years . If it is so clear why are there 40,000 varieties of the truth. I think that there are some good moral points in the bible but to suggest it is consistent and without flaw, give me a break. Three generation of preachers to give me the answers in my heritage . When looked at in a logical manner what you are left with is “without faith it impossible to please god”. This means don’t question but believe what you are told. Two days ago a preachers wife told me the problem with her wayward son is he thought to much. Yes, I know the curse of being a thinker instead a believer. I have chosen the curse. I god loves us so much a little clarity would help a lot.

  • R Bonwell parker

    Am I the only person who reads this blog who isn’t a PK!?

    • The Other Weirdo

      No.

    • poliltimmy

      Nope, but I knew one once. She taught me a game called ’7 minutes in Heaven’. She was 17, I was 13. It was indeed heaven to me at the time.

      • FTP_LTR

        I’d keep quiet about that, poliltimmy. These days she’d be put on a register.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Nope. I certainly am not a PK!

    • Anna

      LOL, I’m the furthest thing possible. I never even saw the inside of a church until I was 12 years old.

      • FTP_LTR

        Same here – or at least, I never saw the inside of a church as a ‘functioning’ place of worship. I saw the insides of a few as historical sites and places of artistic or architectural interest, but in no greater quantity than the number of museums or castles I visited.

        • Anna

          My first was St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, while my family was sightseeing on vacation. Quite an impressive introduction. It was night, around Christmas. It could have been Christmas Eve, now that I think about it. It was very crowded, and I remember lots of candles everywhere.

          My first time going to a church for an actual service was probably the year after. I did go to a Catholic wedding when I was 13, though I believe I visited a synagogue before that. So my first religious service was Jewish, not Christian.

          • FTP_LTR

            I’ve only ever been to services associated with hatchings, matchings and despatchings. And one or two Christmas Carol service with the kids. My first was probably St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. :)

    • smrnda

      I am *definitely NOT* a PK.

    • UWIR

      It does suggest that there are a lot more people read than post regularly, that there’s such a large selection effect.

  • Spiderbite

    Atheist PK here as well. My Dad was a Southern Baptist minister and is now a home missionary for them. The questions started with me at a very young age probably because they pressured me to become a Christian and get baptized at age 6. After accepting, I started asking just general questions about “God” that I guess many kids did not bother with. The biggest hint to me that something was up was that my father said that my questions were sinful and that it was a sin to even consider asking questions about “God.” He said that Satan was putting these thoughts in my head. Even as a young child, this didn’t seem to ring true and constantly bothered me.

    I advised my Dad that I didn’t feel I was a Christian when I was 15 and he didn’t speak to me for a week. Not a word. This was very upsetting to me at that age and I finally relented and told him that I must have been mistaken. After that, all was forgiven and he treated me like his son again. During college, I tried to play the church game and honestly gave Christianity a try even though I never felt like one my entire life. When asking questions as an adult and getting nonsensical answers, I finally gave it up cold turkey. I outed myself again to my parents in my 20′s and they were extremely upset but seemed to eventually accept it…until…my wife and I had a child. Then all hell broke loose and nothing has been the same since. It is sad that I don’t really have a true family anymore (my sister is a massive Bible beater that doesn’t speak to me anymore) but I have come to accept it. I have my wife and child and that is enough for me. What’s funny is I never brought up the religious discussions with any of them but if they asked me questions and I answered them honestly, they would get angry.

    Living in Alabama makes it even tougher but it is what it is. I have tons of stories but not enough time. Maybe one day I should write a book. ;)

    • Jim Jones

      > Maybe one day I should write a book.

      Or write an article here.

    • Keane Sanders

      Alabama Atheist here, too!

      Wait, was your dad a pastor at Valleydale Baptist?

      • Arthur Dent

        Awesome! I’m about 60 miles north of Hoover.

        • Keane Sanders

          Tuscaloosa.

    • TCC

      I’m beginning to notice a pattern of Southern Baptist PKs becoming atheists. It’s not exceptionally surprising (nothing will make you want to believe in God less than being raised Southern Baptist), just worth noting. :D

      • Arthur Dent

        It is interesting that there seem to be so many of us. Still, it’s not often you meet someone in Alabama who is open about their Atheism, especially in rural areas like mine.

      • ShoeUnited

        I see your Baptist and raise you in a Latino Catholic Household before Vatican II.

    • Arthur Dent

      Wow. This sounds eerily similar to my story. Alabama. Dad’s a Southern Baptist preacher. Baptized at 6. Lost my faith around 14-15. Full blown atheist by 20. I’m in my mid 30s now and still not out, but I hope to be soon. I’d love to hear more of your story. asteroid18610 at gmail dot com

  • Matthew Schumm

    And another thing: I bet just looking at pastors with kids 18 or over would show you very different numbers. I’m betting many of those kids stick with religion through high school, and leave in college.

    • UWIR

      Or after they graduate and can support themselves.

  • Tony

    As an atheist PK, I completely agree with your hunches. None of the reasons offered describe the purpose, thoughtfulness, and intentionality I carried with me as I walked away from faith. It was a painful process but just as you said, logic and reason played a major role. I consider myself fortunate to have had very good religious experiences is my past and great parents. Negative experiences and rebellion had nothing to do with it.

    • TCC

      I think some of the things they mention do make a difference (especially seeing the negative side of churches and the unrealistic expectations that people have for PKs), but I don’t think they’re primary factors in general, just ones that shape PKs’ views of the church. We do often see the darker side of religious life, which just means that we get a more complete view of what goes on in churches rather than a sanitized, happy-all-the-time kind of picture that many people have who aren’t so intertwined in the goings-on of churches. That doesn’t cause PKs to leave, but it can’t help any.

  • smrnda

    Barna usually is better than average for a Christian polling firm, but asking the pastors instead of the kids is just shoddy research.

    • Todd Heath

      I find it interesting to see a window into the Pastors mindset about this subject. It is much more revealing about how Christians view the subject of apostasy of their own children.

      • smrnda

        Some interesting studies could be done where the kids are asked questions, and then the adults are asked questions on the same topics. It might give you some good info about how the parents’ perceptions differ from what their kids actually say, and that would be pretty interesting.

        I mean, the reasons for *rejecting Xtianity* (never been an Xtian, though I’ve heard them enough) provided by most religious leaders seem to apply to almost nobody I know who became an atheist, but are just useful fictions to believe for the people in charge.

        • Todd Heath

          I would certainly love to see such a study comparing the answers both the preachers and the PK’s to see how out of touch these parents are with reality.

          This reminds me of a conversation I was having with a Christian friend about the exodus of the Millennials from church in the US. My friend, who is a music minister, was convinced the church needed to embrace the pop cultural veneer of today’s youth “to communicate the gospel in a way to appeal to today’s youth”. He is convinced that the church needs to be like a rock concert with great entertainment that is laced with the so called Christian message.

          Needless to say I corrected him by informing him the church is already doing that and it isn’t working. Millennials are seeing right through pastors in skinny jeans and fun activities and finding the same old exclusionary, paranoid, bigoted message behind all of it and they don’t like it.

          I bet this is the type of cognitive dissonance we would discover if preachers and their apostate children’s views are compared.

    • Derrik Pates

      Better than average, but they’re still strongly Christian. They know there are still certain things they (and their readership) would rather not know.

  • http://reasondecrystallized.blogspot.com/ extremities

    Atheist Missionary Kid here, and let me tell you: if my family, my friends, and my parents are any metric, those numbers are way way WAY too low–denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

    I will say, though, that many of the things that they mentioned can lead one to start questioning the faith, but in addition to the missing options that you pointed out (ie, “realized it’s hogwash”), there is another one that even you missed. My parents were primarily music missionaries, and as their kid I sang in choir, played violin in church orchestra, brought people to tears with solos, led lots of services as a substitute music minister, and even preached quite a few times myself. I became pretty much immune to the ritual effects and “religious experience” thing because instead of sitting out in the audience experience it, I was standing up on stage producing it. It’s very hard for an auto-mechanic to believe that cars are magic, and after that many years staring at religion “under the hood” it became increasingly difficult for me to believe that there was anything going on other than what I was doing.

  • Hannah Recendez

    I’m a post-religious PK as well. Thank you for writing this article, because it was refreshing for me to know I’m not alone and that people like you have an understanding for the pressure that PK’s go through. I had a good childhood, my parents, though very poor as a result of being in ministry (we werent like those rich pastor families you see on tv), they loved us and tried to teach us to love one another. But obviously the rules in the bible don’t allow you to be fully loving and accepting of EVERYONE. And since as a teenager I started to realize I am bi-sexual, it became very difficult for me to live by their rules. After going away to college (on a full-ride scholarship), I was changed forever
    . I learned so much about science and reason and morality from people who describe themselves as atheists and pagans, that when I returned home to visit my family, I couldn’t look my folks in the eye anymore. Its like that moment when you realize Santa is a magical fable meant to keep us being good all year round; once you know the truth, you kind of resent the “good” people who have been lying to you all along. My parents are good people, but now that I’m a parent myself, I want my kids to know the truth, with evidence to prove it. I want them to love one another because they understand that spreading love and positivity is the only way to make a difference in the world. I am an atheist, pacifist, humanist, feminist, and I know that even though my pastor/missionary father doesn’t want to believe that I’ve really left the faith for good, he is still proud of who I have become and I think he knows deep down that its not some decade-long rebellion I am perpetrating, just a slow but purposeful walk away from myth and religious repression.

  • beardylocks

    As an atheist PK as well, I can tell you I left because of science and logic. I began to search through the Bible for myself and found it wasn’t what I was told. I already was moving away from my dad and his church, and as I explored other churches they began to question what I believed to attempt to prove their different beliefs were correct, although all that did was cause me to actually study and discover the whole system is shit. My family still doesn’t know, though, so in that aspect it’s easier, but it’s also harder to live with them asking me to pray over meals and go to church with them. But I can tell you the main reason I left is because I stopped being force fed the things I’d grown up on and started learning for myself.

  • Shane

    The assumption that the numbers are low because pastors are unaware is probably balanced out by the pastors who were unwilling to be totally honest about their kids. Moot point. I find the simple existence of this blog to be very interesting – but par for the course, I suppose. Atheists typically seem overly-interested in matters of faith when they have no reason to be.

    • Anna

      No reason to be? What world do you live in? I’d be happy if I never had to think about religion again for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, American society makes that impossible.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      We are very interested in matters of faith for a few reasons, actually.

      1) We live in a world filled with religion. We have to learn how to navigate a world that, for so many people, is filled with imaginary monsters and gods that impact their very real behavior.

      2) Religion makes no sense! It’s a fascinating display of human imagination, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. Really, religion teaches us a whole lot about human imperfections. By using religious thought as a foil, we learn how to avoid a lot of biased and just plain wrong thinking.

      3) Religious people keep trying to foist faith off on us. The best way to counter that is to learn about the religion they keep trying to spread.

      4) Religious thinking is inherently harmful. It encourages the incorrect notion that just because we want something to be true, it is true. It also encourages closing one’s mind to facts that counter one’s current belief, instead of examining all the facts and changing one’s mind should the facts show one to be in error. This fuzzy thinking spreads into other areas- as just one example, that’s why factually erroneous ideological convictions around economics are so hard to dislodge right now. The economic convictions have been elevated to the status of religion, to be clung to in the face of contrary empirical evidence. No idea should be elevated to the status of religion, including religious ideas. It’s harmful to individual persons and it’s harmful to society as a whole.

    • UWIR

      “The assumption that the numbers are low because pastors are unaware is probably balanced out by the pastors who were unwilling to be totally honest about their kids.”

      “Balanced out”? Should both of those cause underreporting?

      “Moot point.”

      Ummm… do you even know what that means?

      “Atheists typically seem overly-interested in matters of faith when they have no reason to be.”

      Funny how Christians alternate between insisting that religion should be a part of everyone’s life (putting Ten Commandments monument every place they can get their hands on, etc.), and acting like it’s odd that atheists are concerned about religion.

  • Arthur Dent

    As an atheist PK, the biggest influence on my non-belief was the Bible itself. I studied the Bible from a very early age. It was knowledge of what the Bible actually says that started my climb out of religion. If I could only recommend one book to people who are starting to doubt or are dipping their toes in non-belief, that book would be the Bible.

  • UWIR

    “This compares to the nationwide prodigal rate of about 9% among Millennials.”

    Huh? What does being prodigal have to do with this? Are these people so ignorant that they think the story of the prodigal son was about the son losing his faith?

    prod·i·gal
    ˈprädigəl/
    adjective
    1.
    spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.
    “prodigal habits die hard”
    synonyms:wasteful, extravagant, spendthrift, profligate, improvident,imprudent More
    2.
    having or giving something on a lavish scale.
    “the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream”
    synonyms:generous, lavish, liberal, unstinting, unsparing; More
    noun
    1.
    a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way.


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