Why atheist scientists bring their children to church

Nicholas C. DiDonato

The formula seems simple: parents pass down what they believe to their children. Atheist parents don’t believe in God or go to church, therefore…. Yet, a surprisingly large number of atheist scientists from elite universities raise their children in a religious community such as a church. Sociologists Elaine Ecklund (Rice University) and Kristen Lee (University of Buffalo, SUNY) found that these atheist scientists do so because they want to give their children religious choice, have a religious spouse, or think that religious communities will give their children moral bearings and community.

Unfortunately, very little research has been done concerning how atheists (and agnostics) treat religion when raising their children. Consequently, the researchers used data ready at hand—Ecklund’s Religion among Academic Scientists study (RAAS). This study surveyed over 2,000 randomly-selected scientists from the top universities in the United States. It then followed up the survey with over 500 personal interviews (also randomly selected). While the main intent of the survey had nothing to do raising children, it still collected that data and enables, arguably for the first time, an in-depth look at how atheists negotiate religion for the sake of their children. For example, interview questions included: “In what ways was religion a part of your life as a child? How was religion talked about in your family setting? If you have a family now, are there ways in which religion/spirituality come up, if they do at all? What religious or spiritual beliefs do you hold? For example, to what extent is believing in God or a god important to you?”

The researchers found that agnostics attend religious services (e.g., church) at about the same rate regardless of whether they have any children. By contrast, the attendance rate of atheists with children jumps 70% compared to those without. Children constitute a statistically significant factor in atheists attending religious services and joining religious communities. It should be noted that the atheists and agnostics in this study are all top-tier scientists, so these findings may not hold for atheists in general.

Looked at another way, contrary to popular expectation, atheist scientists show a proclivity to join a religious community when raising children. Unlike many atheists who feel isolated in a region of heavy religiosity, scientists have ready access to a community of fellow, morally minded atheists, and yet choose to raise their children in a religious community. Several reasons account for this.

First, scientists feel that having a scientific mindset means being able to make choices for oneself. Even if the scientist parent does not believe in God, this does not mean that the parent should impose that decision on his or her children—the children should think for themselves. Many scientists interviewed explicitly stated that they did not want to indoctrinate their children into atheism and so exposed their children to a diversity of religious communities.

Second – the most dominant reason – many of the scientists had a religious spouse who had a strong influence on how to raise their children. While this naturally required some negotiation, most of the scientists came from religious upbringings themselves and did not oppose a religious upbringing for their children.

In many circumstances they favored a religious upbringing because, third, they believed it would provide children with moral orientation. One scientist, who does not have children, said he would raise his children in the Catholic Church because he was raised Catholic and believes Catholicism teaches children important values.

Finally, atheist scientists raise their children in a religious setting because of the community it provides. Religious communities have a strong moral outlook and allow for intimate relationships.

Perhaps surprisingly, very few scientists listed spirituality as a reason for having their children go to church. One couple stressed that they sought a religious community that practiced their own personal form of spirituality, but for the most part, the scientists interviewed did not stress spirituality or giving their children spiritual community as a reason for joining religious communities.

Some may view these scientists in a negative light, seeing them as “free-loaders” who take advantage of the resources of a religious community without giving anything back or genuinely holding to that community’s beliefs. While they certainly do not believe the religious doctrines, the study did not go into detail as to whether the scientists gave back to the religious community in terms of time or money. In short, it is not known either way, but one would hope that those seeking a moral community for their children would lead by example.

For more, see “Atheists and Agnostics Negotiate Religion and Family” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


  • http://www.ushaji.org Spiritual Advisor in USA

    This is truly not the case everyone bring their child to church its just another case of believing in god.

  • Sabrina

    I’m sick of the way people try to make anything atheists do seem ‘virtuous’ but yet when a person really does try to live a Christian life we’re accused of being ‘hypocrites’ or ‘indoctrinated.’ :(

  • mike flynn

    “free-loading” absolutely not. all are welcome. and who knows when the spirit will move these people of science back to christ?

  • tyler

    A study this small is HARDLY evidence of any trends. It says in the article that there is very little info out there, this makes it so there is nothing to compare with this study. It also fail to take into account social pressures when it comes to raising children, Grandparents can weigh heavily on what the grandchild grows up around.

  • mikehorn

    As an atheist parent, I can say that there isn’t a common answer because the lives of atheists haven’t really settled out yet. Coming out as an atheist loses you many friends at least, sometimes your job, and often even family turn away from you. When you have kids, the network of friends and family most accept as normal and often provided by church attendance simply are not there. Some atheist parents I know attend Unitarian/Universalist because they can continue to be atheist but make friends inside a community, with some added benefit of structured philosophy classes for all ages, to include study of many religions. Most atheist parents want to educate their children about many religions, to give them exposure to many ideas, to provide a starting point to discuss logical fallacies inherent in faith, and to provide them with enough information to make their own decision about what to accept for themselves. A newer trend is to create local atheist communities. I live near the Atheist Community of Austin which is quite friendly and offers opportunities for networking, charity, friendship, and recreation. These are becoming more common as more atheists are comfortable coming out of the closet.

    Those comfortable calling themselves atheists are similar in number to those calling themselves Jewish, or about 1.5% of America. As this number rises, atheists will have more options than churches to find a sense of community.

  • Joss

    Yet, some Christians rise their children as an atheists would do.

    I think they are some sort of deist or theist agnostics, rather than atheists (although they identify themselves as such). I recommed these atheists to read some apologetics.
    However, Church is open to everyone… even those who don’t shareour moral system or beliefs. They are welcome.

  • Joss

    I have no problem with atheists at church, as longer as they are not hypocritical, of course.

    I know about many Christian who do horrible things, yet they go to church, so we don’t have any problem with atheists.

  • Caroline

    Hmmm; could it be that they want to get the jump on the development of the smug, narcissistic, self-regard that all atheists and agnostics are known for? Since all atheists resist religious influences because of their own obsessive self-worship, attendance in churches or participation in faith communities can only be a resource for conditioning their spawn to the same sense of superiority they crave.

  • gastorgrab

    The problem that Atheists run into is that there is nothing remotely ‘logical’ about morality. It simply cannot be defined in scientific, or objective terms. As far as science is concerned, Good and Evil do not exist.

    Where then does the morality of a Secular Humanist come from? Well, this is the part that most liberals like to lie about (or they just haven’t figured it out yet). No moral value set can be based on science, because science doesn’t care who lives and dies, and it doesn’t care who suffers. ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is the viewpoint that science provides.

    The Atheists involved are obviously motivated by something besides logic.

  • http://www.defend-america.com Kaptain Amerika

    Thanks for mentioning we Agnostics… We’re often left out.

  • John McBride

    Wonder how many of the atheist scientists are making — deliberately or unconsciously — Pascal’s wager?

  • RickW

    The problem that religious folk run into with respect to morality is that their argument is fundamentally circular. Morality either exists independently of God or it doesn’t. If God said it is OK to randomly kill people with red hair (for example), would it be OK? It would if morality is merely what God says is OK, but wouldn’t murdering redheads offend your sense of morality?
    The response is usually, “but God would never say that!” Because that would be wrong? Impossible, if “wrong” is only what God says is bad. The idea that God would not tell us to do bad things presupposes the existence of “right” and “wrong” that is independent from God. And if that is true, I do not need God to tell me what they are. In fact, I am perturbed by the idea that anyone would base their moral decisions solely on what someone said that God said (whether that be in the Bible, the Koran, or anything else). Have you read Leviticus lately?

  • A Follower of Christ

    Just remember all of you athiests and agnostics (whatever that is…either you believe in God or you don’t)…..you have up until your last breath to come to our Savior, Jesus Christ. For He is the Truth, the Light, and the only Way to our heavenly Father.

  • mikehorn

    Let me guess, you would be an example of someone who would stop being friends or family with an atheist? Why are some Christians so hateful?

  • David Naas

    There is actually little difference between a Smug Atheist and a Smug Theist. To allow yourself a little “wiggle room” is not being hypoctitical, but rather adhereing to Oliver Cromwell’s advice, “Think, Gentlemen, ye may be wrong.” Only those who refuse to assume they already have all the answers are capable of learning something.

  • mikehorn

    Is something good/right because a god says so, or does a god say something is right/good because it is intrinsically right/good? In the first case, this means that morality is arbitrary. In the second, morality exists and can be discerned without consultation with any god. The moral notions against murder, theft, dishonesty, and more predate monotheism, and seem to predate any known religion, so Christians certainly have no exclusive claim on it.

    Morality for atheists comes from the same place as it does for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Animists, and Buddhists: thousands of years of social creatures that had to get along to survive. Most people are decent, kind, hard-workiing folks no matter what religion or none that they profess. Logically, this suggests that religion is not the source.

  • Hal McCombs

    I’m encouraged. Even some atheists realize the idea of a higher power is important, no matter whether they actually believe in God.

    Believing that the universe was an accident, and that life was an accident requires that an innumerable number of improbable coincidences occurred. All of which would be necessary or life could never have ‘emerged’. Believing in a creator requires only one improbable occurence. Occam’s razor is pretty clear on this subject.

  • connorwood

    RickW, your critique is a good one for a God that is a determinate, finite being. However, as you probably know, in most varieties of Christian, Judaic, and Muslim theology God has traditionally not been conceived of as A being, but instead as a kind of foundational (if personal) principle that supports, gives rise to, or is the context for the determinate universe – that is, the universe made up of finite things and concepts, like apples, chairs, and Saturday morning television shows. In neo-Platonic forms of Christian theology, for example, God is thought of as a kind of total principle of the idea of Goodness. This means that anything that is good automatically partakes in or embodies God’s nature, whereas anything that’s bad is simply not partaking in God.

    The distinction between neo-Platonism and the vision of God you describe in your comment is that your understanding of God depends on a metaphysics in which things are ultimately all separable from one another. Thus, in your view “God” and “morality” are potentially independent things that either DO or DO NOT happen to align with each other. In most Christian theology, this position doesn’t make sense – God doesn’t invent morality, nor does God “say” that anything is good or bad. It’s more like a psychological orientation toward God is axiomatically the same thing as a psychological orientation toward goodness.

    Don’t get me wrong – yours is a perfectly defensible position, and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. I’m just suggesting that it might be useful to get on the inside of an alternative metaphysical position that claims that ultimately things are not separable, and that goodness and God don’t make any sense apart from one another. It could be a helpful tool to have in future conversations and debates.

    Caveat: Nick DiDonato, the author of this article, knows waaaaaay more about traditional Christian theology than I do. He might chime in and contradict something I’ve said here, in which case you should totally go with his word and not mine.

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