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.