Does Atheist Parenting “Work”?

Does Atheist Parenting “Work”? January 13, 2015

I recently came upon an interesting comment (screenname Angellius) on a scholarly post titled “Does Homeschooling Work.” The post addressed whether homeschoolers with religious motivations are successful in producing religious children.

You could put the question this way:

A lot of atheist parents are highly concerned that God not be mentioned in school: No prayers, no overt professions of faith by teachers, no prayer meetings during school hours, etc.

Is anybody asking, “Do atheist efforts to shield their kids from Christianity work? What percentage of atheist kids remain atheist when they grow up, as a result of their parents having fought to keep all mention of Christianity out of the schools their kids attend?”

There are several issues at play here.

First of all, not all atheist parents are the same. Some atheist parents believe that religion is inherently harmful and work actively to ensure that their children grow up to be atheists. Other atheist parents don’t see all religion as harmful, and therefore don’t make raising atheist children part of their goals as parents. When I was a new atheist I worried that my children would be hurt by religion the way I was, but over time my views have shifted and changed and I’ve become less worried about my children becoming religious. In other words, the goals of atheist parents vary.

Next, efforts to protect the separation of church and state by ensuring that public schools don’t endorse any one religion is not about atheist parents trying to shield their kids from Christianity. It’s actually based in the idea that public schools are government-run and therefore should not elevate or endorse any religion or sect above any others. I knew this even as an evangelical, so this took even me aback. (To be fair, as homeschooler I was taught that public schools undermine children’s faith, in large part because of the absence of religion and the teaching of things like evolution. However, this is not quite the same thing as stated by Angellius).

To me this reads as projection—Angellius likely cares a great deal about shielding his children from alternate viewpoints imagines that others think like him. But in my experience, even atheist parents who view all religion as harmful and worry about the prospect of their children turning out religious don’t tend to shield their children from religion. Instead, they use the various moments where their children encounter religion as moments to discuss and reinforce certain ideas.

If you’re curious how many children of atheists become atheists, read this link. Interestingly, it suggests that only 30% of children raised in atheist homes remain atheist, as compared to an average of 60% for Christian denominations.

This does lead to some interesting questions. Should we measure the success of an idea by how many people hold it, or, perhaps, by the percentage of people raised with it retain it? And what about the difference between the success of an idea and its accuracy? But more than that, I’m simply curious. Is it having a religious community that makes more children of Christians remain in the same faith in which they are raised? Does it perhaps make a difference that Christian parents tend to emphasize their children sharing their same beliefs while atheist parents may not? Where do those other children go?

And of course, as regular readers likely know, I don’t count myself on “team atheist” here. I count myself on “team humanity.” This means I care more about the percentage of people who affirm LGBTQ individuals or equality for women than I do about the percentage of people who identify as “atheist.” And honestly, I think this is a true for a lot of atheist parenting—for us, raising children who are ethical and compassionate matters more than what religious beliefs (or lack thereof) those children ultimately embrace. And that’s something Angellius doesn’t even consider when asking whether atheist parenting “works.”

How about the rest of you? What are your thoughts?

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