Religion, Reform, and Retention

Religion, Reform, and Retention July 11, 2012

On Facebook, Karl Giberson shared a link to a blog post with statistics about retention in religious and areligious groups, i.e. their effectiveness in passing on their worldview and communal identity to their children. Here is the relevant chart:

There is a lot that is interesting and potentially worth talking about. I suspect that for some of the lower-ranked denominations, it may be that their dwindling numbers make it challenging to retain any sense of community.

The lack of much in the way of communal structures for atheists has been discussed from time to time, and may account for why atheists are so low down on the list.The groups that are at the top of the list are ones where there is a close connection between a particular cultural-ethnic identity and the religious worldview.For progressive and liberal Christians, there are important questions to ask. While some of us are emphasize (either individually or as part of a denominational emphasis) individual decision and personal commitment to faith, others have explored the route of embracing the role of being a cultural religion. As I have suggested in the past, the model of Reform Judaism is one that ought to be thoroughly explored and discussed as a paradigm for progressive and liberal Christianity.

It seems to me that it may not be necessary to choose between the two.

There is no particular reason why the same community cannot foster the need for an individual to make eir own personal decision, and offer a community where people share certain core values and practices which do not necessitate that everyone who participates in the community agree.

Since this blog has readers who represent a wide range of worldviews, including Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and many others, I would be interested to hear from you on this topic. For one thing, if you are a “none” or even if you are connected with a religion, do you care if your children shift identities? And if you are part of a group for whom passing on your worldview to the next generation is important, do you have any thoughts on what this chart might have to say that is helpful when it comes to doing that effectively?


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  • LogicGuru


  • LogicGuru

    I was raised as a “none” and my mother certainly did want me to avoid religious belief and practice. I’m Episcopalian and I have done every damn thing in my power to keep my kids in. The church however doesn’t do a lot to cooperate. I want to support the church, keep it alive. And one thing I can do for evangelism is contribute my kids to the church.

    That said, I wouldn’t mind if they became atheists, or joined some other mainline denomination. I WOULD most certainly mind if they became Evangelicals or Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses, or joined any of the other conservative groups that cater for the lower classes. I’m an Episcopalian: I’m a liberal and a damned snob!

  • spinkham

    I’m curious where the data for atheists and nones comes from. I’m looking at the Pew survey it claims to be from, and chapter 2, pages 22-35, are relevant and have most of the data listed (plus much more that is useful for discussion), but atheists and nones aren’t explicitly stated that I can see.

    The only mention that seems related is the group “unaffiliated” on page 30, were 46% stayed unaffiliated.

    For Christain groups, the chart on page 31 is probably most useful for discussion: It shows who converted to a similar branch of belief or a different style. An Episcopalian going to a Presbyterian church is a different kind of change from an Episcopalian becoming non-religous or going to a Pentecostal church.

    • William J E Dempsey

      I’m ALSO noticing some suspicious problems with this chart’s alleged summary of PEW data too.
      1) For example, that “atheists” are listed under “faiths.”
      2) And “nones” are specified as in effect having a religion, but no particular one: instead of having no religion at all.
      Warning: the above chart may not be accurate. It may not reflect the PEW survey at all.
      Can anyone confirm or disconfirm the accuracy of the chart?
      So far, the signs are not good.

      • spinkham

        Most of the rest of them that I checked seem to match.

        Other exceptions: Pentecostal is listed as 50% instead of 47%(page 31).

        Muslim is not listed clearly.. The only thing I can guess is they seem to be taking an inverse of the percent of current Muslims who were raised Protestant(from page 29), which of course is not at all the same thing.

        Reformed does not seem to be in the report.

        As mentioned before, atheists and nones are not in the report.

        Buddhist is 49% vs 50% in the report(page 30), Methodist 46% vs 47%(pg 31), Presbyterian 41% vs 40%(pg 31) . These might be rounding errors, but makes me wonder what data they used then?

        It is possible they used the raw data which is available in SPSS format, that they used some other data source, or that they just made stuff up. 😉 I’ll try to check the first hypothesis later. (I don’t have access to SPSS at the moment, and haven’t used R very much).

  • spinkham

    I guess I’ll comment a bit more on why, though I find a 70% desertion rate to religion for people raised atheists or nones a bit unlikely in the absence of evidence, 50% wouldn’t surprise me. First of all, there’s very little difference in my mind from a self-described atheist and a none (called unaffiliated here) who lacks belief in God, but doesn’t use the term. (~1/2 of the nones are atheists by that definition according to another survey). A move from one group to the other may well mean very little.

    First: Social. We make our kids pledge allegance to God every morning for most of their lives. God is on all our money. Both of these things were added in the McCarthy era, in which there was a demonization of atheism the The USA has not yet recovered from. And atheism has been so small for so long there is little positive social support.

    Second: Mystical. Atheists have done a poor job about talking about numinous experiences in the past. There is unquestionably a part of religious experience that is real at least to the people who experience it. We know much more about individual and group psychology and neuroscience than we did 10 years ago, let alone 50, so it doesn’t surprise me that people who are prone to these experiences would become religious.

    Third: Existential. I ranted about this in the previous post, so I don’t feel like I need to do it too much here. But it is easy from the perspective of TMT to see why religion not only thrives, but becomes more fundamentalist over time. Certainty narratives of any sort give us the courage to live where we otherwise have to face up to hard things. The fact that every major culture group has chosen a certainty narrative is not at all surprising.

    (If you have no idea what I’m on about, this movie(free on hulu, commercial free on Netflix streaming if you have it) explains it well. Paul Tillich’s book is also great if you are philosophically minded.)

    • As I said in a post a few years ago now, I find those atheists who do not simply dismiss or speak disparagingly about spirituality and the mystical far more challenging and appealing than the majority of those who are the more vocal reoresentatives of atheism in our time.

      • spinkham

        I’m curious: If someone claims much of religious experience and our bias towards supernatural minds has been fairly well explained by psychology and the relatively new discipline termed “cognitive science of religion“, and simultaneously points people to Paul Tillich, which side of that line would you put that person on? 😉

        I’m not sure I know myself…

        I think we agree about much more than we disagree, but I have the benefit of hearing your interview on Conversations From The Pale Blue Dot, where I think you were more transparent about what you think then comes across in your blog posts. I’m guessing what I think comes across that much worse in my short comments. 😉

        • Well, I am sorry to hear that I seem less than transparent in my blog posts! Perhaps I need a good trip into Yoda’s cave myself? 🙂

          • spinkham

            I don’t think you’re hiding anything, only that the interviewer and I have similar views and an hour long interview by my proxy is by necessity going to answer more questions I’m interested in than your self-directed blog posts. 🙂

          • You can always use lengthy exchanges in comments on this blog as a second best option to find out what you want to know! 🙂

      • spinkham

        I think it’s worth explaining myself a bit more, so I’ll steal your Scooby-Doo metaphor. 😉

        I’ve read a lot of recent psychology and cognitive science, and I think it unmaskes mystical experience in Scooby-Doo fashion. There may be some sort of ontology of the mystical out there somewhere, but given the way our brain generates such experiences by means of many prompts we know how to trigger, it’s more plausible to pin our experience of the mystical to the wetwear in our heads. When you combine that with cognitive science of religion which explains why we have generated the ontological explanations we attribute to these experiences, I think the we’ve unmasked the mystical we experience as ourselves. It’s worth noting that explaining our experience of the mystical of course does not remove the possibility of the ontology of the mystical, but our discoveries should at least give us pause in the certainty we display towards that hypothesis. To stick with the metaphor, it’s possible there’s also a real ghost running around as well as the gardener we unmasked, but parsimony invites us to take the unmasking of the gardener as sufficient to explain the phenomenon at hand.

        On the other hand, Tillich noted the real core of the issue is elsewhere: When you Scooby-Doo our existential quandry, you find underneath it another existential quandry. You can dig down as many layers as you want, and it never converges towards anything we understand. It is in this relm that psychology and religion deeply inform each other. When Ernest Becker spoke of The Denial of Death and Paul Tillich spoke of The Courage to Be, science and religion finally stood united as one. These works have since informed our psychological reasearch and stood up to many empirical tests.

        This existential view of religion is very different from the ones we have generated in the past. What it lacks in history I believe it more than makes up for in the advantages of both being empirically grounded and in postmodern terms, undeconstructable.

        From this grounding you can always still choose a narrative something like Alex Rosenberg’s Disenchanted Naturalism, but from the perspective of existentialism and terror management theory that is a religious choice just as much as any other.

        That is where I part company with the so called “new atheist” movement. Not only do I critique their communication style (they often make the mistake of bringing facts to a values fight and expecting others to be convinced, an error I must admit I often make myself), but they often seem to have missed out on the fact that their certainty narrative is not privileged over that of others. They are right about fundamentalist Christianity, but they are also wrong in wanting to kill them to become them. In my opinion, they could benefit from a trip into Yoda’s cave to face themselves. 😉

  • spinkham

    For my children, if they choose a narrative that both makes them happy and the world better I will be pleased.

    There are a realm of possible options that I think fit that, and what makes that category in my mind is certainty that does not exceed the evidence.

    Atheism, agnosticism, apatheism, humanism, truly progressive Christianity and some forms of Buddhism, Taoism, and “New Age” all fit that bucket fairly well.

    I care less about what they choose, and how and why they might choose it. I agree with Sam Keen about what makes good and bad religion.

    Unwarranted certainty kills. In-group out-group dichotomies kill. The power individuals and groups yield is growing extremely quickly in the 21st century, and we can no longer afford the sort of tribalistic beliefs that served us so well on the savanna anymore.

  • LogicGuru

    It strikes me that there are a couple of issues that ought to be considered.

    (1) Should we be interested in passing on our religious convictions to our children for their sake, of for the sake of the church or movement–because we want there to be more Episcopalians or Hindus or atheists in the world, or at least because we want the presence of such groups to continue?

    (2) Apropos of the “reform Judaism” link above, it seems to me that churches need to adopt, and announce, a different model from what the general public takes to be standard. They should repudiate the idea that religion is a system of obligations for belief and behavior and promote themselves as RESOURCES, institutions that provide ceremonies, holy places, sociability available to anyone–churches that “do not make windows into men’s souls.”

  • David Hillman

    As an atheist, but one who feels personally, politically, and spiritually, closer to some religious people than to some zealous atheists, may I suggest that we are more tolerant of our childrens beliefs, or at least do not think they need to have particular beliefs to be saved. (I would be upset if one of my daugters became a tory or a fascist though).

  • skinman

    I’m an atheist that never took to my mother’s catholicism (I was required to go until I was 18). With my 3 children we’ve (my wife is a none) tried to talk about the religious beliefs of others and why we are non-believers. We’ve always stressed that the choice is theirs once they are older but setiing down a belief system at their age is inappropriate. Our goal is to give them the tools to make the choice that is right for them. Obviously I hope they reject religion.
    As far as the supposed non-retention of parental atheist non-belief (did I say that correctly?), I have a thought. A friend of mine grew up with parents that didn’t go to church and didn’t ever really address the issue with their kids. His wife is a church-goer and my friend came to want faith for himself and his children. I suspect that he took to faith at least partly because his parents never addressed the subject with him. Because of him I’ve decide to take an active roll in educating my children about faith and lack of faith.

  • Jim Harrison

    These numbers don’t tell you a lot by themselves since there are so many factors that affect retention. Thus many religions are authoritarian outfits that at most pay lip service to the notion of free choice and find ways to put pressure on would be apostates—just try to leave the LDS! Other groups, atheists notably, have the reverse bias. They go out of their way not to blackmail their children into adherence. Just imagine an atheistic equivalent so something so anti-individual choice as infant baptism. Then again, religion is often a marker of ethnicity so that loyalty to faith can be loyalty to one’s people more than an expression of adherence to some mythology or other. And it matters if the general culture is hostile to your belief system. The children of atheists and Jehovah’s Witness people are born into a world that largely despises them. I’d also want to look at the social mobility of members of particular belief groups. Upward mobility is one way we get new Episcopalians.

  • Padma

    Hello! I find it strange to even think of retention in a Hindu context but unfortunately, its a question that comes up often these days – Hindus don’t spread their religion, but since others do, we have to market our faith to retain those who are Hindu. While retention is getting worse in India, it is also an issue in the US because the next-gen may be intermarrying with non Hindus – and again, the issue of retaining the next-next-gen comes up.