According to a 2012 report by Georgetown University’s “Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate” or CARA for short, children who are raised in atheist households are leaving atheism. They claim that 70% of atheist kids become religious adults. Wow, that is unbelievable given the rapid rise of atheism in America in recent years. One reason why it is unbelievable is because it doesn’t appear to actually be true. Surprise!
First, it is important to point out that CARA is a Catholic “research center” whose mission is, “to increase the Catholic Church’s self-understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism.” So there is a Catholic bias. So what? They can still be pretty objective… maybe, right? Well, in this case, not so much.
CARA didn’t actually conduct any independent research. Instead, they played really loose with PEW Research. PEW is a pretty reliable polling group, so I trust their numbers. Does Pew Research actually say that 70% of atheist kids become religious adults? No.
I actually found their most recent religious landscape survey from 2014. This survey was published in May of 2015. What it shows is that 67% of millennials rises as religiously unaffiliated remain religiously unaffiliated. In other words, CARA got it completely backward. Now granted that the current survey is talking about religious unaffiliated and not necessarily atheists specifically, but PEW has no data on atheists specifically in this category.
Here is what PEW does say about atheists specifically. In 2007, about 1.6% of Americans identified specifically as atheists and 2.4% identified as agnostics. In 2014, that number nearly doubled. 3.1% of Americans have now identified themselves as atheists with an additional 4% identifying as agnostics. That’s 7% of people who specifically lack belief in a god. 22.8% of Americans are now “nones.” PEW didn’t ask about Humanists, freethinkers, skeptics, anti-theist, pan-atheists, Pastafarians, Jedi, or any other possible labels many atheists use.
Getting back to CARA, the author of their “research” has a hunch about these numbers:
“My hunch would be that some Atheists would want to count anyone of any religious affiliation or non-affiliation who does not believe in God as “one of them” even if that individual does not consider themselves to be an Atheist. In that case, nearly one in 20 Americans (4.7%) could be considered an Atheist. This just means there are Atheist-Catholics, Atheist-Buddhists, Atheist-Black Protestants, Atheist-Muslims, Atheist-Evangelical Christians, Atheist-Mormons.”
You’re damn right I want to claim anyone who lacks a belief in a god as an atheist. Do you know why? Because that’s the meaning of the word! Agnostics who lack a belief in a god are also atheists. Those two terms are not mutually exclusive. Are all the “nones” atheists? Of course not all the “nones” are atheists. No one is saying that. But there are atheist-Catholics. For many Americans, labeling themselves as Catholic is more about identity rather than being based on doctrinal beliefs. The same is the case with Protestants, Muslims, Mormons, and especially Jews. I will grant you though that you probably won’t see atheist-Evangelical Christians in that same fashion. You might see someone who claims to be an Evangelical Christian who is in reality a closeted atheist, but that is a little different. As for atheist-Buddhists, it appears that the good people of CARA don’t know anything about Buddhism. There are no gods in Buddhism. Atheist-Buddhists are just called… Buddhists.
Still, none of that addresses the question about whether or not children raised as atheists grow up to become religious. There really isn’t any data on that. However, purely from an observational standpoint, I will point out that atheists don’t really raise their children to be atheists. We don’t send our kids to atheist Sunday school to learn the arguments for why God doesn’t exist. We don’t really have cute books with animals on a giant boat talking about how they all evolved without any deities. Sure there are now a small handful of books for kids aimed toward atheists, but they aren’t really about atheism. They are about wonder and thinking critically. Besides, few atheists even own them or even know about them.
I have two young children and so far, they have not yet been exposed to religion. But I also haven’t indoctrinated them into a belief that there is no God. They don’t really know anything about religion. Maybe when they get a little older and have learned to think critically about complex ideas, I hope to take them to visit various religious houses of worship and to have them ask lots and lots of questions of the religious leaders. I want to educate them, not indoctrinate them. I find this is a common attitude among many atheists with families.
The emphasis is not on what to think, but rather on how to think. This is very different from how religions usually do things. With religion, kids are taught to believe in God often before they can walk or talk. They often go to religious Sunday schools or other religion classes to learn what to believe, not how to think critically about beliefs in general. In some fundamentalist families, kids are even punished for questioning the family’s beliefs or worse, told that their eternal souls will be tortured for all eternity if they reject or question the belief in God.
The fact is that religion preys on people when they are most vulnerable. Children are often the most vulnerable and so they become easy targets for religious indoctrination. There are probably many atheist parents who just don’t talk to their kids about religion (the same way I haven’t). The problem is that religion is everywhere and sooner or later our kids will be exposed to it. My son came home from Kindergarten with a flyer for kids Bible Study in his backpack one day. We walk and drive passed churches all the time and they look like interesting buildings. Some churches even ring bells on the hour. I have tuned them out long ago, but my son asked me about them. How do I explain that to him? At some point I will have to because if I don’t someone else will and that someone else will probably be religious.
So what if a study does at some point come along that really does show that children of atheists end up becoming religious? All that would show is that religious believers are good at preying on young impressionable children. My wife told me a story of when she was really young and her friend invited her to go to church. Her friend’s parents practically kidnapped her to take her to the church and made her sign a paper saying that she was now a member of the church.
The reality is that there is no evidence that children raised as atheists are leaving atheism in favor of religion. That is religious wishful thinking and propaganda. On the contrary, people are leaving religion in droves. Lots of luck to any religious believer who thinks that he or she can convince a reasonable, critical thinking adult who has never been indoctrinated into religion to believe the ridiculous claims of religion. They have to indoctrinate kids; if they didn’t, their religion would die a quick death.
- Response: ‘5 Lies Atheist Tell’ (examiner.com)
- Can atheists use ‘The R-Word?’ (examiner.com)
- Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief (examiner.com)
- Interview: ‘What If I’m a(n) Atheist: A Teen’s Guide To Exploring A Life Without Religion’ author David Seidman (examiner.com)
- Child author recants story of Heavenly tour (examiner.com)