Should Atheists Start Breeding Like Crazy? November 19, 2010

Should Atheists Start Breeding Like Crazy?

We’re being outbred. Big time.

Here’s a serious problem with that theory: today’s strongly religious people tend to have a relatively large number of children, whereas secularists increasingly have few, if they have them at all. If you believe in evolution (and what secularist doesn’t?), then you have to take this thoroughly naturalistic explanation for God’s comeback into account.

In a world in which childbearing is rarely accidental and almost never rewarding economically, birthrates increasingly reflect values choices. And so, by Darwinian process, those who adhere to traditions that preserve and celebrate the ancient injunction to “go forth and multiply” wind up putting more of their genes and ideas into the future than those who don’t. As [author Eric] Kaufmann shows, fertility, over time, plays out like compound interest. That is, even if religiously fundamentalist families only have a few more children than secular or religiously moderate counterparts, and they can keep those children holding on to fundamentalist faith and values (especially related to child-bearing), the passage of generations will greatly magnify their numbers and influence. Similarly, secularists and others who choose to have only one or two children, and who pass those values on to their children, will, over time, see their population decline precipitously.

So should atheists have more babies?

I interviewed Kaufmann about his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century earlier this year and asked him that very question.

This is what he said:

Tough question. My instinctive answer would be ‘yes’, but this would only be effective if immigration were reduced and religious fundamentalists responded to calls for smaller families, which is unlikely. There is also the matter of global warming to worry about — we don’t want a population footrace with fundamentalism. So in the end, the most promising course is to somehow attract more people away from fundamentalist religion, no easy task.

Hmph. I think Kaufmann just cock-blocked me.

So how big of a problem is Christian overbreeding? There’s a much more in-depth discussion of the issue in Kathryn Joyce‘s fantastic (and frightening) book Quiverfull. Check it out and prepare to be scared.

(Thanks to Verimius for the link!)

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  • science101


  • Considering so many atheists were raised religious, I think we can assume a large number of those children will also seek reason. We should focus more on education. The ones with questions will seek answers and we have to be sure the answers are available.

  • Well, you can just leave me out of this program. Besides, the last thing I want to do is model myself after religious fundamentalists.

    Furthermore, I was born and raised a fundamentalist Christian but that didn’t keep me in the fold. Kids don’t necessarily have their family’s beliefs (although, I realize they usually do)

  • Revyloution

    I’m not overly concerned. Every generation has been more secular than the previous. Truth will win out, or we’ll kill ourselves off.

  • The rate of cultural evolution vastly outpaces that of biological evolution since you can affect more children with a message than you can ever hope to produce through procreation.

    Don’t breed like crazy. Teach how to think like crazy. Be ‘good without gods’ like crazy. Support zoos, museums, schools, and educational media like crazy.

  • Do you guys honestly think the majority of people will not have supernatural beliefs?

    Think about it – in Africa, they eat Albinos.

  • TheRealistMom

    I’ve had more than my share already with three. I really hope my youngest develops a more skeptical mind though…

  • I’ve done my part. A boy and a girl. I’m tired.

    “The horny shall inherit the earth?”

  • Pem

    When I first read the headline in my rss feed, the first thing that came to mind was,

    “That can never work, atheists aren’t about indoctrinating their children, we offer them freedom of choice in their beliefs.”

    Honestly, the only way atheists are going to increase our numbers is sticking to the status quo. IMHO. The percent of atheists worldwide is higher than ever, all because standard of living is slowing improving and people are beginning to question faith. If we decide to start breeding more and forcing our children to be secular, how are we any different than the fundamentalists?

  • drowsypoppy

    Major logic hole with this argument- it assumes that all those children those fundamentalists are having will exactly mimic the religion of their parents when they grow up. Teaching a kid to parrot bible verses isn’t going to make her grow up Krazy Kristian. Heck, encouraging her to read the Bible seems to be a good way to catapult her out of the church.

  • This is such a ridiculous argument. Education is the key, not more sex. To me all these people are doing is breeding future atheists – all we need to do is reach these people.

    Mind you, I am not opposed to having more sex either.

  • Tyro


    Overpopulation is a big problem, besides religious beliefs and culture aren’t genetic.

  • David Cleveland

    Naw, we’ll just steal or i mean deconvert their children. Science and reason will win out over superstition fear every time. The more kids they have, the more atheists we’ll have.

  • Education leading to a lower birthrate is a GOOD thing. That’s what needs to spread, not education leading back to a higher birthrate. Besides, the primary benefit of a small number of offspring is that the parents can pour more resources into each child, thereby providing them with a better chance of success, and then, hypothetically, a greater likeliness of becoming a community leader or otherwise an influential person.

  • Richard P.

    This is such a ridiculous argument. Implementing a yearly hunting season is the key, not more sex.

    To me all these people are doing is breeding and creating healthy live stock. All we need to do is coral these christians, open up a few Roman arenas.

    That would be good entertainment mind you, I am not opposed to having more sex either.


  • No. See overpopulation arguments for one.

    Second, there’s no guarantee for either ‘camp’ that their kids will follow in the footsteps of the parents.

    Third, moderate religionists in Western countries probably (and thankfully) don’t breed like rabbits either.

    All in all, a silly argument/proposal.

  • NotYou007

    I have already procreated and I don’t plan on having any more.

  • Glen

    Didn’t Idiocracy already address the issue?

    As Ronnie used to say, a rising tide raises all ships. Atheism as a meme is very powerful, it will eventually overcome genetic and environmental influences. Woe be us until then, peace is hard fought when religion is involved.

  • Phoebe

    Personally, I’ve never heard of an atheist who wants to contribute to the overpopulation problem. Atheists are the ones who want to save this planet because we don’t believe we are going “to a better place” after we all kick the bucket.

  • Peterson, C.

    The population has been growing steadily, but atheism seems to be on the rise, especially in Europe. The values passed on by an individual’s parents play a big role in shaping their world view, but we also live in an age where our understanding of life, the universe, and everything is increasing by leaps and bounds. The rate at which that information spreads along with the fact that it’s easily accessible means that creationism and really any type of fundamentalism will be under constant assault.

    I don’t think the idea of God will necessarily die out, but I think extremist and literal interpretations of religion will take a big hit as successive generations continue to be exposed to science and facts that cause them to question what they’ve been taught by their parents.

    Rather than the somewhat silly idea of breeding religion out of the population, the focus should be on encouraging the spread of information and challenging dogma. That, I believe, will do much more to encourage secularism in future societies.

  • Having children for the purpose of bolstering your numbers is pretty unethical. The best thing we can do is to provide good education to the masses. That will insure that the ones paying attention wind up leaving the cult of the afflicted.

  • MarcN

    Hey! This atheist has done my part — we have six kids (ranging from 10 to 19). However we are frequently slotted a fundies. Sometimes my wife will say “no we aren’t catholic, irish, mormon, or fundies. May be crazy…”

  • I grew up in a very large very religious family. I have 12 aunts and uncles and nearly all are pastors or deeply involved in their church. However, of my 40+ cousins and siblings, I’d say less than half attend church, and many like myself profess to be atheists. My family is the perfect example of Christian over-breeding, but also an example of how it fails to indoctrinate. I think this generation will be the first to really break the cycle and lead to a more secular America. But we have to make sure that young people get involved.

    Or we could just encourage mass slaughter of deists… That would even things out.

  • VS

    What is with the “we have to out breed the enemy” mentality? It’s kind of, how shall I say it, unsophisticated? Base? Primitive? It definitely is obnoxious, doubly so when coming from a man who will never bear the brunt of the burden of childbirth and rearing physically or (currently) socially. It’s also a poor reason to have a kid.

  • Hunny

    um HELLO. What about adoption? All atheists have to do is adopt as many children as they can. (gotta catch ’em all!)

    There are so many children in this world who need homes and loving families(and also, protection from religious indoctrination.)

    We really don’t need to go and make more babies do we? There are enough people in this world as it is. I think the crazy religious folk, who are afraid of birth control, have made more than enough children to go around. 😉

  • Michael

    Nah, I’m thinking what we really need is a Mass Effect-style “genophage” to sterilize all of them.
    Smart people can continue with IVF.

  • This is why I’m working on becoming a teacher. I can’t tell kids their family’s religious beliefs are wrong, but I can teach them to think critically.

  • We need do nothing. Atheism is a well thought out choice. Only the cool kids, so to say, are with us.

    I quake to imagine the potential chorale of dumb atheist children!

  • Pseudonym

    So I read it, and was scared, but it didn’t answer the question of how big a problem movements like Quiverfull are. Does anyone have any actual data, rather than scary anecdotes?

  • Ms. Crazy Pants

    I agree with Glen.

    “Didn’t Idiocracy already address the issue?”

    The undereducated on average tend to reproduce more.

    Sorry, I can’t help with the kids thing. Don’t have any and not having any. Me not having kids is the best thing I could do for any kid.

  • Michelle

    Like it takes one ‘bad apple’ to spoil the bunch it often takes one child with critical thinking skills to cause his (or her) friends to question their indoctrination. Such questioning can spread exponentially. It is a more targeted and economical approach. Once our seed infects the large numbers of fundies’ seeds we can see some real changes and save the money by having smaller more agile family plans.

  • SarahNaut

    Even hinting at the idea that because I am an atheist I should go get myself knocked up as many times and pop out a bunch of spawn is very upsetting and irresponsible. How backasswards of a suggestion! I agree with previous statements about education, not reproduction, being key in growing secular numbers.

  • A Portlander

    Just because nobody’s mentioned it yet, also see quiverfull escapee Vyckie Garrison’s excellent blog/resource, No Longer Quivering.

  • cat

    “Here’s a serious problem with that theory: today’s strongly religious people tend to have a relatively large number of children, whereas secularists increasingly have few, if they have them at all. If you believe in evolution (and what secularist doesn’t?), then you have to take this thoroughly naturalistic explanation for God’s comeback into account” I can’t be the only one who sees the complete failure at understanding evolution here. First, having fewer offspring and investing more care is a competely viable evolutionary option. Animals high on the food chain do not need to have that many babies. Think about it, a human in their lifetime can’t make as many babies as a rat has a in year. Secondly, evolution is descriptive, not proscriptive. It doesn’t care. Thirdly, this is a discussion about selective breeding, not natural selection.

  • I have two children. With any luck, I will raise them to be intelligent, skeptical, and freethinking adults.

    With that said, taxing Earth’s resources to ‘win’ a non-existent race is just fundie think.

    My parents had 4 religious children, and 25% of those children are no longer religious… I am proof that not all religious children grow up to be religious adults. 🙂

  • JimG

    To me this argument sounds perilously close to the racist and nativist cry of “Brown people are outbreeding us!” I don’t think the motive is really the same, but this fear seems poorly thought through. As so many others have already noted, most atheists started as religious children. I did.

  • Nordog

    Just because nobody’s mentioned it yet, also see quiverfull escapee Vyckie Garrison’s excellent blog/resource, No Longer Quivering.

    What a great blog title. It’s practically tailor made.

  • I had a discussion about this topic not to long ago. I was arguing that religious beliefs have an evolutionary advantage. Religious beliefs tend to result in a higher likelihood of genes being passed on to a larger percentage of future generations, which is textbook Natural Selection.

    This doesn’t mean religious beliefs have a long-term advantage, only that the current environment puts positive selection pressure on those with theistic tendencies.

    The solution isn’t necessarily to start trying to out-procreate creationists, instead we need to change the environment so the positive selection pressure is reduced or eliminated.

    The best way I know of to do this is through continued education, and by being vocal. Luckily, being raised religious does not mean you will stay religious.

  • I think we should implement Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. 😉

    ”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled …”

  • JD

    It’s a bad idea to have children because of a contest, real or imagined.

    Fundamentalists like the Quiverfull movement are in the minority. A pretty small minority, very far from mainstream Christianity as far as I can tell.

    Also, children of those in the faith aren’t staying in the faith anywhere nearly as much as the church would like, it’s considered to be a problem.

  • RG

    I have crazy fundamentalist parents, nothing could have sent me on my path towards atheism faster. That being said, I have 5 brothers and sisters, all of whom are Christian, and most of whom are deeply religious.

    Sure, Christians can raise atheist children and atheists sometimes have religious children. It seems to me that a higher percentage are more likely to have similar beliefs as their parents, so if true, the problem remains, even if at a less alarming rate..

  • Oz Tilson

    I agree with all the people who reminded us that a lot of us grew up in religion. I have also done my part away from my uterus by adopting my children.

    I am not raising them to be atheists- but to question what they hear. One of my sons was raised in a fundie birth home and foster home and he is still sure that the sky daddy is watching him and will take him to heaven one day—-give him time- he is only 4 🙂

    ADOPT people- it is the REAL pro-life choice!

  • Erin

    I used to be very active with my local La Leche League(mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group) and one reason I don’t participate anymore is that many of the mothers are fundie and tried to inject that into the group. One mother has a son 6 months older then me, I’m 20, and her youngest is 18 months old. She has 7 kids in that 20 year span, and the other mother, just added number six and seven to the group. Although their children are wonderful and well taken care off, at times I get the feeling they continue to have children to some how “prove” they are more chirstian then others.

    Needless to say the more I post on facebook with non-religious stuff, they more they ignore and/or reply harshly. And when they realized I was not church going they stopped asking me to babysit.

    I’ve seen first hand the brainwashing these children have gone through, and how they are just one of the pack. I hope they get the chance to ask questions one day, and to know that parent does not equal all knowing.

  • We always need to take into account that there’s a percentage of religious people who turn non-religious. But how many people who are raised by non-religious people eventually become religious? 50% of my offspring became religious…

    I believe that we are already turning the scales more in our favor along these lines for one simple reason: Humanity now has global, and mostly free communication. Before that, religion could get away with a lot more crimes because it could hide a lot more through silence. Well now even the most religious people can log on and learn about ideas and incidents that they would never have discovered throughout their whole lives a hundred years ago.

    Religion relies on ignorance, and humanity now more than ever is in love with instant information and free speech.

    Humanity is evolving socially, and religion may one day be compared to living in caves and smashing women over the head with a rock so we can procreate. That’s how far the human mind has come, and can continue to progress, I believe.

  • As a rule of thumb every group loses about half its number to other groups from birth to death. A proportion of those lose their religion altogether. Depending on the group it is about 10%.

    As long as atheism is counted as a group and is in the minority then we gain from all the other groups no matter how quickly they increase their numbers through reproduction.

    So if you have a hundred people born into ten sets of families with certain religious views then five from each will change position and one from each will become atheist. So atheists start with 10 and rise to 19 over a generation while Catholics start with 10, lose 5 and gain 4 from other faiths. These are obviously rough numbers. There is a cool graphic on the BRIN web site.

  • Denis Robert

    We’re not being outbred; we’re being out-(ill)educated. All children are born atheists. So if you go by birth, we dominate the world!

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    Atheism wins in the long run because it has reality & science on its side. If you want a better world, or just one that maintains the status quo, you have to embrace some rationalism in your worldview.
    It is why the religious are peddling the “CreoID is really, really science” so hard – they know their followers want to find a way to keep the scientific goodies while rejecting the materialistic reality they are based on.

    Maybe we should carry signs that say “You breed ’em. We’ll convert ’em.”

  • No.

    Frankly, anyone who has more than two children should be embarrassed to admit that in this already grossly overpopulated world.

    Yes, I know I’m going to tick some of you off, especially those of you who already have. Tough noogies. The truth hurts. Don’t bother with your arguments. I’ve heard them all before and I’m not bothering getting into it with you so spare me all the they could grow up to solve such and such while overlooking the they could grow up to be a genocidal maniac or a master criminal horseshit.

    So damned many of the world’s problems today come down to being caused by overpopulation pure and simple.

    Are you seriously proposing something as irrational as that? Um, and doesn’t this post rather prove that skepticism is selective if you can be a skeptic about religion then panic (frankly the person above who said this is no different than the oh noes the brown people are outbreeding us panic is correct) because theists are having more babies?

    If it makes you feel any better and to join the chorus, my fundie nutjob mother (at this point I should consider trademarking that and capitalizing on it a la shit my dad says) had 8 babies in 10 years time. Only one is religious.

    Maybe we should carry signs that say “You breed ‘em. We’ll convert ‘em.

    Love that idea. Just put the de in front of convert and carry that at a counter protest to the right to life crowd. “You breed ’em. We’ll deconvert ’em.” Bet it would panic them.

  • Grimalkin

    My husband and I talked about this, actually. I said that we should have at least 15 babies to compete with the religious. He said “why don’t we just let the religious do the breeding for us?”

    In other words, let them put their bodies and wallets through all that stress. Then we just swoop in and deconvert their babies. The religious can be made into breeding mares for the atheist communities…

  • Nerdette

    My husband and I have agreed to have no more than two children, and if the breeding instinct hasn’t dried up after that, we will adopt.

    Overpopulation is, as my high school biology teacher put it, the biggest elephant to ever exist in the living room. NO ONE wants to talk about it, let alone acknowledge it for the problem that it is, simply because it touches on that ever-so sensitive issue of people’s right to breed. No, we can not and should not try to out-breed the religious, because as already mentioned, reality is on our side, and in these days of ever advancing technology and knowledge, science wins.

  • Unholy Holly

    It’s not easy to be an atheist:

    Who wants to play “what’s wrong with this picture”? But let’s not derail this thread; just let it stand alone as a tribute to “Christian Logic”.

  • Lynn

    It’s a nice idea.

    I have 4 children. They are being raised as Atheists. We do not promote superstitious beliefs of any kind in our home. We not only point out what is right and correct with the real world, our children are also learning what is wrong with being a delusional.

    Still, how many of us adult Atheists were brought up as believers? We ‘converted’ ourselves with our inate common sense and education. This conversion won’t stop with us. Having life-long Atheists for other people to speak with in 5,10,15 years will help promote the natural world and undeluded beliefs.

    You know, if the peer pressure to be a god-fearing twat doesn’t affect my children first!

  • ACN

    not worried. The religious have outnumbered us for years and we’ve continued to grow. The firmer they tighten their grip, the more star systems, er, people, will slip through their fingers.

  • Heidi

    Should Atheists Start Breeding Like Crazy Crazies?

    Fixed that for you.

    It’s not easy to be an atheist

    No, it’s not. There’s an IQ requirement.

  • No. As someone who grew up in a big family in a community of even bigger families, I say from experience that I don’t think a strategy of quantity above all else has any place in responsible child-rearing.

  • allison


    I don’t think it’s particularly responsible child-rearing and I don’t think it’s particularly good for the planet. I already have two and if I want another I’ll adopt as my brother just did.

  • Nordog

    No, it’s not. There’s an IQ requirement.

    That comment makes for great snark, but it’s factually inaccurate.

  • cassiek

    My parents are atheists, as are both of my brothers and myself. I have three children, all atheists, and now I have a one year old granddaughter who I hope will make four generations of secular humanist godless heathens in my family. My family tends toward the sciences as careers, i.e. geology, engineering, medicine and mathematics, so that may explain the rational mindset we all seem to share.

  • I was just talking to my husband about this last night. I said to him that, although I can’t persuade everyone in the world to leave religion, I can raise our children in a home that places a high value on science and critical thinking (and keep them as far away from the church as possible). My hope is that they will carry the gift of reason wherever they go. And, maybe someday, when they have kids, they will raise them to be thoughtful, secular people, too.

  • matt

    I can’t believe you people. This is critical thinking on the level of a six-year-old.

    Religion is not a heritable characteristic. It has nothing to do with breeding/genetics. I would bet most atheists came from religious backgrounds. Sigh.

    Religion is not some Lamarckian characteristic. For a bunch of people who espouse evolution, you are painfully ignorant.

    Cultural shifts take place regardless of who gave birth to whom. Perhaps this is what you should discuss?

  • Xena

    Pseudonym, has a really good post on these people. The info you’ll find on that site is scholarly as well. Women who were brought up in that and similar movements commented. It’s an old post, tho. You’ll have to type “quiverfull” into their search engine to find it. Maybe use the keywords “vagina as clown car”. You may find other posts to go with.

    Which brings me to their Achilles’ Heel. The mother is expected to be the one to educate the entire brood up to (I think?) 5th grade level. Boys go on after that. Girls don’t. The movement is isolationist in the extreme and these girls are often physically abused. This kind of upbringing is ALWAYS a horrible type of psychological abuse. In 5 years or so, an army of these young women will be SO ready to be saved by science. Tell them they’re smart and strong and TEACH them. They’ll thank you for breaking the monotony of their mindless captivity. They might even come looking for you.

    Go for the adolescent girls living in rural areas.

  • Xena

    Hypatia’s Daughter! YES!! Are there nontheist organizations (I mean the kind with 4 walls and handshaking and stuff) that have the numbers to put together a counter anti-choice rally like that? That would be spectacular. Dozens of women in green spaghetti monster t-shirts carrying signs like that? You (yes, we, but I’m not in the US) should start keeping track of those anti-choice thingies and set up some counterattacks for real.

  • Xena

    Fundies are so bad at Darwin. Another flaw with their “outbreed them and keep them away from our kids” model is that they isolate themselves. Sure they have monstrous broods. But sometimes there’s still too little genetic variation. 3 or 4 families in the same area with 40 kids intermarrying the same DNA from 6 or 8 founders; eventually they’re all marrying their 3rd cousins. The same mutations get passed on over and over. It’s called Founder Effect:

    The mutations pictured here are non-life threatening. But some (rare) disorders like Tay Sachs are brutal.

  • Religion is not a heritable characteristic. It has nothing to do with breeding/genetics.

    Actually there is some evidence that religiosity may be partially inherited.

    Obviously there are other factors, but it’s interesting to think that there may be biological reasons that entire generations of families are strongly religious, while other families are much less so. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with the fact that some people naturally have transcendent/mystical experiences, and other people (like me) have never experienced anything even remotely like that.

  • I think that we will de-convert at a fast enough rate that it won’t be a problem.

  • It’s only based on anecdotal evidence, but I’ve often found that people from extremely religious families tend to push back harder against religion as adults. Who wants EVERY SUNDAY ruined, even on vacation? So maybe many of these children of the religious will end up as agnostics?

    On the other hand, the only reason I will ever have children is because I feel like NOT having children would be allowing the idiots to win.

  • Sinfanti

    We need to be educating like crazy.

    Or considering the masses, it’s more like educating the crazy.

  • Xena

    GOP, that is a terrible reason to have children. Kids are not “showdogs”. You don’t have them to prove what a loser somebody else is.

    If you have kids, do it because you’re deeply in love, right with the world, and hoping to share all of it with a little one. And did I mention financially stable? If you have kids you’ll learn nuances to the word “expensive” that you’d never considered before. You can’t give away what you don’t have. If you try, your kids will leave you flat broke and needing psychotherapy.

  • I have 10 kids (number shown in base 2).

  • bernerbits

    I’ve heard both these arguments (and seen both put forth on this blog):

    * The younger generations are in general less religious and more skeptical of their birthright faiths, and religion is thus waning, and the religious community in response is making a desperate and very vocal attempt to regain its influence, which explains the apparent recent resurgence in religiosity we see in this country.

    * Religious people on average have more children than non-religious, and religion is thus growing, which explains the apparent recent resurgence in religiosity we see in this country.

    So, inquiring minds want to know. Which is it??

  • bernerbits

    If you have kids, do it because you’re deeply in love, right with the world, and hoping to share all of it with a little one. And did I mention financially stable?

    Thank you. I once put this forth as a reason my wife and I were waiting to a group of guys my age who were all fathers. Apparently this is an offensive thing to say, because I suddenly found myself up against five guys talking my ear off about how if I’m waiting for financial stability, I’ll be waiting forever, because people who don’t want to have kids will find any reason not to have them, and every single one of them agreed that having kids would force me to be financially responsible. Apparently that’s the way all of them did it.

    I don’t hang out with those guys anymore.

  • Cheese

    I thought we were all friendly atheists… With people talking population “arms races” and mass slaughter of deists in the comments, I ain’t so sure any more.

  • But sure is easy to be mentally retarded like you ¬¬

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