Why Are This Many Atheist Scientists Taking Their Children to Church? December 3, 2011

Why Are This Many Atheist Scientists Taking Their Children to Church?

We know some atheists participate in religious communities for a variety of reasons, but what about atheist scientists? How many of them participate in religious communities?

A new study by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and University at Buffalo SUNY sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee, published in the December 2011 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, found that nearly 1 in 5 atheist scientists “attended a religious service more than once in the past year” — after they had children, of course.

17%… that’s about 16% higher than I initially predicted it would be…

But at least there are compelling reasons for doing so, and none of them are “We believe the bullshit they preach in church”:

The individuals surveyed cited personal and social reasons for integrating religion into their lives, including:

  • Scientific identity – Study participants wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own choices about a religious identity.
  • Spousal influence – Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner.
  • Desire for community – Study participants want a sense of moral community and behavior, even if they don’t agree with the religious reasoning.

When you put it that way, it makes sense. We all know people who attend religious (or even non-religious) gatherings for the sake of community or keeping peace with the spouse. But that first bulletpoint is key. Atheist scientists don’t want to indoctrinate their own children into one belief system. They don’t want to force their kids to believe as they do. They want their children to figure these things out on their own and exposing them to a variety of myths is probably the best way to do that.

It’s kind of like the intellectual version of making your child smoke an entire pack of cigarettes until they get so sick of them that they’ll never smoke another one as long as they live.

On second thought, maybe you should take all this information with a grain of salt. The study was partially funded by the Templeton Foundation.

Side note: Rice University is promoting this study with the headline: “Some atheist scientists with children embrace religious traditions,” which is pretty far from the truth. There’s a difference between attending church because you “embrace” its teachings and traditions… and inoculating your children against superstitious dogma. The press release even explains the reasons atheist scientists gave for going to church — and “embracing religious traditions” wasn’t one of them.

It’s one thing to draw attention to a study with a catchy headline, but this one is misleading, suggesting a conclusion very different from the actual results.

(Thanks to Phil for the link)

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  • Spider28545

    Hmm. I don’t know how the questions were phrased (the article is not available right now), but my atheist family attended six ‘religious services’ in the past year -four weddings and two funerals. It had nothing to do with wanting to share religious traditions, and everything to do with supporting our friends and families.

  • ABN

    Parents don’t worry about indoctrinating their children with their non-racist beliefs, so why do they worry about indoctrinating their children with their non-religious beliefs? Most parents wouldn’t think of taking their children to KKK meetings to let their children make up their own minds on the issue of white supremacy, so why take them to church to let them make up their own minds on religious superstition? Why muddy the waters? Just as racist beliefs are completely unfounded and ridiculous, so are the superstitious stories that are the basis for so many religions. Teach your kids right from wrong and how to be decent people. Religion isn’t necessary for that. Educate about religion, yes, but don’t treat it as a viable option.

  • Hemant, you seem to forget that many churches and religious traditions wholeheartedly accept science. Many don’t force a dogma or specific belief system on the congregation. You always seem to feel the need to lump all religion under the category of “fundamentalism.” I love your blog, but I have to say that you have a close-minded view. 

  • They still believe in miracles, resurrection of Jesus, heaven, hell, Satan, prayer…. do I really need to go on?

  • My atheist father remained closeted even to his children (my sister and me) throughout our childhoods, and even dragged us to church even though we hated it. He was giving us a chance to make our own decisions, I suppose, but I’m not sure I gained much from it, other than a heightened hostility toward the church. Maybe that’s what he wanted.

  • No they don’t. I go to a Unitarian Universalist church and they don’t force beliefs on anyone 

  • Most, sure. But certainly not all. Again, you are lumping every church together.

  • revatheist

    This study should be taken with a grain of salt.  I’ve reported myself on one of the authors in the past (Ecklund) who did a study on the religious attitudes of “scientists.”  The findings in that study seemed to show that “scientists” were far more religious than expected, but it also failed to operationalize what a “scientist” or “religion” even are.  My background is in sociology, and I can tell you that this is probably yet another social science study in which the variables were poorly defined and researcher bais uncontrolled for.  If I could actually read a copy of the mentioned article I could tell you exactly whether it is valid and in what ways, but sadly, due to scientific “openness” I have no access, since I’m not at a university nor do I have the financial resources to pay to read.

  • Thomas Horwitz

    Community – that’s what’s missing from most atheists’ world.  Every week, theists gather to support and strengthen their belief in superstitions.  But atheists usually don’t meet that often to support and the strengthen reliance on reality.  I’m a member of a Unitarian church and I have encouraged my fellow atheists to consider coming to this church, even if they don’t become members.  Most Unitarians are genuinely interested in discussing theology and reality and welcome atheists’ contributions to their converstions.

  • Anonymous

    The article is linked to on the LiveScience website.  That atheists go to church once or twice a year does not surprise me.  Most atheists have religious extended families.  Going on Easter and Christmas to keep the peace and not get into a useless argument with Grandma seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do. 

  • They’re an exception. (What are their beliefs?)

  • Anonymous

    There is no church that doesn’t believe in something supernatural. Even if someone doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, they still believe in God.

    The only religious services I can understand non-religious people attending are baptisms, weddings, funerals and maybe Christmas. Those can most easily be seen in terms of community and especially family

  • Is this “study” any more credible than the Duke prayer studies?

    (I think it was a Rice professor who went toe-to-toe with a
     congressman in a committee hearing last week.)

  • Erp

    I do have access to the paper.  I note “faculty members in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology”.  So I wonder what the breakdown was per physics, chemistry, biology, psychology versus the others (she does write “It is important to note that even though the population included social
    scientists that in this analysis no meaningful differences emerged
    between the social and natural scientists” but not about the individual fields). 

    As someone else has pointed out, their one table has at least one egregious error (60% of scientists even at elite universities do not make over a million a year [over 100,000 is more likely]).  

    Now for some thoughts, there is a difference between attending more than 1 service in the last year between atheists with children and without (17% versus 10%).    A quote, “Noticeably missing from these narratives was a sense of giving their children a spiritual understanding”.  

    “Study participants want a sense of moral community and behavior” — my first thought was which was more important community or moral?   Her section discussing it is “Communities: Moral and Otherwise” so I wonder if the summary is merging the two.  I will note that to be involved in a community requires far more than attending twice in a year so what percentage of her respondents attended at least 5 times in the previous year to the same community?  Noticeably missing from the article was numbers breakdown amongst the different reasons she lists.

  • Hemant, 

    One of the gravest mistakes many freethinkers, atheists, and non-believers make is failing to imprint their kids with an evidence-based cosmology. 

    My wife, Connie Barlow (an atheist science writer) and I have addressed more than 500 secular, non-religous, or Unitarian Universalist groups over the last decade. I’ve had literally dozens of humanists and atheists come up to me after one of our programs and say something like, “I raised my kid a good freethinker and now s/he is an evangelical! What’s worse, s/he’s raising my grandchildren as fundamentalists! What did I do wrong?!” 

    What they did wrong (in most cases, I believe) was mistake imprinting with indoctrination.

    See “Imprinting Is NOT Indoctrination”: http://thegreatstory.org/imprinting.pdf
    My intro to the above: http://www.thankgodforevolution.com/node/2056
    Podcast: http://evolutionaryevangelists.libsyn.com/webpage/32_imprinting_is_not_indoctrination

    Keep up the great blogging!

    ~ Michael

  • Revvie

    I started attending church with my 12 y o son this year.  If anyone is hard-wired with the “god gene” it’s him.  Since the only other Christian influences in his life are my fundamentalist parents, I felt obligated to show him an alternative.  He knows that I don’t believe as they do but simply saying that wasn’t enough:  I needed to be able to connect with an accepting and affirming congregation for his sake.  He may always want religion – but at least I can give him a better example than my parents did for me.

  • Mrs. B.

    Interesting. I just went out and did a quick study of the Unitarian Universalist church. They seem to be almost what I imagine a weekly gathering of Friendly Atheist minions would be like – a very diverse group eager to discuss morals, beliefs, and spirituality, but without ascribing those things to any deity unless you want to. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. Is God mentioned or prayed to during the sermons? I’m genuinely curious and not trying to set up an attack here.

  • Amanda

    Maybe they’re just going to church because that’s one of the easiest ways to find teenagers willing to babysit.  It’s the only thing I miss about being a member of such a community, now that I’m a parent.

  • Babsva

    There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:The inherent worth and dignity of every person;Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

  • Babsva

    As far as the study that prompted this article: pffft, Templeton Foundation, hello?!?!

    We have our children learn comparative religion as an ingredient in their innoculation.

  • Too bad there’s no vaccine for it.

  • Great beliefs, but too “nondoctrinaire”

    to be labeled a religion

  • Placibo Domingo

    I’m with you on this one. I don’t see religion as any different than homeopathy. I don’t wan’t my kids to “decide for themselves” about ideas that are clearly wrong.

  • I don’t have enough time right now to read the details of the survey, (if they’re available) so I don’t know if those reasons cited are presented in rank order of frequency. My impression from the letters I get, (not a scientific survey) would put “spousal influence” at the top, basically meaning the spouse is religious and demands it, then “social pressure” next, one that isn’t mentioned, then “desire for community,” and finally “scientific identity” at the bottom.

    On second thought, maybe you should take all this information with a grain of salt. The study was partially funded by the Templeton Foundation.

    Ah ha. More like a 30 pound bag of rock salt.

  • Anonymous

    Hear Hear ABN! You can imagine many other “ideas” that one would not want their children to be exposed to even in the fairness-of-disclosure mode of these 17%. 

  • Sometimes they mention god, but it’s rarely a focus of the service and congregations differ greatly in the emphasis they place on the concept of a higher power.

  • Which is why I think it’s a great alternative to mainstream religion. All of the morals without any of the damage.

  • Trace

    “It’s one thing to draw attention to a study with a catchy headline, but this one is misleading…”


  • ed-words

    That explains Pres. Obama’s religiosity. It’s Michelle’s doing.

  • ed-words

    People “worship” in churches.

    It’s more of a morals discussion group.

  • No. Just, no. This is what my parents did to me, raising me religious – why should they let me “decide for myself” when they already knew that every other idea out there was WRONG! Do you know what that does to kids? You have to let your kids grow up and make their own decisions, and while you can say “mommy and daddy think this and here’s why” you CAN’T say “and therefore you must think it too.” That will just end up badly for all involved. Please. Don’t do this to your kids. 

  • ed-words

    Good post.

    (Candide says, “Hi”.)

  • Ecklund has a history of not representing data on this subject very well. See e.g. www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/

  • Erp

    Be that as it may.  Ecklund is apparently classifying attending UU as religious (at least one of her interviewees attends UU). 

  • gwen

    They missed two of the most obvious; Weddings and Funerals. Most weddings and funerals take place in churches, with the full pomp and circumstances of religious services. Another reason is that they want to expose them to the religion so they can go home and discuss why the whole notion is as silly as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. Which is what I did.

  • Meh.  At least twice a year?  Heck, I probably do that.  

    When my daughters visit one grandma, we spend a few hours watching UCLA play football.  When we visit the other, we go to church with her.  We do these things not because we believe that either UCLA or Jesus are amazing, but because we are guests in their home for the weekend.  

    The youngest is too young to explain this to, but the older one knows that we do not share Grandma’s beliefs, but that we think it is polite to eat whatever meals a host presents and go with them to whatever activities they invite you to.

    Of course, your mileage may vary, but I don’t see that atheists taking kids to church “more than once a week” is that odd.  

    That said, I don’t have access to read the actual study.  If it is indicating that on their own, atheist parents are joining churches for the sole purpose of taking their kids there, this just tells me that more humanist and secular groups need to have child and youth activities.

  • I disagree.  As soon as they know enough about the scientific method and dilution to see that homeopathy is insane, go ahead and expose them to it.  

    Kids should absolutely be exposed to wrong ideas that are prevalent in the world… as soon as they also have the tools to understand why those ideas are wrong.

  • ed-words

    Shouldn’t your sign-in name be spelled PlacEbo?

  • ed-words

    That’s her problem.

  • Pseudonym

    Churches don’t believe things. People believe things.

    I’ll grant that there’s no church in existence where a majority of the congregation believes something supernatural and where the church indulges those beliefs. But there are plenty of churches (perhaps not in your locale, admittedly) where you don’t have to believe anything supernatural and they are just fine with it. UU is one. Some mainline churches up the liberal end (e.g. Methodist, Anglican), too.

    But probably the best religion to be if you’re an atheist is a non-fundamentalist variety of Jewish.

  • Reality Based Community

    Like most journal articles, it sits behind a paywall and is available only to those with institutional access, i.e. it’s locked in the ivory tower. You might try getting access through your local public library, many have online access to journal article databases.

    I skimmed over the article and it isn’t pretty. As many comments point out, going to a religious service more than once a year tells us nothing about their actual religious practices. This could very well be Christmas and Easter to please the grandparents. The authors of the paper appear completely oblivious to this possibility, neither the word “Christmas” nor the word “Easter” appear in the paper. This alone is damning. Yet, as you will see, we should really be talking more along the lines of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah.

    The article is not positivist, but interpretivist.  They did not code the text of the interviews, they simply tell a story using quotes from them. There is no statistical analysis in the article to show that these quotes are actually representative. The only table in the entire paper is a set of descriptive statistics. This table is extremely revealing.  First of all, it tells us nothing about who is going to religious services. The quoted statistic about religious attendance is only included in the text of the article, the table is not broken down by parent vs. non-parents. They present descriptive statistics on a sample that includes 79 atheists, but their interpretation focuses only 34 of these 79 have children. So while I am going to precede to break down the numbers based on these 79 atheists, it is important to note that their conclusions about parents are only based on a sample of 34 atheist parents.

    They do not ask the kind of religious services that the respondent attends, we can only infer the whether or not atheists go and the kind of religious services that they are going to based on their “current religious preference” in the descriptive statistics. Of the 79 atheists that they look at, only 3 are Christians (they measure atheism and agnosticism based on questions about beliefs, not self-identity, so it is possible to be an atheist Christian). On the other hand, 14 are Jewish. The numbers are slightly less lopsided for the 87 agnostics, with 18 Jewish and 16 Christian, but they are still primarily looking at secular Jews. Both the media presentation and the intro/conclusion of the article are presented in general terms. However, both the bulk of their sample and the bulk of the quotes they selected are Jewish. If the findings had been framed as such, perhaps they would not be so surprising, but that is not how they are framed.

    The authors of this paper are either incompetent (my vote) or intellectually dishonest. Anyone with training in statistics can take one look at their one table of descriptive statistics and immediately spot that they are actually interpreting interviews of scientists who are primarily Jewish atheists. Hemant appears to have been had by the public relations folks at Rice University. He asks the question: “Why Are This Many Atheist Scientists Taking Their Children to Church?” The answer is that out of 79 atheists, there are only two who identify their religious preference as protestant and one that identifies as Roman Catholic. Because the one table they provide is descriptive statistics of their entire sample, not just the parents, it’s not clear that all three are parents, but even 3 out of 79 is not worthy of the question. Very few atheists are actually taking their children to Church.

    Hemant, I want to preference my final comment with the fact that I love your site. Most of your posts are awesome. I appreciate all of the hard work you put into this site. But that said, you have consistently shown a lack of skepticism, a lack of scholarship, and a willingness to play fast and loose with academic research. As I point out in the comments here

    (see Reality Based Community comments) you failed to be skeptical and failed to correct the record about another post you did on what in fact appears to be a made up study. You liked the story it told because it was flattering to atheists in that the made up findings that were not flattering to religious people, but you never actually looked for a publication of the actual research (at which point you should have quickly realized that it was fake). You’re like students of mine that do not read a book their research paper relies on, but instead work from book reviews (although, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never had a student work from a review of a made up article like you did). Similarly here, you do not appear to have actually read the article. As I said in my last post, “While I recognize that a blog post is not a piece of academic writing,
    whenever you write about scientific experiments you venture into the
    academy where you cannot cite Psychology Today. More to the point: as a
    reader you should never trust a description of an experiment that does
    not provide a citation to a peer-reviewed publication of the
    experiment’s findings.” The same applies to press releases about studies by sociologists.

    Your lack of skepticism regarding academic studies is a disservice to your readers. In both the case of the made up study and in the case of this study, you have updated the post telling readers that they should take the findings with “a grain of salt.” Simply put, you need to take the lid off of your saltshaker.

  • Erp

    Strictly speaking they do seem to have coded the interviews; however, they did not give us the results as it applies to the question in the article beyond the 17%/10%  on atheist  with or without children religious attendance.   Also the 17% doesn’t indicate the children went with them and might be a reflection that partnered atheists could be attending more services than  unpartnered atheists (e.g., high holy days because of a religious partner); I suspect single parents in the pool were quite rare.    The article left me with a lot of questions that should have been answerable given the methodology they described. 

  • PixiePiss

    I usually just send money in a card. Can’t sit through that trash. Certainly wouldn’t subject my grandchildren to this either. Last funeral I went to was for my brother. No religious trash there.

  • Trina

    There’s a natural human desire for community, certainly.  Fortunately, some of us live in large enough cities that there are thriving atheist/freethinking/secular humanist communities.  One can only hope that open atheism will become more socially acceptable as more of us ‘come out’ and people realize that we aren’t baby-eaters after all.

  • Trina

    Or, sadly, political necessity.

  • Trina


  • Reality Based Community

    You’re right, they do appear to have coded whether someone made a reference to going to a religious service, but they never explicitly ask the question: “We did not ask respondents directly about their
    involvement in religious organizations (or lack thereof). Rather this information was generally volunteered in response to questions about religious and spiritual practices as well as how religion comes up in their current families” (Ecklund and Lee 2011, 732). While I believe their explanation that it came up organically in the interview, it’s important to actually ask the question explicitly. From the questions they describe, the parents appear to have been asked more questions (questions about parenthood presumably being skipped for non-parents), so the finding could be entirely an artifact of parents having more opportunities than non-parents to mention religious services. It does not matter whether this explanation is true, only that is sufficiently plausible to represent a serious design flaw in their study.

    More to the point, “strictly speaking” is the key word because they do not code the interviews for various statements on spirituality, spousal influence, and moral community to back up their claims about these categories.

  • It’s hard to believe he’d sit through all those Rev.
    Wright sermons for a political career he hadn’t
    yet decided upon.

     And candidates have to profess Christianity,
    not go to church every week(i.e. GWBush)

  • News flash: 1 in 6 nonreligious scientists sometimes know people who occasionally get married or die.   Or 1 in 6 are married to a religious person who makes them go to church.  Ho-freaking-hum.

    Hell, if funerals count, then I’d qualify, and I’m about as anti-theistic as they come!!!

  • Anonymous

    “Nearly 1 in 5 atheist scientists “attended a religious service more than once in the past year”Echoing those above. I’m an atheist scientist, and I’ve attended, if memory serves me correctly, two religious services this past year. Both were baptisms. My best friend, also an atheist scientist, has likewise attended one baptism and one funeral.A more relevant question is what proportion of atheist scientists who are parents are integrated into a religious community. Going to friends weddings, funerals, baptisms etc. or visiting churches (and mosques, and synagogues etc.) with your kids to teach them world religions doesn’t really count.

  • Anonymous

    We’ve visited churches with our kids, but I’d call it “research”.  My kids are growing up surrounded by religious believers, and the more they understand about what these people believe and what their churches are telling them, the better equipped my kids will be to deal with them.  I also consider a good knowledge of world religions as a good “vaccination”.  Someday when an evangelist tries to convert one of my kids by telling them how “special and different” their church is, my kids will probably just snort and talk about all the other religions that make the same claim.

    Our UU has a sunday school program for the 7th graders called “neighboring faiths” which is a full year of studying world religions and visiting services.  Best thing ever, and I wish they’d offer it to the adults too, because a lot of them could really use it.

    And I agree, in the sort of study we are taling about, none of this should count as “attending worship services.”

  • I agree with others that the language for the questions should have been something like the following:

    Have you attended worship ceremenies with your family without the event being paired with weddings, funerals, baptisms, research, or other special events? 

    That would provide more meningful results. 

  • Cher

    I teach ‘freethought’ to my kids.  They have freedom of thought.  It’s pretentious of me to think that my thought has any superiority over another just because I feel that I have scientific supporting evidence and logic to back it.  That is the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ argument and I just choose not to go there with my children or anyone else.  My children understand the foundation of living secular as this is how they were raised; however, now that they are teens they have a lot of questions and are becoming more ‘rebellious’ against what I’ve been telling them all these years.  Not because they don’t believe me because they WANT to decide for themselves.  They WANT it to be THEIR system of beliefs (or non-beliefs) and not just because mom told them this.  They don’t want to be indoctrinated.  I have to respect that.  And I do.  We attend various religious events – Christian, UU, and even Jewish.  It is educational for me and for them and then afterward we talk about it.  Regardless of the supernatural lining, the morality and values are similar to what we teach at home.  I am  proud of my kids for wanting to take control of it and not depending on my thoughts in which to decide where to base theirs.  THIS is FREETHOUGHT.

  • taylor

    placibo: you sound like a close minded fundamentalist. 🙂 

    i’m always happy when those who are atheists have the strength to acknowledge that they believe in absolutes: right / wrong / etc. In that moment they find themselves much closer to their Christian brother or sister.

  • Forrest Cahoon

    It really varies from congregation to congregation. My mom is an atheist UU, and I have been to a few services over the years. In her church, they generally focus our common humanity and avoid addressing theism vs. atheism directly, accommodating both.

    But they sing (secularized) hymns — I hate that part.

  • I do not agree with your statement. Children *should* be exposed to things that are just plain wrong, with the caveat that parents should be explaining to their children how they can know this stuff is wrong. Forbidding children to learn about things you disagree with makes it seem more compelling. Case in point:

    Most of my father’s side of the family is from the South – the States of Alabama and Georgia, to be specific. We’d go to visit every now and again, and at the tender age of 7 I would have to sit at the dinner table and listen to my uncles go on and on about how everybody who wasn’t the right shade of white (Italians didn’t ‘count’) and the right flavor of Christian were destroying America and how they were arming and preparing for the upcoming race war, though in vastly less appropriate language.

    Know what? It was the best lesson I’ve ever had on the utter stupidity of racisim. Later, my mother helped me to understand why what they were saying was wrong and evil. Not because she said so, but because what if people hated me that way for being something I could not help being?

    This stands in stark contrast to my religious upbringing, as I was actively discouraged from reading the holy texts of other faiths  – boy did my RC parents lose it when they found out I had read the Koran, and was working my way through the Bhagavad Gita, in addition to all the uncomfortable questions I was asking about the Bible. Things got ugly when I got my hands on Egyptian/Greek/Norse mythology, and they unconvincingly attempted to explain why those gods were not real but their god was. As a young boy all I thought was “if their religion is the one true faith, then why are they so afraid of me learning about the ones that aren’t?”

    My point? Hiding knowledge from children is a terrible idea – teach them to think critically and evaluate claims for truth or falsehood instead. Explain *why* homeopathy is ridiculous, and why nobody seems to be able to provide any evidence for the existence of their particular deity. Teach them to *THINK*.

  • Andy Anderson


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