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Do atheists beget atheists?

June 29th, 2014

Sign: there's probably no God

I find statistics on religion to be interesting, and helpful in understanding what is going on in the world. In previous posts I have outlined:

  • The major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) are growing in numbers worldwide, but (Religion statistics), but only Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are growing in percentage terms.
  • Almost half of christians today are converts, with high growth rates in countries in Asia, Africa and South America that are not traditionally christian, but declining numbers in the once-christian west (Are many christians converts?).
  • The current view of sociologists of religion is that religion is unlikely to die out or even decline greatly worldwide (Is religion dying out? Is this inevitable in the modern world?).

Belief is one side of the coin. How is unbelief going? Some survey information from the US is interesting.

Some definitions

Surveys tend to list people by their stated adherence to a religion, with the remainder being classified as “unaffiliated“, or “nothing in particular”. The unaffiliated category is made up of four groups, based on their self identification:

  • atheists
  • agnostics
  • secular unaffiliated
  • religious unaffiliated, or unattached believers

Survey results

Two surveys have been conducted in the last decade:

Both surveys give similar results, with some changes apparent in the intervening 4 years.

How many unbelievers?

The ranks of the unaffiliated are growing, now comprising almost 20% of the US population, made up as follows:

  • atheists: 2-3%
  • agnostics: 3-5%
  • secular unaffiliated: 8%
  • religious unaffiliated: 5-7%

The religious unaffiliated are the fastest growing of any group in these surveys. Other studies (e.g. by the Barna Group) suggest many of these are committed christians turned off by the churches, while others are believers in a more vaguely defined God.

Passing on belief to children

How successful are parents in passing on their religious beliefs, or lack of belief, to their children?

It turns out that children raised in religious homes are much more likely to remain believers than children raised in non-believing families are likely to remain non believers:

  • Atheists’ children are only 30% likely to remain atheist,
  • unaffiliated children are about 50% likely to stay that way,
  • christian kids are 32-73% (depending on denomination – average is about 60%) likely to remain in their denomination, and
  • Hindus, Muslims and Jews have the best retention rate of all (76-84%).

Growth and decline

At first sight, these retention percentages may seem inconsistent with the known fact that religious belief generally is on the decline in the US. But we need to remember the difference between numbers and percentages.

Children brought up in a religion are more than likely to remain in that religion, but because there are so many more believers than atheists and agnostics, the relatively small percentage who leave in a religion make a larger increase in the numbers of atheists and agnostics, and the largest increase of all in the religious unaffiliated.

Sociologists speculate that the children of non-believers will be more likely to remain non-believers when their total numbers rise.

What does it all mean?

The organised religions and denominations are effective in passing on their beliefs to the next generation, but are losing numbers because they are not making many converts.

But most of those who leave the belief of their parents don’t end up as non-believers, but as religious unaffiliated – people with some belief, or who see religion as having importance in their lives, but who don’t identify as part of any particular religious group. God, and maybe Jesus, are losing few followers while churches are losing more.

For whatever reason, stronger forms of unbelief (atheism and agnosticism) do not seem to ‘stick’ with half the children raised that way. It seems in the US, atheists do not beget atheists necessarily.

Meanwhile, outside the USA

All this applies to the US. In Australia and UK, there is much less religious belief, and I don’t have data for retention rates, but it seems likely that they may be similar. This is only a guess, but if things were very different, I’d expect there to be larger changes in overall religion statistics than actually occurs.

Studies show that generally non-believers have smaller families than believers. If this is combined with the low retention rates, one can speculate that organised religion may continue to decline in English speaking countries, but most of the losses will go to the secular or religious affiliated category, and not to hard-core atheism.

Read more

These two reports give somewhat different slants on similar information – the first looking at the retention rates and the second emphasising the changes in overall percentages.

Photo Credit: stuartpilbrow via Compfight cc

8 Comments

  1. My own view is in line with the statistics. I never discussed religion with my children. I, like most atheists, believe that people should make up their own mind on these matters when they are old enough without being indoctrinated. All my children and grandchildren are atheists, as are my wife and the the spouses of my children. But they are all apatheists. That is they are just completely uninterested in the subject.

    I think it’s probable that people who are largely uninterested will tend towards conformity with those around them. That is they will have a nominal adherence. The advantage of atheism for the non-interested is it requires less time than anything else.

  2. Like Gordon, I followed my beliefs in how to bring up my children. It is no big surprise that they reflect those beliefs in both cases.

  3. Consider as well that atheism has a huge stigma in this country. Only 2-3% of the nation is atheist? That sounds low to me. I’m willing to be that many more atheists simply claimed the religion of their parents on those surveys, despite the fact that they don’t practice and couldn’t care less about any form of religion.

  4. Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment. Of course a survey is only as good as the answers people give. But I’m not sure if many people would lie in a confidential survey because of a perceived stigma.

    My guess is that many people don’t really care all that much about whether God exists or not. So they don’t identify as either religious or atheist, but in the “unaffiliated” category – either religious unaffiliated or (more likely) non-religious.

    Why do you think that more people are atheist than the percentages reported?

  5. An atheist, despite what the board above says, is not a believer, but a non-believer, a- means ‘not’, therefore atheists are not believers, what an atheist believes is that God is the thin air, nothing, non-existence, and a fairytale, but is atheism based on fact? Probably not, because being a thinking philosophy it talks about what you think of God, so “God is a fairytale” is only your opinion. The reason I choose to be an atheist is this: I don’t believe in the tooth fairy so I don’t believe an insensible object as God could possibly exist, the laws of physics don’t prove His existence, so, being equivalent to pixies, elves and leprechauns, there’s no reason to believe in God. However I don’t think everything is physical or material, the mind is a synthetic creation of humans and animals, it’s not, however, material, but the spirit isn’t even in the body therefore we have no spirit, we have no soul, simple! It doesn’t take a quantum physicist to figure that out, not much intelligence is required to figure out there aren’t any gods, though becoming an atheist requires a lot of thinking before you’re an atheist, it’s not an easy decision. I chose to be an atheist for the primary reason that we’re living in the real world (objectivity) and it’s not necessarily fantasised in your head. Period!

  6. Hi Maxie, thanks for visiting and commenting.

    May I ask one question please: do you really think the evidence for God is no more than that for pixies, elves and leprechauns?

    Thanks.

  7. Atheists “believe” that there is no God. The religious folk “believe” that there is a God. In other words, they are both the same, for they both choose to practice beliefs. They choose to stick to a belief, be it atheism or a religious belief.

    It is to be noted that if you are directly connected to the truth, then in such a circumstance you obviously need not be dependent upon mere beliefs nor disbeliefs.

    However, if you are located at a distance from the truth, it is only then that you may become dependent upon mere beliefs/disbeliefs. Also, it is to be noted that if you are therefore located at a distance from the truth, then obviously you are now located within the zone of “Less Than Truth”. Thus in turn, if you stick to your beliefs/disbeliefs, then you also have chosen to stick to being located at a distance from the truth, thus you have also chosen to stick to being located within the zone of “Less Than Truth”.

    As a consequence of this phenomena, atheism exists, multiple religions exist, and thus this connection with less than truth is endlessly maintained.

    As a second consequence of this phenomena, if truth concerning proof of the existence of God is presented to any religious believer or atheist, it is immediately condemned, for a “believer”, by sticking to his or her beliefs/disbeliefs, has also chosen to accept only “Less Than Truth”.

    For instance, if you go to http://goo.gl/38qhp and click on the yellow flashing words “Watch / Listen”, proof of God’s existence is presented. However, a believer will want nothing to do with such proof.

    The believer will not even be able to see such truth, since a believer chooses to only see truth as best as it can be seen from a distance. In turn, you can also not speak truths “directly” in the here and now to believers, for they only accept truth as best as it can be seen from a distance. In turn, one is forced to speak to such people indirectly, thus one is forced to speak to such people by speaking to them via parables.

  8. Hi Sean, thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. But this is the second post where you have posted the same comment. I hope you don’t keep posting the same comment on other posts, for that would make it “spam” and I would remove it. Thanks.

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