Freethought, open-mindedness, and the poor retention of atheist families
I often view some atheists’ stated valuations of “freethinking” and “open-mindedness” as being somewhat naïve, or hypocritical. Why is it that folks who so often claim to be open-minded just happen to have similar worldviews, epistemologies, and worldviews? The answer from within the secular freethinking and open-minded communities generally is that the evidence points to atheism, so of course, open-minded folks would tend to be atheist just like them.
But here’s the thing: there’s already a presupposition about what “evidence” is. So, they are open-minded…as long as the evidence presented is “objective”…as long as it can be churned through the scientific method of hypothesis, testing, analysis, and repetition. Since supernatural phenomena and allegedly mystical experiences tend not to be shy when there’s a microscope around, these things are not part of the purview of an open-minded free-thinker.
My first reaction is to suggest that perhaps open-mindedness is just overrated. Maybe we should embrace that we are critical and skeptical of some things — even if the things we are skeptical of and the things another guy may be skeptical of might differ.
My second reaction is to suppose that maybe the term “free-thinker” is commonly misunderstood — it’s not about being free to think whatever you want…rather, it’s about being free from certain kinds of thoughts. You know, the religious ones.
Perhaps that’s too cynical? Recently, I decided to tip the scales the other direction…what might be an optimistic interpretation of folks’ stated values of open-mindedness and free-thought?
Here, I turn to a Christian Post article that Jesse Stay linked to that reports that atheists have the lowest retention rates when compared to religious groups. From the post:
Those who grow up in an atheist household are least likely to maintain their beliefs about religion as adults, according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
Only about 30 percent of those who grow up in an atheist household remain atheists as adults. This “retention rate” was the lowest among the 20 separate categories in the study.
There were 1,387 atheists (weighted) in the survey. Four-hundred thirty-two weighted respondents said they were raised atheist. Of those, 131 self-identified as atheist.
“What these findings reflect is that in the U.S. atheists are for the most part ‘made’ as adults after being raised in another faith. It appears to be much more challenging to raise one’s child as an atheist and have them maintain this identity in their life,” Dr. Mark Gray wrote at CARA’s blog.
Let’s ignore the source post. Let’s ignore the source group. Let’s ignore these things for a moment.
Richard Dawkins infamously argued that religions cannot be attributed to children (although perhaps more infamous is his assertion that labeling a child with a religion is a kind of child abuse):
There is no such thing as a Catholic child — only a child of Catholic Parents. There is no such thing as a Protestant child — only a child of Protestant parents. There is no such thing as a Muslim child, only a child of Muslim parents…I repeat these slogans over and over again, probably too often…Too often? It can’t be too often when you’re in the business of consciousness-raising.
The interesting thing, if you pay attention to the video I linked, is that Dawkins goes through several other labels one might give…he goes through these labels to try to point out how preposterous it would be to label a four-year-old a Keynesian or a Hayekian…but he also uses atheist and agnostic as examples of ridiculous labels for children.
So…let’s turn back to the Christian Post survey. I think that many people assume that retention is best. If more children retain the religion of their parents or of their upbringing, then that supposedly speaks positively about that religion. So, in Jesse Stays’ Google+ conversation, he has commenters discussing that maybe the reason atheists have such poor retention is because it is such a bleak worldview…inconsistent with morality and with purpose. Or whatever they say.
I’m going to assert something different: what if atheism has poor retention because free-thinking atheists follow their stated values of free-thought and open-mindedness?
Let’s take CARA’s Mark Gray’s statement. Mark Gray suggests that the findings reflect that U.S. atheists are for the most part “made” as adults after being raised in a(nother) faith, but that it is “more challenging to raise one’s child as an atheist and have them maintain this identify in their life.”
But what does it mean to raise a child as an atheist? I mean, already, I have conflated “atheism” with other things that may not necessarily apply (not all “atheists” espouse “free-thought” or “secular humanism” or “new atheism” or whatever bundle of beliefs there might be.) When you get down to mere atheism, you don’t really have lesson manuals about what atheism entails. There aren’t atheist churches.
…I think what would be interesting to see is the reaction of atheist parents to their children’s religiosity in life…as contrasted with the reaction of various religious parents to their children’s potential decision to change religions. Perhaps we could test the stated “open-mindedness” of many atheists by seeing if they are ok with their children becoming religious. (I think that many atheist or agnostic parents wouldn’t have much of a problem with such a conversion). And while not every religious parent would lash out against their children for leaving the parent’s faith…the stories of such backlash generally do come from religious parents, not the non-religious ones.