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Freethought, open-mindedness, and the poor retention of atheist families

July 15, 2012

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.

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13 Comments
  1. you don’t understand what atheism is.

    it is the rejection of theism.

    end of meaning.
    no replacement, nothing else.

    I was not taught any religion as a child.
    I was taught to learn and to experiment and explore and was exposed to a wide range of ideas.

    when I got curious about religion, I went to church. 2 of them.

    I rejected theism at age 12 and that was the start and end of atheism.

    it was the rejection and moving on to other things.

    that people who do not have religion end up thinking along similar lines is called being in touch with reality.

    and I thought you were an atheist, but a cultural mormon.

  2. Nina,

    I would quibble with the way you have defined atheism, but I don’t think it’s really essential…I guess I either really don’t get what you’re trying to say with your comment, or I don’t see where the disagreement is.

    I view things like this: I don’t believe in God/gods, so that makes me an atheist. That doesn’t say what my values/beliefs/attitudes/worldview/philosophy is, but I do have values/beliefs/attitudes and a worldview/philosophy. Do you disagree?

    • you can misunderstand the term as much as you want

      but theism is to have a religion belief and atheism is lack of religious belief

      it is not a separate system, it is a completely meaningless term

      and it is only useful for religious people to determine who they oppose

      much like we do not need a word to describe people who do not collect stamps.

      so yes, i do disagree how you are characterizing atheism.

      and drawing false conclusions as a result

      • Right. We don’t disagree here. I’ll reprint the following paragraph from my original article:

        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.

  3. openminded permalink

    Open-mindedness is like tolerance: there’s a paradox where the people who are tolerant of other worldviews–except for the worldviews that are really intolerant.

    Open-mindedness is being able to accept a new reality if the evidence takes you there. A lot of Mormons call me out on it, so I’ve had to revisit this subject a lot, and it becomes clear pretty soon that the moniker is like a bumper sticker–too shallow to get at the totality of the mindset.

    But on the other side, someone’s usually only “open minded” when they can see how their side is “right” in their own regard. I’ve had a Mormon think I’m not open-minded for thinking all the theories about transoceanic traveling are bunk and ridiculous, considering how large parts of the NT made it over with them.

    And in some ways they’re right–I’m closed off to a lot of the reasoning they approach the issue with. I read their reasoning and try to understand it without casting it off right from the start, but it’s just not compelling at all. Does that make me closed off to it? Yeah, it does. I’m also closed off to Young Earth Creationist thinking. So do I Really have an open mind? Well, I can’t simultaneously accept two opposing opinions about an issue, and if i’m open to YEC and evolution at the same time, then i’m more or less just undecided

    • open mindedness is about a willingness to consider other ideas and be willing to alter your own ideas if data or logic is presented

      tolerance does not require acceptance, respect or granting credibility to intolerance or hatred belief systems

  4. Seth R. permalink

    Right. Atheism is simply a non-belief. It’s not a positive belief system. It asserts nothing, advocates nothing, and leads to nothing.

    As such, it can be safely ignored in favor of thought systems that actually do advocate for something.

    Which, according to these findings – apparently people actually do. After all, spending your life in mere non-belief and opposition to something grows really tedious really quickly.

  5. Let’s start from scratch.

    Atheism is simply non-belief. I agree with this. It is not a positive belief system. I agree with this. It asserts nothing, advocates nothing, and leads to nothing. I agree with this.

    As such, it can be safely ignored in favor of thought systems that actually do advocate for something. Agreed.

    But what I’m saying here is that many atheists (i.e., “people who do not believe in gods”) already have thought systems that actually advocate for something. Whether it is existentialism or secular humanism, or “freethought,” or scientism, or whatever else, those are their positive belief systems. We just call these folks atheists because no where in any of their positive thought systems do they assert a god.

    So, if we look at the population of folks who claim to value free-thought…we can ask the following question: do they live it? As parents, yes, they appear to do so. On the other hand, many religious parents don’t seem to live that way, but then again, many religious parents also don’t even claim to value free-thinking, so that’s really judging them by criteria they never assented to be judged by.

  6. mick permalink

    “Why is it that folks who so often claim to be open-minded just happen to have similar worldviews, epistemologies, and worldviews? ”

    I don’t know… but I wonder why the people that lived 1,000 years before the bible was penned seem to have the same views… so it can’t be biblical morals.

    Besides having been an atheist all my life and having only read the bible for the first time in my 20’s along with other religious scripture…I can tell you for a fact my moral outlook didn’t come from the bible… I’m a little more ‘humanistic’ and ‘forgiving’ than the monstrous characters presented in those books as far as morals go!

    How does one ‘presuppose’ what evidence is before its presented? Anyway yes evaluation of evidence is the way evidence is evaluated…surely the author is not suggesting that NOT evaluating evidence is the best way to evaluate it? That would be plain stupid….

    So yeah when you get evidence you see if the evidence stands up to whatever you can throw at it… if it doesn’t it gets thrown in the bin…case closed.

    Using this methodology you can still be wrong of course… but you’ll be a lot less wrong than people who just accept every darn thing they hear even if those things are contradictory.

    And thats the problem…accepting things when there is no reason whatsoever to suppose any of it is true is silly…basing your life on it is stupendously stupid!

  7. mick,

    I don’t really know how to respond to all of your points, since I’m not 100% sure what all of your points are getting at, but I’ll respond to a few things now:

    How does one ‘presuppose’ what evidence is before its presented? Anyway yes evaluation of evidence is the way evidence is evaluated…surely the author is not suggesting that NOT evaluating evidence is the best way to evaluate it? That would be plain stupid….

    When a lot of people say the word “evidence,” the connotation is of something that is objective, verifiable, repeatable, etc., The very process of “evaluating” is wrapped up in processes like the scientific method and so forth. Let’s take what you say later on:

    So yeah when you get evidence you see if the evidence stands up to whatever you can throw at it… if it doesn’t it gets thrown in the bin…case closed.

    This is an EXTREMELY vague statement UNLESS you presuppose certain things…What does “standing up” look like? What do you “throw at” “evidence” to determine whether it will stand up?

    I would simply suggest that based on different presuppositions about what IS evidence, you get very different results. For example, if I take this phrase to mean, “So yeah, when you get evidnece, you see if the evidence stands up to [your interpretation of the Bible, which you believe is inerrant]…if it doesn’t it gets thrown in the bin…case closed”

    then that will mean something considerably different than other interpretations.

    Take what you state earlier in your comment:

    I wonder why the people that lived 1,000 years before the bible was penned seem to have the same views… so it can’t be biblical morals.

    You have already presupposed an entire chain of logic in order to make the conclusion that “it can’t be biblical morals.” E.g., biblical morals are originated from the Bible, and the Bible as a physical, tangible document came at some finite period of time, so thus, things from before this period of time can’t be based on biblical morals.

    …but many Christians would view things considerably different. If they believe that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, then it doesn’t matter if there was physical artifact of scripture because “biblical morals” were etched into the very fabric of humanity/the earth/the universe.

    So, I’m not saying I agree with the chain of logic that those Christians take…but I’m just pointing out that each individual is going to have certain axioms or presuppositions that’s beyond discourse for them…because they will take these presuppositions for granted.

  8. I can tell you for a fact my moral outlook didn’t come from the bible…

    Were you raised anywhere in the western world? If so, I can tell you for a fact that your moral outlook, along with the rest of your sociocultural makeup, is informed by the Bible.

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