Some atheists embrace religion for kids

RICE (US) — Despite their personal beliefs, atheist scientists with children often participate in religious traditions for social reasons, a new study finds.

Reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the study also finds some atheist scientists want their children to know about different religions so they can make informed decisions about their own religious preferences.

“Our research shows just how tightly linked religion and family are in U.S. society—so much so that even some of society’s least religious people find religion to be important in their private lives,” says Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund.



The research was conducted through interviews with a scientifically selected sample of 275 participants pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 U.S. research universities. Approximately half of the original survey population expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not—17 percent of atheists with children said they attended a religious service more than once in the past year.

The respondents cited a variety of 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.

One of the most interesting findings, Ecklund says, was discovering that not only do some atheist scientists wish to expose their children to religious institutions, but they also cite their scientific identity as reason for doing so.

“We thought that these individuals might be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions, but we found the exact opposite to be true. They want their children to have choices, and it is more consistent with their science identity to expose their children to all sources of knowledge.”

One study participant raised in a strongly Catholic home said he came to believe later that science and religion were not compatible. He said what he wants to pass on to his daughter—more than the belief that science and religion are not compatible—is the ability to make her own decisions in a thoughtful, intellectual way.

“I … don’t indoctrinate her that she should believe in God,” the study participant said. “I don’t indoctrinate her into not believing in God.” He sees himself as accomplishing this by exposing her to a variety of religious choices, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and others.

The study’s findings will help the public better understand the role that religious institutions play in society, Ecklund says.

“I think that understanding how nonreligious scientists utilize religion in family life demonstrates the important function they have in the U.S.”

The paper was co-authored by Kristen Schultz Lee, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo. A grant from the John Templeton Foundation and funding from Rice supported the research.

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