Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Parenting and the Pew Data

PZ Myers examines the new data on Americans' religious beliefs, and focuses on the large number of people who were 'unaffiliated' as children only to become believers as adults:

So [we atheists] are growing fast, but our children have a significant chance of 'backsliding' into some religion later in life. I suspect that is a consequence of the fact that most non-religious households will not provide any specific training in beliefs (I know I didn't!) and godlessness is often presented as simple disbelief without a body of associated positive values. We need to change that. [emphasis mine]
Can PZ Myers, whom I consider one of the better spokesmodels for atheism, really believe that non-believing parents just instill skepticism toward god(s) without imparting god-free values? This certainly doesn't square with my own experience of how non-believing parents operate, and worse, it seems to confirm the equation of atheism with nihilism, one of the favorite debating points of religious believers.

I can't speak for all parents (under current law), but I think this has it exactly backwards. Parents raising children without imaginary moral authority figures are more inclined, not less, to engage questions of value. In my own case, I sometimes wonder if I hector my son too much with the aim of getting him to think about ethical consequences; and as for other positive values, I know I sometimes bore him with my insistence that he consider the breathtaking beauty, awe, and inspiration that can be gleaned from observing and learning about the natural world (whereas he would really like to watch Sponge Bob). Meanwhile, I have seen plenty of Christian parents who were taught in their time that every moral quandary is asked and answered in the Bible, and have passed this type of moral thinking to their children -- a type of moral thinking that compares with actual moral thinking in precisely the way that Genesis compares with the theory of evolution, which is to say, it contradicts and displaces it, and does so badly.

A more parsimonious explanation of 'backsliding' from youthful irreligion to adult religion is that young adults leave an irreligious household and enter a deeply religious American society in which going around the block without ear plugs exposes one to countless loudly-shouted appeals to join one religion or another. Sooner or later, one of these appeals will sound attractive -- proselytizers don't typically lead with their crazier beliefs or more burdensome demands. And so it begins, and takes its familiar trajectory. This is to say nothing more dramatic than proselytizing sometimes works, which also explains the much-noticed churn from sect to sect among believers that the Pew study showed.

Add to this, of course, that young adults will tend to adopt the norms of their new social in-group, which is likely to be religious here in America; and add that every young adult knows he must defy his parents and repudiate at least some of his upbringing, and how better to show independence from non-believing parents than to sign on with one of the leading death cults?

If there is a lesson here, it is that parents don't have ultimate control over the beliefs of their children. This truth cuts across time and space and all beliefs, and we already knew it. We can just give them the best mental software we know how to give, and while I'm biased on the matter, I think non-believing parents do very well in this.


Zennalathas said...

I'm engaged currently in a sort of e-mail exchange with a friend who suggested that because my generation is so atheistic that the one that we produce with therefore be theistic.

Do you think that meta-physical values are really simply a back-lash against parental upbringing?

I know mine certainly isn't.

Sis B said...

I have concerns about this, too. In fact, I thought that perhaps we should overwhelm our children with religion so they will rebel against it in their teen years. We joke about that all the time. I also think I should indoctrinate them with Rush Limbaugh. :)

But seriously, teaching my children morals and values outside of religion has been a struggle for me. Realizing that morality exists outside of religion, and to an even higher standard, is relatively new for me. I'm not certain how to pass it on, but I do the same thing--I try to point out the wonder and beauty of the world around us. I try to teach them how to care for it, themselves, and others. I teach them to treat others the way they want to be treated, because that, to me, is the basis of all morality.

Interesting post.

As usual.

Dale said...

Zen, Sis,

To be clear, no, I don't think rebelling against parents is a major part of this story. I do think that it could spawn some 'early' conversions -- "finally I'm out of that house and I can do what I want!" -- but I would very much hesitate to predict any shelf-life to such conversions.

People commonly rebel against parents in some way only to wander back into the original fold, whatever fold that was. Most people, that is, end up looking in the mirror and asking "when did I become my parents?" soon enough, and in ways they didn't expect and would not have predicted. This is a truism, which is a nice way of saying it is a cliche, but cliches have an aggravating habit of being true.

Sis, to your point about teaching religion without god talk: in what way do you find it difficult? I find I say the same kinds of things that religious parents say, just without the coda about threatening hellfire if the kid disagrees because [local god] has my back on what I'm saying. I don't mean to be obtuse, but, well, there it is. I'm rather obtuse and don't know what you mean.

Thanks for the comments.

Laura said...

I've heard of all different experiences where children have been raised with hellfire and brimstone religion and have adhered to it; kids who have rebelled against it; kids raised with no religion who become religious, and those raised without religion who continue on without it. I really believe it has a lot to do with temperament. If one is a fearful person, or a black/white person, one may need the structure and reassurance (?!?) of religion, which appears to provide answers to scary questions. In my opinion, those answers are scarier than the questions, but I know plenty of people who are convinced the Bible is literally true and this seems to make them happy and secure. And I notice they all have something in common: they tend to be insecure, black/white thinkers, very much in denial of reality when it overwhelms them. Maybe that had some kind of evolutionary advantage, but nowadays has gone the way of the vestigial organ, or so I believe. No, worse actually, because religion is very harmful to present day society.
(wow, that felt good).