Monday, July 16, 2012

Atheist Retention Rates

We live in an era where almost 50% of the citizens in some Western European countries don't believe in God and a solid majority of those in Japan and Vietnam are nonbelievers [Top 50 Countries With Highest Proportion of Atheists / Agnostics].

According to some polls, about 30% of Canadians don't believe in God [Religion in Canada] and in the USA the number of nonbelievers is about 12% of the population {Atheists in America].

A recent survey by The PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life looked at the religious belief of Americans as adults and how they were raised as children. There were 1387 people who self-identified as atheists but only 131 of these were raised as atheists. Thus, 90% of the atheists were raised in a religious household but later on abandoned their belief in God(s).

That's pretty remarkable in a society that's as religious are the USA. It's not surprising that there are so many first generation atheists because a generation ago the number of atheists in the USA was less than 1% of the population.

On the other hand, there were 432 respondents who said they were raised as atheists. Only 131 of these respondents are still atheists so that means that the retention rate for atheism is only 30% and that makes it the worst "religion" at retaining childhood beliefs. The figure and the data are from Mark M. Gray who blogs at Nineteen Sixty-four. He writes ...
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. Of those raised as Atheists, 30% are now affiliated with a Protestant denomination, 10% are Catholic, 2% are Jewish, 1% are Mormon, and 1% are Pagan.
This is perceived as good news by the IDiots who were happy to pass along the information on Uncommon Descent: Why do atheists have such a low retention rate?.
Some of us are tempted to wonder whether they just grow tired of the society of Darwin’s tenure bores and the atheist troll in the mailroom. Or of the uproar around the Skepchick. Re that latter individual, at some point, surely a normal dude must wonder, what is in this for me, long term?

He might be better off with a cute, decent girl who offers free coffee and cake in the parish hall, not sexy pics. But to meet her, he has to sober up, shave, shower, and go to church … so …

So, … maybe it’s just the facts of life that catch up with some of them?
I think there's a better explanation. As we all know, many evangelicals are proud of advertising that they were raised as atheists but were "born again" as teenagers or adults. Perhaps they "misremember" certain aspects of their religious upbringing and "forget" that their parents believed in God? If a few hundred of them declared, incorrectly, that they were raised as atheists then the real retention rate would be much higher.

In any case, religion is in trouble everywhere, including the United States. In many countries, there are millions of second and third generation atheists who will never believe in imaginary supernatural beings. Those who are making a big deal of this apparent retention rate among Americans are a lot like the passengers who concentrated on rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic was sinking.


  1. I don't share your optimistic views. It seems, that in the future atheists really may be in decline.

    This is only my pessimistic opinion, but I'm basing it on some premises.

    First, there is this article:

    which shows that considering birth and conversion rates percentage of atheists may decline in future.

    Today I've read this article:

    which says, that more educated people are more religious nowadays (probably because modern religions evolved into more sophisticated forms).

    Also I heard that more educated people are less likely to vaccinate their children.

    I think that atheists can be as irrational as belivers. It's possible that many (most?) of those converted atheists really were raised as atheists.

    Sorry about pessimism.

    1. Back in the 1920s when most Europeans were quite religious I suspect there were a lot of people like you who said that religion will always be important.

      Today, in most Western European countries, religion has almost disappeared from society except for a small minority of mostly old people who still attend places of worship on a regular basis. The cultural influences of those societies are so strong that few people can resist. Muslim immigrants, for example, are destined to see their grandchildren being raised as atheists will little regard for most Muslim traditions.

  2. I think it is fairly obvious that atheism has peaked and that its best days are behind it. I also don't see anyone replacing the current generation of "New Atheists" that have indeed done great damage to those who are impressionable and naive.

    Even amongst the 12% in the United States who state they are atheists , I suspect at least half believe in some sort of supernatural entity or paranormal phenomenon. Many Buddhists, for example, might describe themselves as "atheist" but actually believe in a supreme cosmic mind.

    But if we are to truly consign atheism to the ash heap of history, where it deserves to end up, we need to replace the current regime of materialist scientists and philosophers who are occupying our universities and who receive public funds in order to mislead the public with their asinine nonsense.

    1. I think it is fairly obvious that atheism has peaked and that its best days are behind it.

      You have a remarkable ability. You are wrong almost 100% of the time. You are so consistent that all one has to do is read your comments and know that the truth is exactly the opposite of what you say.

  3. The wording in the survey was: "Thinking about when you were a child, in what religion were you raised, if any?" That is, the data about family background was retrospective and self-reported, not collected form the respondent's caretakers. If you look at the classification used, nonreligious people are divided into atheists (why does Gray capitalize "atheist"?), agnostics and "nothing in particular". I find it very dubious that respondents would be able to report accurately the particular label their caretakers would have adopted.

    Second, Gray takes this question to mean that "the religion you were raised in" means the same thing as "your religious identity as a young person". That's a pretty liberal interpretation. "Being raised in the atheist religion" is a clumsy formulation in any case; it could mean the religious views of the caretakers, or it could mean an absence of religion during one's upbringing, or it could mean actually being taught not to believe in deities. It's not a matter of course that people who reported to have been "raised as atheists" actually were atheists as opposed to, say, agnostics, at any point.

    Also, something to note is that and there are far more nothing in particulars than there are self-identifying atheists. Technically speaking many in the agnostic and secular unaffiliated categories would qualify as atheists in the sense that they do not have theistic beliefs. I'm pretty sure such people do not want to identify as atheists because the word "atheist" has unpleasant connotations, such as having absolute certainty. This would suggest that different respondents can mean fairly different things when they talk about atheists (when they say they are one, or are not, or that their parents were).

  4. In my lifetime I have seen the repeal of Jim Crow laws with the introduction of the Equal Rights amendment and I expect to see homosexuals accorded the same rights under the law as heterosexuals.

    In Ontario, up to the mid 1950s, it was common to see signs on beaches that read "No Dogs or Jews Allowed" which puts this religious bigotry squarely in my lifetime.

    The next generation will look back at the religiously motivated bigotry against gays much the same way that we now look at racial based segregation, and will wonder how this generation could have considered our treatment of gays moral.

    I fully expect to see similar advances in end of life choices.

    The continuing changes in the moral zeitgeist are the result of an increasingly secular society and has been fought and will continue to be fought tooth and nail by religion all the way.

    As religion becomes increasingly irrelevant extremists will have to resort more and more to violence as they are losing the battle in the public marketplace of ideas.

    1. I agree with the general thrust of your comment but this ...

      In Ontario, up to the mid 1950s, it was common to see signs on beaches that read "No Dogs or Jews Allowed" which puts this religious bigotry squarely in my lifetime.

      ... is not correct. It was NOT "common" to see such signs anywhere in Ontario in the 1950s.

    2. That was based on published reminiscences of Jewish people who lived in Ontario during that era who may have taken notice of the signs out of proportion to the actual number.

      Pontypool in the Kawarthas became a vacation retreat for Toronto Jews into the 1960s due to religious bigotry.

      Here in Toronto we have a fine hospital (Mount Sinai) due to the fact that in the 1920s no other hospital in the area would give Jewish doctors a place to practice.

      And then there is the Island Yacht Club which was founded in 1951 by a group of Jewish sailing enthusiasts as other clubs would not accept Jewish members.

      Ditto for golf clubs and college fraternities and sororities.

  5. "a generation ago the number of atheists in the USA was less than 1% of the population"

    As I recall, the 2008 Pew foundation survey said that 1.6% of the U.S. population identify themselves as atheists. I don't know what you base the other percentages you give but I'm extremely doubtful about them, as I am about just about all sociological surveying and polling.

    Why is this important to anyone except the individual people who have made their own choices?

    The continuing changes in the moral zeitgeist are the result of an increasingly secular society and has been fought and will continue to be fought tooth and nail by religion all the way.

    "If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Richard Dawkins

    "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." Steve Weinberg

    "Almost all of us agree that we’re meat automatons in the sense that all our actions are predetermined by the laws of physics as mediated through our genes and environments and expressed in brains. We differ in how we interpret that fact vis-à-vis “free will and “moral responsibility,” though many of us seem to think that the truth of determinism should be quietly shelved for the good of the masses." Jerry Coyne

    I've seen your "zeitgeist" and moral progress, it ain't. Atheism has not, yet come up with a plausible explanation of how morality could be anything but an imaginary, unreal thing. I used to overlook that out of a mistaken sense of leftist solidarity but with things like those quotes piling up, along with a pretty unattractive history of atheists with political power, I'm not doing that anymore.

    As a gay man, I have yet to have any one come up with a plausible reason that I've got a right to equality under the law in a materialist context. Bishop Gene Robinson's reason is internally consistent. I'd rather take my chances with his articulation of my rights.

    1. The very fact that you can present yourself as a gay man in a public forum is an indication of the changing zeitgeist.

      If you are waiting for the universe to notice you and give your life meaning then you're in for a bit of a wait.

      It's too bad that a realization of how the universe actually works plunges you into some sort of petulant existential angst, I'd say grow up and deal with it.

    2. As a gay man, I have yet to have any one come up with a plausible reason that I've got a right to equality under the law in a materialist context

      Interesting. The alternative is to rely on religion to defend your right to equality? How did that work out in the past?

      There's a connection between increasing secularization and tolerance. That's why secular societies have granted equal rights to gays and lesbians but religious societies (like the USA) have not.

      Those who are free of religious "morality" tend not to care about imposing their personal preferences on others. The "materialist" position is that societies function better when tolerance and diversity are the goals.

    3. I've been out from before Stonewall, atheism had nothing to do with it.

      Exactly the same methods atheists use to dispose of God work on things like inherent rights, political equality, free will. As seen in these and many other, similar statements, materialism has a long history of denial that those are real. Without a belief in a right to political equality, there is no way to articulate why it would be wrong to discriminate against lgbt people. Materialism provides no explaination of how those exist, they have no physical existence. Even if you could convince someone that they are equal to straight, rich, white men. As Dawkins points out, which ever side in such a dispute would be without moral restraint under such a system. I've never seen the "whatever I can get away with" standard is a reliable guarantor of civil rights. Hasn't worked for women in any reliable way.

      The rights of gay men under atheist governments is certainly a less than an entirely encouraging thing. Of course, rights of any kind haven't been guaranteed under officially atheist and anti-religious governments. Of course, there haven't been all that many of those in history but that's the available source of evidence.

      Those who are free of religious "morality" tend not to care about imposing their personal preferences on others.

      Stalin, Mao, Hoxha, Honecker,.... I don't have any problem imagining civil rights violations if the majority of atheists, as represented on the blogs, gained power. It was only massive criticism, much of it on the basis of political idiocy instead of morality, that got Dawkins to walk back his signing onto the prohibition against parents teaching their children about religion.

      Lgbt folk aren't merely defined by our sexuality and gender, we are people who have all the same chances of having our rights violated in all the ways that straight folk have, including discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Since, in the US, at least, we aren't covered under the civil rights laws that cover religious status, including atheism, we could be discriminated on any basis. Many religious people I've encountered and read support gay rights on the basis of believing that all people are endowed with inherent rights by their creator. My former state legislator attributed his votes in favor of marriage equality and equal rights on the basis that he was taught that.

    4. petulant existential angst

      Oh, I was in far more of a state of "existential angst" when I was in the process of becoming an agnostic. Having achieved that position I found it left me and I was free to admit that everything we accept is, in its most literal sense, believed. That was remarkably freeing and allowed me to go on from there. Let me gain experience in arguing these issues, too.

      Existentialism is almost as silly as positivism, but it's slightly less unrealistic about the nature of knowledge so it's somewhat less silly. Logical positivism is about as silly an ideology as Western thought has ever generated. One that is entirely refuted.

  6. I am sorry, but why is this important?
    Seriously, religions wax and wane, as they have always done. This has never been a problem. It will only become a problem if we grow intolerant of another person's worldview. This squabbling is petty at best, and dangerous otherwise.

    1. Are you really that unaware of the history of western civilization over that last 2 millenia or so ?

      Here in the west (for want of a better term) religion has been largely detoxified by enlightenment, secular values.

      It's not squabbling to push back against religious incursions into our hard won secular society, this is what any fully engaged citizen of a secular democracy should do.

      You may be happy with state financing of religious schools, religiously motivated attacks against reproductive freedom for women and full and equal treatment under the law for homosexuals, increasing religious meddling in end of life choices etc. ad nauseum but I like living in an increasingly secular society and I will make it part of my legacy for future generations.

    2. @steve oberski

      I am fully aware of the history of western civilization, and I believe there have been some nasty conflicts due to intolerance of other people's religious beliefs.

      I agree with pushing back excesses, such as the ones you mention in your last paragraph. But I don't like it that you make atheism synonymous with secular society. The disappearance of religion is not required for a secular society, nor will an atheistic society guarantee fair treatment of women and homosexuals.
      I hate it when certain christians claim the higher moral ground, but I note that many atheists are in danger of making the same mistake.

    3. But I don't like it that you make atheism synonymous with secular society.

      That was not my intention and I don't think it's the position of most atheists. It's true that a secular society can also be quite religious. There aren't any examples, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

      You claim that atheists are "intolerant" and that we stake out the "high moral ground." That depends very much on what you mean by "intolerant."

      I readily admit that my tolerance for sexists, bigots, and people who refuse to vaccinate their children, is somewhat less than my tolerance of people with a more open-minded worldview.

      I'm less than tolerant of people who want to impose their religious morality on the rest of us. Does that make me intolerant?

      Corneel, are you "tolerant" of everyone's worldview no matter how cruel and stupid it is? I doubt it.

      What you're really upset about is the fact that for the first time in history religious prejudices are being challenged just like all other prejudices. You want religious beliefs to be protected from criticism on the grounds of "tolerance"—a position that you would never invoke for any other beliefs and prejudices.

    4. @Larry
      For clarity: I am a non-believer, so the "we atheists" includes "me". Most of my family is catholic though.

      I encourage you to keep challenging cruel and stupid prejudices, regardless of whether they are religiously inspired or not. I am all for criticising the sexists, bigots and anti-vaccination crowd. In fact, I am happy to join in.

      But we were discussing the retention rates of believers versus non-believers. This is not quite the same. So, would it matter if atheists were to be replaced? Do you believe the world would become less rational? And, if not, why is it so important that religion is a sinking ship and that atheism will win out? No, I am not upset that religious prejudices are being challenged, but I am scared that disdain is creeping in.

  7. I think there's a much easier explanation. I would have thought it's much more difficult to remain an atheist through childhood in the US than to remain religious. You may bring your child up without religion, but the surrounding society explicitly and repeatedly tells that child that religion is important and that good people are religious. It may be coming from friends, teachers and the community at large.

    I think this is bound to happen until the atheist population reaches a critical mass where religion doesn't hold the same dominance.

  8. Sarting with Anthony Flew, probably the 20th century's most public atheist, who eventually realised the nature of biological technology was far more complex than he had been led to believe by Dawkins, many atheists start out with an energetic, healthy disregard for archaic religion (as did I, in an atheist household). Then, delving into science, become convinced of something far more profound than even religion had portrayed. Flew was appalled that he had spent his life criticising concepts which ended up dwarfing his own.

    The relentless misery of the militant atheist, and his desire to trump all with his intellect, has antagonised the press against them. Dawkins cannot now appear without massive snipes and criticism, mainly because he has offended so many people.

    While people might outgrow religion, the normal brain still feels a healthy spirituality: just as ancient science would not be called science today, the religions of the future will advance well beyond what we have been bequeathed by the past. Atheism is collapsing, as evidence by the A+ movement: even atheists get sick of bitterness.