Q: When Do Atheist Scientists Go To Church?

A. When they have kids.

From Patheos.com:

…researchers [Sociologists Elaine Ecklund (Rice University) and Kristen Lee (University of Buffalo, SUNY)] found that agnostics attend religious services (e.g., church) at about the same rate regardless of whether they have any children. By contrast, the attendance rate of atheists with children jumps 70% compared to those without. Children constitute a statistically significant factor in atheists attending religious services and joining religious communities. It should be noted that the atheists and agnostics in this study are all top-tier scientists, so these findings may not hold for atheists in general.

But why would atheists go to church? I mean, what’s that all about?  

First, scientists feel that having a scientific mindset means being able to make choices for oneself. Even if the scientist parent does not believe in God, this does not mean that the parent should impose that decision on his or her children—the children should think for themselves. Many scientists interviewed explicitly stated that they did not want to indoctrinate their children into atheism and so exposed their children to a diversity of religious communities.

Second – the most dominant reason – many of the scientists had a religious spouse who had a strong influence on how to raise their children. While this naturally required some negotiation, most of the scientists came from religious upbringings themselves and did not oppose a religious upbringing for their children.

In many circumstances they favored a religious upbringing because, third, they believed it would provide children with moral orientation. One scientist, who does not have children, said he would raise his children in the Catholic Church because he was raised Catholic and believes Catholicism teaches children important values.

Finally, atheist scientists raise their children in a religious setting because of the community it provides. Religious communities have a strong moral outlook and allow for intimate relationships.

I don’t buy the first reason. I think it’s cover. And the last three reasons seem more like one big reason — church is good for moral development and family peace. But there’s probably another reason, harder to quantify:

People want to believe. Even scientists and atheists. Maybe especially scientists and atheists.

  1. Frank Monaldo

    As a scientist and believer, I find agnosticism  more common than atheism or strong belief among colleagues. The scientific mindset is humble about asserting anything without proof, hence the agnosticism. I have a friend and colleague who is an in your face atheist,  a la Dawkins.  I call him an “evangelical atheist,” because of his certainty and to poke a little fun.

    It is interesting note his politics.  He is basically anti-religion.  He voted for Bush because at the time he believed radical Muslims were the biggest threat. Now, he believes evangelical Christians are too much of an threat to freedom, so he voted for Obama.

  2. Southern Pessimist

    People want to believe.  Even scientists and atheists.  Maybe especially scientists and atheists.

    Over the years, I have had many discussions about faith and my burden of skepticism with a priest who is a true friend. He attempts to reassure me by stating that all saints were agnostics or atheists (in some fashion) before they were saints.

  3. Rhoda at the Door

    I can’t speak for either atheists or scientists, but I think science absolutely depends on reason, on the congruence of an observation and a consequence or a pattern, for which a scientist seeks a cause.  A materialist is up against a major problem when he looks for a reason or cause, because random non-teleological events must be either undecipherable or nonsense.  So how do you get kids to look for reason, or persuade them there is such a thing?

  4. Michael Collins
    People want to believe.  Even scientists and atheists.  Maybe especially scientists and atheists. · · 52 minutes ago

    Why even scientists?  My father was only the second scientist from Nebraska to be inducted into the National Academy of Science.   He was a strong believer in God and highly active in the pro-life movement. 

    There is a stereotype of scientists as being non-believers.  Possibly that is the case nowadays, but it hasn’t been so for most of history.   My first reaction was to feel that an attitude of wonderment toward the idea that scientists could be believers was a slur on scientists.  On the other hand maybe that stereotype is not so far off the mark at this point in history.   Hmmmm.  

    Assuming that the stereotype is justified we need to ask ourselves “what is wrong with believers today, that they cannot justify their faith rationally to people trained in critical thinking” instead of asking what is wrong with scientists.

  5. Fake John Galt

    Most people I know that claim to be atheist are not really anti god as much as anti organized religion. Since each religion claims to be the only true one, and obviously that can’t be so the conflict gives them pause. Then there is the individual dogmas of each doctrine that from an outside view has some aspects that look silly that throw them off. Add those bad things done in the name of religion both actual and popularized by the media leave many people believing that religion and thus god make no sense.

  6. Pencilvania

    Once you’ve experienced a miracle – childbirth is pretty darn miraculous – you tend to look around to see if Anybody Else had a hand in it.

  7. Last Outpost on the Right
    Bryan G. Stephens: I think humans have some sort of spiritual need. This includes non-believers. They just get their spiritual needs met in some other way.

    Bryan is absolutely correct. Humans are wired for worship. It’s why every human culture has created some sort of religion in order to worship the god of their own imagination. For atheists, that god is essentially themselves … their own moral code is supreme; their own ideals of knowledge and intellectualism are their guides; and everything ends when they end.

    As a Christian, I worship the One God who has neither lied nor failed. He is beyond my imagination, and is so vastly superior to me (and all men) that, when we come to face Him, every kneel will bow.

  8. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.

    I agree with Pamela above. Rob, you’re far too quick to dismiss reason #1. I’m an atheist, but I arrived at my beliefs myself, and I want my daughter to do the same. If she asks me what I believe, I tell her, but I’m fine with her exploring other ideas — in fact, I’d be disappointed if she didn’t.

  9. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.

    (Faced with accidental duplicate posts, I must choose which one to delete. Decision: the one with fewer likes.)

  10. raycon and lindacon

    We find it interesting how so many people equate church with closeness to God.  In our own life we have found that the closer we have grown towards God the closer we have grown towards people, especially those who identify themselves as Christians.

    But we have grown farther and farther away from church.  We want our relationship with God to be more direct, and we do not want the church, any church, to become a division between ourselves and others.

  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    People go to church because of what they get out of it. For religious people, this includes religion. For irreligious people it could be:

    Reasons 2-3 given above (moral lessons for the kiddies, keeping the peace with religious family members, the sense of community); the chance to sing, play, or hear nice music (a biggie for several people I know); the chance to participate in the church’s charitable works; social networking (which is not quite the same as a sense of community); an appreciation of the beauty of tradition…

    I even know of one atheist family who joined a church in order to persuade it to not build a huge annex obstructing the view from their property. The family failed, but their kids liked the youth group and stayed on.

    What I don’t buy is that non-believing scientists become  regular  members of churches in order to “expose[] their children to a diversity of religious communities” (reason 1). If that’s what you want, why become a  member  of a  particular  church? Why not just visit a wide variety of religious communities with your kids?

  12. Fred Cole

    I had thought about this myself before and reason #1 would be why for me.

    Lots of people are spiritual and they do their spirituality through a church.  And I wouldn’t necessarily want to close that off for them.

    In theory, I’d want them to be able to examine it and then dismiss it.

    But then again, it might not close it off for them, they might swing the other way and make them hyper religious.

    And then I consider the philosophical implications of the thing, that by taking them to church they’d be learning magical thinking and start applying it to the world.  I would consider the results sub-optimal.

    I haven’t come to clear conclusions yet.

    Fwiw, my grandfather was a scientist, an engineer, and worked on the Manhattan Project.  He and my grandmother, later in life, joined the local Unitarian church because she missed the sense of community and the UU church was the only church that was compatible with his atheism.

  13. American Abroad

    I think one of the major reasons for this is cultural fluency.  One doesn’t need to be religious to accept it as an important part of our shared history.  I went to Catholic services weekly up until college.  I am not much of a believer anymore, but I am sure happy to have been exposed to the stories, theology, art, music, and institutions that have shaped a large part of our history. 

  14. Tim Hughes

    Actually, Christians could be considered the first athiests. They were called that by the Roman government when they refused to worship the approved Roman gods.

  15. Hartmann von Aue

    For a few reasons, Rob. First: ”Unbelieiving philosophy simply cannot offer a rational account of human dignity and the intrinsic value of a person. In order to make any sense of our experience as human beings, the atheist and skeptic must borrow from Christian theism, revealing a total lack of systematic cogency in the presuppositions of unbelievers; they simply do not comport.”- Joe Boot

    Second: ”In order to do science at all you have to accept the presuppositions of Biblical monotheism: That the universe has an origin and that origin is rational.”- Paul Davies

    And: ”The more we enter into Christ’s work He will have more room to work His work in us. For He always desires us to be one with us. Our worship is social, and Christ will be where two or three are gathered together in His name.” -James Clerk Maxwell

    Since understanding the cosmos is part of understanding the Creator who made it, the appeal is intrinsic, whatever arrogant, ignorant bigots like Richard Dawkins may say. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many research scientists who came to faith as adults because of their studies in the “hard” sciences.

  16. Mike H

    Rob, your reaction to this shows you’ve never reached a point of true disbelief. I don’t think most people of faith can really understand the thought process of someone who doesn’t believe unless they have been there themselves.

    I remember back when I was a faithful Catholic. Faith kind of acts as a circuit-breaker on certain paths of thought. So, one who has always held faith isn’t really capable of understanding what it’s like to be a person who doesn’t believe. The faithful try though, and come up with nice stories explaining how someone who doubts there’s a God is somehow diluting themselves or worshiping themselves, or replacing it with some equivalent form of spirituality; at which point it becomes a game of semantics. I’m in awe of some things I doubt I’ll ever understand, but that doesn’t mean I attribute them to something supernatural.

    I’ll tell you what, things like childbirth become even more fascinating and wonderful when you consider how that incredible beautiful process developed on it’s own rather than attributing it to an omnipotent being.

  17. Douglas
    Frank Monaldo: As a scientist and believer, I find agnosticism  more common than atheism or strong belief among colleagues. The scientific mindset is humble about asserting anything without proof, hence the agnosticism. I have a friend and colleague who is an in your face atheist,  a la Dawkins.  I call him an “evangelical atheist,” because of his certainty and to poke a little fun.

    Forgive me, sir, but scientists don’t seem all that humble to me. 

    One of the biggest comforts to me is that perhaps the greatest mind in the history of the planet… Sir Isaac Newton… was such a devout lover of God that he spent more time writing on theology than he did math or physics. 

  18. Douglas
    Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    Fred Cole: ….

    Fwiw, my grandfather was a scientist, an engineer, and worked on the Manhattan Project.  He and my grandmother, later in life, joined the local Unitarian church because she missed the sense of community and the UU church was the only church that was compatible with his atheism. · 4 hours ago

    Fred, I imagine you didn’t intend to do so, but that last piece of that last sentence made me laugh out load.  · 9 hours ago

    Well, it’s basically what Unitarianism has come to: a place for that churchy vibe without actual churching going on. There are now atheist and pagan UU groups. It’s not a church in any real sense of the word anymore. This is why a couple of splinter groups… namely the American Unitarian Conference and other so-called “Biblical Unitarians” are splitting from the UU’s. There are still a few Unitarians that actually believe in God and want to worship Him, instead of getting sermons about bike paths, global warming, and why Dubya was awful.

  19. Douglas
    Pamela LaBorde: I found this interesting quote from Ayn Rand regarding morality:

    “My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.”

    I would not “kill someone to get what I want” because it would violate my own virtues.   · 7 hours ago

    Joseph Stalin says “Piss on Rand’s personal virtues. I’ve got 50 armored divisions that say morality is Might Makes Right”.

    Without an authority higher than man, what’s moral is either just a popularity contest or dictated by force.

  20. Frank Monaldo
    Douglas

    Frank Monaldo: As a scientist and believer, I find agnosticism  more common than atheism or strong belief among colleagues. The scientific mindset is humble about asserting anything without proof, hence the agnosticism. I have a friend and colleague who is an in your face atheist,  a la Dawkins.  I call him an “evangelical atheist,” because of his certainty and to poke a little fun.

    Forgive me, sir, but scientists don’t seem all that humble to me. 

    One of the biggest comforts to me is that perhaps the greatest mind in the history of the planet… Sir Isaac Newton… was such a devout lover of God that he spent more time writing on theology than he did math or physics.  · 19 minutes ago

    Perhaps I should have modified “The scientific mindset is humble…” to “Properly exercised, the scientific mindset is humble…”  The most vocal scientists are not the majority of day-to-day practitioners.   I work with as many engineers as I do scientists. I concede that since they are more regularly chastened by the real world, engineers are less arrogant, as a rule, than scientists.