Study: Atheists are Made By Their Parents

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Why am I an atheist? If you ask me that, I will say that I am an atheist because I’ve critically evaluated the claims made by world religions and found there to be no compelling evidence that they’re true. That pushes me to the default position of living my life as though there is no such thing as a “god.”

The problem with this explanation is that it may not be right. How can I be wrong about my own motivations and experiences? Well, it’s easy, because the human brain is a fucked up pile of electric meat that simply CANNOT BE TRUSTED.

I said that I’m atheist because of a rational choice, but if you ask me why people are Baptist, or Catholic, or Muslim, or Zoroastrian, I would say they simply inherited the belief from their families and never questioned it at all. That’s the exact type of bullshit that has been shown in many psychology studies — humans tend to say things like “I came to this decision rationally. My opponent came to the opposite decision emotionally.”

I’ve heard our consciousness described as a monkey riding on the back of a tiger, thinking it’s in control. So when the tiger turns to the east, the monkey makes up a little story to explain why the monkey really wanted to go east. It’s a post-hoc explanation that doesn’t really have anything to do with the reality of the situation.

The monkey and tiger metaphor is usually brought up to talk about the illusion of free will, which philosophers are still bickering over and probably will be for some time. But we know that this kind of thing happens all the time. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has basically built his career on this idea, with perhaps his biggest paper being The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment, in which he presents evidence against the idea that moral judgments come about thanks to moral reasoning. He argues that instead, people tend to make “gut” decisions about things and then rationalize them later. This paper is notable for having sentences like “It’s just wrong to have sex with a chicken,” and if you like that you’re gonna love the fact that the paper OPENS with incestuous erotica. Okay, I will explain for those who don’t want to click through and read this VERY entertaining essay: researchers read subjects a story of an adult brother and sister who went on vacation, made the beast with two backs while using two forms of birth control, had a good time, acknowledged that it brought them closer but that they wouldn’t do it again, the end. Did they do something wrong? 

Subjects tended to say “Yes, that was absolutely wrong.” But when asked why it was wrong, they said things like “Well incest can result in deformities if the woman gets pregnant.” But they used two forms of birth control! “Well, incest can really screw up someone’s relationship with their sibling,” but in the story it details that the act made them both happier. Finally, the subjects gave up and said “I don’t know, I just know it’s wrong.”

So yeah, it turns out humans are constantly just doing shit and then making up a reason later. I touched on this recently when talking about people rejecting the COVID vaccine — lots of surveys have been done to figure out why, so maybe we can convince them otherwise. But the monkey on the tiger hypothesis suggests it doesn’t matter why people SAY they won’t get vaccinated, because they don’t actually have a good reason. It’s not that it wasn’t FDA approved (neither is ivermectin for use against a virus), it’s not that there’s evidence of bad side effects (study after study shows that the vaccines are ridiculously safe), it’s not that it’s “new” technology (there are vaccines like Jannsen that use the same vaccine technology we’ve used for decades) — more likely, it’s that these people made an emotional gut decision and when asked “why” they reach for whatever they can think of to explain it. You can address those explanations, but when you do they will just reach for another. Eventually you will reach “I don’t know, I just don’t want it” and there you are.

Anyway, let’s get back to why I’m an atheist. It’s because I’m so extremely rational! But a paper published last spring in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests it’s more likely because I didn’t see “credible displays of faith” while growing up. Hmmm. Well. My family and community were pretty religious when I was a kid, but that’s an anecdote! Let’s dig in a little more to see if it’s relevant.

The researchers gathered a nationally representative (in terms of race, sex, income, etc) group of 1,400 Americans. They asked them whether or not they believed in God, and then a series of questions to gauge their existential security (like faith in government institutions and healthcare), whether they’re an intuitive or analytical thinker, and their exposure to “credible displays of faith” as a child. In this case, “credible displays of faith” refers not just to whether or not your family was religious growing up, but whether or not your family “walked the walk.” They went to church every Sunday, but did they put into practice what was being preached? Did they care about charity? The idea refers back to this 2016 study that offers the following metaphor: if someone says blue mushrooms aren’t toxic, that’s a verbal expression of faith. If they then eat the blue mushroom, that is a credible display of faith. That study, by the way, also found that exposure to “CREDs” predicted religiosity as an adult.

For the most recent study, they did find that CRED exposure was the biggest factor in predicting whether or not someone believed in god. Being an analytical thinker was a distant second. So there you have it! Atheists aren’t more rational than theists, they’re just a product of their upbringing.

Except…maybe not. I will gladly agree that religiosity is socially contagious. There’s a reason why we can look at a world religion map and see distinct separations between countries. It’s not a coincidence that 75% of Indians woke up one day, compared all the religious options, and said “It’s Hindu for me!” while next door 90% of Bangladeshis opted for Islam. And of course, just as religion passes from parent to child, so too can a lack of religion.

However, this study wasn’t about atheists being raised by atheists. The idea they’re positing is that atheists grew up in homes that may have been religious but were hypocritical or simply lax in their religious practices — a parent who says blue mushrooms are safe but refuses to eat them. An aunt who says divorce is a sin but gets an annulment. A grandfather who won’t eat pork unless you offer him a hot dog when no one else is looking. That kind of thing.

And to make it more complicated, this isn’t about the reality of that kind of upbringing but about adults reminiscing about their childhood. What’s the difference? Well. Let’s use myself as an example: as a kid, I believed my family and my community truly walked the walk. We were Baptist and we believed in charity and kindness and spreading Jesus’s teachings and his love, and as far as I was aware that’s what we practiced.

Now that I’m an adult, I can look back and see that many people in my community were hypocrites. I know this because they protest against immigrants coming to the US, against helping the poor, against sacrificing yourself in some small way (like wearing a mask or getting vaccinated) in order to help those less fortunate (who are old, or immunocompromised). These are all things Jesus was CRYSTAL clear on. So if you ask me now if I grew up in a hypocritical religious community I would say absolutely yes I did.

But as a child I didn’t notice that in the least. I sincerely believed that everyone around me sincerely believed in our religion. With that in mind, I read the list of CRED questions to see how I might answer:

Overall, to what extent did your caregiver(s) act as good religious role models? 

To what extent did your caregiver(s) avoid harming others because their religion taught them so?

To what extent did your caregiver(s) act fairly to others because their religion taught them so? To what extent did your caregiver(s) live a religiously pure life?

To what extent did your caregiver(s) engage in religious volunteer or charity work?

To what extent did your caregiver(s) attend religious services or meetings?

Overall, to what extent did your caregiver(s) make personal sacrifices to religion?

As a kid I would have answered a resounding “very high extent” to all of those, and I would have answered the same way during the time that I became an atheist. Looking back now, as an atheist adult with a lot of distance and a lot more information? Possibly a different answer.

And now, what if I had never left my hometown for college? What if I had never taken that philosophy class freshman year and been allowed to explore all the questions that I wasn’t allowed to think about as a kid? What if I had never been exposed to people from all walks of life and religions and philosophies? If I were still a Baptist going to church every Sunday, would I notice how my community or my family’s political beliefs and actions don’t line up with their stated religious beliefs?

So, how much of this survey is identifying people who really lacked CREDs as a kid, and how much of it is identifying people who, having decided to leave their religion, can look back on their childhood with (dare I say) a more distanced and therefore more rational viewpoint?

I’m not really sure how to separate those ideas without speaking to the families of all these respondents, delving into their lives to determine how truly committed they are to their faith.

Regardless of how much our parents’ religiosity affects our own religiosity, it’s worth mentioning that the second-most-impactful data point was analytical thinking. So yeah, atheists are more likely to have rationally evaluated their belief system.

If you watch my videos you know that I tend to laugh at prominent “New Atheists” who claim to be smarter than everyone else, so even as an atheist myself I kind of went into this wanting it to be true that atheists tend to be just as illogical as everyone else. The main author told PsyPost “A lot of people (atheists in particular) like to talk about how atheism comes from rational, effortful thought. This work joins other recent surveys in finding that this isn’t too accurate.” ON the contrary, I think this work found that it IS accurate. It may be less of a contributor than a person’s surrounding culture and upbringing, but of course it’s still a contributor. Imagine a fish growing up and looking around and suddenly realizing there’s water everywhere. Culture is overwhelming! Anyone who can step back and look critically about the society they were raised in is performing an incredible act of rationality, whether or not they end up adopting opposing beliefs to that society.

I guess what I’m saying is that, well, it’s complicated. You don’t know why you believe what you believe, but hey, at least scientists don’t know either.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. I’m another South Jersey kid who grew up going to Baptist church, and sunday school, and occasionally to vacation bible school. Despite all that, I never really felt that my family walked the walk. We always went with my mom. My dad stayed home on sundays, then after my parents separated (in first grade or so) we never went to church on the weekends spent with my dad.

    My mom’s parents lived on the same street and never went to church. I think my mom only really went because it was expected. Over the years I feel that she’s become less religious, especially after her sister died. On the other hand, my father became far more religious, to the point of becoming an “ordained” minister and moving to Florida. At some point he and I agreed to disagree about religion and got along just fine. He seemed disappointed that my wife and I were not married in a church but didn’t press the point too often.

    I think I considered myself “agnostic” when I went to college, and that was cemented during my freshman year after some unpleasant interactions with some otherwise nice folks of an evangelical bent that I had not previously encountered.

    Fast forward 30 years or so and my three kids all grew up in an atheist household and have all kept that viewpoint into young-adulthood (my two youngest are currently in college).

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