How parents act on their religious beliefs linked to the onset of atheism in their children

People tend to become atheists at a younger age when their religious parents talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, according to new research published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior. The study provides evidence that exposure to religiously-motivated actions plays an important role in the onset of atheism.

“I was interested in this topic mainly because it is an extension of my overall research interest in how and why people become atheists,” said study author Joseph Langston, a researcher at the Atheist Research Collaborative and a PhD student at Victoria University in New Zealand.

“Credibility-enhancing displays (CREDs) in particular have been shown as rather important for the acquisition of all aspects of (religious) culture. But the concept of CREDs is still relatively new, which means that much remains to be investigated and understood regarding its relationship to other variables which affect religious transmission processes and changes in religious beliefs.”

“At the beginning of this project, the thought process was that, perhaps a growing number of people are becoming nonbelievers because belief was not modelled to them in any appreciable or robust way during their upbringing,” Langston said. “But insofar as social learning processes and family dynamics are crucial for the transmission and acquisition of culture, religious or otherwise, there are other socialization agents that play into how effective such learning and dynamics are at producing religious continuity between parents and their offspring.”

“Some examples would include whether or not a person’s parents shared the same religion; whether a person mostly grew up in a conventional two-parent household; the quality of relationship between parents and children; and how much religious conflict one got into with one’s parents while growing up, which would also touch upon just how much parents allowed their children to make their own choices about religion while growing up.”

“And so we wondered how CREDs would fare against some of these other variables when it came to shaping atheistic outcomes, via the age at which a person became an atheist,” Langston explained. “In other words, we know that they should be influential, but how influential, when compared to other variables that should also be important for (non)religious outcomes later in life?”

The researchers surveyed 5,153 atheists regarding the age when they no longer believed in god(s), religious credibility-enhancing displays among their parents, and other factors. They found that when parents engaged in more credibility-enhancing displays, such as acting fairly to others because their religion taught them so, their children tended to become atheists later in life.

“The average person can take away three main things from this study,” Langston told PsyPost. “First, the extent to which parents faithfully model their own religious beliefs to their children (i.e. CREDs), works in tandem with other processes to produce unique trajectories of the timing at which one becomes an atheist: being allowed greater religious choice seems to drive the age of atheism down, but so do elevated levels of religious conflict.”

“Second, although important, CREDs alone are not enough to provide us with the most complete explanation of how or why people do or don’t believe in a god or gods. Third, CREDs still had a very robust impact on age of atheism; their (statistical) significance was not eliminated from our analyses even when comparing them to the influence of other agents of religious socialization, such as variables representing the influence of demographics, parental quality, family-religion aspects, ‘relational’ variables, and religious institutions.”

The findings line up with previous research, which found that religious individuals who were exposed to high levels of CREDs by their parents were more likely to report believing in the existence of God with high certainty.

“There is one thing that probably could have been made more clear in our paper, and that is why we chose to use ‘the age at which a person became an atheist’ as our dependent variable,” Langston said. “If we were to design a study that was superior to ours, then for that study we would have collected a large sample of nonbelievers and believers. Then we would be able to do direct comparisons between those two groups.”

“But because our sample consisted only of nonbelievers, we had to have some kind of barometer for measuring the impact of CREDs and other variables on becoming an atheist. So in the paper we make the presumption that anything which affects the average age of atheism in our sample, is a variable that has a relation to how or why people become atheists.

“At the very least, such variables could be seen to exert some degree of influence on the timing of that outcome, and thus likely the outcome itself. Certainly, it isn’t a perfect methodological assumption, but for our purposes we found it a defensible use of age of atheism,” Langston noted.

“There are a handful of interesting questions that could follow this research. First, if nonreligious identifications are increasingly being deliberately transmitted by secular families, as some very recent research suggests, then what kind of CREDs, if any, exist in these families? Or are any CREDs needed at all to sustain whatever positive or substantive worldviews such parents might wish to instill?”

“Second, do (formerly believing) atheists have levels of religious choice and religious conflict that are different from their theistic counterparts? Relatedly, were most formerly believing atheists subject to authoritarian, as opposed to authoritative, parenting styles? Third, is it possible that even high-fidelity religious parents may unknowingly influence the turn to atheism, in the event that certain parental qualities and religious choice or religious conflict are associated?”

Langston and his colleagues are working towards publishing more studies on the subject.

“We have another study, which is currently under peer review, which is based upon this same data set, and there we pursue very similar questions regarding how social and family influences operate for atheists who were once believers,” he said.

“Our most central finding shows two patterns of influence toward atheism, what we call religious ‘over’ and ‘under’ socialization. Interested readers might be on the lookout for that study later this year, should we be lucky enough to have it accepted for publication. Or, anyone interested in obtaining a (restricted) copy of it, or finding out the full results, can email [email protected].”

The study, “Predicting age of atheism: credibility enhancing displays and religious importance, choice, and conflict in family of upbringing“, was authored by Joseph Langston, David Speed, and Thomas J. Coleman III.