The Atheist at the Breakfast Table
Nonbelievers are growing in number. So why are they still sitting in the next pew with their kids?
By Bruce Grierson published May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on December 20, 2020
Ross Harvey wedged himself into the back pew of the North Shore Unitarian Church in North Vancouver, British Columbia, as a visiting gospel choir filled the vaulted nave with soaring harmonies. Harvey, whose white T-shirt beneath a black dress shirt made him mistakable for a padre at a distance, was among the first to stand and clap and groove at the chord changes and the shared emotion. The only thing that came between him and full-on abandon was the part of himself that was irked by the words. "You know why the Baptists are so much better singers than we are?" he later joked. "It's because Unitarian Universalists are always reading ahead to make sure that what we're about to say we actually believe in. That slows us down."
Unitarian Universalists are full of questions, not answers; heavily into social justice and community service; and strong on dogma-free religious education for kids. And that suits Harvey just fine. He's an atheist. Just three years earlier he had confided to his wife that he wished there were "a church you could go to where you sang and heard inspirational talks and you didn't have to get into all that other nonsense." Then he found the UUs. No sooner did they join than they were asked to be in the Christmas pageant. Ross laughed, then said yes. He and Gabi were Joseph and Mary; their infant son, Jackson, was the baby Jesus.
There are two kinds of atheists: the kind you hear about, and the rest, the kind you don't.
The kind you hear about have been making headlines pretty consistently since 9/11. They aggressively confront religious arguments at every turn, in order to expose the perceived perniciousness of organized religion. Whenever religious bigotry raises its head, they step up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority.
That strategy has raised the profile of atheists—witness the saw off between Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great and Todd Burpo's Heaven Is for Real on best-seller lists. But it hasn't exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls tell an unrelenting story: In America, dislike and distrust of atheists is more widespread than for any other identifiable group.
The large cohort of nonbelievers that you don't hear about refrains from actively evangelizing atheism to theists. For them, religion isn't a militant stance; it's just, well, not that big a factor in their lives. And they compose the first generation to think like this. That a in atheism simply means without, not against, belief in God. Not an adversarial position, just a position. There, in the vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, live tens of millions of atheists and agnostics, more or less quietly, mostly with their families. And their numbers are growing.
Despite the evolving complexity of its makeup, family trumps just about everything in American life. In this, atheists and religionists are very much alike. It's in their quotidian interactions with their family that most get to understand what is important, to figure out what they believe and why. And what today's nonbelievers most believe in is a gentle spirit of inquiry and the open-minded investigation of options—which, as with Ross Harvey, may involve engagement in religious traditions. They take especially seriously the need to talk to their children about religion in a way that embodies respect for difference but suspicion of doctrine—even the doctrine that there is no God.
Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist of religion at Rice University, was convinced Americans were getting a cartoonishly distorted picture of atheists and their relationship to faith. Because religion is so strongly tied to the family in the U.S., she wondered how atheists and agnostics handle that delicate nexus—a subject about which surprisingly little was known. She set out to investigate.
She looked in the place where atheists are found in the greatest concentration: the scientific community. Ecklund went for the cream—tenure-track social scientists and natural scientists at America's top research universities.
Turns out, around 60 percent of them identified as either atheist or agnostic. That's more than 10 times the proportion you'd find in a random slice of Americana, but lower than you might expect, given that highly publicized surveys had previously pegged the percentage of atheists among top scientists at over 90 percent.
Within that group of self-identified atheists and agnostics, almost one in five were part of a religious community—attending a church or temple or mosque with some regularity. Ecklund probed for explanations. And with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee, she recently published her findings in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. They also appear in Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, a book published by Oxford.
The atheists' reasons for embracing some religious traditions were highly rational—not unexpected among a group that "places a high premium on reason and making sure that they live consistently," Ecklund reports. The scientists found themselves in the epicenter of a Venn diagram, attempting to reconcile, all at once, their identities as scientists, nonbelievers, spouses, and parents. Some had a religious husband or wife. Or they drifted into the pews after having kids, drawn to the social glue of a church community, the moral structure that kids can absorb, or the chance to reconnect with traditions. There they all were, cheek-by-jowl with believers, and unchallenged in their reasons or right to be there in the church or synagogue or mosque or temple.
Within families, individuals have long phased in and out of religious affiliation according to personal need, chance meetings, and stage of life. Ross Harvey and his sister were raised as Christians, "the kind of Christians who were more religious than spiritual," he says. At age 15, Harvey dug in deeper, after a "summer camp of indoctrination," and became entrenched in the Brethren Christian church for a couple of years. Then came a pivotal moment. One of his Brethren leaders, backed into a corner by Harvey's queries, admitted that, yes, by definition of church doctrine, Gandhi would be going to hell. That was enough for Harvey. He was out.
His sister, meanwhile, had never been as deeply "in." But she met a committed Christian, married him, and joined his evangelical Presbyterian church in Australia.
In many ways Harvey admires his sister and brother-in-law. "The way they raise their kids is a total inspiration to me," he says. "They're caring and involved in their life and their education." But her religious choice confounds him and tests his patience. "They're two of the smartest people I know, so for them to start believing in Bronze Age myths is hard to take." There are practically grooves in Harvey's tongue where he has had to bite it. "We went to church with them last time we visited them in Australia. I kept having to remind myself: Look, Ross, you loved visiting the Hindu temples in Bali. This is just the same. It's all anthropology."
If the journey away from faith has separated atheists like Harvey ideologically from members of their family of origin, it has often locked them together emotionally—more accurately, hyperemotionally. This is the fallout of individual choice that has made Californian Richard Wade a trusted advice columnist for the popular website, Friendly Atheist.
A retired marriage and family counselor, Wade, 61 and married 39 years, with a grown daughter, came to atheism uneventfully. He was "brought up on a steady diet of science." Both parents worked at a major natural history museum as exhibit designers and illustrators, and as a kid he went on digs with his parents' archaeologist friends or helped their entomologist friends with specimens in the lab.
"My parents were basically nonreligious," he says. Wade's father described himself as an agnostic. His mother believed that if there is a clockmaker, he isn't intervening in the affairs of the universe any more. The implicit family message was that religion wasn't worth devoting much RAM to.
But, in fact, Wade devotes quite a lot of RAM to religion. He's regularly called on to resolve the strife that can afflict families and friends when beliefs collide. One family member simply stops believing, and the rest of the family cannot accept that fact. A middle-age son no longer feels comfortable saying grace before Easter dinner, and whole lifetimes of love and goodwill devolve into vitriol.
"Begin and end every one of these conversations with 'I love you,'" Wade often counsels. And don't give up. "People can soften their hard and fast positions over time, especially if love is always offered as an ongoing invitation."
To a young atheist whose minister father threatened to withhold his college tuition and possibly abandon him outright, Wade counseled: Keep your side of the door unlocked. Assure your parents that whatever happens, you would not abandon them. "We teach others how to treat us," Wade insists.
Wade was not always such a kind and avuncular atheist. He often plunged into acrimonious Internet debates on faith sites and delighted in eviscerating the fundamentalists. If there was blood, well, truth is a bloody business.
But one day something prompted him to step back. An American woman who had converted to Islam told her story in the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog and then endured abuse from the atheist commentariat. "She just took it," Wade recalls. The whole episode "woke me up to how brutal I was. I began to realize that I could do this in a completely positive and constructive way." He developed a phrase that became his de facto motto: "Agreement is not important—only understanding is."
Not long ago Wade received a letter from a British atheist who described a fairly common dilemma: Her aging parents had asked her help putting on the Christmas pageant at their church. Love and familial duty were suddenly colliding with a personal sense of hypocrisy.
"You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents," Wade observed. "You'll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously." By Wade's lights, there are times to be fiercely principled and times to be pragmatic, and you have to do the calculus case by case. When you turn pragmatism outward like that, it becomes pretty close to empathy. And that, Wade believes, is the key to dealing with anger and hurt in a family divided by faith.
Of all the family issues atheists and agnostics deal with in a faith-based country, raising children is perhaps the most complicated. Ask Wendy Thomas Russell, a writer in Long Beach, California.
Raised a Presbyterian, then a Methodist, in small-town Missouri, Russell had drifted from religion in her teens. The subject of religion simply stopped coming up. (Her father was never a believer, but Russell didn't learn that until she was in college.) As an adult, she found herself increasingly uncomfortable with the don't-ask-don't-tell approach to religion that her family had adopted. It seemed cowardly because, hey, this is important stuff—too important to avoid for fear of ruffling feathers. Bit by bit, she "inched out of the closet" as an atheist.
And then came the day of the ambush.
"I was driving my 5-year-old daughter Maxine home from preschool when she popped up from the back seat and said: 'You know what, Mommy? 'God made us.'" That bit of news, Russell discovered, had come from her little Jewish boyfriend, who had learned it at home and brought it to school.
Russell was struck dumb. It felt like a no-win situation. "I was worried about telling her, 'That's not true,' because then she'd bring that back to school—'My mommy says that's not true.'—and now you've created tension where there doesn't need to be any." Plus, Russell has some strongly religious family members, "and I'm now thinking about what might be repeated in the wrong company."
In that moment a book was born. Relax, It's Just God is Russell's survival-guide-in-progress for atheist and agnostic parents. It deals with practical matters, like "How to talk to your kids about death without invoking the comforts of religion." "The question," she says, "is how do we approach religion with our kids so that we're being honest but not indoctrinating them or scaring them, or putting them in a position to be made fun of or teased or hurt? These are fine lines. And because so many of us are first-generation secular, we can't fall back on what we ourselves learned before."
After Maxine's bombshell, Russell had wandered into the kitchen where her husband Charlie was cooking dinner. An attorney, he heard her out, then offered: "To me, it's what she does in life that matters, not what she believes."
And that has become a foundational principle for both Russells. No one particularly cares about our private beliefs; it's what we do that gets on the scoreboard. That perspective has further helped Russell talk about religion in an even-handed way—as neither a good nor a bad thing in itself (despite the surpassingly good and terribly bad things people do in its name). Look at the outcome, not the input.
Last year, Russell penned a widely read essay in The Humanist Community Project called "Ten Commandments for Talking to your Kids About Religion: Exposing Your Kids to the World's Religions While Being True to Your Own Values." Commandment 3: Don't saddle kids with anxiety over the word God. "Kids may pledge their allegiance 'under God,'" it explains, "not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say 'Bless you' when someone sneezes."
Commandment 8: Don't steal your child's ability to choose. "There's no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them everything you know about religion. And then let them take it from there." Being an atheist yourself is one thing; foisting that view on your kids is quite another.
If there is a Golden Rule of parenting for the new breed of atheist, this is it. In a 2006 study of 300 self-identifying atheists, University of Manitoba psychologist Robert Altemeyer found that although they were very confident in their own beliefs (just 1 percent conceded any doubt in their position), almost all placed great stock in letting kids reach their own conclusions on religious matters. Rice's Elaine Ecklund, while studying a more specialized population of atheists and agnostics, identified the same pattern.
One of the prime reasons her sample of scientists waltzed with religion was to expose their kids to many religious traditions "so that they did not inadvertently indoctrinate them with atheism." That is, indeed, the scientific method: You gather data, test it, and emerge with the most sensible, replicable conclusion. "They're participating in religious communities primarily for reasons that, ironically, are shaped by their identity as scientists," Ecklund points out.
The nonbelieving scientists she studied cited three additional reasons for taking their kids to church: They had a religious spouse, they were providing kids with a sense of moral order and community, and they saw it as "a way of following up on traditions."
Norman Tepley was not part of Ecklund's study but some of those reasons resonate deeply with him.
A former physics professor at Oakland University near Detroit, he cofounded the Neuromagnetism Lab at the Henry Ford Hospital, where he still works part time. He is an atheist who goes to temple, well, religiously. It is the Birmingham (Michigan) Temple, founded by the brilliant "atheist rabbi" Sherwin Wine, who was killed in a car crash in 2007. Wine stressed that religion is only a small part of Jewish tradition and identity. "If you look at Jewish history," says Tepley, "there were people who persevered and survived in a hostile world because of their character, their literature, their songs, their common history." That, not anything supernatural, is what he and his fellow congregants come to celebrate.
The essayist Anne Lamott once wryly distinguished between "Moses-y Jews" and "bagel-y Jews." The latter come for the cultural trappings and amscray before any religion breaks out. Sherwin Wine defined a secular Judaism whose commitment goes deeper: humanistic Judaism, which implies a duty of mutual care. As Tepley explains it, "We believe in one another and have responsibility for one another." That duty of care, further, extends to anyone who walks through the door. The temple "accepts anyone as a Jew who calls her- or himself a Jew; we don't have a conversion process."
Tepley was raised by observant parents who celebrated the holidays and kept a kosher home. He and his brother were bar mitzvahed. But cognitive dissonance soon ensued. "In religious school, God was frequently presented as just and merciful. But how could a just and merciful God allow the Holocaust? I know I wasn't unique in asking that."
His atheism took shape in a natural scientist's way. "I did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation," he recalls. "What's the likelihood, starting with a universe of fast-moving and colliding hydrogen atoms, of producing living cells and, eventually, animals?" That's an argument theists deploy in favor of intelligent design—the spectacularly unlikely chain of perfect conditions. "But what's missing is mention of the incredible amount of time for nature to perform every possible experiment. I decided it was pretty certain life was going to evolve over this time, 20 or so billion years, just from the laws of physics."
But unlike many of his scientific colleagues, Tepley ended up back in the pews. Apart from the charismatic pull of Sherwin Wine, there was that of his own family. "My father—a strong personality, a wonderful guy—often spoke of how many generations back the Tepley (originally Teplitsky) name went, and they were all Jewish. And without talking about it directly, he made it understood that the tradition had to be preserved."
And so, in Tepley's home, there is the celebration of the Sabbath and the singing of Hanukkah songs. There is also a certain amount of editing of the rituals and prayers, those with supernatural underpinnings replaced with newer, culturally based ones. "We light candles because they've been part of every Jewish holiday," he says. "They're a great attraction to the kids."
Tepley has three children. None observe the faith. Nor do their children. "My two sons were bar mitzvahed, but they drifted away soon afterward. I would like them to come back, but I would not want to drag them. They are all very accomplished and people to be proud of. I guess that's what's important."
Would his father be disappointed to see the break in the chain? "I think he would," he says softly, after a short pause.
Research science is an international, collaborative venture. Ideas tend to be stronger than politics, and affiliations jump borders. You could argue that science by its nature promotes general open-mindedness. There's little inconsistency, then, when nonreligious scientists take a test-everything approach to religion, especially if they have young families.
Living in an increasingly pluralistic world has its effects, too; gradually it creates experiences that unite people more strongly than the things like religious faith that divide them. That phenomenon often penetrates our most intimate relationships first. A mismatch of religions doesn't automatically preclude a successful partnership. Love often trumps religious identification.
Many of the most contentious issues around atheists and agnostics and family may soon subside altogether. The fastest-growing religious status is "none," according to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey sponsored by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Those citing no faith have almost doubled in number in the last 20 years, to around 15 percent of the population. "The challenge to Christianity does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report's authors conclude.
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago records what scholars describe as a kind of phase change in North American religion, embodied in the designation "spiritual but not religious." Unprecedented numbers of people are constructing their own private and highly individualistic faiths. Typically they observe no dogma but honor deep feeling and a strong hunch that there is something to be reckoned with beyond what can be logically understood, something they call "sacred," often with New Age, visions-in-the-desert overtones.
Almost half of Elaine Ecklund's scientists who call themselves "atheist" or "agnostic" also describe themselves as "spiritual." But for them, the word is more congruent with science than mysticism or magical thinking. Being "spiritual" means trying, for example, to behave ethically or to use one's talents to advance social justice. Or else it is an aesthetic thing, an appreciation of, or gratitude for, the complexity of life. ("Like Spinoza," one political scientist said of his spiritual commitments, "I see beauty and value in everything around me.")
Given the various meanings accruing around the term spiritual, Richard Wade is hoping for a more definitive word to characterize this new, less religious world. "We ought to come up with a better term, possibly based on psychological and sociological thinking."
In Ecklund's study, a number of nonreligious scientists aligned themselves with Eastern philosophical traditions. That's how Ross Harvey puts the spiritual in atheism as well.
Having abandoned the Christianity of his youth, he grew attracted in his early 20s to Taoism, with its circle of life. While teaching English in Japan, he formally began studying Zen Buddhism and searching for meaning. "What's my relationship with the universe, since I am conscious? That's my spiritual journey. To figure out how I fit in here, and to figure it out without gods."
As he grows, Harvey's two-year-old son Jackson will likely find himself asking the same big questions his father asks now. A small but growing literature, with titles like Parenting Beyond Belief and Between a Church and a Hard Place, documents the effort of a new generation to turn the childhood of their kids into an apprenticeship in tolerance.
Cue "We Are the World?"
Not so fast, cautions Richard Wade. There's still a lot of intolerance of atheists out there.
Wade recently performed a clever thought experiment. To test whether it's possible for atheists to be truly inoffensive—to see whether it's not their manners but their very existence that people object to—he dreamed up the most benign billboards imaginable and posted them online. ("Please Drive Carefully." "Puppies Are Cute.") Each is just a simple message or a big happy picture. Small type in one corner identifies the sponsor as Atheists of America.
Wade's post went viral, money poured in, and some billboards are now actually being constructed. "The ads don't challenge any religious ideas at all," Wade says. "They only implicitly challenge negative beliefs people have about atheists."
If you see one of the ads and feel irked, it's worth asking yourself why. Nevertheless, says Wade, "The genie is out of the bottle. Atheists will never go back to the invisibility and inaudibility of haunting only ivy-covered halls or espresso cafes."