Some Atheist Scientists With Children Embrace Religious Traditions

12/07/2011 12:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

What happens when atheist scientists have kids? Do they expose them to religious traditions and institutions?

I surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists at elite American universities, and approximately half expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not. Then I interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 of these scientists, to ask them how they feel about religion. I found that nearly one in five (17 percent) of those who are atheists and parents are part of a religious congregation and have attended a religious service more than once in the past year.

Why would this be? Research I conducted with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee (University at Buffalo, SUNY) showed just how tightly linked religion and family are in the United States--so much so that even some of society's least religious people find it important to expose their children to different religious choices. Our research challenges the assumption that parents who engage in religious socialization always hold religious beliefs themselves.
The atheist scientists interviewed cited personal and social reasons for introducing and integrating religious traditions and institutions into their children's lives.

Their reasons include:
• Scientific identity - Study participants wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own, informed choices about a religious identity.
• Spousal influence - Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner.
• Desire for community - Study participants want a sense of community (moral or otherwise), even if they do not personally hold religious beliefs.

To me, one of the most interesting findings was the discovery that some atheist scientists not only want to expose their children to religious institutions, but they also cite their scientific identity as a reason for doing so.

We expected these individuals to be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions than they are. But it turns out they want their children to know about different religious traditions because it is more consistent with their identity as a scientist to expose their children to all sources of knowledge. They want their children to be "free thinkers." Yet it is also important to them that their children don't abandon skepticism in the course of their religious education.

One study participant, a chemist raised in a strongly Catholic home, said he came to believe later in life that science and religion are not compatible, but what he wants to pass on to his daughter-- more than this belief --is the ability to make her own decisions in a thoughtful, intellectual way.

"I ... don't indoctrinate her that she should believe in God," he said. "I don't indoctrinate her into not believing in God." Like other atheist scientists who are parents, he has exposed his child to a variety of religious choices so he does not inadvertently indoctrinate her with atheism.
We hope the study's findings will help the public better understand how our professional and family lives can interact with our religious lives. We also hope they will serve to remind us that there is greater diversity in how atheists approach religion and childrearing than stereotypes might lead us to expect.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist at Rice University, director of the Religion and Public Life Program, which is part of the Social Sciences Research Institute, and a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her most recent book is Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010)