During a recent Point of Inquiry podcast, Chris Mooney and Elaine Ecklund discussed the differences between first and second generation atheists (starting about 15 min in). First generation atheists are those that were once theists and raised with religion, while second generation were raised by non-theist parents. Mooney has a summary of Ecklund’s points at his blog:
On the air, Ecklund observed that the first generation atheists tend to be more critical of religion, and more driven in making such criticisms. After all, religion is something that is much more personal to them, and that they have rejected. We second generation atheists, though–for I am one–we tend to be more mellow. Or so Ecklund finds, anyway.
But I pressed her on the point. After all, although I’m “second generation,” I was pretty angry at religion when I was a college atheist activist. I was pretty driven. Yes, I mellowed with time–but I was and still remain second generation.
What’s more, I’m sure that there are some first generation atheists who aren’t particularly driven to bash religion, no matter the difficulty of their deconversion experiences or the powerful impact these had on their lives–it’s just not in their temperament.
Still, Ecklund defended the generalization despite my devil’s advocacy. In general, it is of a piece with her finding that family upbringing is a central predictive factor for later life religiosity or the lack thereof, as well as for who actually becomes a scientist (they tend to come from less religiously observant households).
While I disagree with Mooney on a lot of other topics, I’m going to have to agree with his devil’s advocacy here. There are far too many factors going on to simply pin critical attitudes on your former beliefs (or lack thereof). Now, this is a generalization, so I can’t simply say “Look at me! I’m second generation, and I’m anything but mellow!” I may be an exception to a general trend.
But I think a more accurate idea is that someone’s religious environment as a whole – not just how they were raised – helps shape how critical they are of religion. I know I just got done saying anecdotal evidence is not equivalent to good science, but forgive me while I use some to illustrate my hypothesis:
I am a second generation atheist. My dad, while he won’t label himself, is pretty much an atheist and instilled a good skepticism of religion in me. My mom is a wishy washy deist/Greek Orthodox, but she never taught me her beliefs or took me to church. I was left to my own devices when it came to thinking about religion, and for the most part I considered myself an atheist/agnostic my whole life. As a child, I really didn’t care about religion. I had a very “to each their own” attitude, and saw religion as a general force for good in the world. Everyone in my town was pretty much the same – no one really cared what religion you were, or if you were godless.
Then I moved to a conservative Christian town while simultaneously maturing and realizing the world isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
I realized religion wasn’t simply about charity and redemption and love. I realized, first hand, that religion could lead people to believe in stupid, ridiculous, unscientific claims, and to say and do hateful and harmful things. I’ve never thought religion automatically made someone a bad person, but I did reject the idea that religion automatically makes someone a good person.
Because of this eye opening experience, I became much more vocal about my atheism and skepticism. If I had gone to Indiana University or an even more liberal college, I can pretty much assure you I would still be a mellow agnostic. “Aggression” toward religion isn’t based solely on your family, but on your experiences on a whole. If you realize the damage religion and religious belief can do, you’re more inclined to speak out against it.
And I know I’m not just one person who has reacted this way. After being President of a student organization for non-theists for three years, I’ve been around hundreds of young atheists – some first generation, some second generation. For those where Purdue is more conservative and religious, they tend to be more vocal and aggressive. For those who see Purdue as a liberal escape from their rural Christian towns (this personally terrifies me), they’re just happy to have another atheist to hang out with.
I’ve even seen the exact opposite of what Ecklund is claiming. Some of the more cooperative, friendly, pro-religion non-theists are those that come from religious families. They often say this is because they’re surrounded by religious people who are wonderful, kind, intelligent people. It makes it hard to speak out against religion when you know it has helped someone you care about and love. On the flip side, sometimes it’s hard for us life-long atheists to relate to religious people, since we don’t have family members to act as examples for us. It’s easier to fall into the trap of stereotyping all theists and religious belief as being the same negative caricature.
I also see this exception when looking at my father. He’s basically an atheist and will be vocal and critical of religion to like-minded people like myself. However, he would never say these things in public or to religious friends. He strongly believes that religion is your own business, and he shouldn’t go around criticizing something that helps so many people. My dad was raised in a religious family, the vast majority of which is still religious (some very devoutly so) – but he’s not an aggressive Dawkins-esque first generation atheist.
Now of course, my observations are not scientific and are still biased – I mostly (but not solely) interact with people who are part of a club for non-theists, which may self select for more critical voices. But at the same time, I don’t think you can say upbringing is the main factor for how atheists treat religion when there are so many other complex factors going on. Family upbringing may be a central predictive factor for later life religiosity and who will become a scientist, but that doesn’t also mean it predicts how critical you are of religion.
I also have to be skeptical if Ecklund doesn’t have other motivation going on. She’s funded by the Templeton Foundation, and it would probably be very nice if she could paint a picture of criticism of religion stemming from some sort of emotional rebellion from our parents rather than a rational realization that we need to speak up. It seems like a scholarly equivalent of “Oh, well they’ll grow out of it eventually.” Ecklund had an interesting interpretation on the frequency of religiosity of scientists in her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think – interesting in that she collected the data, but came to a very discordant conclusions in the discussion. That’s also where this first/second generation data comes from, so I don’t know if I can completely trust how she’s interpreting her data.
Regardless, my experiences are not scientific, and I would love to see someone do a broader study. Something that encompasses first and second generation atheists across a while range of ages and professions (the book focuses on just scientists). It would kind of also be nice if the author wasn’t funded by a biased organization, ahem…