“Religious people are reproducing at a much higher rate than atheists. Religious extremists especially. And as we know, people tend to stay in whatever religion they’re brought up in. Should atheists be having more children, so we can counteract this trend?”
When I give talks and do Q&A afterwards, this question comes up surprisingly often. A modified version of it came up at my talk in St. Cloud earlier this week. I don’t think it’s a notion that’s shared or even seriously considered by most atheists… but it does get asked at these talks with some frequency. So I thought I’d answer it here in the blog.
We should not have children just so we can keep up with the breeding rate of religious believers.
Strategically, it’s not necessary. And morally, it’s — what’s that word I’m looking for? — wrong.
Let’s take the moral question first.
There are probably worse reasons to have kids than breeding an atheist army. But offhand, I can’t think of many. (Medical experiments? Slave labor? Meat?) Children are not a weapon in your ideological battle. They are not a means to an end. They are an end in themselves. What with them being human beings and all.
As far as I can see, there is pretty much one good reason to have kids. And that’s that you want them. You love kids. You like kids. You think kids are interesting. You enjoy their company. You want to share your ideas and ideals with them, and to learn from them yourself. You want to bring them into the world, and participate in the difficult and rewarding process of helping them become autonomous adults. Every child a wanted child, and all that.
Of course parents want their kids to share their values and ideas. Lots of parents have kids because they want a part of themselves to live on, to be carried into the world beyond their own lifespan and capacities. But the healthy, not- fucked- up parents want that part to be independent. They want their kids to be themselves, to think for themselves, to eventually make their own decisions and take their own responsibility for them. They don’t want them to just be a cog in a Meme Perpetuating Machine. If we have lots of kids just so we can breed the next generation of atheists… then how are we any better than the Quiverful families, having lots of kids just so they can breed the next generation of fundamentalist Christians? If we don’t behave better than the religious extremists we’re fighting, then what on earth is the point?
Do I want a world without religion? Hell, yes. I’m working hard towards that end. But there are obvious moral limits. I don’t, for instance, want to force people out of religion, or restrict people’s right to practice their religion, by violence or threat or law. And this idea falls well outside my moral limits. Very, very far outside.
I want a world without religion because I think that would be a better world. And a world in which parents see their kids as pawns, an army for the next generation of their ideological battle? (And, not incidentally, a world in which the parents see themselves and their partners as breeding stock for that army?) That is not my idea of a better world. I would rather have a world with religion than live in that world.
So it’s morally wrong. That’s the most important thing.
But it’s also strategically unnecessary.
Yes, it’s true — religious believers do, on average, have more kids than atheists. And yes, people do tend to stay with the religion they were brought up with.
And you know what? Atheists are still winning.
Rates of non-belief are going up at a dramatic rate, all over the U.S. and all over the world. The only religious demographic that’s growing in every single state is “None.” And that trend is especially dramatic among young people. Almost 25% percent of Americans under the age of 25 aren’t religious. The phenomenon of people leaving their religion when they go to college is getting more and more common: about 60% of Christian teenagers leave their churches when they leave home for college. (In fact, the religious right is aware of this trend, and is freaking out about it, and is frantically working on strategies to combat it.)
And all of that’s true… even though religious believers do, on average, have more kids that atheists, and even though people have tended to stay with the religion they were brought up with.
Because this whole “people tend to stay with the religion they were brought up with” thing is beginning to change. And it’s changing because atheists are changing it. It’s changing because atheism is a better idea than religion, an idea that’s almost certainly right, an idea that makes perfect sense once you let go of your fears about it… and because atheists are getting better, and bolder, and less apologetic, at getting this idea across to the rest of the world.
There’s a joke Ingrid likes to make about this. There’s an ugly canard against gays and lesbians: “They can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit.” The idea being that gays and lesbians can’t have kids, so if we want more tender young flesh to corrupt and have gay sex with, we have to convince people to be gay. (So much wrong there, I can’t even begin.)
So here’s what Ingrid says about religious extremists: “They can’t recruit, so they have to reproduce.”
Their ideas suck. Their ideas suck so badly, the only way they can perpetuate them is to instill them in children whose minds are hard-wired to believe whatever adults tell them — no matter how stupid, no matter how twisted, no matter how wildly out of touch with reality.
So to counter religion, we don’t need to have lots of babies. We just need to get our ideas out into the world.
Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. So denying that social consent will have a snowball effect. No — scratch that. Denying that social consent is having a snowball effect. The more people say out loud, “The Emperor has no clothes,” the more other people start thinking, “Huh, I was brought up to think that the Emperor’s clothes were beautiful and perfect, but now that you mention it, he does look rather naked, doesn’t he?” And the more those people change their minds and say so out loud, the more other people start asking questions and changing their minds… and start speaking their minds… and so on, and so on, and so on.
We don’t need to out-reproduce believers with an army of atheist children. What we need is more secular groups in colleges and high schools. Stronger secular groups in colleges and high schools. More and stronger secular groups at the local level. More atheist blogs, Facebook pages, Twitterers, YouTube videos. More atheist billboards and buttons and bumper stickers. More letters to the editor about atheism. More news stories about atheism. More movies and pop songs and TV shows about atheism. More atheist visibility in our culture, in just about every way we can come up with.
And, of course, most importantly of all — we need more atheists coming out in our everyday lives.
If we want more kids growing up to be atheist adults? We need to create a world where it’s harder and harder to grow up not knowing that atheists exist, or thinking that atheists are evil and miserable. We need to create a world where, at the bare minimum, everyone knows that atheism is a viable option.
If we do that — we’re going to win.
We don’t have to reproduce.
Because we kick ass at recruiting.
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