How to breed atheists

This video (transcript) makes a lot of sense, pointing out that how atheists are made is a combination of historical/cultural/emotional experiences plus an intellectual assessment of the meaning of those experiences.

I used to think I too was brought up as a religious believer, going to church and Sunday school almost every week. I noticed something, though.

  • When I was very young, I would regularly see my great-grandparents in church. I’m confident that they were true believers, their house was full of religious and ethnic displays, like the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian on a plaque. But they stopped going late in life because they were relatively frail, and were dependent on being driven to church by my grandparents, who…
  • Almost never went to church. Maybe sometimes for a Christmas pageant, although they were quite insistent that we kids had to go, to which my parents…

  • …agreed. My parents also didn’t go to church. My father, never — he would say that he was a member of the Church of Christ, as was my paternal grandmother, but I would never see them pass through the door of that church. My Lutheran mother never went, either. She was a good mother, but she had six kids, and Sunday morning was two hours she could use to recover, even if it did impose an additional cost of getting the kids into their shiny shoes and putting on nice coats or dresses and putting a bow tie on me.

And, you know, I was able to use my keen observational skills and analytical mind to put the facts in order and realize that church was a sham, a glorified babysitter for an overworked family that saw no other value in the ritual. I was a Christian because I was told that I was a Christian, and I found no lasting spiritual value in memorizing bible verses or singing hymns. I could also see that my parents were good people who didn’t need Christianity to make them that way.

So here I am now.


  1. says

    When I was growing up I had the impression that my parents took us to church (Catholic) because that is what was expected. We always came in after the service got started (probably blamed us kids for the lateness, I’m guessing) and I had the impression that they did not take it seriously.

    Many decades later, though, my dad had some health issues and made some kind of a “deal with God” and became hyper-religious. This surprised me given my previous perception from childhood.

    At this time when my dad had his change of mind, my mom converted to Catholicism to match him (from pretty mainstream ELCA Lutheranism) and seems to take it very seriously. This was kind of shocking to me because it didn’t seem like the sort of thing she would do.

  2. garnetstar says

    I agree, it’s in the observation of the behavior of one’s parents/grandparents, etc.

    In my family, the women went to mass and took the children (because, in Italian families you’re a good Catholic as long as your wife and children do that: you never have to enter a church), but none of my parents or grandparents ever so much as spoke a word about religion to me, in my life.

    One Sunday when I was about seven we were getting up from the pews and leaving mass when it suddenly occurred to me “This isn’t true.” And that was that, forevermore. No worry or trauma or anything. I had to go to mass and do all that until I was eighteen, so I just learned to sit and think my own thoughts.

    (PSA: I’m quite nearsighted, and I soon learned that, if I didn’t wear my contacts to mass, I didn’t hear as well either, or rather, whatever the priset was blathering about didn’t bother me as much, and I could more easily daydream without interruption. This works in boring seminars, gates in airports, and other waiting rooms, too.)

  3. says

    The paper that Watson discusses appears to suffer from several issues.
    – As Watson points out, retrospective self-assessment of CREDs could easily be caused by irreligiosity rather than the other way around.
    – Whether or not being a self-assessed “analytic thinker” is correlated with religiosity is, at best, an indirect measure of whether atheism is caused by rational, critical examination. I mean, people who aren’t “””analytic thinkers””” can still think analytically, it’s not a skill that is exclusive to a certain personality type!
    – It lacks any understanding of multiple causation. For example, suppose having fewer CREDs growing up leads a person to think about religion analytically, which leads them to leave religion. CREDs might be an important factor in causing this chain of events, but that doesn’t exactly contradict the idea that atheists left religion because they thought critically about it.

  4. PaulBC says

    I know y’all didn’t ask, but:

    My parents were devout leftwing Catholics active in Catholic Worker. My father was an intellectual Catholic with shelves of theology books, and he even had an old college friend, a Jesuit priest, who would visit every few years for pleasant chats touching religion and other things. My father was also well educated in science and provided a sound intuitive basis to me as a child for why evolution makes sense (and is actually a much more elegant basis for life than special creation). I assume he believed in some form of guided evolution when it came to human intelligence. Of course, he believed in a soul and mind body dualism. Both my parents treated me well and encouraged my individuality and critical thinking.

    So where do I stand with all this? Well, to be honest, most of the doctrine I learned simply failed to make sense. I don’t think I was ever quite a devout believer, but I kept up with going to mass through early adulthood. It was more a case of, well maybe I haven’t given it enough of a chance and it will all click. A lot of things are true, yet counterintuitive.

    What finally clicked was that the things that are true and counterintuitive make more sense the more you think about them. The things that make less sense the more you think about them, where you are doing mental acrobatics to avoid obvious contradictions are likely not to be true at all. It’s not that I have anything against Catholic doctrine. I just stopped having the time for it at some point. And by extension, I don’t need any other doctrine. I like Carl Sagan’s “We are all star stuff.” That’s pretty inspiring, no?

    So this is my gentle path to atheism. I’d like to think it’s not as uncommon as all that, but I don’t know. A lot of people seem to have a much more traumatic path. I can’t remember the author now (someone here recommended it) but there is a study of why people leave religion and I was disappointed that so few of them simply concluded it didn’t make a lot of sense. Usually there were specific incidents involved that soured them on it.

  5. says

    The best part of growing up Catholic in my home town was it fast tracked me into the Latino Community. So many great summer BBQs.

  6. says

    Correction to #3,
    I glanced at the paper cited, and “analytic thinkers” are not identified through self-assessment. Instead, they’re given questionnaires, e.g. “nine items from the cognitive reflection test” whatever that is. I think my criticism still stands, that analytic thinking is not exclusive to people who score high on whatever this test is.

  7. PaulBC says


    Many decades later, though, my dad had some health issues and made some kind of a “deal with God” and became hyper-religious

    Thanks. Now I’ll have Kate Bush going in my head today (could be worse). I guess they didn’t agree to swap places (or maybe he’s kept it secret).

  8. says

    I’m not sure I get the point with the Bangladesh/India comparison? The muslim populations of Pakistan and Bangladesh were pretty well integrated with their Hindu neighbors on the subcontinent until the Brits arrived and fomented interfaith rivalries as a means of weakening local states and controlling new territory, ultimately leading to the partition in 1947. Is Watson just unaware of that? Because I’m not sure I’d characterize that as “social contagion.”

  9. robert79 says

    “atheists are made is a combination of historical/cultural/emotional experiences plus an intellectual assessment of the meaning of those experiences”

    Aren’t religious folks made in the same way? Perhaps their “intellectual assessment” is a bit less rigorous nowadays, but look at the last 2000 years and there were plenty of very smart people for whom religion passed their tests of intellectual rigor.

  10. bcw bcw says

    @8 I think the point is that the two groups are next door neighbors in the world with a huge historical overlap but different religions – that doesn’t make sense if religious belief is supposed to be a result of an independent decision by each person based on the religions merits. The single determining factor differentiating the two groups is who their parents were.

  11. bcw bcw says

    @9 Actually in my interactions with highly religious people a defining characteristic is that their religious beliefs are not open to intellectual questions. Try asking a religious person why Exodus was such a great story when God tortured an entire people (the Egyptians) and murdered thousands of infants to change one kings mind and why other methods weren’t used to coerce the pharaoh and see what happens. Or ask why human sacrifice was required to atone for our sins by Jesus. Who made it a requirement anyway? Oh yeah it was the alternative to slaughtering everybody again.

  12. PaulBC says

    bcw bcw@11

    Actually in my interactions with highly religious people a defining characteristic is that their religious beliefs are not open to intellectual questions.

    To tie it to my earlier comment, my parents were a counterexample to this, both very devout and consistent in church-going. They also encouraged questions and understood why a child would “misunderstand” the trinity or transubstantiation and would go to great efforts to make it make sense, very sincerely believing it would stick. I would argue that my teachers in both Catholic grade school and a prep school fell into that category, though their actual degree of devotion was unclear. When it came to lay teachers (not nuns or brothers) who were teaching anything other than religion (science, history, English) I often thought “They don’t really believe the religious stuff, do they?” (And I think not all lay teachers were Catholic, but I doubt any were out atheists.)

    The natural conclusion to me is that allowing people to question religion makes it more likely that they will find their way out of it. But then how do I explain my parents’ faith? It wasn’t lip service. They also grew up in a different generation where religion was a much more common expectation even among highly educated people. This is a mild puzzle, though I agree with the more obvious point that a more reliable way to transmit religion is not to allow questioning, and we see this happening consistently.

  13. PaulBC says

    Great video. I think I can tie it to personal experience as Rebecca Watson did. (Please skip if you want to pretend I didn’t.) I don’t recall seeing much hypocrisy from my parents, though obviously there was plenty in my community as a whole (human beings, ya know). Most likely, my upbringing left me in a metastable state in which I would have probably stayed Catholic if it was socially rewarded and put up with the cognitive dissonance. Since I moved into circles where it was not (science fiction fans, academia, tech, and ultimately a globally diverse community of different beliefs and non-belief) there wasn’t really any social reward, and the cognitive dissonance was a high cost to pay.

    I imagine this is a really common story, though one that may not often be told only because it is so boring and non-traumatic. Watson’s caveat that this is probably a lot of post hoc rationalization applies as well.

    I don’t think I’d be going too much out on a limb to say that Brett Kavanaugh (who is within a year of my age and grew up in similar though more affluent circumstances) is Catholic (or claims to be) because the social reward for him more than compensates the cognitive dissonance (the fact that he’s a total asshole is besides the point). I doubt he grew up in more devout community than I did. His upbringing was rightwing and may have been less questioning. But more devout? I doubt it.

  14. John Morales says


    You don’t know why you believe what you believe, but hey, at least scientists don’t know either.

    Nobody knows!

    (Actually, I do know why I’m not religious: religion is silly if one doesn’t need it, and I can’t bring myself to actually believe silly things)

  15. numerobis says

    I’m a catholic atheist because that’s how my parents raised me (it was quite definitely a catholic god that we didn’t believe in).

    I’ve noticed us second generation atheists are a bit different than first-generation atheists. We take it for granted that there’s no god and it’s not nearly as important to reject religion as it is for first-generation atheists.

  16. Jazzlet says

    I think it can be older siblings as well, my grandfathers were both Methodist ministers, my parents walked the walk according to the list given, but my much older brothers were of a completely different mind regarding religion and walked what you might now call the social justice walk as athiests. It took me longer than them to get my head round it all partly because my teenage rebellion consisted of being confirmed into the Church of England, partly because I thought I believed, partly because it really pissed my father off, but mainly because that’s where my friends were and a lot of social activities happened round the church, which in itself was partly because one of my friends was the vicar’s daughter. I gradually worked out that I didn’t believe it all at university, spurred in part by the death of my mother, and haven’t looked back. But the point of all that is that it was the example of my older siblings that really made me start to look at what I thought I believed.

  17. redwood says

    In rural Missouri, my father usually went squirrel hunting on Sunday mornings (yes, we ate them) while my mother would attend Sunday School to meet her friends, but not the actual church service. Neither of them ever mentioned religion to us, but my mother insisted my siblings and I attend church to socialize us, I guess. My two brothers still attend church regularly, but I stopped in college when I realized I had never believed any of it after learning how to think more critically and honestly. It’s so nice to have Sundays free, though I’m more likely to shoot things on my computer screen than squirrels.

  18. LorrieAnne M says

    Based on my experiences I think rationality does play a huge role here. It would make sense that it is easier to question religion and look at it rationally if one is not as tied into the framework. That’s all I see from this study.

    In my own case, my family was highly religious – observing a strict 24 hour sabbath every week. We did all kinds of Jewish cosplay – no pork or shellfish, observing Old Testament “holy days”, etc. My older sister went to our church’s non-accredited “college” while I went to a public university. Rational examination of life was encouraged in my schooling. Defending the faith was the focus for her. She is still a die hard evangelical. I am an atheist. It took a lot of emotional turmoil for me to walk that path. Wouldn’t there be less turmoil for someone from a less observant family to make this transition? Wouldn’t there be less opportunity for questioning and doubt to arise within more observant families? So, wouldn’t you expect to see more atheists from less observant families? It still really does seem to me that an ability to rationally critique religion is at the heart of becoming an atheist.

  19. piscador says

    I’ll go straight into the tldr;
    I guess I’m atheist by default. My parents were totally nonreligious. Religion was just not a normal topic of conversation. If any of we siblings ever asked about religious topics my parents would always answer in general, neutral terms. I also spent much of my childhood in a most nonreligious environment: an expat oil town in southern Iran. I was vaguely aware that some of my friends and classmates were religious but kids have more important things to think about that religion. By the time I was mature enough to think about religion as it applied to me, rejection was pretty much automatic.

  20. whheydt says

    There is my wife’s comment about me… You can’t get much less religious than a fallen away Unitarian.

  21. cjcolucci says

    It makes some sense that if you come from a family of relatively lukewarm religious belief and normal but not conspicuous levels of human decency, you might be more willing to adopt atheism. Still, that description probably fits a large majority of people, so it lacks much explanatory value.