Atheist children of prominent religious parents

A strange and sad story has surfaced. A person claiming to be Michael Behe’s son has said that he has rejected his family’s Catholic faith and become an atheist. Those who have been following the ‘intelligent design’ movement will be familiar with Behe. He is the author of Darwin’s Black Box, the book that became the Bible of that movement with its claims that things like the bacterial flagellum and the blood clotting mechanism were conclusive evidence of the existence of a supernatural designer.

It is not the son’s apostasy that is noteworthy. After all, it is not uncommon for children of prominent religious figures to reject the religion of their parents, switching to other religions or to unbelief. What is sad in this case is the parents’ response. The unnamed son (who seems to be close to twenty years of age and one of eleven children) writing under the pseudonym ‘salty914’ says he has been banished to the basement of their house and prevented from talking to his siblings in private in case he infects them with his heresies. The network of family friends are mostly Catholic and he says that some of his friends in those families have been forbidden to talk to him.

You can read his story by following the thread posts by salty914 where he elaborates on why he became an atheist. He also includes some interesting insights into whether his father is trapped by his long support for ID to continue being an advocate even though he may suspect that ID is wrong. It should be noted that it has not been confirmed that salty914 is who he claims to be and the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax. His first post appeared about a week ago and has received wide publicity and there have been no denials yet from the Behe family as far as I know. [Update: Someone whom I know and trust sent me a private email that says that he has been in contact with Michael Behe and that he acknowledges that salty914 is in fact his middle child and does not dispute the information being put out by him about what is happening.]

I have met Behe several times during the days when I was debating ID supporters and he is a genial man, one of the more reasonable religious people, who accepts almost all of evolution but seems to feel the need to preserve some role for a Magic Man. Although his testimony in the Dover case (which I write about in my own book God vs. Darwin) made him look foolish, he is no fiery fundamentalist. This reported behavior seems out of character. But family dynamics are hard to decipher from the outside and it is never pleasant when families become estranged. People who are able to have a calm and reasonable discussion with strangers who disagree with them may not be as tolerant when the challenge comes from their own children.

The Behe situation is not nearly as bad as that of Fred Phelps, head of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, whose son Nate also became an atheist and moved to Canada. The elder Phelps (who is a big man physically, towering even above Michael Moore) would take the Bible injunction to not spare the rod seriously and whale away at his children regularly with a heavy yard implement called a mattock and subject them to grueling physical activity. I discovered that Fred Phelps as a much more varied background than I had been aware of. He is a lawyer who got an award from the NAACP for his early work on anti-discrimination civil rights cases but was disbarred in 1979. He is also active in Democratic Party politics, running several times for that party’s nomination for governor of Kansas.

You can see an interview with Nate Phelps below, where he recounts what it was like to grow up within the Phelps family, provides insights into his father’s background, and narrates his own journey to atheism.

Joytv-The Standard-Nate Phelps INVU from Jonathan Roth on Vimeo.

And if you can’t get enough of the Phelps horror show (and I have to admit that the psychology of religious fanatics has a definite fascination for me) you should watch this 2007 BBC documentary titled The Most Hated Family in America, where Louis Theroux spent three weeks with the church trying to understand it from the inside. The documentary lasts about an hour and is split into eight parts. The first part is below and the subsequent parts are prompted at the end but the last part seems to be missing from YouTube (at least I could not find it).

Fred Phelps and the most prominent spokesperson in the church, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, can be dismissed as publicity-seeking anti-gay bigots, but what interested me was the psychology of the other members of the church, especially the younger people who are mostly Fred’s grandchildren. They seem and look normal even when they start talking, with a smile, about how god hates everyone except the members of their church. They go to the local public schools and are apparently not shy about telling everyone else that they are all going to hell, which must make for interesting lunchtime discussions in the cafeteria. The film provides a chilling window into how effectively children can be indoctrinated into an in-group/out-group Manichaean worldview.

One thing that I had been curious about is that for a church with a tiny congregation, it seems to have quite a bit of money. The budget to take their funeral picketing teams around the country alone costs about $200,000 annually. The homes that the Phelps families live in seem quite bourgeois, occupying a block in a middle class suburb with a big common central backyard containing a swimming pool. I was curious as to where the money came from, especially since the church seems to consist mostly of patriarch Fred’s family. Fred has 13 children of whom 11 are lawyers and 54 grandchildren. Four of his children have defected from the church which now treats them as outcasts. Daughter Shirley has 11 children of her own.

Apparently members of the church are encouraged to work regular jobs and give 10% of their income to the church. If the church has 100 members earning the median wage of around $50,000, that alone would provide them an annual income of $500,000 which, under the ridiculous US tax provision that privileges religions, is tax free.

So viewed as a purely business proposition, Papa Fred has quite a nice racket going, getting his family members to support him living in style. Fred is 81 and it will be interesting to see what happens when he dies, since there seems to be no succession plan. The obvious choice to take over would be his daughter Shirley who is the most prominent and active person in the church, a lawyer herself, and clearly very smart and articulate and a true believer. But she cannot take over. Why? Because the leader has to be a man, of course.

It must be strange for someone like Phelps-Roper who despises people purely because they are gay to find herself considered inadequate and inferior by her own group purely because she is female, with both forms of discrimination based purely on the Bible. You might think that the blatant injustice against her might cause her to question the whole idea of taking the Bible at face value. I suspect that that level of self-awareness cannot exist for people like her because it would cause too much cognitive dissonance.


  1. Eric says

    Mano --

    I would say the bigger irony of Shirley is that she appears to be a far more capable attorney than her father, having spearheaded the church’s legal defense all the way through the Supreme Court, despite its teaching that women’s places are in the home.

  2. says

    I don’t have any background information about this family but reading your blog it sounds almost like a monarchy. Wheres religion in that? looks like more of a small household kingdom.

    Anyways, boycott is fairly common to make examples of those who defect to other faiths or to atheism. it happens here all the time.

    I personally am a believer, but to lock away your son in your basement for not having the same opinion as you is really not too religious anyway you look at it. I don’t think any religion advocates that.

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