Does it matter if atheism has a terrible retention rate?

In my last post I examined the question, Was the US founded as a christian nation? The point of the post wasn’t to answer the question, but to examine the implications of the possible answers. If the answer to the question were “yes,” what would this entail? If the answer were “no,” what would this entail? I decided that the question didn’t have great implications for how we should run our government today, even though in political debates it is often assumed to be decisive. The fact is that there are ways of governing that work demonstrably better than others. We should do what works, not do what we did in the past simply because of tradition.

The point I tried to make is that not only do people skew facts to support their argument – they skew facts to support their argument even when doing so doesn’t actually support it. “The United States government was based on christian principles, therefore it should still be based on those today” is a logical fallacy. It is an argument from tradition. Nonetheless, people are swayed by such arguments, and that is why people like David Barton distort the facts about US history (as I linked in my previous post) in order to affect decisions about government today.

Another arena where you can see this logic at play is in statistics about religion. There are all sorts of (reputable) statistics out there, about what percentage of Americans are Protestant, about how many Catholics follow Catholic doctrine, about how the various religions are increasing or decreasing in number of members. These facts, too, can be cause for alarm. “My religious sect is losing adherents! That could mean there is something wrong with my beliefs! I must explain away this data somehow!”

As I noted in my previous post, I have definitely felt this urge to “explain away.” Most recently was when I saw this data showing that atheists have the lowest retention rate of all religions surveyed (and it was accompanied by the obligatory “this proves there’s something wrong with atheism” shtick by religious bloggers.)

US Religious Retention Rates

Here was my initial thought process: “Oh no! Only 30% of Americans raised as atheists remain atheists as adults! I must defend atheism!”

…But do I really need to defend atheism because of some statistics about retention rates? (And I will assume for now that the statistics are accurate, even though they may be somewhat off.) Again, the best way to think about these things is to set aside the facts for a moment, and think in hypothetical terms. Does it matter if a particular religion or non-religion loses child adherents as they become adults? Why do we think this happens? What does it mean?

The first thing to observe is that atheism’s low retention rate has no bearing on the fact that it’s true. There really isn’t any credible evidence for the existence of the supernatural (or as I often say, “the supernatural” isn’t even a coherent concept). So whatever popularity means, it isn’t an indicator of truth.

The next thing to consider is that there must be many factors that influence retention rates – culture (is questioning of authority encouraged?), the presence or absence of competing religious ideas, degree of religiosity (Mormons may be more religious than Methodists), the degree of social pressure to remain in the religion, etc. A low (or high) retention rate could mean a lot of things. We simply don’t know – but that doesn’t mean we should try to explain it away.

Now it just so happens that the proportion of atheists is increasing, both in the United States and in the world. Children “raised as atheists” (read: taught to think) may not always remain atheists, but this is made up for by all the adherents of other religions who convert to atheism (see the graphic at the bottom). This doesn’t mean atheism is true, but it demonstrates that retention rates are not the only thing to look at when you want to know how a religion is “doing.” So sometimes what the data entails is that… you need to look at more data.

One final comment: there may be studies that have been done, or could be done, to find out why so many children “raised as atheists” become religious adults. If we knew the answer to this question, we might be able to do something about it. And considering that atheists are better at acting in accordance with evidence than members of any religious group, this seems like an issue we’re well-suited to addressing.



August 14, 2012 · 9:00 am

3 responses to “Does it matter if atheism has a terrible retention rate?

  1. What is the methodology of that chart? The blog it links to doesn’t say, and the pewforum the blog links to may say somewhere, but I don’t have the energy to read through document after document looking for an explanation. Without knowing how the study was structured and what questions were asked, I have no way of knowing whether this all means anything. When unretained, where do people go? Do Catholics become Muslims or atheists? Do atheists became pagans or agnostics or Mormons? It’s very annoying to see a chart like this with no context at all.

    I think, as you say, culture could have something to do with it. A lot of people go to church because it’s their social scene, and most atheists don’t have an atheist social scene. Religion offers a place to people who want to belong to something. It also offers easy answers for those who can’t deal with the vagaries of the universe; that, after all, is why religion was invented to begin with.

    Atheism is a very different animal from a religion, requiring reason rather than blind faith. Just because you’re brought up by atheists doesn’t mean you’re brought up to think things through. A person not inclined towards logic could easily wander away from atheism.

    Then there is the question of, what does it mean to remain in a faith? A lot of atheist Jews will say they’re part of the Jewish faith and will celebrate high holy days, and that has less to do with belief in a god than it does a belief that Jews need to stick together in a hostile world.

    But it’s hard to make a guess without knowing anything about how this chart was put together.

    • Charles: I agree with your comments.
      As for the chart, it originally came from the CARA blog, which is here. They have a number of links that lead to descriptions of their methodology. They also link to the original source of the data, which is the Pew Forum US Religious Landscape Survey.

      If I understand correctly, CARA did their own analyses using Pew’s data in order to create this chart. Pew (which is generally regarded as a respectable research institution) did their own analyses, the results of which can be seen in this .pdf. The report actually answers pretty much all of your questions. For example, you can see on page 32 of the .pdf file (not page 32 of the report) that Catholics make excellent Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Other faiths,” “Other Christians,” and, of course, Unaffiliated (which includes atheists). Meanwhile, Unaffiliated persons convert to many different types of religions, but Buddhism and Other Faiths are the most common by a small margin.

  2. William DeLaney

    Actually, what it means is that atheists, as parents, do not usually forbid or discourage their children from experimenting with religion. In fact, many secular humanist parents encourage it. They want their child to have a well-rounded education, and they really don’t see religion as very much of a threat. More often, they see it as a chance for a learning experience.

    Let us take Barack Obama’s mother, for example. She actually schooled her son to be open to all kinds of religious faiths and traditions. She was not angry or disappointed with him that he joined a Baptist church. She was probably truly thrilled that the organization was giving him an opportunity to pursue his interest in serving a community.

    But what she passed on to him is the true faith held by many atheists and even some people who identify with a religious affiliation: she taught him about reason and a personal sense of principles. She taught him mental restraint. She taught him not to get caught up in illusions. That is really where Obama gets his legendary “cool head,” brother.

    And, if he has any smarts, he will pass it on to his kids.

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