Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Why My Children Go to Church (and Why I Occasionally Go Too)

At the risk of hurting my Gnu Atheist creds, such that they are, I want to explain why my children go to Christian services every week, and why I sometimes do too.

I'm disclosing here because of a press release from Rice University with the headline, "Science and religion do mix." The release discusses a paper recently published by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund. It reads:
They [Ecklund and co-authors] interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 participants, pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 elite U.S. research universities. Only 15 percent of those surveyed view religion and science as always in conflict. Another 15 percent say the two are never in conflict, and 70 percent believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict. Approximately half of the original survey population expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not.

“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases,” Ecklund said. “Findings like these among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science.”

Many of those surveyed cited issues in the public realm (teaching of creationism versus evolution, stem cell research) as reasons for believing there is conflict between the two. The study showed that these individuals generally have a particular kind of religion in mind (and religious people and institutions) when they say that religion and science are in conflict.
Ecklund's paper and her previous research have already been treated by others, including Jerry Coyne, Eric MacDonald, P.Z. Myers, and Jason Rosenhouse. If you can stomach the sanctimoniousness, Uncommon Descent (Denyse O'Leary) has also noted Ecklund.

Now, I am not a scientist. But I am an atheist and I feel strongly that religious beliefs and rituals waste good human energy. That's why I stopped participating in and supporting my local Chabad Jewish center. One might therefore legitimately ask why on Earth I would agree to have my children go to church every week, and why I myself end up going to church stuff sometimes. So, if one should ask, these are my answers:
  • My wife takes the kids to church. She wants to go to church, she wants the children to be Christian, and I support her.
  • I go very infrequently, maybe two to four times a year. Usually, this is because one or more of the kids is singing or something like that. I would gladly go more often if my wife said that she wanted me to. I happen to like being with my wife. It's a love thing.
  • When I go, I don't pray or worship. I just observe and listen. Whatever opinions I have about it all are expressed here.
  • So far as I have gathered from asking questions and observing, most of what the kids learn at church is good stuff: be considerate, don't insult others, listen to Mommy and Daddy. The whole super-Jesus stuff is window dressing, as far as I can tell. It's another kind of Santa Claus belief, a metaphor for the stoic heroism that some think characterizes their lives.
  • I have no worries at all about my kids, religion, and atheism. I really don't. I might worry more about them becoming Republicans.
  • Do I want my kids to be atheists? No, I have no special desires about whether they decide to accept or reject religion. But I also have no special problem offering my opinion on religious beliefs and teachings. In the end, I trust that between what the kids learn from my wife's Christianity and from my own atheism, they'll find a religion or non-religion that makes them happy and supports their larger goals in life.
  • The real "prize," as it were, is the kids pursuing the education and professions that excite them. The endgame is for them to find love, happiness, and well-being. If they think kneeling before a cross is part of this, then I won't squawk. I just happen to think that supplication before imaginary beings is unnecessary. On the other hand, I imagine that church may provide professional networking benefits for the kids--and for my wife and me.
  • Do I think science and religion are in conflict? Yes, probably. I don't think they have a lot to say to each other, even though they would like to. But people negotiate conflicts all the time without being scarred.
So, I disagree with the headline: science and religion don't mix, in my opinion. Atheism and religion don't mix, either. But they can co-exist, and they can even fall in love with each other. And they can stay in love together--ooh, time for some Al Green.


  1. Meh. Funny how none of the libs can defend Obama on his economic record. XD

  2. SJ,

    Perhaps you noticed that the OP has nothing to do with Obama.

    Why do you think that it's my job or my desire to defend Obama, on his economic record or anything else?

  3. Just come out of the closet and say that Obama sucks. XD

  4. Anonymous5:34 PM

    Love this line: "Atheism and religion don't mix, either. But they can co-exist, and they can even fall in love with each other."

    I am in a similar situation in some ways, attending church with my Christian wife. As I left the faith, we have moved to a more progressive church than we were involved with in the past, which makes it conscionable for me, good people with good intentions, and who don't fear people with different beliefs.

    I appreciate your accommodation of your wife's beliefs and the way you are raising your children. Especially the way you don't fear the possibility of their having religious beliefs one day, different from your own. It's taken me some time to move somewhat in that direction.

  5. I think people who believe religion and science are compatible know hardly anything about science and probably less about religion.

    They are just different methods at getting at the truth. Science determines whether or not something is true by testing it--thereby verifying or falsifying it.

    Religion declares something true on the basis of faith--only if evidence should appear to be in support of its claims--it co-opts them and then uses it. Never mind this is the wrong way around about doing it.

    Theories must be based on facts (science), not facts based on theories (religion).

    So I would say at the bare minimum, they are not compatible. There is no overlap. They are just entirely different methods. Science works and the other... well... it's highly debatable of whether any truth or knowledge is actually gained by means of the supernatural.

  6. There is one thing church offers that science never will; morals and community. That kind of stuff doesn't matter much if you're single or gay (or a selfish parent I suppose). For us normal parents (those who put their children and family above themselves) church offers quite a bit.

    Atheist dad

  7. JonC,

    That's two things, but whatever.

    Personally, I don't ask science to deliver morality. I don't ask it for community.

    I've been to synagogues and churches. I can tell you that neither the morals nor the community is something to brag about.

    Please do enjoy being "normal," whatever that means to you.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.