Atheists Who Go to Church: Doing It for the Children

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ABC News columnist Lee Dye writes:
He probably won't get down on his knees, but that fellow sitting near you during the  Sunday church service just might be an atheist.   And a scientist.

A new study out of Rice University has found that 17 percent - about one out of five scientists who describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics - actually go to church, although not too often, and not because they feel a spiritual yearning to join the faithful.

More likely, it's because of the kids.

What?  Why would somebody who doesn't believe there's a god want his own offspring wasting their time in an enterprise he believes has no foundation in fact?  Especially a scientist. 

The study, by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice and Kristen Schultz Lee of the University at Buffalo, found that many atheists want their children exposed to religion so that they can make up their own minds on what to believe.  In addition, church may provide a better understanding of morality and ethics, and occasionally attending services may ease the conflict between spouses who disagree over the value of religion to their children, the study contends.

The research, published in the December issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, was based on in-depth interviews with 275 scientists at 21 "elite" research universities in the United States.  Sixty-one percent of the participants described themselves as either atheists or agnostics, and 17 percent of the non-believers had attended church more than once in the past year.

In general, their church affiliation followed a similar pattern - most were raised in a family that was not deeply involved in religion, and they did not attend church during early adulthood but established a relationship with a church when they had children of their own.  After the children had grown, they attended church less and less, if at all.

But why would someone who believes there is no god want his children exposed to doctrines that he clearly believes to be false?

"Some actually see it as part of their scientific identity," Ecklund said in a telephone interview.  "They want to teach their children to be free thinkers, to give them religious choices, and so they take their children to religious organizations just to give them exposure to religion."

Let the kids make up their own minds, many of the participants told Ecklund.

Still, it may seem a bit odd for some atheists to perceive church as a desired "community" at a time when many leading atheists are calling on their colleagues to come out of the closet and take a public stand against religion.  Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Victor Stenger and others see religion as a source of evil in the world.

They contend that science has moved beyond a belief in the supernatural, partly because science has answered some questions that were previously left up to clerics.  Evolution, for example, provides a naturalist explanation for how we got here.

True believers, by contrast, regard atheists as "among the least trusted people" on the planet, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia.  These scientists emphasized last month that the right word is "distrust," not "dislike."

But however you put it, atheists do have a bit of an image problem.  If they feel uncomfortable attending church, that's nothing compared to entering some aspects of public service.  They usually find themselves on the outside looking in.

Columnist Michael Kinsley confessed to being a "nonbeliever" in the Los Angeles Times last month. In an op-ed piece he conceded, "That puts me in the only religious grouping in America whose members are effectively barred from any hope of becoming president, due to widespread public prejudice against them.  There will be a Mormon president, a Jewish president, an openly gay president before there will be a president who says publicly that he doesn't believe in God."

He contrasted that with the current run for the White House in which "four of this year's Republican candidates were personally recruited by God to run for president."  That number has since dropped to three.

Ecklund, who has conducted several studies of science and religion, said in the interview that it's possible for an atheist to become a member of a religious community without feeling like a phony.

"I don't think they see it as a conflict," she said.  That's partly because they've been out of the mainstream for nearly their entire lives.

"There's a good deal of difference between the science community and the general public," she said.  "Scientists are less likely to have been raised in religious homes."  When they were, she added, "they were generally raised in homes where religion was not practiced strongly.  It was not part of the fabric of life."

So perhaps a scientist who happens to be an agnostic or an atheist sees no problem with turning to religion, if only for awhile, because it could open new avenues of thought for the children.  After all, isn't that the heart of science?

"The children can decide for themselves what to believe," Ecklund said.