Is Atheism Transmitted from One Generation to the Next?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell quotes the famed philosopher John Stuart Mill writing about his father’s road to atheism.  The quote is instructive for Christians as it gives a small glimpse into the world of a famed atheist.

My father [says John Stuart Mill], educated in the creed of Scotch Presbyterianism, had by his own studies and reflections been early led to reject not only the belief in Revelation but the foundations of what is commonly called Natural Religion.  My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. . . .

It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father’s ideas of duty to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion: and he impressed on me from the first that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known.

There is a lesson here about transmission of beliefs.  It is often claimed by atheists that religious views are merely transmitted from parent to child: we are simply born into our religion.  Atheists, on the other hand, come to their beliefs for mostly intellectual reasons, and are not born into their views.

In the case of James Mill, it appears he did buck the family religion and become an atheist against the teachings of his family.  However, if we read on we see that his son, John Stuart Mill, received his father’s atheism.  The younger Mill was clearly taught to be an atheist by his father.

What we can conclude is that in this case, one generation rejected its religious heritage, but the next did not reject its anti-religious heritage.  Mill’s experience is a great example of an atheist parent making sure that his child embraces his particular worldview.  

I’m sure some of you are wondering what the big deal is.  Of course atheist parents inculcate their beliefs into their children.  The reason I offer this quotation is because of the persistent claim that atheism is all about free thinkers bucking their family’s beliefs.  Perhaps this is true of some first-generation atheists raised in a religious family, but that first generation may choose, as James Mill did, to make sure no more free thinking happens with his children.

My guess is that atheist parents pass along their beliefs just like religious parents.  It is time to admit that Christian and atheist parents are pretty much in the same boat – we all want our children to embrace what we believe. 

If the term free thinker is to refer to people who reject their family’s heritage, then there are free thinkers from every religous and anti-religious persuasion (every group gains converts from outside their current community).  Atheists cannot lay sole claim to this moniker. 

There are more lessons to be learned from Mill’s quotation, and I will tackle those in the next post.

13 thoughts on “Is Atheism Transmitted from One Generation to the Next?”

  1. Bill Pratt: The reason I offer this quotation is because of the persistent claim that atheism is all about free thinkers bucking their family’s beliefs.

    Can you provide a link of anyone claiming “atheism is ALL about free thinkers bucking their family’s belief”? Certainly true for some—but is anyone…anywhere…claiming it is true for ALL atheism?

    Secondly, do you think atheists tend to be more open about their children experimenting and learning about various religions than Christians are about their children experimenting and learning about atheism?

  2. Dagoods,
    The claim about atheists being free thinkers and religious folks being brainwashed by their families is so persistent today that a quote or link would be entirely superfluous. If you don’t feel that way, great. I’m happy we agree, but many of your atheist friends certainly portray the situation that way.

    With regard to your second question, it depends entirely on which atheist or Christian parents we are talking about. There are atheists who, no doubt, steer their children away from religion as best they can. Likewise, there are Christians who, no doubt, steer their children away from atheism as best they can.

    There may be more Christians who steer their kids away from atheism than atheists who steer their kids away from Christianity because of the fact that Christians believe that decisions we make in this life affect the afterlife. Since atheists don’t believe in an afterlife, they may not be as concerned if their children become Christians. After all, on atheism, everyone’s destiny is exactly the same.

  3. Great article. I shared on Facebook. I know a couple of atheists who became anti-theists due to some misfortune in their “religious” upbringing. One was raised Christian,the other Muslim. From what I’ve observed atheists tend to be virulently anti-religious,particularly anti-Christian. I’m not sure what the reason is.

  4. Or it could be that as ‘free thinkers’, they’re happy to let their kids find their own path. Mill’s father didn’t tell him there was no God – as far as the above passage tells us – he just told him we don’t know how the world came about. I don’t see how this is inconsistent with allowing his child to make his own mind up.

    And I’ve not seen any claims about atheists or freethinkers that is contradicted by atheists being the children of other atheists. What are you imagining we would EXPECT to be the case – that atheists can ONLY be the children of theists, such that atheists can only produce theist kids?

  5. Of course atheist parents inculcate their beliefs into their children.

    Let me see if I understand you correctly: an atheist parent who does not believe in some specific religious idea (like there exists some intervening divine agency in the world we share) passes on this belief-in-not-believing to his or her child, which is the same thing as a parent who does believe in a specific religious idea (Jesus Christ is our lord and saviour) passing on this specific religious idea to a child as if it were true. So we are to understand that a specific belief and a non belief in that specific belief are really just different but similar kinds of specific beliefs?

    Bill, this makes no sense unless you consider non cars to be other specific kinds of cars or non males to be some other specific kind of male… in which case your language is that poor for accurate descriptive nouns.

    Non belief by definition is not a belief. Do you pass on the belief known as not-a-belief in Xochiquetzal to your kids? How about the belief known as not-a-belief in Ra? The question is a serious one, in that I sincerely doubt you pass on all your not-a-belief-in list to others; you simply do not believe in all these other gods and leave it at that when it comes to indoctrinating anyone’s children. You do not pass on non belief; it’s the default position from which we all start before we undergo the efforts of others to convince us to change that status for some specific god.

  6. Well, this is your lucky day! You can get to know why some atheists are atheists are so not due to any religious ‘misfortune’ at all but who have maintained their atheism to all the gods you don’t believe in either. And for the same reason. In this we are compatriots.

    The only difference is that you make an exception for the god you do believe in. If you then try to privilege at my expense your exception, or try to create answers about reality based on the authority of your belief rather than reality itself, then only at this provocation will you find me and others who value your freedom to make such an exception “anti-religious”. In other words, the reason you observe atheists to be anti-religious is when the religious deserve justified criticism for their chauvinism.

    I hope that helps.

  7. OP said: “It is often claimed by atheists that religious views are merely transmitted from parent to child: we are simply born into our religion. Atheists, on the other hand, come to their beliefs for mostly intellectual reasons, and are not born into their views.”

    What are their names?

  8. I fail to see how atheism could be the default position of any child when we know that well over 90% of the people who have ever lived have believed in supernatural forces. A child must be taught that there is no such thing as the supernatural.

    An atheist parent will, no doubt, work hard to convince her children that the supernatural realm is not real, that people who believe in the supernatural are deluded, or confused, or irrational, or unscientific, or brainwashed, or whatever else.

    What each particular religion does is name and describe the supernatural realm, but they mostly all agree that there is something beyond this physical world.

  9. Much like my path to atheism from a christian family, “the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. . . .” It was not the logical inconsistencies of the bible that made me question. It was the teachings of the bible so flagrantly against common decency. I imagined a world led by the morality of the bible, or worse by the church and decided it was untenable. Once I dared to question, the intellectual inconsistencies married with the moral, jumped off the page and flew headlong into the face of reality.

    I think your ‘transmission’ of atheism from one generation to the next could be likened to the ‘transmission’ of creationism, or flat-earth, or alchemy or any number of outdated ideas that have been proven unrealistic from one generation to the next. It could also be likened to the ‘transmission’ of math skills, carpentry, or the ability to write. Some of these will benefit the child, some will not. All good parents will teach their children as best they understand. So, to say that atheists ‘transmit’ non-belief to their children is probably true. Any good parent would make light a child’s propensity to believe in fantasy so that they might grow up informed. The difference might be that the atheist parent would study the bible, the koran, the vedas or any number of religious text with their child so that they may make an informed decision about religion. As part of a christian upbringing and community, I can attest there is little encouragement to truly question the faith regardless of denomination. It seems there will always be a faction that believes in the supernatural and will hold on to that belief on the basis of authority as opposed to reality, and pass it on… imho, to the detriment of humanity.

  10. I actually enrolled my children in Catholic school so that they would be able to experience and learn about Christianity from an “outside” source. Interestingly enough, by the time they graduated they were both atheists.

    When they asked questions concerning Christianity and other religions, I answered them honestly, and gave them references. I let them figure it out for themselves without the dogma. If most people were taught that way, I believe there would be a lot less “believers” in the world.

  11. You could say that the majority of people who lived rejecting the idea that the earth went round the sun. If each generation convinces the next, then the belief will continue. That tells us nothing about whether it’s a ‘default’ belief. My three-year-old will talk about magic, but it seems to be entirely a concept she picked up from TV, along with witches and dragons. She certainly has no concept of deities yet.

  12. I have heard a number of atheists say that they are trying to make sure that their children grow up without a belief in God. This is not surprising as we all try to encourage our children to believe what we believe because we think that what we believe is right.
    I honestly don’t know why there is such a negative reaction from your statement of this, Bill. That’s what culture is — handing down a set of beliefs, including belief in or non-belief in God — to the next generation.
    And yes, there are people whose parents wanted them to believe in God, but they don’t, and there are people whose parents didn’t want them to believe in God. but they do. So obviously there are a lot of things at play here and it can’t be reduced to “I believe what my parents taught me and never learned to think for myself”.

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