Tag Archives: transmission of beliefs

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.