O We of Little Faith: Highlights from Nonreligious Survey

Bird: Results Are In

My Survey of Nonreligious Parents parents concludes this week, and I want to, once more, thank everyone who was involved in the project. I managed to get close to 1,100 responses, and the results have been fascinating. I'm most grateful for all of those who took the time to explain their answers. I learned so much more when I let you tell me about your experiences in your own words. First, the basics: Most of the respondents (about 75 percent) were women and between the ages of 26 and 45, and most had children under the age of 12. Most respondents had either one or two kids and, reflecting a lack of diversity in the non-religious population as a whole, respondents were overwhelming white — 95 percent — a figure that, in my survey, included both Latinos and non-Latinos. I'm proud to say that respondents hailed from all 50 states, plus Guam and many countries outside the United States.

As far as labels, most people said they thought of themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics or freethinkers. And, as far as belief in a higher power, 73 percent said they did not believe in the existence of a higher power, with another 18 percent saying they did not know whether a higher power exists. Interestingly, 7 percent of those surveyed said they believed in the existence of a higher power, showing — once again — that "nonreligious" does not equate to "non-believing."

Among the highlights:

• Although 57 percent of those surveyed said they viewed religion "negatively, with exceptions," 90 percent wanted their children to make up their own minds and adopt their own religious or non-religious identities — a figure that speaks to the importance of non-indoctrination in secular families. As such, the most common difficulty parents reported was not knowing how to be honest with their children about religion without indoctrinating them; 33 percent of respondents said they had struggled or continued to struggle with this.

• It was clear from the survey that being non-religious doesn't mean removing yourself from religious populations. On the contrary. Eight-six percent of respondents said they had close family members who were either somewhat or very religious, and 93 percent said they had religious friends.

• While 63 percent of the parents surveyed said they had never pretended to be religious (by attending church services or praying at family dinners, etc.), 60 percent said they had avoided talking about their religious beliefs or had refused to answer questions about their beliefs to avoid discomfort or shame.

• Being a nonreligious parent, even a quietly nonreligious parent, isn't always easy, the survey showed. Many parents (56 percent) said they had felt criticized by family and friends for raising their children in nonreligious households, 41 percent said they felt a need to edit themselves or hide parts of their identity from people they love, 39 percent said they had to deal with religious influences in their kids' schools, and 34 percent feared family members would say something insensitive to harm their children. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of parents said they feared that, simply by raising their children in nonreligious households, they had put their children at risk of being left out, ostracized or hurt by their peers.

In other words, it isn't just me.

Stereotypes Broken, A Winner is Chosen


On Monday, I asked the fine readers of this here blog if a religious person had ever surprised them. Not a jump-out-and-say-boo sort of surprise, but rather the kind where a religious person acts or believes in a non-stereotypical way. I also told you that one lucky commenter would be chosen at random to win a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer.

By "random," of course, I meant that my assistant, Isabella Bird, would draw the name. Because, frankly, it felt weird drawing the name myself. And also: It was way cuter this way.

The answers I received were great!

• One of the most touching to me was Karen, who wrote about her next-door neighbor, who is a devoted member of a local mega-church.

“She invited me to her Bible Study once,” Karen said, “but I declined, and without ever having a real conversation about it, she has picked up on the fact that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. She is a wonderful neighbor and would do anything for me, so I was afraid her realization would hurt our friendship. To my surprise, she is just as sweet as ever, and never brings up anything religious around me. One day when her teenage son had some friends over from his youth group, and he invited my son to come over as well, my neighbor was quick to assure me that they wouldn’t be sitting around talking about church stuff. I think she goes out of her way not to make me uncomfortable in any way. She has also surprised me by being quite liberal, and sharing many of my political views. I’m sure we’ll get around to talking about religion one day, and I think it will be an interesting conversation. But right now, I am just glad to have her next door.”

• "B" told about a pastor who once contacted her regarding her opinions on religious prayer at City Hall. She assumed the pastor would try to convert her, but it was the opposite: “He surprised me by genuinely wanting to understand why I do what I do, and what led me to not ‘believe,’” she wrote. “We have since met several times, and the conversations are always interesting.”

• Elaine was able to name four people in her life whose open-mindedness has surprised her. One conservative friend, she said, “has told me she loves the fact that I know more about her Bible than she does, and that inspires her to learn more about her own beliefs.” And two Mormon friends “continuously support me, in every way” and “give me space to even discuss and ridicule their beliefs.”

• Ben said the two most religious people he knows are both people he respects: his father and a colleague. “I respect my father because of the consistency of his belief. He set up a foundational belief that God is first and the Bible is his word. Everything in his life rises and falls on that. Of course, I see this as a house of cards, but I admire his dedication and conviction. I respect my coworker for the humanity of her faith…[She] describes herself as a fundamentalist (Pentecostal) Christian. In spite of her conservative bent, she consistently surprises me with her tolerance and concern for others.”

• Lisa told a fantastic story about how her mother never experienced “faith” so much as she experienced “knowledge.” There wasn’t a part of her that doubted the existence of God or Jesus, or her relationship with them both. As a result, church was a place she went to be with God, not to prove herself to God — or anyone else. "She would sometimes nap during the sermon and when nudged by one of her four children would say, ‘I’m here for God. I can sleep during the sermon.’”

• Annie Neugebauer learned that you can’t tell a book buy it’s cover, or a man by his tattoo. She said she once met a guy with a “religious” tattoo but later found out he doesn’t believe in organized religion at all, but rather “faith and personal study.”

• Melissa said she is constantly surprised by a Christian missionary named Jamie Wright who writes a blog from her home in Costa Rica.You can find it at theveryworstmissionary.com. Perusing some of Jamie's old blogs, I found this paragraph:

“When I get out of the car and am walking up to the entrance of Target, it makes me physically happy. Like, I get this full feeling in my chest, and I get a little pep in my step, and by the time I get to the door a smile has spread across my face.”

That's when I knew, despite our vast religious differences, that she is my people.

Not all surprises, though, were of the pleasant variety.

• Michael Barton shared a sad story about a friend of his who ended their relationship over a Facebook remark.

"A long-time friend and I would always have interesting conversations about religion, I knowing he was a very devout Christian and he knowing I was an atheist. I thought it was great that he was interested in learning more about evolution. And understanding the viewpoints of non-believers. He moved on to Texas for school and I to Montana, and we stayed connected through Facebook, chatting all the time and commenting on each other’s posts. In 2010 (I think), when the National Day of Prayer was big in the news, I had made a comment about it on his page (responding to something he posted about it), and he basically said 'That’s it, Michael. We’re done.' And I haven’t heard from him since. It hurt. We had known each other for over a decade."

• John Holmes made a really intersting observation, too. He agreed that people may be incredible diverse in how they feel about and act on faith, but when they choose to belong to an organized religion, they must take “some responsibility for what religion does in their name. The fact that they don’t take everything in their religion literally doesn’t absolve them of this responsibility.”

John speaks from experience.

“My Catholic wife is always telling me that I should stop focusing so much on the negative things the priests say, but I am concerned that my children hear all the bad things, too.”

Thanks everyone so much for your excellent comments!

And now for the winner.

As it's important to me to do things as traditionally as possible, I pulled down my bowler from the hat rack and put all your names on slips of paper to be jostled about playfully. But, as I soon found out, my assistant was totally not into that. Which she let me know by flying off the table and damn-near ramming her face into the wall. So instead, we decided to put all the names out on the table and let her choose from the pile. She did a great job, too, especially if you're Lisa — because that's whose name she picked out and then shredded to pieces.

Congrats, Lisa! Send me an e-mail, letting me know if you’d like a hardcover or Kindle copy, and all the pertinent info. I’ll get it out to you today!