January 13, 2015

How faithfully is godlessness transmitted from parents to offspring?

It disturbs me that my nephew is being raised utterly godless. Respect for tradition ought to at least make the parents raise their kid in the religion they were raised in, or something similar enough to it. If the child wants to lapse or drop out as an adult, that's ultimately their choice. But parents give their children no choice at all by raising them in a religious vacuum.

Moreover, by severing the ties to the past, even if the child does take up religion as an adult, they are less likely to wind up in the same or similar religion or denomination as their ancestors, than if they had had that status passed onto them directly from their parents. Connections to the past can become fractured incredibly quickly.

But will godlessness actually continue to grow and grow as a result of children being raised that way to begin with? Or is there some kind of affinity for religion wired into human nature? That could take the form of the child seeking out religion even if they had been deprived of it during development, or a parent who was raised godless deciding to give their child a religious upbringing.

The General Social Survey asks questions about the religion that the respondent belongs to, that their children belong to, and that their parents belonged to. We can thus investigate how stable the transmission of "no religion" is through your descendants. Only whites will be looked at, to sift out race as a confounding variable.

Let's start at the nuclear level. If your current religious affiliation is "none," you are only about 70% likely to raise your child with no religion. That may still be more likely than not, but it's quite a bit lower than the success of passing on your Protestant or Catholic status (around 80% likely).

Now zoom out to follow the transmission from grandparents to grandchildren. If your father or your mother was raised with no religion, there's only about a 50% chance that your child — their grandchild — will be raised with no religion. That is just what we'd expect from two independent transmissions that each have a success rate of 70% (square it, and you get 50%). As before, the similarity is higher for the presence of religion: Protestant status shows about a 70% chance of the grandparents and grandchildren being the same, while Catholic status shows about a 60% chance of being the same.*

Aside from similarity between parents and offspring, what about the change within the life of a single individual who was raised with no religion? There's only about a 50% chance that they will remain without religion into adulthood. By contrast, someone raised Catholic is over 75% likely to stay Catholic as an adult, and Protestants even more so, at over 85%.

What fills in for the absence of religion, then? In all these cases, a majority turn to Protestantism and a minority toward Catholicism. That is likely due to Protestantism being the dominant form of religion in America during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, rather than any special appeal of Protestantism.

To resolve that question, we could look into the same phenomenon in a majority Catholic country like Italy, or even better Spain, where godlessness is more common and would provide a larger sample to study. I expect Spaniards who are raised with no religion to turn more to Catholicism than to Protestantism, if they seek out religion in adulthood.

But what pulls the seekers toward one form of religion or another is a separate topic. For now we just need to emphasize how less stable it is for parents to transmit the absence of religion through their descendants.

Of course we should also mention that there is a heavy secular trend toward godlessness, which the GSS data confirm. If you look at whites who were raised with no religion, and see whether they remain so in adulthood, it becomes more and more likely with successive generations, especially with the Boomers and later generations. It doesn't matter whether you look at the generations during the same stages of life or not.

To give an idea of the trend, though, if you were raised with no religion, how likely are you to have no religion during your 30s? Only about 20% if you were born from 1935 to 1944, but 35% if you were born from '45 to '54, and nearly 60% if you were born from '55 to '64. At least it doesn't get worse after that — it stays around 60% for the '65-'74 and the '75-'84 cohorts. The snowball appears to have stopped rolling in that direction.

The secular trend shows up among those raised Protestant and Catholic as well. Late X-ers and Millennials who were raised Protestant are between 20-30% likely to abandon religion in adulthood. Among Catholics, just under 20% are likely to abandon the religion they were brought up in. Both of those figures are nearly an order of magnitude higher than they were under the Greatest Generation.

The point of contrasting these two forces is to underline how impotent parents are to affect the course of religious evolution through parenting per se. Religious-minded folks might view that as a downer, but it's worse news for the godless. Religion of one kind or another is easier to pass on to your children, while godlessness will be more stubbornly resisted.

Still, religious folks should not delude themselves about how effective their efforts will be to bring up their children in a religious manner, when the whole rest of social and cultural forces are clearly pushing in the opposite direction. It is those forces that are driving up the retention rates of godlessness from childhood into adulthood among the Boomer-and-after generations — not a greater failure on the part of religious parents, or a greater success on the part of godless parents.

If parents want future generations to grow up in a world that's more welcoming of religion, they need to change those broader societal trends, not to merely adopt a conservative brand of helicopter parenting. Otherwise their best efforts to personally transmit religion to their children, and their children's children, could get swamped by hostile outside forces.

* Those figures are slightly higher and slightly lower, respectively, of what you'd get from independent transmissions each with an 80% chance of success, but I don't think there's too much to read into that.

GSS variables: kd1relig, relig, parelkid, marelkid, relig16, race, cohort, age


  1. I haven't seen anyone draw the parallels between Charlie Hebdo and Pussy Riot. Both the magazine and the protest group have been lionized for attacking Islam and Christianity respectively. Western elites are declaring that blasphemy is the highest form of cultural expression.

  2. Well unless it was one of *their* idols being desecrated... imagine if a magazine cover showed Martin Luther King during his "I have a dream" speech, only his face looks like the Sambo caricature, his outstretched arm holds a slice of watermelon while the other hand clutches a fried chicken drumstick, and a speech balloon reads "I have a OOK OOK!" and the caption is titled "Dr. Monkey Luther King."

    Or even more to the point regarding Charlie Hebdo, a cartoon profaning the sanctity of the Holocaust.

    But yes, even though the blaspheming impulse does not extend in all directions, it is still rising like a wave. It's not just elites either -- the obligatory photo pose for young people in the 21st century is not a smile but a middle finger (oh so edgy).

  3. "Charlie Hebdo first appeared in 1970 as a successor to the Hara-Kiri magazine, which was banned for mocking the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle.[6] In 1981 publication ceased, but the magazine was resurrected in 1992."

    Fascinating. In the 80's even the frenchies took a sabbatical from looney leftism. The worst thing to happen to the modern West was the dissolution of the Soviets. With no organized, powerful enemy left we no longer felt any urgent need to stay on our best behavior.

    Couple that with a decline in violence (we like to take credit for 'solving' that problem) and we can understand why we developed such arrogance and complacency since the early 90's.

    In fact the profound conservatism of what few enemies we have left (the Muslims) has led to our betters egging on the most degenerate behavior. Putin undoubtedly has many skeletons in his closet but what do we focus on? His distaste for gays (which is probably motivated by the fact that they cause trouble and are annoying rather than coming from moral disgust).

    I've been reading a book about 80's horror movies that talks about how miltarized the West was getting in the 80's, esp. pop culture. Compare Aliens to the '79 original. Sigourney Weaver is dopey liberal Boomer but the tide of ass kicking culture in the 80's was too much for even a big hollywood star to stop so Aliens featured, as Clarence Boddicker would say, "guns, guns, guns." Between the external threat and the bloodshed afoot in our streets and houses being naive about one's security was no longer an option. Sure those 80's movies were stylized but ultimately they reflected people's desire to be prepared to fight back and, if push came to shove, take on the bad guys.

    Nowadays the "bad guys" are renegade foreign zealots and libertarian/autistic "what's in it for me?" dorks. We misunderstand and overrate the former ("we just profaned your idol, get over it") while being totally blind to the latter ("what's wrong with putting your dick in a dude?".

    Note also how the lefty's idea of culture war is just that, culture. They're too wimpy, too selfish and cowardly to physically fight back. If you wanna stick it to the ragheads get in their faces and build some Molotovs. This kind of cowardice probably furthers contempt toward the modern West. See also Western armies remotely sending missiles and bombs at targets which often hurts civilians as well. Even if they hit the real enemy this kind of warfare is still profoundly gutless and amoral. Yes I do realize that terrorism of all kinds is often cowardly but at the end of the day, our tactics may be superficially more high tech but the end result is the same: dehumanizing of the other side and far too much damage wrought on all parties involved for no good reason.

    With so little violent crime and with our main enemies being, however belligerent and motivated, an impoverished mess it isn't surprising that we've descended so low so fast.

  4. These kinds of idiotic internecine "culture war" pissing contests seem to getting more and more common. Nobody's on the same page, uncertainty and ambition reign. Glib, greedy Boomers are still kicking, humble Gen X-ers are warming the bench, doofus Millenials are getting more playing time because they are naïve enough to buy into whatever crap is being sold and also because they are so effetely non threatening that the establishment loves them. Maybe that's why they don't get bashed much, whereas Gen X-ers in the late 80's/90's were often trashed for being too cynical and for being hostile to Boomer narcissism/indulgence.

    I'm beginning to understand the sort of forces that lead to a Civil War type atmosphere. Anything goes, nothing matters.

  5. The pseudo-cons of the Civil War era wanted us to believe that the fate of Western Civ was hanging in the balance, unless we continued to allow a tiny elite of rich slave-owners to employ hordes of third-worlders for remuneration that a native white would've spat upon.

    This time around, the pseudo-cons are arguing the exact same thing, only now it's Mexican hordes driving down wages, fracturing a sense of community, and spreading foreign contagious diseases.

  6. Respect for tradition ought to at least make the parents raise their kid in the religion they were raised in

    I don't understand this perspective. I you believe religion is bullshit, why respect it and indoctrinate your children with it. Makes no sense.

  7. Religion is not about doctrine, so children are not indoctrinated by being raised within a religious tradition.

    They learn the important narratives, some more historical and others more mythological. And they experience the practices or rituals that bond the group together -- reciting prayers in unison, singing hymns in chorus, and so on.

    But they do not learn points of doctrine, apart from the "gist" messages of the narratives. They learn that Jesus died for our sins, but not that God is one God manifested in three persons, all consubstantial and eternal, etc.

  8. Religion is often a proxy for ethnicity so when religious values decline it's a sign of discord and mistrust between co-ethnics. And when this happens within an ethnic group god only knows how much hostility there is between ethnic groups.

    Not sure how much you read this blog but Agnostic has extensively analyzed the correlation between high levels of social/economic eniquality and amoral/nihilistic/liberatarian "what me worry" decadant glib values.

    Our current culture emphasizes competitive cutthroat individalism at all costs; ethnic/religious strength and solidarity is obviously an impediment to Me 1st culture which is why modern Westerners have such a dizzying array of value and goals. Nobody is on the same page anymore since nobody sincerely cares about anything besides attaining and retaining status. Since status markers change so readily fashion supercedes any steadfast established morality.

    In the early 90's one proved one's abiility and willingness to be on the "right" side of history by evincing compassion for homos. By now that's no longer sufficient; now you prove it by accepting men in woman's bathrooms. There's this infatutation with weird and foreign things because "old fashioned" values (like believing in Christ, gender norms, sexuality norms, protecting one's nationality/race) get in the way of fashion and hence get in the way of degrading and toxic efforts to attain status.

    Look at all the British actors on TV and British accents on the radio. C'mon, relax, Brits are so cool and sophisticated. You know that the people who produce these things like to boast to their fellow would be elites that they feel so blessed to flirt with cosmopolitanism. Why should we aspire to keep America American?

    In the Eisenhower era this sort of multicultural mess was kept to a minimum because everyone believed in a sort of unpretentious, selfless ethic that kept people's ego and sin in check. Yeah, that ghastly conformity was so horrible wasn't it? We should be so grateful that the Boomers blew that apart by the early 70's.

  9. Agnostic,

    You're hitting another topic that I'm familiar with.

    My sister and I were raised godless, although my Dad was Catholic and my mom Baptist. I never set foot in a church together with my parents unless it was a wedding.

    I was always curious about religion, likely because most of my friends attended church, and I felt left out. I've also always been agnostic and do believe that there is some higher power. But I actually didn't want to become religious until I was studying abroad in Germany when I was 20. There's a 1,000-year-old Cathedral in the town in which I studied, and the structure is so beautiful and the atmosphere so immersive, that I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I used to attend mass every Sunday. I loved it, even though I got lost with German words that I had never heard before.

    Fast forward to present day: I'm engaged to a Catholic, and we're having our ceremony in a Catholic church. The kids will be baptised and raised Catholic. We've begun attending mass when we can, and we'll likely follow Lent. I pursue going to mass just as much as she does. I'm seriously thinking of getting baptised and going through communion.

    From a previous post that Agnostic wrote, I'm a transient from Upstate NY who feels zero community in New York City. Going to church, meeting the priest and parishioners, makes you feel like you belong. I haven't gleaned too many valuable life lessons from the mass yet, but I've just begun attending.

    As I mentioned, my Dad was Catholic. He apparently loathed Sunday school and the communion process. Probably because he was a Boomer, and at that time your God was the Almighty Dollar, and your Creed was slaving for the Man. He was an alcoholic, who, towards the end of his life, found God again and attended church regularly. God in the end did not save my father, but God helps those who help themselves. Apparently this verse is not from the Bible, but is credited to Aesop.

  10. The Vermifuge1/14/15, 3:39 PM

    Some of the variables that you've discussed before, I think, also tie in well with this post. If you're striving and jumping from one city to the next, it's hard to put roots anywhere, especially in a church. The constant movement, then, forces the mind to unmoor from any perceived obstacles. And, since you're too busy working, trying to get ahead, while failing to turn some vast, immovable wheel, it's also easy to avoid a commitment, which brings you into a community outside your self-constructed citadel (or, perhaps, you're just afraid that your children will hate you for putting them in such an oppressive environment!). Besides, your broken generation already asks: Why would you voluntarily add metes and bounds to your life, when you can follow a dying culture's canonization of the seven deadly sins and blame the cardinal virtues for being too serious, too stodgy, and too old-fashioned? Restraint, however, is necessary to know the self.

  11. Yep, I've got some posts coming up relating geographic transplant-ism to religious transplant-ism (conversion). As well as which religious groups are more vs. less susceptible to members leaving vs. members joining.

  12. Religion is not about doctrine. It seems like you have a sanitized view of religion, Agnostic. If that were true I would agree religion would be cool, but experience says otherwise.

    Not sure how much you read this blog but Agnostic has extensively analyzed the correlation between high levels of social/economic eniquality and amoral/nihilistic/liberatarian "what me worry" decadant glib values.

    Correlation is not causation, you know. I understand this blog reflects a conservative perspective. I like some of his critiques against the political correctness, but this veneration of tradition is not my thing. Call me nihilist if you want to. The tide of history can't be reversed by nostalgic musings.

  13. Religion being all about doctrine is a belief held by nerdy people who rely too much on their rational thinking and thus thinks that everything is about facts and what is true and not, and not enough on their intuition, their day to day interactions with the wider world, as well as any observational evidence about people's behavior. Relations, identity, and ritual are much more important when it comes to religion in practice than any belief in doctrine.

    It's been well documented that the average cradle Catholic in the United States is largely ignorant about Catholic teaching on abortion, transubstantiation, the Eucharist, et cetera. The average Protestant has no trouble switching between Baptist, Methodist, Presbytarian, Lutheran, Reformed, evangelical, and any of the other denominational and non-denominational Protestant for aesthetic reasons or because of compromise in marriage, et cetera, even though the various denominations have widely different views on various important doctrinal concepts such as infant baptism, total depravity, and same-sex marriage.


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