When I give talks and do Q&A afterwards, this question comes up surprisingly often. A modified version of it came up at my talk in St. Cloud earlier this week. I don’t think it’s a notion that’s shared or even seriously considered by most atheists… but it does get asked at these talks with some frequency. So I thought I’d answer it here in the blog.
We should not have children just so we can keep up with the breeding rate of religious believers.
Strategically, it’s not necessary. And morally, it’s — what’s that word I’m looking for? — wrong.
Let’s take the moral question first.
There are probably worse reasons to have kids than breeding an atheist army. But offhand, I can’t think of many. (Medical experiments? Slave labor? Meat?) Children are not a weapon in your ideological battle. They are not a means to an end. They are an end in themselves. What with them being human beings and all.
As far as I can see, there is pretty much one good reason to have kids. And that’s that you want them. You love kids. You like kids. You think kids are interesting. You enjoy their company. You want to share your ideas and ideals with them, and to learn from them yourself. You want to bring them into the world, and participate in the difficult and rewarding process of helping them become autonomous adults. Every child a wanted child, and all that.
Of course parents want their kids to share their values and ideas. Lots of parents have kids because they want a part of themselves to live on, to be carried into the world beyond their own lifespan and capacities. But the healthy, not- fucked- up parents want that part to be independent. They want their kids to be themselves, to think for themselves, to eventually make their own decisions and take their own responsibility for them. They don’t want them to just be a cog in a Meme Perpetuating Machine. If we have lots of kids just so we can breed the next generation of atheists… then how are we any better than the Quiverful families, having lots of kids just so they can breed the next generation of fundamentalist Christians? If we don’t behave better than the religious extremists we’re fighting, then what on earth is the point?
Do I want a world without religion? Hell, yes. I’m working hard towards that end. But there are obvious moral limits. I don’t, for instance, want to force people out of religion, or restrict people’s right to practice their religion, by violence or threat or law. And this idea falls well outside my moral limits. Very, very far outside.
I want a world without religion because I think that would be a better world. And a world in which parents see their kids as pawns, an army for the next generation of their ideological battle? (And, not incidentally, a world in which the parents see themselves and their partners as breeding stock for that army?) That is not my idea of a better world. I would rather have a world with religion than live in that world.
So it’s morally wrong. That’s the most important thing.
But it’s also strategically unnecessary.
Yes, it’s true — religious believers do, on average, have more kids than atheists. And yes, people do tend to stay with the religion they were brought up with.
And you know what? Atheists are still winning.
And all of that’s true… even though religious believers do, on average, have more kids that atheists, and even though people have tended to stay with the religion they were brought up with.
Because this whole “people tend to stay with the religion they were brought up with” thing is beginning to change. And it’s changing because atheists are changing it. It’s changing because atheism is a better idea than religion, an idea that’s almost certainly right, an idea that makes perfect sense once you let go of your fears about it… and because atheists are getting better, and bolder, and less apologetic, at getting this idea across to the rest of the world.
There’s a joke Ingrid likes to make about this. There’s an ugly canard against gays and lesbians: “They can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit.” The idea being that gays and lesbians can’t have kids, so if we want more tender young flesh to corrupt and have gay sex with, we have to convince people to be gay. (So much wrong there, I can’t even begin.)
So here’s what Ingrid says about religious extremists: “They can’t recruit, so they have to reproduce.”
Their ideas suck. Their ideas suck so badly, the only way they can perpetuate them is to instill them in children whose minds are hard-wired to believe whatever adults tell them — no matter how stupid, no matter how twisted, no matter how wildly out of touch with reality.
So to counter religion, we don’t need to have lots of babies. We just need to get our ideas out into the world.
We don’t need to out-reproduce believers with an army of atheist children. What we need is more secular groups in colleges and high schools. Stronger secular groups in colleges and high schools. More and stronger secular groups at the local level. More atheist blogs, Facebook pages, Twitterers, YouTube videos. More atheist billboards and buttons and bumper stickers. More letters to the editor about atheism. More news stories about atheism. More movies and pop songs and TV shows about atheism. More atheist visibility in our culture, in just about every way we can come up with.
And, of course, most importantly of all — we need more atheists coming out in our everyday lives.
If we want more kids growing up to be atheist adults? We need to create a world where it’s harder and harder to grow up not knowing that atheists exist, or thinking that atheists are evil and miserable. We need to create a world where, at the bare minimum, everyone knows that atheism is a viable option.
If we do that — we’re going to win.
We don’t have to reproduce.
Because we kick ass at recruiting.
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45 thoughts on “Should Atheists Have Lots of Kids?”
Completely agree. There is only one viable reason to have children: you want children.
Arcade Fire reference intentional?
Spot On. My wife and I have 3 kids, slightly more than average, and we joke that we’re “Filling our Liberal Atheist quiver”. A friend asked why only 3 then and my wife answered “Because we have better aim!”
This, exactly! Having a world where more people are atheists isn’t worth it if it comes at the price of kids being seen as robots who must unquestioningly obey their parents. One of the things I absolutely despised about going to Sunday School (an Islamic one) was that questions were discouraged and we were told we were Muslim before even being taught any important information about Islam. (We were told that, if anyone asks, we are to tell them that we’re Muslim.) I don’t want anyone, of any belief system, to do that to kids.
I totally love this. It’s going on my Interesting Quotes page (with a link, of course).
Amazingly, despite the majority of the horrific nature of modern pop culture, some of the most entertaining things around nowadays are smart comedians. We can mostly thank George Carlin for that (although he was not the first, or only, or last), but he took science and skeptical thinking, brought it down to a teenage/young adult level, made it smart, and then made it funny. Smart comedy, like Johnathan Coulton, or Tim Minchin.
When you combine that with the poetry of Carl Sagan, you’ve got a devastating one-two punch. And when you lift the individual up from the ground, look them dead in the eye, and say, “I wasn’t kidding.”, it hits home.
The universe is an amazing place already. Atheists have that on our side. We win.
First let me say that I think that you are absolutely right. The comparison with the gay thing was interesting because it parallels the theist vs atheist argument. They are wrong about gay recruiting because firstly it can’t be done and second it is not needed because there will always be a certain proportion of the population that are going to be gay. In the same way, they are wrong about the existence of gods. on the other hand, recruiting atheists can be done, unlike their sexual orientation, people can change their opinions and often do. We are right about this in the same way that we are right about the non-existence of gods.
A study in the UK found that religious people were succeeding in passing on their religion to around half of their offspring. Atheist parents passing on their atheism was close to 100%. Although religious people did tend to have slightly larger families, this did not offset their decline. The disappearance of the current religions was said to be inevitable if the trend continued. Unfortunately this is all from memory, I may have read it in the Freethinker or an NSS newsletter but it would take a long time to dig it out in order to provide a citation.
One last thought. Atheists didn’t need to battle for numbers in the UK, since the nineteen-fifties religion just naturally declined until now it is only practiced by a tiny minority who are generally looked upon as being a bit odd. Why this has happened in every western democracy except the US is an interesting question. That is not to say that our battle has been won. Our system of government is steeped in past history which means that religious organsations still enjoy many underserved privilages. Also the vast majority of people still have some vague belief in a higher power which the church and government use to pretend that the majority are still Christians.
Well said Greta, and beautifully written.
I was bred by religious believers.
I’m an atheist.
Beliefs and ideological convictions are not genetic.
By framing the question in terms of “just so we can keep up” you’ve made the answer too easy. A better question would be framed at the margins, something more like this:
“Given that you are an atheist couple, should the fact that you will raise children free of religious indoctrination be considered a factor (among many others) in your decision to have one more child than you have now?”
Now, it seems obvious to me that 1) Childhood indoctrination is clearly one aspect of BAD parenting and 2) people who parent better than others ought to do more parenting. So I’d consider the fact that freethinkers are (all else being equal) better parents a legitimate reason for them to consider adding more arrows to the quiver, assuming of course that they still have enough love and time and money to go around.
I remember this question coming up at then end of your talk at Simon Fraser University last year. I’m surprised that it’s such a common occurrence – I would have hoped that the moral and tactical problems with this idea would be so obvious that it needn’t be mentioned.
Nobody should have lots of kids. It’s reprehensible.
To paraphrase Bill Cosby, my wife and I have three children, and the reason we have three children is because we do not want four.
I don’t think the question is a bad one. As the only airheist in my large family of eight, I have watched how my siblings have reproduced their fundamentalist values, passed them on Into their large quivers of children. The church tells them to, god tells them to, it’s how they will defeat people like me, their pathetic, worldly, heathen little sister who was so battle-scarred and isolated from leaving the Fold, that I only had the energy left in me to produce one child, who, by the way, is the lone Freethinker, swimming in a sea of believing cousins. Do you think it hasn’t crossed my mind that perhaps it would have helped if I’d had more children, at least so my daughter wouldn’t feel so alone amongst her bible thumping kin.
then how are we any better than the Quiverful families, having lots of kids just so they can breed the next generation of fundamentalist Christians?
That’s a pretty shallow and silly generalization about why they have children. They enjoy their children as well, just like Obama enjoys his two daughters despite his literal belief in the Resurrection. They raise their kids for decades, 24/7, and there’s plenty of fun, games and education in their lives.
Certain forms of anthropomorphic fundamentalism may wane over time. But ultimately, there is little intellectual or logical difference between a fundamentalist view and any the view of any religion which promotes a literal belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful being. And I don’t think atheism is ever going to extinguish people’s belief in that latter, more general kind of God. For most, it’s highly counter-intuitive to believe the universe came out of nothing with no input from some strong form of conscious being.
What kind of fucked-up question is that to ask?
Hello-o, I’m raising kids into hopefully independent adults, not breeding pigeons.
Will I be happy if my children will one day share my values?
Yes, definetely. Would I be a bit disappointed if one of them joined the catholic church? Yep, that too.
But here’s one thing: I won’t breed another one because one of them turns out to be not the atheist I imagined her to be.
As a child of atheists I can tell that it’s not so much the “passing on” of atheism, it’s more that religion simply doesn’t make sense if you haven’t been told so by adults you trust.
Wonderful post and I love your wife’s stance.
I have to laugh at the Quivering masses, who don’t realize that the larger their families, the better the chance that one or more will grow up to be atheist, gay, or both. And KNOWING that one or more of their siblings is atheist, gay, or both will (I hope) help bring home the message of toleration of others.
As interesting as this article is, and I agree with a lot of it. It doesn’t address the issue of Demographic Jihad at all. I read this article a year ago or so: http://www.yoel.info/demographicjihad.htm
I think that is interesting also. I don’t think that encouraging any group to have more children than they want is beneficial to this planet since this planet is unsustainably overpopulated and growing at an immense rate. With that in mind, how do we deal with the challenge of demographic jihad?
By ignoring it, Cameron. It’s a myth, for a variety of reasons.
I am an opponent of dogma and repression, religious based or not. And I do think the world would be better off without both. But I think we miss the point about repressive religion and repressive secular institutions, like Communism. The point is they satisfy social needs for community with all the goodies that go with it, meeting people to date, the safety of numbers, having people to help in hard times, and people to party with. If atheists are going to erode the grip the repressive dogma gangs have on the public, we need to create ethical institutions that satisfy social needs. Just espousing our ideas, as good as they are, isn’t enough.
[…] the world. The only religious demographic that’s growing in every single state is “None.” Read more . . . Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Solar-Powered Bulb […]
Right on! And may I say that quote of Ingrid’s was pure laugh-out-loud genius. 🙂
Our arguments are the better ones, and our ideas are more persuasive, more beautiful, more true than anything that religion has to offer. If you believe that, you have no reason to fear that the fundies will outbreed us. All we have to do is speak out, frequently and fearlessly, so that our ideas are an accepted part of the culture. The fundies can have as many children as they like; as those kids come in contact with our ideas, they’ll end up on our side, not their parents’.
That said, there are more and more believers who concede the battlefield of ideas and turn away completely from the world, trying to live their lives in an impenetrable fundamentalist bubble. (Self-linkage alert!) As atheism becomes more prominent, I think we’re going to see more of that. Even people from those backgrounds, like Libby Anne, can end up on our side, but the cost they have to pay is often much, much higher. I don’t know if there’s a good answer to that.
Interesting question – I have to admit that I at times I’ve thought it wouldn’t hurt if liberals had more children!
Though as a religious child of atheist/agnostic parents, we do happen. 😉
People seriously ask this question?!?
Awesome. Thank you.
Having lots of kids usually isn’t compatible with the lifestyle most atheists would embrace. It often relies on total dedication to child raising on the part of the mother and older female siblings. Unless there’s a lot of money floating around, it involves sacrifices for parents and children that few of us are willing to make: how would you pay for college for all those children? Those sacrifices and restrictions just don’t make sense from an atheist point of view. I’m not saying there isn’t the occasional atheist who just lives to raise 10 kids, but presumably they’re doing it because they want to, not because they think they should.
The Godless Bitches podcast had an episode a while ago where they had a conversation with a woman from the quiverful movement (she was no longer in it). It was interesting hearing her describe her life, and how the pressure of not only having more babies but also having them “naturally” ended up putting her life at risk.
The episode in question is Episode 1.4, though they are all worth listening to.
I looked at the data you are quoting. Especially interesting for me was the information concerning America (about which I have no first-hand experience). There may be something here, but your interpretation (“atheists are still winning”) is perhaps a bit overoptimistic. How were the “Nones” identified and who are they? Here is the answer from the source you are quoting:
An obvious question is what the most common response (“none”) means. Greta suggested that it means a “non-belief”. I can see no good justification for that. Another possible interpretation would be: it denotes only the lack of positive identification with standard religious groups.
It may be instructive to compare it with answers to another question concerning the existence of God (table 4 of your source). There we have 2.3% saying “there is no such thing”, 4.3% for “There is no way to know” and 5.7% for “I’m not sure”. Altogether they give 12.3%, compared to 15% of the “Nones” (the data are from 2008; any comparisons are made difficult by the fact that the question about the existence of God was asked in 2008 for the first time). But it seems to me that only the first two categories can be clearly identified as atheists/agnostics. About the third one (“I’m not sure”) we would need more specific data – I wouldn’t be even ready to assume without an argument that the people answering “I’m not sure” are typically in the “Nones” category! (How often declared Catholics or Baptists would answer “I’m not sure”? I would prefer to know it before drawing conclusions)
In effect, it’s not clear to me at all that the increasing percentage of the “nones” should be interpreted as increasing percentage of non-believers. The conclusion “atheists are winning” is not the one I would draw here – there are too many uncertainties.
I know this is anecdotal, but I know a number of people who have told me that they “don’t know” or “aren’t sure” that would most likely poll in that category. I’m quite sure many of them are atheists, but they don’t want to call themselves atheists, I suspect because of social stygmas. I know a Filipino who calls himself a “cultural Catholic” but admittedly hates going to church (doesn’t necessarily hate the church). He seems to be “stuck in a rut,” so to speak, in that he only calls himself a Catholic because, I suspect, he doesn’t think it’s acceptable to be anything but a Catholic (as his family/cultural background is heavily Catholic). I’m not as sure about him as others, but I hightly suspect he is in fact an atheist, but is afraid to admit it to himself.
The point of all of this is that I suspect (I know, I keep using that word!) that there are those who would answer polls as “spiritual but not religious” or some other category that makes them appear from that response alone that they are not atheists but are in fact atheists or would be atheists (or, at the very least, easy to “recruit”) if not for the social pressures (and lies), such as those that you need to believe in a god to be a moral person.
I grant I cannot draw a clear conclusion based on these anecdotes, but my personal thoughts are that these 15% estimates, as well as including most of the “Nones” as non-believers, is acceptable.
Stephen J. Gould wrote a great essay on this subject. Well, close to this subject. Same impulse. The worry was that the dumb were outbreeding the smart in that scenario, but it pushed all the same buttons and had a similar dismissal. Yes, women with less education tend to have more children, but some or all of those children will manage to become educated, because upward mobility and improvement through generations and seeking a better life for your children are all aspects that seem pretty fundamental to human nature. Unless, of course, you mix religion in, at which point being happier and better informed than your parents becomes sinful. Sigh.
In my earlier comment @#6 I referred to a majority in the UK who have some vague belief in a higher power. The way that you are describing them it would appear that many of the ‘nones’ that you are referring to are like this, or possibly fairly liberal Christians. I tend not to see such people as a threat to the freedom of others. It is the proffessional religiots and the lay ones who take religion far too seriously that I have a problem with, these are a tiny minority in the UK. If they are also declining in numbers in the US that is a good thing. There is of course the problem that as their numbers and power diminish they tend to become more beligerent but we are dealing with that.
I’m going to ignore the few commenters here who seem to think it is irresponsible to have children. I’m sure that your “informed decision” not to have children excuses your environment-raping excesses. Really. This has become the arrogant philosophically lazy extension of “I recycle- therefor I’m pro-environment”.
I agree with everything you said here. I’m an atheist who is expecting my fifth child in the new year. I didn’t set out to breed an “atheist army”- my wife and I just realized after our first child that we loved being parents and raising children. We see the value in having children.
It wouldn’t matter how many kids atheists had- most of us came from religious families, and the next generation will be little different in that respect.
As a straight male in the atheist movement, I would be happy if I never had another person tell me that I should have “lots of atheist babies,” because Quiverfull exists.
Atheists might not need to have more children, but what about smart people???
The idea that the “wrong sort of people” have more children than the “right sort of people”, and will thus take over the world in four or five generations, has a long and very, very sordid history. Anybody espousing such ideas should thus be met with a healthy amount of skepticism.
Like I said, the history is long. That means that the people who held the notion four or five generations ago (such as the people Clarence Darrow argued against here) were WRONG. It turns out either that intelligence isn’t as simply hereditary as people think, or that wealth and success aren’t as closely correlated with intelligence as the wealthy and successful like to think.
And anyway, making demographic predictions over a hundred-year span is a fool’s errand. Think about the last hundred years: would a demographer in 1911 have been able to account for two world wars, communist revolutions in Russia and China (and China’s subsequent demographic policies), the independence of nearly every former colony in Africa and Asia, or the development of effective birth control, including types that don’t require the consent of the male party?
So, why would you expect a demographer living today to be able to make accurate predictions over the next century? The range of possible political and technological developments is simply too wide to be able to say anything with certainty. Just one obvious example: the current political situation in several sizable Middle Eastern and North African countries is such that predicting the situation just five years from now is close to impossible.
The biggest reason cults demand massive overbreeding by their cultmembers is what I call “dictatorship through democracy”: they want to outpopulated “others” and create a tyranny of the majority (at least, if the cult members are obedient).
This is why many muslims emigrate, to build their numbers in other countries. Most “muslim countries” are already overpopulated and have a near-insurmountable majority. The goal is to do what catholics have been doing for centuries: fuck like bunnies and turn vaginas into clown cars, to outpopulate every other religion.
As for myself, I don’t have kids and have chosen never to have any. I teach kids and get the enjoyment of working with them, making a good impression on them, and I don’t have to put up with the down sides (feeding, cleaning up, tantrums, etc.). I get all the good points and none of the bad.
I have one son. He is 14 years old. We have discussed religion and atheism ever since he could ask questions. He has been invited to church many times in his short life, and my response has always been, “Do you want to go?” If he does want to, I let him go, and then make a point of discussing it with him afterward. Not for the purpose of telling him what to think, but to find out what he thinks, provide information and facts as needed, and encourage the thinking process.
My son is currently reading the Satanic Bible and identifies as a “LaVeyan Satanist”. The books reads like satire to me, to be honest, and the concept of LaVeyan Satanism comes across to me as a theatrical and self-centered version of atheism. But that is where my teenage son is now, and I encourage his search and open, honest discussions about it.
All that to say, I agree. Deliberately pushing out babies and indoctrinating them with our own worldviews is exactly what religious fundamentalists do. It’s wrong when they do it, and it would be wrong for us to do it. Kids should not be used to serve our political or religious agendas (think of the Phelps family) or as guinea pigs in social experimentation.
This is why many muslims emigrate, to build their numbers in other countries. – P Smith
Do you have any evidence for this? It sounds to me like paranoid garbage. Economic motives appear quite adequate to account for Muslim emigration to North America, Europe and Australasia.
What is maybe needed even more, in the US above all, is more soico-economic equality and a better social welfare system*. There’s a fair amount of evidence religion is favoured by inequality and insecurity. See for example Religiosity and Attitudes towards the Involvement of Religious Leaders in Politics and the references therefrom.
*Not just in order to undermine religion, obviously – but it’s a nice bonus.
KG, Smith’s comment sounds like paranoid garbage because it is paranoid garbage. In much of the Muslim world birth rates are dropping. Iran for example has a lower birth rate than the United States. A list of recent birth rates from several sources can be found here:
There are also dangers associated with reproducing for the purpose of creating politically like-minded individuals. It might not work for one thing.
When I was a confused teenager, I was looking for a political identity and a way of understanding the world. Because I was an economically privileged white teenage boy, and because my father was outspoken in his support for the Libertarian party, I became a Libertarian. I decided that poor people were poor because they didn’t work hard enough, and that the rich were the source of all economic activity. I believed that the welfare state was counterproductive, and that unions were parasitical growths upon industries.
These beliefs worked for me for a while, until I grew up a little more, met a wider group of people, and went to college. I started meeting people and having experiences that called these beliefs into question. For a while I was once again confused, and then I started to abandon my Libertarian ideals as being unrealistic, and maybe even pernicious. I imagine that my family’s basically open-minded attitude allowed this to happen with less fuss than what could have been.
At this point, the main effect of my earlier libertarianism is to make me especially hostile to the utterly insane statements of libertarians today. The reason for this is that, due to my earlier belief, I know on a microscopic level exactly what their arguments are, how their worldview looks and feels, where their blindspots are, who manipulates them & why, what they aren’t telling people, and what their next move will probably be. I know exactly where their worldview fails to describe reality, and where it damages people.
Because I know all these things and because I can see the real-world pain their delusions create, it makes me much more motivated to deny, subvert, confuse, isolate, mock, attack, and hopefully damage or destroy their beliefs and institutions in any way I possibly can.
So if one wishes to reproduce for the purpose of creating like-minded individuals, one also needs to really work at creating a cultish atmosphere where any questioning of their parental authority is untenable, as the fundamentalist Christians do. If one fails to create that atmosphere, or, maybe even if one succeeds, one’s children could be just as likely to grow up political enemies as political friends.
A better question would be “Should atheists adopt lots of babies?”.
I didn’t grow up in a religious house, but I grew up in a “spiritual” house. My mom was an anthropologist who loved studying religions and she had the idea that every religion had something good to offer humanity, so she said that she took the good from every religion and left the bad. She’s always had fluffy beliefs about an afterlife and reincarnation and those sorts of things, but I don’t recall ever buying into it as a kid. I was around it but it wasn’t forced on me, and as long as I can remember, I’ve been a materialistic atheist. The most spiritual idea I ever held onto growing up was a belief in ghosts and I outgrew that eventually.
Maybe my atheism has actually influenced my mom, though. In recent months she’s started watching the Friendly Atheist’s videos and she asked to borrow my copy of The God Delusion. She ended up not reading it, yet it’s quite a step for a spiritual woman like her to start listening to the atheist position more and even taking an interest in reading about it.
There’s no good reason to have kids. Procreating is selfish and self-indulgent. Anyone born now will be doomed to a miserable existence for a number of reasons but primarily global warming. Read Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. http://tinyurl.com/2wex38m
OK, if you’re superstitious, go ahead and breed.
What good is recruiting when the religious start their offspring reproducing at even younger ages I am talking about teen pregnancy before someone is smart enough to realize atheism they are already replicating the issue at hand.
Damn, another wishful thinker. Hey lady, humans don’t operate in a world like you describe they ‘should’. I think it’s a great idea for Atheists to have lots of kids!
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