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How to Help Prevent Your Child from Becoming an Atheist

The Story: According to a new study on adult atheists, the less that parents “walk the walk” about religious beliefs, the more likely their children are to walk away from the faith.

The Background: In 2009, psychology professor Joseph Henrich proposed the idea of Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs) to signify people that convey one belief but actually believe something else or have a low level of commitment to the belief. For example, researchers have found that past CRED exposure—such as being around people who engage in religious activities—is an important variable for predicting who does and does not become a religious believer

A recently published study in Religion, Brain & Behavior used the concept of CREDs to determine when a person rejects the religious beliefs modeled to them during their upbringing.

The study questioned thousands of atheists to assess the ability of CREDs to predict the age at which an individual became an atheist. In the first analysis, CREDs were positively associated with a delay in the age a person becomes an atheist, with family-level religious variables (religious importance, religious choice, and religious conflict) moderating this relationship. In the second analysis, CREDs remained a stable predictor of the age an individual became an atheist while controlling for demographics, parental quality, religious variables, relational variables, and institutional variables.

The research found that religious importance (i.e., families in which parents acted upon their religious beliefs) predicted a delay in the age which people became atheists, while choice (leaving faith decisions to children) and conflict within the family hastened the process.

What It Means: The conclusions of the study aren’t exactly encouraging, since delaying the age at which a kid becomes an adult atheist is not the goal of any Christian parent. But while limited in application, the study helps to confirm the importance of parental religiosity for children.

Another recent study for the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard found that parents who bring up their children religiously can be reassured that, on average, they are creating important psychological and behavioral health benefits that their children will carry with them into adulthood.

As researcher Tyler J. VanderWeele says, children who were raised in a religious or spiritual environment were subsequently better protected from the “big three” dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and risk taking. Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. A religious upbringing also was shown to contribute towards a number of positive outcomes, such as greater happiness, more volunteering in the community, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and higher levels of forgiveness.

As adults, children who attended religious services regularly were 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs and 30 percent less likely to start having sex at a young age. They were also 87 percent more likely to have high levels of forgiveness and 47 percent more likely to have a high sense of mission and purpose.

The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Pr. 22:6). That’s a proverb, not a promise. But we can help ensure our children gain the benefits of a life of faith by being a real-life example. We must tell our children, as the apostle Paul told his own spiritual children, “Watch me.”

As Paul told the church at Corinth, “for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:15-16). He also told them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul repeated this admonition several times to the various people and churches to which he served as a spiritual father (Phil. 3:17Phil 4:92 Thess. 3:7-92 Tim. 3:10-11).

We have an obligation to follow Paul’s example. As TGC president Don Carson says, “Do you ever say to a young Christian, ‘Do you want to know what Christianity is like? Watch me!’ If you never do, you are unbiblical.”

Paul was able to say “follow my example” because he was worthy of imitation. And he was worthy of imitating because he was himself committed to imitating Christ. If we love our children we’ll do the same, lead them to God by showing them what it looks like to follow Jesus.

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