Reading Time: 5 minutes

To help set the course for our parent community program, Foundation Beyond Belief conducted a survey of nontheistic parents in February of this year—the first of its kind, as far as we can tell. The survey was unscientific (e.g. subjects were self-selected and the survey was advertised on websites that skew in the direction of organized secularism), as is the following analysis. But the project has given us a fascinating and sometimes surprising window into the world of secular parenting.

A total of 1740 people completed the survey, including secular parents in 49 U.S. states (87% of total respondents), 10 Canadian provinces (6%), and 19 other countries (7%).

Respondents were primarily women (60/40)—interesting because organized freethought skews heavily male. Most respondents are raising 1-2 children (38 and 39%, respectively), most are in a two-parent home (89%), and the largest percentage (39.4%) are in a big city suburb.

The largest percentage of respondents (27.4%) report that they themselves were raised in a mainline Protestant denomination, followed closely by Catholic (24.3%) and a poetic tie between atheist and evangelical (11.6% each). These numbers are somewhat muddied by the fact that of the 23% of respondents who checked “Other,” about half listed a denomination that fit one of the listed categories. That’s what an unscientific survey design will get you.

Of those in mixed worldview marriages, 47.8% report very little tension between the parents over issues of parenting and religion, and 41.1% report some tension and occasional issues. Just 6.7% reported frequent issues and 4.4% experience significant, severe conflict over parenting and religion.

I was surprised and pleased to see that only 11 percent of mixed secular/religious marriages in the survey seem to be grappling with these issues on a frequent or severe basis. It’s no less troubling for those people, of course, but as the Foundation develops its parent support program, we can be more effective and efficient in offering solutions if we know the extent of the problem.

The next question also produced something of a surprise to me:

Just over a quarter of respondents (25.5%) report an extended family that is moderate to intense in its religiosity. My surprise is partly an artifact of reportage—the vast majority of my own correspondence and contact with secular parents comes from those in a deeply religious extended family.

Over a third of respondents (35.2%) are in an extended family that ranges from secular to mildly religious, while the largest proportion (39.2%) are in a situation of significant variety, either split along two or more sides of the extended family or scrambled up within the whole.

I think this can be an ideal situation for raising kids who genuinely think for themselves. If your extended family is too uniform (either strictly religious or strictly secular), a parent has to expend more effort to be sure other points of view are represented. When my wife Becca, a fairly conventional Christian believer for most of our marriage, came to self-identify as a secular humanist, it eliminated what small tensions we had over those questions but also deprived us of what had been a handy safety valve against unintended indoctrination. Fortunately we still have a variety of views in the extended family to provide that diversity.

Fewer than half of respondents report significant religious pressure or indoctrination directed at their kids. Family members, unsurprisingly, are the source of most pressure from those who do report it:

(Totals exceed 100% because respondents were free to choose more than one source of pressure.)

And what’s the pressure about? You can probably guess:

How do secular parents expose their kids to religion?

Another question asked about the parent’s feelings about his or her child’s eventual worldview. I’ve often said that it seemed to me that most secular parents are genuinely committed to raising their kids to make their own choices, and the survey seemed to bear this out. Even most of those who hope their kids choose atheism affirm a desire that the choice be their children’s own:

(Complete purple question, which was very carefully worded: “The choice is theirs, and though some religious identities would make me heartsick, others would be fine”)

Finally, two related questions that are of central importance as we build the Foundation’s secular parent support program:

The greatest need of nontheistic parents by far seems to be simply finding and connecting with other nontheistic parents. This result was profoundly influential for the Foundation. It became clear that our original plan to train seminar leaders would not meet the most common need. What is needed is ongoing support for local groups that can help remove the crushing sense of isolation that so many secular parents feel. What’s needed is not a lecture but an opportunity to socialize, to mingle, to informally share experiences and ideas—to simply be with other parents who are raising their kids with the same challenges and opportunities.

Best of all, nearly 1,000 respondents expressed an interest in being contacted if a secular parenting group formed in their area, and nearly a third of these were willing to help start such groups. Ute Mitchell, our parent community coordinator, is currently using the contact data from the survey to help form groups in the ten U.S. states with the most survey respondents (some obviously the result of higher population):

…after which we’ll continue with other states and provinces SOON. We’re also continuing to build the parent resource section of the Foundation website, which will launch in the coming weeks.

Thanks again to all participants! More surveys to come.

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.