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Why Do Some Atheists Go to Church?
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux,

There’s no question that atheists are not the most popular group, at least in the United States. Not only do two-thirds of Americans say that they’d be uncomfortable with an atheist president (with 48% reporting that they would be very uncomfortable with this prospect), Americans are divided in their overall opinion of atheists. Forty-five percent say they have unfavorable views of atheists, while 46% report having a favorable view of them. More Americans have an unfavorable view of atheists than any other religious denomination – including Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, and Jews.

The American Atheists’ campaign to “call out” closet atheists during the holidays may not be doing much to improve their image among the public. But taking on religion in such a public and direct way may not even be effective in appealing to many of those who would appear to be an easy target: self-identified atheists. A new study from Rice University shows that atheists may be mixed in with believers at religious services throughout the year.

Photo courtesy of Dave Gorman via Flickr

The researchers interviewed natural and social scientists at elite American universities, half of whom expressed some form of religious identity, while the other half did not. Of a scientifically selected sample of the non-religious scientists, approximately one in five (17%) are part of a religious congregation and have attended a religious service more than once in the past year.

Similar patterns are found among self-identified atheists in the general public. Roughly 3-in-10 (29%) atheists say they attend religious services at least seldom while 71% say they never attend.

The lead researcher, Elaine Howard Ecklund, explains why atheists might find themselves within religious communities:

  • Scientific identity – Study participants wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own, informed choices about a religious identity.
  • Spousal influence – Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner.
  • Desire for community – Study participants want a sense of community (moral or otherwise), even if they do not personally hold religious beliefs.

These findings suggest that many atheists, far from wanting to deny their children exposure to religious traditions, want to introduce them to religion in a way that allows them to make a thoughtful, informed decision about their own faith (or lack thereof).