Half of Atheist Kids Wind Up Believing

Margaret Fox was “embarrassed” about her need for God.

Although she’s now a hospital chaplain in Kentucky and well on her way to being ordained in the Presbyterian Church, Fox was raised in a non-religious family. She didn’t begin to discover her love for scripture until college, when she was abroad studying the decriminalization of homosexuality during the French Revolution.

“I ended up head over heels in love with 13th century stained glass windows,” she told The Daily Beast.

And she’s not alone. A tucked-away gem of Tuesday’s Pew Forum survey on religion is not about the falling numbers of Christians.

Yes, 1 in 5 people raised in a community of faith now identify as non-religious—the primary talking point from yesterday’s well-publicized report. But what most of this week’s flurry of media coverage missed is an even more pronounced trend in the opposite direction: nearly half of everyone raised with no religion is now part of a faith tradition.

A total of 9.2 percent of American adults say they were raised in a non-believing home; 4.3 percent of them now identify with some religion.

Narratives of people who have found God vary. Some claim a spiritual experience, while others say that they reasoned their way to God. Others, like Fox, just felt a tug.

She loved that the stained glass windows told Bible stories like comic books, and that they were originally meant to convey stories from scripture to the poor. The confluence of her interest in religion, her advisory role for freshman students, and her position as captain of the rugby team made her think about becoming a pastor during her senior year at Yale, but she tried to keep her interest in religion purely academic—even when she went to Harvard’s divinity school.

Now, she says her interest in religion embarrassed her. “There’s a sort of ethos of independence in our culture, that you can get places on your own,” Fox explains. “And to need God felt sort of out of sync with the Ivy League achievement environment I was in.”

She subsequently returned to Yale for law school, but religion kept creeping back. “My contracts professor tried to convince us to study hard. He told us to think of ourselves as Captain Ahab, and the law as our whale,” Fox recalls. “But I didn’t feel like Ahab. I felt like Jonah, that there was something else I was supposed to be doing and I felt stuck inside.”

She started attending church, eventually settling on a Presbyterian congregation after “church shopping,” and began participating in worship instead of simply observing. “I was baptized soon thereafter, almost before I knew what it was all about,” Fox says.

As a scholar of religion, she always thought that she would first figure out what she believes, and then figure out what different churches believe, and then choose one she belonged in intellectually. “And it turns out that’s not what it’s about,” she now says. “It was about finding people among whom I felt at home.” She switched her degree to a dual program with Yale’s divinity school.

In a 2013 essay for Christianity Today, Jordan Monge also talked about a series of college encounters that ultimately pushed her towards Christ.

A friend “prodded me on how inconsistent I was as an atheist who nonetheless believed in right and wrong as objective, universal categories,” she recalled.

“I had always believed in the Big Bang. But I was blissfully unaware that the man who first proposed it, Georges Lemaître, was a Catholic priest,” she writes. “And I’d happily ignored the rabbit trail of a problem of what caused the Big Bang, and what caused that cause, and so on.”

Eventually, that questioning led her to a tear-filled reading of the crucifixion in the Book of John. She took a seminar on meta-ethics, and plunged into the works of C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Aquinas, and Descartes, ultimately deciding that her faith journey couldn’t just be an intellectual one.

“I could know the truth only if I pursued obedience first,” she wrote.

But those paths to God are atypical, says Pitzer professor Phil Zuckerman. He studies secularism and says the Pew Forum results run counter to what he’s seen in other studies. One out of Aberdeen University in Scotland, for instance, says that only five percent of those raised atheist become religious.

Life-changing events, like serious health scares, have some influence, Zuckerman admits. But most secular Americans are unaffected. He points to previous Pew studies, which show that the vast majority of unaffiliated Americans say they are not seeking religion.

There’s also something to be said for the support network provided by religion. “The truth is that there’s nothing quite like being part of a religious community,” admits Zuckerman, adding that secular groups are “often a lot of sizzle without the steak.”

But the most usual reason, he says, is pretty simple: “The vast majority of people who switch religions—it’s because of a girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife.”

Most often, someone will go through the motions of practicing a religion to appease a spouse’s family. For some, it stops at that, but others discover a deeper meaning through faking it.

After enough Hail Marys, they find, Zuckerman says, that “Jesus is really cool.”

It’s mostly interpersonal relationships that sway beliefs. This includes religious people who marry atheists, by the way: After exchanging vows, they are then likelier to question their faith. That may be part of the reason why, despite a 50 percent attrition rate for those raised without religion, the sheer numbers of those leaving communities of faith outnumber those joining them.

“We tend to think of religion as an inner phenomenon, that has to do with people’s souls and hearts and minds,” he jokes. “In fact, it often has to do with who you’re sleeping with.”