© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The old switcheroo

This is at least the fifth time I’ve written about my love of artful distillation. Analogies, concordances, wordclouds, graphics, video mashups — I’m a big fan of anything that helps me grasp the otherwise ungraspable.

Last May I came across another of these beautiful things, then promptly forgot about it until now. It’s a graphic that captures the complex findings of the Pew Study on Religion and Musical Chairs — something like that, the exact name escapes me — which explored changes in religious self-identification in the U.S. Not changes in percentage of the marketplace, mind you, but changes by individuals — how many people raised as Catholics change to something else and where did they go, for example, and the same with other categories.

Looking through the full survey itself is plenty fascinating. But an interesting fella calling himself the Internet Monk boosted my grasp of the whole thing with this simply wonderful graphic (click to enlarge):

(Reading this on Facebook? Click here for graphic.)

Suddenly, in graphic form, you can see why the Catholic college I worked for was so particularly skittish about a freethought group on campus: Catholics leaving the fold are more likely to head to mi casa than anywhere else. More fun: most of those who were raised nonreligious and go elsewhere go allll the way over to the evangelicals. I’ve called this the “teen epiphany” and suggested it might well be caused by too severe a parental allergy to religious exposure. Note also how few nonreligious end up Catholic, that a higher percentage of evangelicals go mainline Prot than vice-versa, and how extremely few of those raised in non-Christian religions end up Christians of any kind.

After I gave a seminar in Indianapolis last May, an atheist dad pulled me aside. Exposing our kids to many worldviews and letting them choose for themselves sounds good, he said. But can we really afford to be that open? Look at the Pew study. Our retention rate is the worst of any worldview! That’s why we need to raise our kids to be atheists, he said.

In addition to the fact that this would (1) do violence to my kids’ autonomy, (b) show that I don’t trust them to think as carefully and well as I have, (III) show no confidence in my own worldview to stand on its own, and (∆) constitute indoctrination every bit as bad as any religion, there’s another reason to relax about our “retention rate” as a worldview — and once again, it’s the Internet Monk who led me to it.

Compare the red block at the top to the red block at the bottom.

The nontheistic worldview as a percentage of the population is growing by leaps and bounds, not because children are being raised into it, but because an ever-greater number of people raised in religion are finding their way out of it. This is a good thing because it moves us out of the margin, gives the nonreligious more of a voice in the culture, and makes it more likely that any given religious person knows someone who is nonreligious. I don’t need or want to control the culture, and I don’t need my kids to follow in lock-step with my beliefs. But I would like a seat at the table, and that’s clearly moving in the right direction.

Sure, a lot of kids raised without religion end up trying on a different worldview. But as the study itself notes, many who change will change again, and again. That’s a good thing. It’s one sign that someone is at least trying to get it right.

Also worth a click: Why people left the worldview in which they were raised — and why they went where they did. Click all of the top tabs for maximum fun.



This was written on Tuesday, 02. February 2010 at 13:52 and was filed under belief and believers, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Wow! Great graphic. Makes me wonder what Hans Rosling at Gapminder could do with that data… Dale, I think you really enjoy maps and great graphics, so if you haven’t seen Hans Rosling’s stats, go over to http://www.gapminder.org and lose yourself for a few hours. If you’ve by chance never heard of him, watch his talk on TED (TED.com–search alpha under speakers). Have fun!

    Amy O

    Comment: yokohamamama – 02. February 2010 @ 7:34 pm

  2. Sorry to be commenting again, but I just noticed that there are no lines heading out to other beliefs from Black protestant, although there are some thin lines running in to it…why is that? I have no idea, but that will surely bug me the rest of the day.

    Comment: yokohamamama – 02. February 2010 @ 7:41 pm

  3. yoko, look at a very small unmarked slice not allocated at the top of the black protestant, but not the bottom. Also, there is a small unallocated slice at the bottom of the unaffiliated but not at the top. I imagine there is a line missing.

    Comment: jemand – 02. February 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  4. One statistic caught my eye on the Why people left… interactive chart. The top reason given (51%) for why unaffiliated people turned to religion was spiritual needs not being met.

    It makes me wonder: is this inevitable? Does religion have a monopoly on spirituality, and in order to be non-believer requires renouncing that side of the human experience? Or is there a different kind of spirituality that does not require belief in invisible beings?

    Comment: kj84 – 03. February 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  5. Fascinating survey and an interesting visualization in the graph.

    However, the “traditionally black protestant” graph section is misleading. The report breaks out the CHILDHOOD protestants affiliation into different categories (evangelical, mainline, nonspecific) from CURRENT protestant affiliation (evangelical, mainline, black).

    I don’t know whether “traditionally black protestants” are evangelical (my guess), mainstream, nonspecific or a mix, but for the purpose of the graph, they should have been rolled into those other denominations.

    However, this doesn’t really diminish the main idea of the graph and Dale’s point: only a quarter of adult non-religious grew up as such. Slightly more come from a Catholic background and the plurality grew up as protestants.

    Comment: nonplus – 03. February 2010 @ 12:47 pm

  6. @kj: Yep, that one caught my eye as well. I think it’s an entirely open question, and the biggest one currently faced by nonbelievers. Some people don’t feel that need, but most do, and until we get better at addressing it deeply and meaningfully, we’ll remain on the fringes, and rightly so.

    A recent experience at a predominantly black Baptist church in Atlanta drove this home to me in a very big way — not for the first time, but most profoundly. I’ll blog it soon.

    Comment: Dale – 03. February 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  7. Dale, you would love the NNDB mapper: http://mapper.nndb.com/pr.html

    Comment: gsganden – 05. February 2010 @ 4:46 pm

  8. A pox on your house, gsganden. I’m a busy man, and now I’m sitting here playing the Kevin Bacon game!! (Thanks.)

    Comment: Dale – 07. February 2010 @ 2:00 pm

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