Second Generation Atheism

So, the theme of this month’s Carnival of Aces is Asexuality and Atheism, which got me thinking about atheism. And while I haven’t really noticed any ways in which my atheism and my asexuality affect each other, it has gotten me thinking about my relationship atheism in general, so this is going to be a non-asexuality post.

My relationship with my atheism has I think been most strongly affected by the fact that I’m what I guess I would call a “second generation atheist” – both of my parents are well-educated atheists, and I was raised in what I guess could be called an atheist household, although I never really think of it as such. And even most of my other close relatives tend to be minimally religious at most. So because of that, I didn’t grow up with religion – I never went to church, I wasn’t raised to believe in a god or gods, I wasn’t really raised with any particular supersitious or other pseudo-religious beliefs.

And as a result of that, I never had to “find” atheism. I have never had to question or overcome religion. I have never had to “come out” to my family as atheist. And I never really had to struggle with the assumption that there must be a God – because from my time as a kid, I just never was given any reason to believe that “God” was any more real than Harry Potter or the Simpsons or any other popular character. I’ve never really been “passionate” about atheism because it’s just something I’ve always taken for granted. And while I’m passionate about things that are often correlated – like, say, good science and having sensible politics that are dictated by real data instead of arbitrary dogma – I don’t tend to think of those as part of my atheism, but just as part of being a sensible individual.

And because of this, I sort of feel like an odd duck in atheist communities. Now, admittedly, I’ve never really done more than glance at occasional atheist blogs or groups, or talk to individual atheists, so my first impressions may be completely off. But in general I feel like I wouldn’t be that comfortable in most atheist groups because I just don’t care about religion or god as much as they seem to. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense – Atheism, as an identity typically defined by not believing in God, or not following a religion, would sensibly have to talk about these topics. But when people are talking about how coming out as atheist to their family was hard, or sharing notes about when they began to doubt the existence of god, or people talking about the difficulty of “breaking up with religion” or the hypocrisy inherent in some particular school of religious thought, or whatever, I have nothing to share. It’s just a completely alien experience to me.

Of course, personal experiences with god are only part of the reason that people can have strong feelings about atheism vs. religion – for many people the need to talk about religion comes from external clashes with religion, but even there I don’t have a lot of personal investment.

Even outside my blatantly atheist family, I lived in a community that wasn’t particularly pushy about religion. In fact, most of my exposure to organized religion had been through the local Jewish congregation – I went to a Jewish preschool because it was one of the better schools in the area, and later on I had a lot of Jewish friends and would occasionally tag along to synagogue with them when I was visiting for a sleepover or playdate or whatever, and of course there were the rounds of bat and bar mitzvahs in middle school. But even there I never really felt any pressure to be anything other than atheist – I think probably because Judaism, with it’s mix of religious and cultural components and (in my experience) a seeming emphasis on traditions over beliefs, tends to be more open to secular participation (and several of those friends have identified as secular to varying degrees), and the local congregation was I think a fairly laid back one. And apart from those occasional events, religion or god were just…never a topic of conversation.

To be honest, my first real serious exposure to a more aggressive religion came in college, when for a couple years I lived with a Christian roommate and two of her friends who were all in the same Christian student fellowship. I was present at a couple dinner parties and things for this group, and my roommate convinced me to go to one of their campus social activities once (and only once) – the free food was pretty great, but there was just way too much talking about christ and pretty heavy recruiting pressure, so I was never comfortable there. But then that has been like most of my religious experiences: I went somewhere with religion, was made uncomfortable, so I just left and went back to the rest of my life, where most of my activities and friends are, if not explicitly atheist, quite nonreligious. Which pretty much sums up my relationship with a religion: there really isn’t one. We occasionally brush up against each other and then depart, but there’s no strong connection, whether of a positive or negative nature. On a political level, sure, I have strong opinions about what role religion should (or shouldn’t) play in things like government and education, etc. etc. But there’s no personal resonance.

On the other hand, I get the impression that so-called “Skeptic” things (which are sometimes but not always tied into the atheism movement) – as opposed to “Atheist” things, tend to be a little more in line with my interests, as they seem to be less focused on organized religion per se and also include things like pseudoscience and common superstition, urban legends, etc – which I have much more experience with in my personal life and actually care about a lot more personally, and I do follow a small handful of skeptic-themed blogs and podcasts that I do enjoy (Though keep in mind that as with atheism, my interaction with the Skeptical “community” is tangential at best). But considering that I’m mostly there for the science, theory, and current events talk, I still feel uncomfortable identifying myself as any part of even the more “general” atheist/skeptic/etc. community considering the issues discussed above.


As a sort of corollary to that, though, I have a question for any of my followers who might be more aware of this than me: Do any of you know if there’s any information available on how common “2nd-generation atheism” even is, or if there are any good blogs/books/etc. that talk about the subject? My impression from my current social circles is that it tends to be extremely uncommon (especially when you restrict it to parents who were actively “atheist” – coming from vaguely nonreligious backgrounds seems more common in some of my international friends from counties that are in general less religious than those from western/christian backgrounds). But I still haven’t been able to find any actual hard data so I have no idea what the reality is.


About Sennkestra

I'm an aro ace and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd; an officer worker by day and an ace community organizer and activist by night. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make arts and crafts projects.
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5 Responses to Second Generation Atheism

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. ;)

  2. Siggy says:

    My experience in atheist groups (in urban California) is that there are a lot of second generation atheists, although they are in the minority. Maybe one out of every five or so. I can’t recall any major writings talking about it.

    • Cleander says:

      Huh, interesting. I wonder if it’s that more of them tend to show up in atheist groups or that I probably have encountered more and just haven’t realized it because it rarely comes up.

  3. L says:

    All I can really share is my anecdotal evidence in that yes, there seem to be a good number of 2nd gen atheists out there, but interestingly enough, I’ve known/known of a portion of 2nd/3rd gens who have converted to some kind of religion because of the need to scratch a spiritual or community sort of itch.

    Aaand I just realized that this is all probably stuff you’re well aware of already. Blep.

  4. elainexe says:

    I’ve had some similar experiences. My parents are both nonreligious. I grew up with zero discussion about religion. (My parents didn’t even tell me their own religious views until adulthood. Uh, yeah, we have some communication issues that go well beyond this. But anyway.)
    I converted to Islam and find there are actually a lot of converts in my area. But when they talk about their conversion most people start talking about all the flaws in Christianity, how hard it was when their family said they were going to hell or something, how Christians don’t live up to ideals, etc. So it seems converting to Islam is just as much about breaking up with previous religion for a lot of people. And I just….lack that.
    Some people even ask these things of me. Not, “What did you find in Islam that made you convert?” but “What problems did you find in what you were previously?”

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