Field of Science

Do atheists make better parents?

I've done a few posts recently about fertility, so how about the next stage, parenthood? How do non-religious parents differ from religious ones?

Here's a study by Bart Duriez, from the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, which looks into just that. He quizzed over 900 secondary school students in Belgium about their religious attitudes and their parents approaches to parenting. He also asked their parents the same questions.

Duriez used a rather nifty measure of religion, specially developed at the Center for Developmental Psychology in Leuven. It separates Christian beliefs along two dimensions: how strong is their belief in the transcendent, and how literal (or fundamentalist) are their beliefs.

Their measured four different aspects of parenting style: support, regulation, extrinsic goal promotion (i.e. wealth, popularity, good looks), and conservation goal promotion (i.e. conformity and tradition).

So... drum roll... who makes better parents?

Well, it turns out that there was no difference between atheists and strong religious believers on the amount of support given to children, how much parental control there was, and whether the parents promoted so-called 'materialist' ideas (extrinsic goals).

But there was a strong an consistent difference on conservation goal promotion. Religious parents were more likely to promote conformity and tradition, rather than openness to change. Previous studies have found that a parental focus on goal conservation leads to decreased well-being and increased authoritarianism.

You might expect that fundamentalists were more conservative, but this study didn't find that. Biblical literalism was not independently related to conservation goal promotion.

It's the the intensity of beliefs, rather than the parents' so-called 'cognitive style', that matters. Where biblical literalism did have an effect was on materialism - fundamentalists were less worldly.

Previous studies have found a link between religion and parental control, and Duriez & Co speculate that their failure to find the same may be a statistical aberration. They conclude:

... although adolescents of religious parents may be less likely to engage in problem behaviors, this might be accompanied by a rigid and closed-minded functioning.

So, who makes better parents? It depends what you mean by 'better'.

ResearchBlogging.orgDuriez, B., Soenens, B., Neyrinck, B., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2009). Is Religiosity Related to Better Parenting?: Disentangling Religiosity From Religious Cognitive Style Journal of Family Issues, 30 (9), 1287-1307 DOI: 10.1177/0192513X09334168

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. So, who makes better parents? It depends what you mean by 'better'.

    Indeed – but I would have thought the first question to ask would be why would anyone think that by not believing in the invisible blue unicorn a parent is expected to be either better or worse than one that did?

    Makes no sense if phrased this way

    It isn’t my ‘atheism’ that I teach my children - a non-belief is, well, nothing.

    See ya


  2. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 11/21/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  3. Wow, I am surprised that the religious parents manage to give as much support to their children as the atheists - because the religious are having (on average) more of them! I tended to assume that atheist parents focussed their support on their fewer numbers of children, but obviously, they don't. Didn't expect that one, thanks for the study review!

  4. Somewhat of a surprise for me was that atheist parents were at least as materialistic as the religious ones.

    I had expected (and hoped) that with greater capacity for abstract thought (which atheists likely have, in the US) comes somewhat less materialism--that those who aare philosophical materialists in a society that is mostly superstitious, are less 'materialistic' in the common sense of the term.

  5. @ Anonymous, you are right. The atheists tend to have fewer children, but not to invest more support into each of them - and these (fewer) children are even turning out somewhat more materialistic (on average) than those of the religious.

    From an evolutionary perspective, the results seem to be pretty clear (and eerily resembling those invocations of Rabbi Sacks, which infuriated you so much, @Tom)...

  6. Hold on a moment! This study doesn't say anything about how much time and effort parents devote to their children - still less how much time they spend per child.

    It's about parenting style - in this case whether parents are supportive or controlling. Here's some sample questions, so you can get an idea of what it's measuring:

    “My father makes me feel better after I discuss my worries with him”

    “My father is always trying to change how I feel or think about

    “My father helps me to choose
    my own direction in life”

  7. Hi Tom,

    you wrote: "Well, it turns out that there was no difference between atheists and strong religious believers on the amount of support given to children." - amount of support.

    Thus, I remembered our discussion about religious fertility, with the possibility that children in smaller families got more of that.

    By the way, I just praised your blog:

    Best wishes!

  8. Sorry... badly written in the original! My mistake.


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