Secular Families Not Immoral and Dysfunctional. Film at 11.

Phil Zuckerman, sociologist at Pitzer College, has a column in the Los Angeles Times about a decades-long study of families by a sociologist at USC that added non-religious families to the study a couple years ago. And guess what? They do just fine and aren’t marked by immorality and dysfunction as many Christian apologists would no doubt presume.

So how does the raising of upstanding, moral children work without prayers at mealtimes and morality lessons at Sunday school? Quite well, it seems.

Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children, according to Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology.

For nearly 40 years, Bengston has overseen the Longitudinal Study of Generations, which has become the largest study of religion and family life conducted across several generational cohorts in the United States. When Bengston noticed the growth of nonreligious Americans becoming increasingly pronounced, he decided in 2013 to add secular families to his study in an attempt to understand how family life and intergenerational influences play out among the religionless.

He was surprised by what he found: High levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation.

“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

My own ongoing research among secular Americans — as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture — confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy.

For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs. As one atheist mom who wanted to be identified only as Debbie told me: “The way we teach them what is right and what is wrong is by trying to instill a sense of empathy … how other people feel. You know, just trying to give them that sense of what it’s like to be on the other end of their actions. And I don’t see any need for God in that. …

Entirely unsurprising to me, but the myth that morality requires belief in God is so deeply ingrained in American society that it will certainly come as a shock to most people.

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  • raven

    …but the myth that morality requires belief in God is so deeply ingrained in American society

    Never seen that. The most religious states are always the most dysfunctional on any metric you look at, abortion, teenage pregnancy, shorter lifespans, education etc..

    You can be a good person and be a xian. It just makes it harder. Sometimes a lot harder.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    These “researchers” are clearly Satan’s dupes, hastening the moral destruction of western society.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    Treat “…other people as you would like to be treated.” Alwasy, of course, making allowances for any differences in their tastes.

  • Sastra

    Results like this usually just prompt the religious to move the goalpost.

    “Oh, we never said the nonreligious can’t be good. They can, of course. BUT 1.) They can’t justify it. 2.) They can’t come up with it themselves. 3.) They can’t explain why they should be good. 4.) They can’t explain where Good comes from. 5.) They can’t motivate anyone else. 6.) They can’t distinguish between good and evil. 7.) They can’t continue to be good when the chips are down. 8.) Their goodness is worldly and of rags, sheer filth when compared to God and not enough to pay the price to get into Heaven. One of those. Or — what the hell — combine some of them.”

    So go after any one of those tropes and watch the first one — that without God you can’t be moral — sneak back in. It’s a multi-faceted confusion with as many heads as the Hydra. The moral problem with atheism is the one you failed to address … recently.

  • Chiroptera

    Is this a surprise? Without a holy book ordering people to be abusive, secular families don’t really have any excuse to be dysfunctional.

  • Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    Any chance those results are corrected for wealth?

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

    They say that like it was a good thing.

  • my2cents

    This is a great article but I would imagine the people who would strongly disagree already put little stock in scientific studies so it’s not going to change their minds. It will however help me convince my semi-religious wife that my son does not need to go to church to become a moral person.

  • jonathangray

    nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy.

    Liberal sociologist defines morality as liberalism and notes liberal families are more liberal. Film at 11.

  • Michael Heath

    One point of caution. In Phil Zukckerman’s excellent book, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, he surveyed the godless in Sweden, Denmark, and U.S. Jews that were atheist.

    One overriding theme of that book was that the godless people that Zuckerman interviewed consciously attributed their values and morals to religious dogma that was still part of their culture though it was dying out. These subjects also weren’t very reflective on why they were demonstrably moral.

    Godlessness at the rate we’re now observing is a new phenomena. And while I remain confident a secular society without religion will be a far more optimal environment, such an outcome requires some hard work to get there, where many atheists’ moral framework is located squarely on the shoulders of holy dogma.

    So from this perspective, participating in the arguments Sam Harris promoted in Moral Landscape on the source of our morality and the underlying framework, agree or disagree, is imperative. If we’re to become truly irreligious and better optimize moral outcomes, we need to develop new frameworks to determine what is moral and not moral. That as the old religious moral standards become extinct. This where currently, millions of contemporaneous atheists surprisingly rely on holy dogma as a framework for morality.

  • howardhershey

    I am reminded that some neocon commented that he knew that there was no god, but that the unwashed proles should still be taught that to keep them in line. I.e., he agreed with Marx that religion was the opiate of the masses, but thought that was a good thing.

  • lpetrich

    howardhershey in #11, I like to call that the royal-lie theory of religion. Nearly 2400 years ago, Plato proposed that his Republic have a religion that he considered false, a royal lie or noble lie (gennaion pseudos). This religion was designed to make that Republic’s citizens accept the legitimacy of that Republic’s social system. The guardians or philosopher-rulers were made of gold, and thus on top, the auxiliaries or soldiers were made of silver, and thus in between, and the common people were made of brass and iron, and thus on the bottom.

    .

    Some of Plato’s approximate contemporaries expressed similar beliefs, like Strabo, Polybius, and Livy. Advancing over 1500 years to the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli did likewise. But nowadays, it’s not often very honestly stated.

  • Kermit Sansoo

    jonathangray: Liberal sociologist defines morality as liberalism and notes liberal families are more liberal. Film at 11.

    .

    Well, no. He was saying the families do not lose these values if they are secular. Not “liberals are liberal”, but “liberal values are retained in families which become secular”. Do you think that conservative families which lose their religion over the generations lose their conservative values? I see conservatives – like you – arguing about various subjects on the internet, and they seem to be holding similar positions on many issues, although only half are saying “jesusJesusJesus” all the time.

    .

    “Love God and love your neighbor. All the rest is mere commentary.” Who said that? Some ancient rabbi.. oh yes. Hillel, chief rabbi of Jerusalem, about 40 BC,

  • brucegee1962

    Actually, there has been considerable discussion here and elsewhere about which conservative “values” become difficult to maintain without religion. Specifically, a conservative without the religion tends to morph into a libertarian — it’s very hard to maintain an anti-gay or anti-abortion crusade without a religious underpinning, for instance. Not impossible, but unusual.