If you didn’t get a chance to read last week’s Los Angeles Times op-ed piece titled “How Secular Families Stack Up” by Phil Zuckerman, please do. Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, is a sociologist who has spent much of his career studying secularism and its influence on various societies. I interviewed Zuckerman a couple of years ago for my book and can report that the man is a quote machine. He speaks clearly and intelligently, and he knows how to get to the damn point — which is part of what makes his op-ed piece so effective. Based, in part, on a study by the Longitudinal Study of Generations out of the University of Southern California, Zuckerman reveals that secular families exhibit high levels of “family solidarity and emotional closeness,” not to mention “strong ethical standards and moral values.” In other words, says Zuckerman:
“Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children.”
Even greater (in my own secular opinion) is that kids raised in nonreligious households have proven to be more independent, progressive and open-minded.
“Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the ‘cool kids’ think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. 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.”
But wait, there’s more.
“Recent research also has shown that children raised without religion tend to remain irreligious as they grow older — and are perhaps more accepting. Secular adults are more likely to understand and accept the science concerning global warming, and to support women’s equality and gay rights. One telling fact from the criminology field: Atheists were almost absent from our prison population as of the late 1990s, comprising less than half of 1% of those behind bars, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics. This echoes what the criminology field has documented for more than a century — the unaffiliated and the nonreligious engage in far fewer crimes.”
The piece has received a lot of attention, including a thoughtful reaction by secular father Paul Thornton run in the LA Times. And it’s wonderful to see. There are so many religiously unaffiliated parents who only hang onto religious notions “for the sake of the kids.” Parents who were taught morality through religion as children can find it difficult, as adults, to see “morality” and “religion” as independent phenomenona. But that’s exactly what they are. This might seem a bit silly, but try thinking of morality as a table (a table of goodness! see, I told you it was silly), and religion as one of many mismatched chairs pulled up to that table. Does religion offer a comfortable vantage point from which to learn about values such as kindness, commitment, sacrifice and empathy? For some people, sure. But all of the other chairs are equally capable in that regard. Books and stories, real-life experiences and — as Zuckerman mentions — the simple and logically minded ethic of reciprocity (“treat others as you wish to be treated”) are just a few of the many ways parents can introduce children to the importance of morality. The point is, it doesn’t matter what chair you sit in — as long as you find a place at the table. Here’s Zuckerman one more time.
“Being a secular parent and something of an expert on secular culture, I know well the angst many secular Americans experience when they can’t help but wonder: Could I possibly be making a mistake by raising my children without religion? The unequivocal answer is no. Children raised without religion have no shortage of positive traits and virtues, and they ought to be warmly welcomed as a growing American demographic.”
So say we all.