For almost 40 years, Vern L Bengtson, above, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology, has overseen the Longitudinal Study of Generations, which has become the largest study of religion and family life conducted across several generations in the United States.
According to Phil Zuckerman, writing for the LA Times, when Bengston noticed the growth of non-religious 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 non-religious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation.
Many non-religious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study. The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterised by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.
Zuckerman, above, author of Living the Secular Life, added:
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 non-religious 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.
The results of such secular child-rearing are encouraging. 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.
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 non-religious engage in far fewer crimes.
Another meaningful related fact: Democratic countries with the lowest levels of religious faith and participation today – such as Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium and New Zealand – have among the lowest violent crime rates in the world and enjoy remarkably high levels of societal well-being. If secular people couldn’t raise well-functioning, moral children, then a preponderance of them in a given society would spell societal disaster. Yet quite the opposite is the case.
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.
Hat tip: Matthew Carr