A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by the sociologists Phil Zuckerman, “How Secular Family Values StacK Up,” argued that secular families and countries do better than religious ones in promoting values. In other words, if you want your children to be moral, you do best by raising them without religion.
Zuckerman points out that more children are growing up without religion than ever before. So is this a reason for concern? No, says Zuckerman, pointing to research by fellow sociologist Vern Bengston:
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.
What Bengston found was:
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 … The vast majority [of the non-religious] appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.
What Zuckerman’s own research has found is that the non-religious have their own values like critical thinking, personal autonomy, independent thought, avoidance of corporal punishments, inquisitiveness, and most of all, empathy. Non-religious parents instill empathy by asking their children to put themselves in other’s shoes. Does this work?
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 reveals 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.
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.
So secular parents shouldn’t worry about raising their children without religion. The evidence suggests that both individuals and societies do better without religion. Add to this the harm caused by religious beliefs, the case for raising your children without religion is overwhelming.