By A. Joubert
Fairly recently, the Los Angeles Times published an article in which a sociology professor, Phil Zuckerman, describes social sciences research on secularity. He assesses the morality of adults raised in secular homes. It is not surprising to learn, toward the end of the article, that Zuckerman is himself an atheist parent, because the article reads like the manifesto of an ideologue, not the dispassionate, objective research of an academic. He concludes that atheist adults who were raised in secular homes turn out well, even better than those raised in religious homes. This post is meant to tease out a few of the most glaring errors in Zuckerman’s argument.
Zuckerman first looks at a study of how children who were raised in secular homes turned out as moral agents. In order to do this, however, one first needs a moral standard by which to assess their morality. Unsurprisingly, the standard used to measure the morality of these children seems to be pretty much defined by cultural leftism and secular humanism (at least, this is the impression left by the article). Some of the standards are generic, and would be things that religious families value as well, such as “high levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth.” Of course, this doesn’t necessarily have any moral implications. While healthy relationships might be evidence of morality, they may simply be evidence of good fortune and prosperity. He also mentions empathy, in the form of the Golden Rule (without mentioning that the Golden Rule has always been a religious principle, while perhaps not peculiar to Christianity). He goes on to mention the moral standards of non-religious families: “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.” There are a myriad of unwarranted assumptions in this list.
I’ve never heard of personal autonomy being classified as an ethical standard. Personal autonomy can give rise to good actions, but it can also give rise to evil actions. A persistent emphasis on personal autonomy is difficult to distinguish from egotism. In fact, a good case can be made that the West’s cultural mania about individualism is inherently immoral. For the sake of argument, we’ll say that it’s morally neutral.
Now let’s consider rational problem solving, independence of thought and a spirit of “questioning everything.” These are all what we might pass off as “intellectual virtues.” They are certainly good things, but this does not mean they are moral things. For example, the pursuit of knowledge in a particular area is an objectively good thing, but this is not to say that everybody is morally obligated to do it (i.e. it is not an ethical standard). “Rational problem solving” is a strange thing to call a moral standard, and indeed, it has some immoral implications. If rational problem solving and other intellectual capacities are moral standards, then the mentally handicapped are immoral, simply by virtue of being mentally handicapped. Thus, the mentally handicapped would become sort of sub-human, being incapable of reaching the moral status or moral agency of mentally whole human beings. Either this or Zuckerman is using the term morality in an extremely liberal and broad sense that includes literally everything of value. If this is the case, then he is simply using the term wrongly. Corporal punishment has also fallen out of popularity (which is a good thing, in my opinion). However, some mild corporal punishment is not necessarily immoral and may even be a good thing.
You will notice, then, that most of these virtues are not really virtues at all, from family solidarity to rational problem solving. These are good things, but do not necessarily have a moral character. The only thing he does mention which has moral consequence is empathy in the form of the Golden Rule, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has unambiguously religious origins. Apart from this, they are things emphasized by secular humanism. Clearly, if you measure atheists by the values they tend to prioritize, then they will do well (especially since secular humanism is such a vague, amorphous and generally undemanding moral system to adhere to). So, the whole thing is viciously circular. Children in atheist homes are moral, because they adhere to the moral standards taught in atheist homes. Or, you cannot say that atheists are more moral than religious people because atheists adhere to secular humanism better than religious people. If you include a few religious values, then those same people will become immoral in a hurry.
Zuckerman also points to a number of other studies that purport to show secular people to be more moral than religious people. He says that non-religious people are more likely to take the “right” side on a number of political issues (global warming, gay rights and women’s rights). Here again, Zuckerman is making assumptions about the character of morality, based on the emphases of the cultural left and secular humanism. More importantly, he doesn’t justify these assumptions. He also mentions studies, which purport to show that secular people are less racist, less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant than religious people. These would be interesting to investigate individually, but we don’t have the space for it here (and is made difficult by the fact that he doesn’t cite most of them). However, there are a number things we can say about these claims prima facie.
The only term in this list that is truly morally significant is racism. Importantly, however, the study he does cite (and this is the only one he cites) explains the correlation in a way that doesn’t reference religious beliefs specifically, but sociological factors around religious observance. The rest are morally ambiguous and very dependent on definition. For example, Christians can be seen (and have been seen) as vengeful for believing in hell and a God of retributive justice. Indeed, Sam Harris, one of the popular champions of secular morality, accuses the very concept of moral accountability of being vengeful, in his book Free Will.
Christians certainly are more authoritarian than secular people, although he doesn’t say why this is immoral. That Christians are more authoritarian than secular people is not saying much, because secular people do not recognize an authority above their individual reason and will. You might well say, as a Christian would, that a degree of authoritarianism is a moral imperative and that lack of a certain degree of authoritarianism is a form of nihilism. Nationalism is not necessarily immoral, depending on the degree and the context (e.g. wartime). Militarism is also not necessarily immoral, depending on the context. (Was militarism immoral for the Allies during World War 2?). “Tolerant,” most of all, is a very politically charged term (and usually, for modern people, means you believe that homosexuality is morally permissible). For all of these studies, it is difficult to see how the moral opinions of the researchers will not influence their results. Any definition of these terms will presuppose a particular moral point of view, even if it is not necessarily their own.
Probably most importantly, I should remark on the wider significance of this research. If all these studies are true, if religious people are more immoral and more stupid (which certain studies claim), what are the implications? Are the implications significant for religion? Well, not really. It has some implications for Christians, but not Christianity. An assumption that gives rhetorical strength to the article is that the morality of atheists vindicates atheism. But this is a good example of the ad hominem fallacy in positive form. Ad hominem fallacies usually come in negative form: “you’re a bad person, therefore your metaphysical beliefs aren’t true.” The positive form, however, is just as fallacious: “you’re a good person, therefore your metaphysical beliefs are true!” The immorality of Christians, contrary to popular belief, does not imply the falsehood of Christianity, nor does the virtue of atheists vindicate the truth of atheism.
 Phil Zuckerman, “How Secular Family Values Stack Up,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2015, accessed June 2, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0115-zuckerman-secular-parenting-20150115-story.html.
 Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012), 48-63.