Hate to break it to you, Bible thumpers: Parents who raise their kids without religion are doing just fine, studies say, possibly even better. Overall, not believing in God seems to make people and their offspring more tolerant. Less racist. Less sexist. Enviro-friendly. And their kids care less about what's cool, which—say it with me—only makes them cooler.
In an op-ed at the Los Angeles Times by sociologist Phil Zuckerman, you can read about a swath of studies that support what everyone who is "between churches" has known forever: Not believing in God isn't synonymous with being amoral. If anything, it can give you a greater clarity about right and wrong, because you're more likely to base it on empathy and decency than a guaranteed spot upstairs come Judgment Day.
In the 1950s, only 4 percent of Americans indicated they'd grown up in a secular household; today, 23 percent say they have no religious affiliation, Zuckerman writes, citing Pew research. They're called "Nones," or, you know, heathens, and that number is even higher (30 percent) among the 18- to 29-year-old set. So with more people than ever eschewing a reflexive belief in God, it seems as good a time as any to ask how that's working out for us. Zuckerman writes:
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.
Bengston has supervised a 40-year study of religion and family life across generations—the largest ever coordinated—called the Longitudinal Study of Generations. He recently added atheist or agnostic families to the mix alongside the rise in their self-reported numbers. And rather than discovering families unbound by the glue of God, performing nightly Satanic rituals in lieu of a nutritious dinner, he found… functional families with actual ethics and values and shit.
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."
Zuckerman's work, and the work of other sociologists he compiles, backs this up. You don't need God to be good. He and his colleagues have found, time and time again, "sustaining moral values," and "enriching ethical precepts" among those who dare not to pledge allegiance to the Big Kahuna:
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.
The reason of course, is obvious. Morality comes not from a book, or a guy up in the sky, but from the idea that how you treat people matters, because how people feel matters. The Golden Rule. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, is, Zuckerman writes, "an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs."
I would like to take this time to say directly to the small town I grew up in and its endless youth groups and Bible studies and Baptist churches and even grosser fundamentalist Church of Christ churches, and all the prayers before games, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the fear-mongering attitudes and pervy youth group leaders and gross, self-righteous, hypocritical, sexist, homophobic, racist, shallow, anti-intellectual, anti-questioning, anti-books, anti-music, anti-art, utter crass consumerism in place of actual Christian-ness: FACE. Big, stupid FACE in your FACE.
But that petty jab aside, seriously: I'm not one of those people who thinks anyone who is religious is dumb, or narrow-minded, or any such thing. Mad props. Even kinda jealz. I'd love for God to be something I could catch. It'd be like how I am with football: If only I could like it, I'm sure I would if nothing else have way more friends.
I'm not even someone who even had that bad an experience with religion, all considered, mainly because I was never forced into it. I just grew up in the over-saturated South, and for every truly genuine, kind, accepting person who drew on strength from God to do good in this world (I almost exclusively grew up with Baptists and Church of Christ nutjobs) that I ever met, there were easily a hundred who used it as a shield to judge and shun everything that didn't look like them, which was usually a white guy in a button-down oxford, Dockers, and a piece of UT football insignia somewhere. Who got shitfaced on the weekends. And was a racist. But who was somehow, inexplicably, considered a "good person" from a "good family." (I came from a broken home, and didn't go to church, and this was all you needed to know.)
Small-town Southern religiousness can take so many hideous forms, but the worst is this Upstanding Good Citizen who attends church and gets a free pass to be a terrible terrible bigot. Belief was assumed of everyone, too, and not believing was something you kept to yourself, and the accusation of witchcraft and Satanism were real things that happened to people I actually knew, and involved visits from law enforcement. (There was also a rash of suicides one summer that fueled the suspicions of Satanism even more.)
Once, in eighth grade, I researched and read about religions and went to different churches to find out more about this God thing. I told a youth group leader at one denomination known for being more laid back that I was genuinely unsure what I believed, but was interested in learning more. "Well, now, if you don't believe, there's only one thing that can mean," he said. "You're going to hell."
I've known wonderful people who believe in God, and wonderful people who don't. But what I really prefer is that people don't need religion to figure out why it's worth being a good person. Who do good things because it's what makes a community better, an existence better, and not because it's how you get your salvation points.
I know it's more complicated than that, and I have no desire to prove to anyone that God does or does not exist or oversimplify the nature of one's own belief system. But uh, hoo boy have I had Christians do that to me my entire life! Funny thing, that. I have always found that it is much much easier for nonbelievers to accept that multiple viewpoints exist and can coexist without animosity than it is for someone whose entire belief system requires them to believe or else suffer. Which is a longwinded way of saying that this op-ed is a big no-duh.
But it's SOOOO satisfying so don't take it away from us.
As for the real point of this op-ed—how actual kids turn out when their parents don't go to church—it's just doubly nice to read facts backing up the God-given truth (heh). We don't need Bible verses to tell our children how to be good or nice or kind, or how to give back to others, to help those less fortunate, to accept people who are different from them. When you tell your kid that you're on earth for as long as you're on earth, and no one really knows what happens after, it can be liberating. It can be simple to explain that the most important thing you can do with the time you've got is make it count, and try to leave things better than you found them.
Plus, that means it's OK to question things, to explore how you feel, what you believe, to CHANGE YOUR MIND, to respect that all these different approaches make the world wonderful, not scary. When you tell a child that's it OK to form their own opinion, that they can create their own values as they get older and don't even have to totally accept yours, that fitting in isn't all it's cracked up to be, then it's not hard to see why that would help them face teenage peer pressure later on. The kids who drank the most and rebelled the hardest in high school were always the preacher's kids.
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.
If you don't believe in God, it's much easier to say that "An eye for an eye is a dumb concept," because acknowledging that it's irrational and petty doesn't contradict my worldview in the slightest. And when nonbelievers grow up, they are, I don't even know how else to put it, simply Better People™:
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.
And the countries with the lowest crime and highest reports of well-being (Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium and New Zealand)? They are the ones with the lowest religious engagement.
That said, Christians make a mean potluck, and they can organize a blood drive like nobody's business. In spite of the research against their character, criminality, and ability to reason through a complex idea, I would still totally let my kid be friends with one. Isn't that how that whole open-mindedness thing works?
Illustration by Jim Cooke.