Phil Zuckerman on Secular Family Values and Ethics of the Nones

A college professor from Pitzer in Claremont, California writes an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about secular families and ethics. As the nones grow in the United States, secular families are teaching and imparting ethics and morality in children and in the process show that God is not needed. It will be interesting to watch these families over the course of time. 

“Live one day at a time emphasizing ethics rather than rules.”

Wayne Dyer    

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

Potter Stewart    

Secular students at the Reason Rally in 2016 on the National Mall on Washington, D.C. 

There is a lot happening in the atheist or secular communities that I read and try and keep up with as well. The atheist or secular humanist community needs to be studied in the context of religion as well. Sometimes the best articles I see are in the context of a regular newspaper. For the last few months I subscribe and read the digital version of the Los Angeles Times. And I saw an article that captured my attention and put aside to write about. The article is an op-ed by Phil Zuckerman. Phil teaches at Pitzer which is one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. Phil is a professor of sociology and secular studies. He enjoys researching secularism, atheism, apostasy and also Scandinavian culture. His article in the Los Angeles Times is called, “How secular family values stack up.” Before I get into what Phil discusses I want to point out that the Los Angeles Times corrected one aspect of the article, this is what the Times said. “The name of the USC sociologist and gerontologist who oversees the Longitudinal Study of Generations is Vern Bengtson not Bengston.


The Nones and the Secular Family

According to Phil more children are “growing up godless” today. The nones, those who don’t associate with any religion are growing with time. In the 1950’s 4% of Americans reported growing up in a non-religious household. After 1970 that expanded to 11% and currently 23% of adults in the United States claim to have no religion. Between the ages of 18 to 29, 30% of Americans don’t have a religion. So this begs the question, with the growing “godless” culture what about ethics and morality? How are those growing up turning out in society? 

The answer according to Phil is quite good. Secular families are raising their children with ethics and imparting them with solid decision making skills. This has been documented by University of Southern California sociologist and gerontologist Vern Bengtson who leads the Longitudinal Study of Generations Vern Bengtson studied families for four decades and expanded his research to look at secular families. What he found is the following. Emotional closeness, and family solidarity between different generations. Non-religious had high ethical standards and moral values that were taught to them by their parents. Von Bengston told Zuckerman that it appears that non-religious individuals can have higher ethics than those who profess to be religious. 

For secular people morality is guided by the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do to you. Treat people like you would want to be treated. One quote stuck out for me when I read Phil’s article. It was a quote from an atheist Mom who said the following. “The way we teach them what is right and what is wrong is by trying to instill a sense of empathy … how other people feel. You know, just trying to give them that sense of what it’s like to be on the other end of their actions. And I don’t see any need for God in that if your morality is all tied in with God,” she continued, “what if you at some point start to question the existence of God? Does that mean your moral sense suddenly crumbles? The way we are teaching our children … no matter what they choose to believe later in life, even if they become religious or whatever, they are still going to have that system.”

As the godless age, studies are showing them to be more empathetic, kind and compassionate than those who are religious. They are also less authorterian, less militant and tolerant. Atheists tend to remain irreligious as they age. They also make up less than 1% of the prison population.  I skipped parts of the article but I would strongly encourage you to read the op-ed in its entirety. 


Being Godless and Having Ethics

Not long ago I was meeting with someone whose family was impacted by something dark inside a church setting. In the conversation I referenced how many atheist and secular people can have a greater sense of justice than evangelical Christians. And we agreed. All you have to do is look at the scandals. Many atheists acted with more outrage over Mark Driscoll’s abuse at Mars Hill than the likes of John Piper, Matt Chandler, and more. I have attended a few atheist events as I write about this issue in the context of this blog and I remain impressed by how those who are secular have strong ethical values. If you want to believe in God then please do. But don’t say that one needs God to have ethical moral values. These lessons I learned in a faith crisis that consumed half my thirties. God was oversold and what filled me with shock is the feeling that I didn’t need God for many areas of my life. Now later on I came to believe in him, but I also remain frustrated and disappointed by how many people are sold something that tends to not be the case. In writing this blog its interesting moving around different circles and getting a taste of this and seeing this play out. 

The atheists can have their scandals. This is true even with topics like elevatorgate or what happened with David Silverman. But the fact of the matter is that many atheists are solid upstanding citizens who contribute greatly to our culture, and civilization. They are often misunderstood by Christians or treated with fear. It can be hard to see secular families with ethics and morality especially when you were taught otherwise. But use the challenges as mean to expand your mind and wrestle with the issues. Think  for yourself and pursue topics and pursue truth.