Sociology professor Phil Zuckerman has written an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that children raised in non-religious families are just as moral as their religious counterparts – and perhaps more so. Now, I would certainly agree that many parents without religious beliefs do an excellent job of raising their children. But I have to say that Professor Zuckerman’s attempt to prove that a religious upbringing doesn’t make children any more moral than a secular upbringing is riddled with flawed statistical reasoning.
Zuckerman cites the work of Vern Bengston, a USC sociology professor who for the past 45 years has supervised the Longitudinal Study of Generations, the largest multi-generational study of religion and family life ever conducted in the United States. “Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told Zuckerman. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”
All well and good, but as Professor Zuckerman himself notes, Bengston did not include secular families in his longitudinal study until 2013. And in a longitudinal study of non-religious families, the question that needs to be addressed is not, “Are the majority of children raised in such families moral?” but, “How well are moral values transmitted down the generations in non-religious families, compared to religious families?” At the present time, we don’t have any good data to answer that question.
Zuckerman asserts that secular morality is based on the Golden Rule, which requires no supernatural beliefs and can be applied by anyone with the ability to empathize. However, his assertion that non-religious families instill moral norms by teaching their children the Golden Rule is backed up with purely anecdotal evidence: an interview with an atheist mom named Debbie. Is she typical of non-religious parents? She may be, but once again, we are not provided with reliable data.
Zuckerman continues to propagate the myth that atheists are less likely to commit crimes than religious people:
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.
This argument has been thoroughly debunked by atheist blogger Heina Dadabhoy, in an essay at Skepchick titled, Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About our Prison Under-Representation:
Atheism is a movement comprised mostly of middle-to-upper-class white people. A middle-to-upper-class white person is far less likely to be incarcerated than a poor person and/or a person of color. The only way atheists as a whole might be less likely to be incarcerated than theists would be if we were a female-majority community. Atheism is hardly the cause of white middle-to-upper-class people’s underrepresentation in the prison population, injustice in the criminal justice system is.
For more information on atheist demographics, readers might like to check out this article here. It turns out that atheists have more college education, a higher socio-economic status and a higher income than the general population – which may explain why they have a lower divorce rate than evangelicals.
Commenting on Heina Dadabhoy’s article, atheist blogger Ed Brayton highlights another flaw in the oft-cited claim that there are very few atheists in prison:
There’s also the problem that even if those statistics were relevant, they don’t distinguish between those who were religious when they committed their crime and those who converted after going to prison. Lots of people turn to religion when they hit “rock bottom.” We need more thoughtful arguments across the board and this is one great example.
But Professor Zuckerman’s statistical howlers don’t stop there. Zuckerman also contends that secularism reduces violence:
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.
Even a cursory examination of the data reveals that this claim does not withstand scrutiny. If we look at the list of countries by intentional homicide rate and sort it in ascending order, and compare it with the list of countries by religiosity (measured by a 2009 Gallup poll where people were asked, “Is religion important in your daily life?”), several interesting facts emerge.
First, many countries with high levels of religiosity have very low murder rates, including Singapore (70% religious, 0.2 murders per 100,000 people per year), Indonesia (99% religious, murder rate 0.6), Algeria (93% religious, murder rate 0.7), Saudi Arabia (94.5% religious, murder rate 0.8), Italy (71.5% religious, murder rate 0.9) and Poland (74.5% religious, murder rate 1.2). (And while one might query the reliability of homicide figures in an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia, the same can hardly be said for the other countries listed above.)
Second, quite a few countries with low levels of religiosity have relatively high murder rates, including Estonia (16% religious, murder rate 5.0), Albania (32.5% religious, murder rate 5.0), Belarus (33% religious, murder rate 5.1), Russia (33% religious, murder rate 9.2), Uruguay (40.5% religious, murder rate 7.9), Lithuania (41.5% religious, murder rate 6.7) and Kazakhstan (43% religious, murder rate 7.8).
Third, if we sort the list of countries by intentional homicide data by sub-region, it turns out that within each sub-region, there is little or no correlation between religiosity and levels of homicidal violence. (For the purposes of this analysis, I shall ignore tiny countries with a population of under 2 million.) In Central America, the country with the lowest murder rate is Costa Rica (8.5, 79% religious), while the country with the highest rate is Honduras (90.4, 84% religious). The percentage of religious people in the two countries is virtually identical; yet there is a ten-fold difference in their murder rates. In South America, the country with the lowest murder rate is Chile (3.1, 69.5% religious), while the country with the highest rate is Venezuela (53.7, 79% religious). Once again, it would be absurd to attribute the 17-fold difference in murder rates between the two countries to religion.
In Middle Africa, the murder rate varies from 7.3 in Chad (94% religious) to 28.3 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (98.5% religious). Whatever is behind these differences in intentional homicide rates, it can hardly be religiosity. In Southern Africa, there is no discernible correlation between religiosity and murder rates: South Africa’s murder rate is the highest of any major country in the region, at 31.0, but its level of religiosity (84%) is intermediate between that of Namibia (91.5%) and Botswana (77%), whose murder rates are lower at 17.2 and 18.4, respectively. In Eastern Africa, the murder rate varies enormously, from 1.8 in Malawi (98.5% religious) to 23.1 in Rwanda (95% religious), while in Western Africa, there is a four-fold difference between the murder rates in Mauritania (5.0, 98% religious) and Nigeria (20.0, 95% religious).
In western Asia, the murder rate varies from a mere 0.4 in Kuwait (92.5% religious) and 0.8 in Saudi Arabia (94.5% religious) to 4.8 in Yemen (96% religious). (I’m omitting war-torn Iraq here.) Indeed, the average murder rate in this highly religious sub-region is roughly comparable with that of Southern Europe. In eastern Asia, we find that Japan (23.5% religious) has a very low murder rate (0.3), but on the other hand, the murder rate is more than ten times higher in Taiwan (3.0), North Korea (5.2) and Mongolia (9.7) – countries which are not exactly renowned for their religiosity!
In eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, where only 20.5% of the population describe themselves as religious, the murder rate is a modest 1.0, but it’s virtually the same (1.2) in Poland (74.5% religious), while in Russia, which is only 33% religious, the murder rate is nearly ten times higher, at 9.2. And in northern Europe, the murder rate varies widely, from 0.7 in Sweden (16.5% religious) to 5.0 in Estonia (16% religious) and 6.7 in Lithuania (41.5% religious). Go figure.
Professor Zuckerman touts Belgium as an example of a non-religious country with a low homicide rate, but its murder rate (1.6) is actually the highest in Western Europe. Switzerland and Germany, which are somewhat more religious (41.5% and 40.5% vs. 33% for Belgium), have much lower rates (0.6 and 0.8 respectively). And in Southern Europe, Spain (murder rate 0.8, 49.5% religious) and Italy (0.9, 71.5% religious) have much lower murder rates than highly secular Albania (5.0, 32.5% religious).
After reviewing this data, all I can say is: whatever the causes of homicidal violence around the world turn out to be, we can be fairly sure that religion has very little to do with it.
Professor Zuckerman writes: “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.” He does not list these studies; but in any case, it could be plausibly argued that some of the “virtues” on his list are actually vices. Substitute “less patriotic” for “less nationalistic” and “more rebellious” for “less authoritarian” and you’ll see my point.
Zuckerman adds that “[s]ecular adults are more likely to understand and accept the science concerning global warming, and to support women’s equality and gay rights.” Even if we were to assume (for argument’s sake) that all of these causes are unequivocally good, one could still ask: is secularism the cause of these adults’ ”enlightened” attitudes, or is it the fact that secular adults tend to come from families with high socioeconomic status and spend more time at college, where these attitudes are reinforced by people in authority?
Finally, what are we to make of Professor Zuckerman’s claim that teens who mature into “godless” adults (his term) “exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study”? He’d better be careful about making that claim. First of all, it makes no sense to attribute racism to a belief in God, given that mainstream religions are unanimous in preaching racial tolerance. Second, what the Duke University study actually found was that the aspect of religion that was linked strongly to racism was so-called “extrinsic” religiosity – a measure of whether the individual’s religious attitudes are driven by a desire for social conformity and social status.
Finally, Zuckerman would do well to read black skeptic Sikivu Hutchinson’s recent Washington Post article, Atheism has a big race problem that no one’s talking about (June 16, 2014). Hutchinson doesn’t mince words. After noting that “African Americans are the most religious ethnic group in the nation,” he continues:
African Americans still live in disproportionately segregated neighborhoods, with few living-wage jobs, parks, accessible public transportation and healthy grocery stores. …
Faith-based institutions provide resources to these poor and working-class families. They also fight racial discrimination, offer a foundation for community organizing and create access to social welfare, professional networks and educational resources. These are essential issues, and atheists of color often find themselves allied in these missions.
White atheists have a markedly different agenda. They are, on average, more affluent than the general population. Their children don’t attend overcrowded “dropout mills” where they are criminalized, subjected to “drill and kill” curricula and shunted off to prison, subminimum-wage jobs or chronic unemployment. White organizations go to battle over church/state separation and creationism in schools.
…With the highest national rates of juvenile incarceration, as well as suspension and expulsion in K-12 schools, African American youth in particular have been deeply impacted by these assaults on civil rights. According to the Education Trust, “If current trends continue, only one in twenty African American students in the state of California will go on to a four-year college or university.”
But when we look to atheist and humanist organizations for solidarity on these issues, there is a staggering lack of interest. And though some mainstream atheist organizations have jumped on the “diversity” bandwagon, they haven’t seriously grappled with the issue. Simply trotting out atheists of color to speak about “diversity” at overwhelmingly white conferences doesn’t cut it. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
I seem to recall a saying about people living in glass houses…
Zuckerman concludes his article:
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. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
“The unequivocal answer is no”? Surely you jest, Professor Zuckerman. If this is what sociologists call “evidence,” then I can only say: maybe some of them need to go back to school.
Before I sign off, I’d like to make one last comment. I would suggest that the greatest threat that atheism poses to public morality over the long term is not disbelief in God, per se, but rather, belief in materialistic determinism: in other words, the notion that we are all meat machines. A child who grows up thinking that she is a biological machine may well ask herself, “How can I hold other people morally responsible for their choices, if those choices are ultimately determined by circumstances beyond their control?” And when enough people start believing that we are not morally responsible for what we do, society really does have an “ethics” problem. Empathy alone is not enough. To be an effective moral agent, you have to know what kinds of entities you should care about (for example, computers don’t count, while human embryos do ), and you have to believe that you can make a difference. While there are “noble atheists” whose heart is in the right place on these issues, sadly, the scientific materialism that many students in Western countries imbibe in high school and college tends to weaken their moral focus (rights for rivers and forests, anyone?) and rob them of their belief in free will. Now that’s what I call a moral tragedy.