“Value-added facts” (Morality and religion)


Last fall, I addressed the assertion that one needs religion to be moral. In that post, I focused on the views of Dennis Prager and Frank Turek, but they have many teammates on their God Squad with similar positions.

TV host Steve Harvey veers sharply from his congenial nature when the topic of atheism is broached. While it’s not the nastiest thing he has said about them, Harvey insists atheists have no place from which to draw their morals.

Then earlier this month, the prolific conservative Catholic blogger Matt Walsh launched this strawman at nonbelievers: They feel life is “objectively meaningless,” they are without a moral code, and their “only logical position is moral relativism.”

A column for The Washington Post by sociology professor Phil Zuckerman challenged those notions. Zuckerman cited the studies of USC gerontology and sociology professor Vern Bengtson, who for four decades has conducted the Longitudinal Study of Generations, the most thorough study of religion and family life in U.S. history. He has said, “Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic, and rudderless, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children. The vast majority of nonreligious parents appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

Bengtson has more secular families to choose from than when his study began. The number of persons raised in such households has tripled in that time. According to the Post, 23 percent of U.S. adults say they have no religion, a number that creeps up to 30 percent in the 18-to-29 demographic.

This underscores the principle that you have to get them while they’re young. A person raised in a religious home may try another denomination or may not place as much emphasis on rituals and worship attendance as their parents did, but they are unlikely to forsake the faith altogether. Likewise, adult converts from atheism to religion are rare. Similarly, a person raised Hindu is extremely unlikely to start practicing Shinto, while few lifelong Muslims will eschew Islam to embrace Wicca.

While Walsh and Harvey insist religion in necessary for morality, countries with the lowest religious rates also have the lowest crime rates, i.e. Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, and New Zealand. The lack of religion may not be the reason for the low crime, but it does throw a theological monkey wrench into Walsh’s and Harvey’s assertion that a lack of spiritual beliefs leads to calamity.

Bengtson also noted that many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate when outlining their ethical principles compared to their religious counterparts. I think that’s because they are required to justify their beliefs. For Harvey, it is wrong for a woman to speak in church because a First Century religious figure wrote as much in an epistle to parishioners. There is no need to further consider the issue or to entertain competing notions. By contrast, a secular person may think it over and look to the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nellie Bly, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Susan B. Anthony when deciding whether both sexes should be allowed to have their opinions known.

Of course, a secular individual could have a moral compass that is stellar, compromised, or deplorable. There would never be one set of secular values just like there would never be one set of guidelines for religion, a specific religion, a denomination, or one church within that denomination. There are so many ways to interpret the same text and so many texts to choose from that seven billion people will never come to the same conclusion about what the rules are.

But Bengtson and Zimmerman have found that nonreligious families generally emphasize rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independent thought, continual questioning, and the bypassing of corporal punishment. In my household, the focus is on honesty, responsibility, teamwork, equal rights, being well-rounded, and consideration of others.  

Such tenets might be consistent with religion – the 10th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita encourages honesty. Or they may reject religion – the 33rd chapter of the Koran endorses slavery. But whether an idea is promulgated in a religious text will have no bearing on whether I promote it. Religious dictates are not necessarily good or bad, but if the idea is sound, I teach it to my children. The Golden Rule appears in many religions but following it requires no belief in the supernatural, an afterlife, or the miraculous.

If one does ply their children with religious instruction, I recommend augmenting it with secular values. That’s because the offspring will be inclined to keep the latter no matter where their spiritual quest leads. But if their morality is connected to a god and they end up questioning that deity’s existence, does the morality go with it? Would it now be OK to steal since they have rejected the 10 Commandments? Not if a secular version has been taught as well. At the same time, if my children end up adopting religious beliefs, they can still keep the secular morals I’m imbuing in them.

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