Last week, there was a fascinating opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, How Secular Family Values Stack Up. The author, Phil Zuckerman, is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College.
When I say “fascinating,” I mean that as in, “there are so many misconceptions about religion and morality in one article that it makes for a fascinating case study–a case study that Christian parents really need to read.”
I rarely pick apart a single article on this blog because I like to focus on bigger picture topics. But this particular piece is worth looking at in detail because it hits on so many subjects that are misunderstood by non-believers, and often times by Christians as well. If you have older kids who can read and understand the original article, it would make a great piece for them to evaluate from a Christian perspective (and you can use this post as a discussion guide).
Quotes from the article are in bold, and my response follows.
Zuckerman starts by providing data on the increasing number of American adults and young people who claim to have no religion (a sad but true fact). After establishing that there will likely be more and more secular people in this country, he poses the central question his article seeks to answer:
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.
As a Christian, I find this to be a most bizarre characterization of the purpose of religion and the nature of the spiritual life.
Why does Zuckerman think religions assert that secularists are dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless? From the Christian perspective, a person without Jesus is spiritually dysfunctional (not in right relationship with God), but not necessarily behaviorally dysfunctional, which is the subject of this article.
Here’s what so many secularists (and often Christians) don’t get. God gave everyone a moral compass (Romans 1:18-23). From a Christian perspective, anyone can exhibit good behavior in relation to that objective standard. That means a person does NOT have to believe in God in order to acknowledge and act according to those moral standards. The moral compass is within people whether they choose to believe in the Source of that compass or not. This misunderstanding underlies the entire article.
What about “nihilistic” (believing life is meaningless) and “ruddlerless” (lacking a sense of purpose)? Again, there is nothing in Christianity that suggests a non-believer can’t develop their own Earthly meaning and purpose. In fact, Jesus spent a lot time warning us that it’s all too easy to get caught up in the pursuits of the world when we should instead be pursuing God (e.g., 1 John 2:16). So Christians may disagree with secularists on the ultimate value of Earthly-based meaning and purpose, but they don’t deny that non-believers can create some kind of personal meaning and purpose.
Finally, from the Christian perspective, “prayers at mealtimes and morality lessons at Sunday school” aren’t conducted for the primary purpose of creating “upstanding, moral children.” Praying is to develop a relationship with God and Sunday school lessons (including “morality lessons”) are to teach people about God and their relationship to Him.
I’m sure Zuckerman is knowledgeable enough to know that’s what Christians believe. But he clearly presupposes that God doesn’t exist and therefore (condescendingly) boils the value of religious practices down to whether or not they result in “upstanding” children. This seriously misconstrues religious belief and sets him up to deliver an argument against a claim that doesn’t exist.
[Bengston] was “surprised” when he found high levels of family solidarity, strong ethical standards, and moral values that had been “clearly articulated” to the next generation.
Again, from a Christian perspective, there is no reason for Bengston (the researcher) to be surprised that secular families can have strong relationships and good values.
A note must be made, however, about “ethical standards.” Someone who does not believe in a moral law giver (God) has no objective justification for declaring that anything is right or wrong. In a purely naturalistic worldview, morality can be nothing more than a matter of opinion (as many secularists indeed acknowledge).
So, if we’re celebrating the “ethical standards” of secularists, I have to ask: What standards are we celebrating? If morality is a matter of opinion (as would be consistent with a naturalistic view), why would we praise anyone’s standards? Indeed, why would it even matter how “secular family values stack up” on subjective moral values?
As one atheist mom who wanted to be identified only as Debbie told me: “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.”
This mom assumes that the highest priority in life is giving your kids a good value system (see my last post for why that’s seriously off-base for Christians). She is worried what will happen to her kids’ values if they stop believing in God! But if God is real, there’s a lot more to worry about when they stop believing than if they lose those precious values.
That said, as I already explained, no Christian would (rightly) suggest that when you stop believing in God you lose your values. They are always there, whether you acknowledge their Source or not.
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…Recent research also has shown that children raised without religion tend to remain irreligious as they grow older—and are perhaps more accepting. Secular adults are more likely to understand and accept the science concerning global warming, and to support women’s equality and gay rights.
Zuckerman is not simply stating that this is what the data shows, with no implied value judgment. Given the tone and conclusion of his article, he is clearly suggesting that these are negative differences for religious adults. Assuming that’s the case, consider the uncritical (but common) logic. He’s saying it’s better to be “tolerant.” But tolerant of what? Is all tolerance good? Should we be tolerant of racism?
He’s also saying it’s better to be “accepting.” But again, accepting of what? Should we accept every idea that comes our way (including scientific hypotheses)? Or should we use the “rational thinking” secularists frequently espouse to determine what should be accepted and what shouldn’t?
Similar questions could be asked about the implied value judgment of each data point.
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.
Could you possibly be making a mistake? Well, yes, if there’s a religion that’s true. If Christianity is true, your eternal soul hangs in the balance and there would be no more important parenting objective than raising your children to know and love Jesus.
At no point in this article did Zuckerman even raise the question of whether or not a religion could be true. Obviously, if he believed one could be, there would be much bigger questions on the table than whether or not one needs to believe in God in order to have “positive traits.”
By implicitly dismissing the possibility of God, he ends up grappling instead with a question that is of little meaning to either religious people or secularists. Religious people don’t really care how “secular family values stack up” because they never claimed those values wouldn’t stack up in the first place–and whether or not values stack up is meaningless to them without a belief in God. Secular people with a naturalistic worldview shouldn’t really care how their values “stack up” because, in that view, morality can only be a matter of opinion–why bother evaluating opinions of good and bad when there’s no objective standard by which to judge them? Is it just to prove to religious people that they’re wrong in claiming secular people are “dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless” (something religious people aren’t even claiming)?
When your kids are old enough, helping them work through the thinking behind articles like this can be invaluable preparation for confronting a secular world. I’d love to hear your thoughts–what is your reaction to Zuckerman’s article?