For godless parents like me, sociologist Phil Zuckerman's Op-Ed article Thursday on the growing prevalence of children being raised in nonreligious households is secular catnip. The possibility of living a moral life without regular church attendance isn't really in dispute among the nonreligious mothers and fathers of America, but it helps to have someone of Zuckerman's academic pedigree make our case.
That said, as a lapsed Lutheran, the concern many believers have for children of the nonreligious makes some sense to me. It's one thing for an adult to lose his or her religion (or never to choose one in the first place) and remain a confident "None," the term Zuckerman uses for Americans who believe "nothing in particular." But when offspring come into the picture, the decisions made by adults have profound, lifelong implications for their children.
Zuckerman's research-backed conclusion that children reared in secular homes fare well ought to answer those who question the wisdom of raising children without a religious rudder. But the prospect of positive outcomes down the line don't always assuage those who want their kids to stay good and safe now, tomorrow and next week. Parents can see the big picture painted by Zuckerman while still wanting their kids to tether themselves to a moral code that governs moment-to-moment behavior, a desire that the traditional religious communities fulfill with great convenience.
Given that, I doubt the assurances and good examples set by nonbelieving parents will fully ease the minds of those around us who successfully brought their children up in religious communities. When our own children come of age and have kids of their own, and the proportion of "Nones" in this country reaches a critical mass, perhaps secular child-rearing will lose its peculiarity and there will be less need for articles like Zuckerman's.
But for now, with nonreligious parenting still something of a novelty, we shouldn't shy away from this discussion. Zuckerman notes the Golden Rule as a moral touchstone for believers and nonbelievers alike. Personally, I've found that regarding my kids as not truly "mine," but rather as belonging to a much broader society that depends on decency and empathy to survive, provides a solid moral groundwork for child-rearing.
Readers have also weighed in on Zuckerman's piece. Most agree with Zuckerman; some, however, question his assurance that nonbelieving parents can raise reliably moral children.
Beverly Hills resident Berta Graciano-Buchman says people's beliefs evolve with age:
A fundamental reason why godless children are less racist, less nationalistic and more tolerant is that they are raised without the notion of being favored by God.
However, it is important to observe that although the kids are fine without religion, the need for spirituality in their adult years turn many of them into the New Age movement to find hope and solace during those difficult mid- and late-life years of adulthood. It is in time of adversity that the idea of an omnipotent being (a pseudo God or the cosmos itself) becomes a helpful tool to guide us through the painful waters of our existence.
When mortality, that unrelenting enemy that seems too distant in our younger years, can no longer be invisible, many of those godless people embrace their own form of spirituality, and in so doing create their own brand of religion.
Cecil Stalnaker of Valencia says there has to be a moral lawgiver:
Zuckerman severely errs.
All human beings, no matter the culture and location in the world, have a certain sense of morality, a sense of good and evil (although this can become perverted if a person censors or represses his or her conscience). Why do they have this sense of good and evil?
The foundation for morality only exists because all humans have been created in the "image of God." Secular households can only positively build on what God has already established in the heart of their kids.
As C.S. Lewis argued, a sense of good and evil requires a moral lawgiver.
Eileen Flaxman of Sherman Oaks says God isn't the most important part of religion:
For centuries, religion was all about glorifying God -- even offering human sacrifices to do so, and often persecuting and killing those who disagreed. Nowadays, religion is more a framework for how to live.
It is no surprise to me that people are raising moral children by bypassing the God part and going straight to the rules and guidelines that so many religions have in common. What is truly telling is that there are few atheists in prisons and that countries with the lowest rates of religion have the lowest rates of crime.
Perhaps caring more about your fellow man than you do about a deity is the answer.
Richard Nagle of Los Angeles says Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on the Golden Rule:
Zuckerman writes, "For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule."
Many of the religiously exclusive don't know (or won't admit) that our Golden Rule was not created and preached by Jesus Christ alone, nor by any one, single historical figure. In Israel, it was taught by a leader of the Essene movement, called the Teacher of Righteousness, generations before Jesus was born.
In India, Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha) taught it centuries before Jesus, and centuries before the Buddha the principle is found in the Hindu Vedas.
In short, the idea of our Golden Rule seems to have been part of the common wisdom of humankind from the beginning.
Follow Paul Thornton on Twitter @PaulMThornton