Opinion

Can kids be good without God? Might they actually be better? A professor says yes

A conversation on secular parenting has uplifting messages for the religious and nonreligious

Cheer up, secular parents: Despite the benefits often associated with being religious -- comfort in knowing there's an afterlife, easily accessible communities that can quickly come to our aid and more -- you can (and many of you do) raise smart, well-adjusted, moral children who contribute to society.

The was the message conveyed Wednesday by Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who stopped by The Times' headquarters to discuss with Patt Morrison his Jan. 14 Times Op-Ed article, "How secular family values stack up." That article, which cited research showing that secular children go on to exhibit positive behaviors and commit less crime than those who identify with a faith, touched a nerve with readers, generating hundreds of online comments and letters to the editor. More than a month after publication, Zuckerman's article continues to draw new readers and comments.

The reaction to the article touched on more than just parents raising nonreligious people -- or "nones," as Zuckerman calls them, who do not identify with particular religion but may in fact be spiritual (or not). Readers raised questions about the origins of morality -- where do atheists or agnostics get their sense of right and wrong if they do not believe in a celestial law-giver? -- and the implications for society of having a rapidly growing population of "nones."

Zuckerman and Morrison also took questions in real time from those who were watching Wednesday morning. Their talk started with the broad question of what it means to be secular -- Zuckerman answers, "At its most simple, 'secular' just means 'nonreligious'" -- and proceeded to address more specific concerns, including how atheist and agnostic parents celebrate religiously themed holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

As a nonreligious person -- and a father -- I found the conversation uplifting, but not just because Zuckerman confidently addressed concerns sometimes expressed by our more faithful friends. Zuckerman acknowledged the tangible benefits of belief, including the built-in support systems that communities of faith provide and the greater tendency of the religious to donate their time and money to charity. In so doing, he promoted a reconciliation between the faithful and nonfaithful, the latter of whom have been regarded as morally suspect in modern history (although less so most recently). 

How did this go over with viewers? Were they moved to greater empathy for the other side? That remains to be seen, but early comments on the video (available in full above) indicate that some viewers are doing what people tend to do when it comes to faith and morality: dig in. One viewer, for example, had this to say while watching the video stream on YouTube:

"Even without reference to 'God,' most 'non-religious' parents in our culture still teach the same basic codes of ethics -- for now. But the ethics of a culture take time to erode, and thus any particular contemporary study purporting to demonstrate good outcomes of non-religious childrearing are necessarily short-sighted."

Of course, the conversation is ongoing, and as a secular father, I hope it doesn't stop here. 

Follow Paul Thornton on Twitter @PaulMThornton

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