Good Without God

It has been an article of faith (pun intended) among politicians and pundits that Americans will not vote for non-religious candidates. President Eisenhower famously said that “Americans need religion, and I don’t care which religion it is,” nicely capturing the conviction of most Americans that only believers can be trusted to do the nation’s business.

Our preference for piety has led–among other things– to the ludicrous spectacle of thrice-married, biblically-ignorant Donald Trump courting Evangelicals and tweeting out “questions” about Hillary Clinton’s religious bona fides.

The public is evidently willing to overlook the history of religious warfare and the long list of injustices perpetrated in the name of religion–at least, when those wars have been waged and those injustices perpetrated by adherents of their own religion.

Americans who remain firmly convinced that religious belief is an unalloyed good will find a recent study reported by the L.A. Times disconcerting.

The article began by noting the growth of what have been called the “nones.”

The number of American children raised without religion has grown significantly since the 1950s, when fewer than 4% of Americans reported growing up in a nonreligious household, according to several recent national studies. That figure entered the double digits when a 2012 study showed that 11% of people born after 1970 said they had been raised in secular homes. This may help explain why 23% of adults in the U.S. claim to have no religion, and more than 30% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say the same.

The obvious question raised by these statistics is the ultimate fate of the children raised by nonbelievers. Can they possibly turn out to be upstanding, moral citizens without experiencing prayers at mealtimes and morality lessons at Sunday school? Without being warned that God is watching them?

Evidently, they can.

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.

When Bengston noticed the growth of nonreligious Americans becoming increasingly pronounced, he decided in 2013 to add secular families to his study in an attempt to understand how family life and intergenerational influences play out among the religionless.

He was surprised by what he found: High levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation.

“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

As the writer of the article noted, nonreligious family life has its own sustaining moral and ethical values, including “rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of ‘questioning everything’ and, far above all, empathy.”

The article concludes with a summary of social science research:


  1. My wife and I have differing views here I being an atheist and her considering herself believing in a God. We raised our children with a understanding of our views and told them find a way that they found worked for them and their views would evolve over time. The findings above describes my family exactly.

  2. Let’s try this: there is no god. Religious beliefs are figments of our imagination. When tribe X decides to war upon tribe Y, it’s useful that X’s god told them tribe Y is their enemy. Listen to Tom Paine: no mystery, revelation or miracles.

  3. I have been a church-going Christian for many years and I agree with many of the points you’ve made. But you have not mentioned an important factor: that none of this should matter politically. The U.S. does not have a “state” religion, and it constitutionally provides for separation of church and state. It should not matter that Clinton is a lifelong Methodist or that Trump (as far as I can tell) is irreligious. What does matter is their character, ethics, and morality along with their ability simply to do the job. None of which, in my opinion, depend on organized religion. All of which make the decision between the two pretty obvious.

    I do take issue, though, with the studies you mentioned. We are bombarded with studies, not knowing how they are run and how valid are their conclusions. If we followed all the studies quoted on the national news, the only way to avoid obesity is to stop breathing. Similarly, it is too much of a leap to equate low violence rates to low levels of religious faith. It’s not that simple and “studies” on social issues have in the past supported racism, misogyny, and much other social harm, as has religion. If we use scientific studies to support our opinions, we need to understand the studies and their limitations. Our major problem today is we don’t want to understand, we just want our prejudices confirmed.

  4. Wayne

    I’ve got to leave but I believe if I listen to Thomas Paine was a Deist correct?

  5. I find this kind of amusing. I work with the court. Daily I ask the question “What is your religious preference?” We ask about hobbies and such, and that question falls under interests. I receive a receive a myriad of answers, including “None.” I think I would have more confidence in the study if the data was tsken from PSI. With all the religious organizations in the prisons trying to “help” people I think it highly unlikely that the amount of non-believers who entered is the same as those who exit. Just a biased view of a court worker lol. That being said, there are good and in every group of individuals. Luckily we are in a country where we cancan choose which to be associated with.

  6. I think it was William James who said that a good man in one society would be a good man in any society. Religion has been a scapegoat for many things that men wanted to do. It’s certainly easier to get people to rally around a religious cause than a monetary one. Interestingly, the U.S. wasnt so God-centered until the 20th century. That’s when we put God on our money and God in our Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t believe Jesus would approve of either.

  7. I have always boggled at the argument that one needs religion to learn morality. No, one needs empathy and compassion. A well-adjusted person knows, innately, the “Golden Rule.” It is the maladjusted who must be threatened with an eternity in “Hell” to understand that thrusting a knife into another’s back is wrong.

  8. I don’t think any single person or other “entity” has a right, privilege or responsibility to comment on, direct, enforce, support, or encourage my religious/faith beliefs. Period. Notice that comment part. I believe that I earn respect as a person qua person. I keep it as a result of my actions. To discredit me not for the religious views and/or convictions that I have but rather because I have them is hate of the purest order. Deal with that!

  9. Thanks Prof K. Great piece. As a “None” I really like to see this getting some ink.

  10. Jerry – I’m not enough a scholar to classify Paine, or even write a definition of deism. You’ll have to read him.

  11. I think it’s important to remember there is a big difference between religion and spirituality. Religion is someone else’s idea of how one should behave, especially when it comes to physical support of those promoting religion. Spirituality is connecting with one’s inner being, one’s higher thoughts, and doesn’t necessarily have any outward behavior. Organized religion is nothing less than political organizations, vying for power over people. We would be better off ignoring religion on working on becoming more empathetic towards other life forms.

  12. Wayne interesting that you bring up Thomas Paine. I watched a program about a year ago It is long but worth a watch. Paine was considered in the First Tier of American Revolutionaries by virtue of his writings, especially Common Sense. He was downgraded when he began his harsh but justifiable critiques of organized religion and the myths necessary to support it.

    The marriage so to speak between political power and religion has very ancient origins. It seems that no matter where we look Egypt, the Fertile Crescent the idea of Political Power and Religious Power reinforcing each other to control the masses is there. It continues today in America and the Middle East.

    A picture is worth a thousand words. One of my favorites is a picture from Industrial Unionism from probably the late 19th century, called the Pyramid of Capitalism. It has a pyramid with a King type figure along with two types of ministers at the top – the caption is We Rule You. Directly underneath is another level, with three religious figures in their garb holding up crosses and books – the caption is We Fool You. The next platform is soldiers with Gatling guns and rifles with bayonets – the caption is We Shoot at You. The next level is a large round table with the 1% eating and drinking a lavish meal – the caption is We Eat for You. At the bottom is a mass of people struggling to hold the whole structure up – the caption is We work for All, We Feed All.

    A key component of the machine is the Bible Thumper’s to carry out their assigned task of controlling their “flock” and extending their control through political power. What should be an Age of Reason and Science we have to as a society to give in to Religious Myths, as if the Science of Evolution is equal to Creationism.

  13. If there is a god, then why are we surprised that he, she or it could tell us what or what not to do. I happen to believe there is a god, but not the one passed down to us by over-zealous prophets , TV preachers and Elmer Gantry. Whether such a god could exist without humans to fashion him, her or it by their own values, remains beyond my capacity to guess off. There has to be something to explain all of what we can see as a finished product in my cause and effect world, but whether he, she or it is essentially a bundle of our own cultural norms is another question. If such a belief is just another form of animism, then so be it.

  14. Gerald, why does there have to be something to explain all of what we can see etc, etc.

  15. Recently, there was an article in the news quoting Newt Gingrich in relation to the aftermath of the tragedy in Nice. He stated that all Muslims, even American citizens, should be “tested” to determine if they believed in Sharia law.
    No one can know what is in someone’s mind or heart, even when that information is publicly stated. Our biases and beliefs are often in flux and any “test” would be invalid purely based on the fact that you can change your mind and heart in an instant. It is purely pandering to extremism to even suggest such a test, especially in our country, and especially by someone who has the highest political aspirations. Newt may aspire to be the next Cheney and he certainly has the ear of DT. Let’s hope voters are smart enough to detect a con when they see it. Otherwise, we are in for a rough ride, down a long dark slope to authoritarian rule funded by oligarchs who control the puppets’ strings.

  16. I posited the other day that opinion, faith, and culture share the similar grounds as being assumptions about what cannot be proven to be right or wrong in an absolute sense.

    All are necessary human traits, there certainly could be some absolute “rightness” in anyone’s opinions, faith and culture, but it’s not as reliable as gravity or math is.

    So the founders were very wise in separating as much as possible opinion, faith and culture from law which needs to be reliable.

    That’s a distinction typically purposefully overlooked by people selling self serving agendas. They want their believers to blur facts with the assumptions of opinions, faith and culture, because that’s effective sales strategy. It works on most of the people, most of the time. It’s an effective basis for branding.

    So modern society tends to be a massive conflict between reality and the forces of advertising, opinion, faith and culture, springing at us from screens large and small.

    We need a national motto to “be real”, to separate opinions, faith and culture as possibilities held by others which we can CHOOSE among, or not, from reality, stuff we learn through education which is reliably factual.

    Boy does that make the world clear and the responsibilities of life distinct.

    Right now the most effective agencies for selling unreliable opinion, faith and culture are the NRA and Fox News although they are far, far and away not the only culprits.

    Try scepticism. Try categorizing what’s reliably factual from self serving opinion, faith and culture. See how liberating it is. See how many good decisions come from that perspective.

  17. Observation re: Baton Rouge. The NRA has advertised for years preparation for the upcoming wars pitting armed yahoos vs the government.

    What they successfully sold as a self fulfilling culture has started.

    What now?

  18. I find the subject interesting, but one also has to consider why the poor might be the same people to be more likely to believe and also be more likely to be in prison. I also must agree that evil and or powerful people use religion to manipulate people to do their bidding. But, there are also others that preach love and understanding as part of their religious practices.

    I believe in God, but don’t believe God has a religion. While my children are not very religious they are all well adjusted and considerate / caring adults.
    I wonder what would happen if all the people living in poverty did not believe in God or life after death.

  19. Whenever I am involved in discussions like the ones here, a typical personal reaction is that we, humanity, know how to effectively govern. We’ve proven that. We have it written down in the Constitution. We recorded it in action in history books.

    What broke?

    One answer to that is that forces looking for advantage tampered with the most important cultural setting in allowing government to work. Faith. Faith in government and we, the people as the beneficiaries of it, the creators of it, and the management of it.

    I remember when it was different. If anything we were overly proud to be part of it.

    Can faith be recovered once lost, or more properly once stolen?

    I of course don’t know but for sure it will take decades if indeed it is possible at all.

  20. On Dec 7, 1941 a decision was made for America. It was like the proverbial frog thrust into boiling water. We know how that turned out but of course we have no idea how other possibilities would have.

    We are now the frog in the gradually heating waters of climate change. So far we are ignoring the changes. Will we ever react?

  21. Being a “none” myself, I love this post. As a good Catholic girl in the 60s I remember discussing a fellow high school student who was not a member of any faith and marveling at how good and moral he was. I was also one who came to my “none” status by studying religion more, not less.

    Anthony, I am also a big fan of Karen Armstrong, who is no longer a believer.

    Louie, thank you for your comment. It is interesting and informative.

  22. Polls, studies, numbers, statistics. All lumped into a big salad that can be summarized in two words: Confirmation Bias.

    We can all cite polls and numbers ad-infinitum, that would confirm and back our point. Or negate the others.

    Confirmation Bias.

    As a Jew, I believe in G-d. And I respect those who don’t, as long as they don’t impose their secularism on me. Live and let live.

    Have a great day!

  23. Martina, welcome back.

    Confirmation bias is reality but so is right. Wrong not so much.

    One can negate reality by claiming that the only thing known is confirmation bias. Of course the science and legal professions are based on eliminating, or at least drastically reducing confirmation bias by enforcing rigorous standards of evidence and peer review.

    News used to be up there too but business found out that entertainment is more lucrative.

    Bottom line is that we individually choose between confirmation bias, it’s easy and quick, and research, the more difficult search for truth.

    Claiming everything is confirmation bias throws that baby out with the bath water.

  24. Pete,

    touché. You’re right in regards to throwing the baby out with the bath water. My apologies.

    I think we are all born with the innate capability of choosing to do good or to do evil. To attribute the “do-good” inclination to being of a religious persuasion is, at a minimum, arrogant. However, it is likewise arrogant, to negate the benefits of adhering to a set of pre-established rules of faith and worship.

    I think the key element is virtue.

    We have become, as people, devoid of generalized virtue, and its absence is the reason behind the chaos and lawlessness we are witnessing.

    Let’s bring virtue back, let’s exalt the benefits of nurturing a virtuous soul, whatever religion -or lack thereof – we are.

  25. I think Dakota summarized many Christians’ thoughts – most set to words — since General Eisenhower helped get professional men and their families interested in providing medical services to the parents of missionaries, teachers and preachers, renters in the densely-crowded absentee owners’ properties — city dumps included.

    A mother of an LDS missionary was told by Welcome Wagon distributors at Richmond, even before federal health agents stepped in to assist in cleaning up after the drug testers, the city includes 106 religious exception properties of 96 faiths. That’s a lot of wealth shared in 96 directions for saying goodbye to moms and dads.

  26. Martina, my version of the basis of virtue is empathy, the ability to imagine another person’s life with all of it’s trials and tribulations. Hard to do, sort of a stretch goal for everyone. I certainly have a long way to go.

    I’m almost positive that religion is not a requirement for empathy, in fact I don’t think that Faith is either. I think that the key is culture which makes it very hard to cause to happen. Certainly government can’t.

    One aspect of life that can enhance empathy is a sense of community, a shared culture.

    We had it probably most notably during the World Wars and lost it since. A bad development in a world getting smaller by the minute.

    Will the upcoming global warming existential crises restore what we lost?

    That’s one possibility.

  27. I read the study. The good Dr. takes a lot of liberties in her take aways.

    Those who are less ‘religious’ are not nessasarily non-believers, but are just less likely to be tied to the structure of a particular religion.

    It was also striking that an overwhelming majority also felt that structured religions were good for the community and the poor.

    The conclusions at which she arrives do not exist, although they fit her narrative.

    Is there cause and effect? mutually exclusive? Or make believe?

    Could we conclude that the diminishing number of religious people in our society has caused more out of wedlock births, a break in the family structure, a weakening in our educational system, more people on government subsidy programs and a rise in crime?

    As to Eisenhower and the Trump phenomenon, I would contend that many people were willing to put their own religious convictions on the backburner in the name of some pressing issues, and the selection of Pence was to woo those evangelicals not yet on board.

    As to climate change, what temperature is earth supposed to be? Where should the water level be?

    Glaciers, droughts, floods, dinasaurs?

  28. “As to climate change, what temperature is earth supposed to be? Where should the water level be?”

    “Glaciers, droughts, floods, dinosaurs?”

    Evolution and wandering brought the human race to where it is and there we built what we needed to survive and prosper. Obviously we made wonderful choices as there are now 7.4B of us going on nearly inevitably to 11B.

    Now we change the local weather, sea level, ocean acidity, and distribution of precipitation and therefore fresh water supply from what we settled on and have always lived in to different. Of course we solved this problem once. Or maybe several times.

    We wander some more. We leave the farms to go where the necessary sun and water go to. We move the population near the ocean shores whose houses and offices and businesses and highways and bridges go under water, even if only once every 100 years, and retreat to higher ground. We give up the sea food that the more acidic ocean no longer produces. We move people away from where the extreme killing winds and droughts and tornadoes and wildfires go.

    In short we rebuild a substantial amount of civilization in places different than where it is now.

    But what if there’s not enough food and places to live and fresh water to go around? Who and how will we choose who lives and dies? Famine? War? Pestilence? Extreme weather?

    While all of this is going on we rebuild our entire energy infrastructure, supply, distribution, and end use.

    We’re already spending billions every year and losing 100s of lives per year more than “normal”. That will continue to rise for a few decades after we eliminate virtually all additional dumping of Greenhouse Gasses into our globally single atmosphere.

    Some compare what needs to be done to what we had to do in WWII. I call those people optimists.

  29. The question to be asked of everybody here to Sheila’s well supported observations about religion is, “so what?”

    Culture is not ours to create any more than evolution is. It’s the collective response to the environment. It more often than not is a positive response to the changing of things but if it turns out to not be this time so what? We can’t change it.

    I personally see that this particular issue is a positive adaptation as it makes it easier to rely on what is known for sure today rather than hope for a miracle but others may disagree. It will unfold as it does regardless of those who agree or disagree with my puny opinion.

    Believe or don’t. Your choice. The don’ts are growing and the do’s are shrinking in general today.

    Actually in the grand scheme of things a minor problem compared to what we know for sure has to be done about climate change.

  30. Oh, Pete!
    Now the theory of evolution is settled science.
    Is Al still selling carbon credits to sinners?

    Weren’t all 7 continents originally 1 land mass?

    You got some weird science, sir.

    Pete 2:

    Ours is not to create culture? Huh?

    Couldn’t disagree more.

    Culture is what we get to create. Culture is what makes us, defines us, what we will be known for, how we want to live, what we strive to be.

    Culture doesn’t just happen Pete, its what we do with ourselves

  31. Yes, evolution is as reliably supported by evidence as any science theory. That’s what a scientific theory is. A hypothesis that has survived more than enough testing to convince skeptical peers that it’s reliably certain enough for them to assume as truth in their research.

    Yes, plate tectonics is another well established scientific theory.

    Tell us William, how do you create culture?

  32. You only need ro Google debunked scientific theories to see some that never became facts, not that I am anti evolution.

    Culture? I don’t get that you don’t get it

  33. Tried your Google suggestions. All that I found were hypotheses. That’s not uncommon. There are lots of people who don’t understand the difference.

    A suggestion. Next time try supersceeded theories. Things that are correct as far as they went replaced by deeper knowledge.

    You forgot to tell us how you change culture.

  34. Pete,

    “[William]”You forgot to tell us how you change culture”

    William is very bright. However, he’s 100% about William. That’s his accomplishment. How in the world could he ever”tell us how to change a culture?”

  35. Thank you, Marv, and I assure you, William is not about William.

    I watch and read both liberal and conservative viewpoints equally. I am very interested in boundries. Liberals put no boundries on abortion, conservatives are unwilling to limit guns.

    No one gives an inch. The language becomes more vitriolic. Look at both of our candidates.

    People who are defend LGBT rights, ridicule religious convictions, and vice-versa.

    If we don’t atleast listen to both sides, and dismiss the others as crazy, we all lose.

    As to culture, Marv, I think it is important that we try to shape the culture that we live in.

    Example: As we are in a culture of convenience, fast food, obesity, processed foods, couch potatos, etc., it is important for us to attempt to reshape our culture into a more healthy, active, society.

    In a culture of waste, packaging, pollution, you could even say climate change, we need to change our culture to one that is more cognizant of our planet.

    We cannot just be an observer in the world in which we live.

    Thank you for asking.

  36. Another interesting post, Sheila. I haven’t read the study, but I am certain that “Nones” do turn out just fine.
    One of the refreshing aspect of the Bernie Sanders campaign was that he never mentioned discussing his candidacy with a deity and didn’t bring god in the conversation all of the time. I don’t care how often candidates talk with their god(s). I like that kept out of the public sphere.

  37. Mention of religion and morality is liberally peppered in the posts today.
    It brings to mind last night’s destructive rhetoric and venom from Christie, McConnell and others with the outbursts of approval from the barking fanged Cerberus leading the crowd.
    Hillary Clinton was the target and the objective was clear: dump on her and her candidacy.
    Then there was the drumbeat of “lock her up”.
    Most destructive to me were the concluding remarks from each speaker such as:
    “God bless The United States of America, and God Bless you.”
    I heard God’s response: “Forget about it, you are committing so many unforgivable sins your pleas are empty .” The speech writers had a wallowing heyday.

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