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: