This speech was delivered by Phil Zuckerman on Nov. 6, 2009, at the Seattle Red Lion Hotel, site of the 32nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It has been slightly edited for publication.
I was asked to give a positive, upbeat talk tonight. And I was happy to accept that assignment. I think it’s good that we celebrate and relish the positive things that come with being godless. Because, let’s face it: When you’re an atheist or agnostic or skeptic, the world often seems nuts. I mean, people just seem nuts. And it can be a real drag.
There’s certainly lots to critique, lots to complain about. Consider, for example, my mother-in-law. I’ll never forget the night, about 10 years ago, when she asked me to sit with her in the kitchen for a very serious conversation. She wanted me to know that she had taken out a very lucrative life insurance policy, but she was losing sleep over the fact that when The Rapture comes (which was going to be any day now), her body would go up into heaven, and hence no doctor would be able to sign a death certificate, which means that my wife wouldn’t be able to cash in the insurance policy. My mother-in-law was truly distraught over this impending dilemma! I’m sure we all have similar stories.
This world can indeed be a wacky place. And I think that’s why we secular folk find it easy to fall into the mode of kvetching, as we say in Yiddish. To kvetch is to complain, to mope, to whine, to nag. And again, there’s certainly lots to kvetch about. There’s the poison of the religious right here in the States, with their talk shows and radio shows and ceaseless, maniacal hatred of presidents who have the satanic temerity to provide health care to poor families.
There are theo-fascistic Jews in the Middle East who care more about avoiding cheeseburgers than the human rights of Palestinian children. There is Muslim fundamentalism, wreaking havoc in various parts of the world, endangering freedom of speech, threatening Enlightenment humanism, stoning people to death and seeking to assassinate cartoonists. And perhaps worse than all of this: There’s Michele Bachmann!
We could go on and on, and we often do. But for this speech, as I said, I was asked to talk about good things, positive things, happy things. So that’s what I’ll do now: talk about the many positives associated with godlessness. The goodness that comes with irreligion. The happy. The joyful.
Let me explain a bit about my research trajectory, and why I feel competent to talk about the goodness of godlessness.
I’m a sociologist. I’m interested in various aspects of society and social life. One major social force, obviously, is religion. A lot of people argue that religion is a good thing in society. Others argue that it is a bad thing. But my perspective is: Let’s just look and see. Let’s compare highly religious societies with highly irreligious societies, and see how they fare.
My latest book is called Society Without God. The underlying premise is this: Let’s examine two of the least religious countries in the Western world (Denmark and Sweden) and see how they are doing, and how the people there experience life. Are they bastions of chaos and corruption or models of societal health and contentment? Are they cauldrons of crime and poverty, or are they beacons of human rights, equality and democracy? Are the people there angry, immoral and rotten, or are they generally humane, happy and satisfied with their lot?
Of course, what I found was that these least religious nations are among the best in terms of standard variables measuring societal success and well being. This discovery started the research ball rolling for me, and I began looking further — comparing the least religious nations to the most religious nations on even more variables — looking at an even wider array of measures of prosperity and success. (I am not the only one doing this, by the way. Gregory S. Paul does the same thing, and while our methods are different and the variables we look at differ, we both come to the same conclusions.)
Then I began comparing the least religious U.S. states with the most religious states. The result of this ongoing analysis has been the overall finding that godless people and godless societies fare better on almost every sociological measure than religious people or religious societies.
This is information to be happy about, to feel good about.
Thus, based on my careful study of existing research, I present to you: “The Top 10 Good Things About Being Godless.” They aren’t in any particular order. The point was to simply compile a list of secular “good news” that reveals just how wonderful it is to be godless.
No. 1: Secularity is on the rise in the U.S. and throughout much of the world.
As recent surveys reveal — from Barry Kosmin’s ARIS work, as well as recent Pew surveys and Harris polls, and even a recent Parade magazine survey — the fact is, people who are distancing themselves from religion are growing, significantly.
The Parade survey, published in early October, found that 27% of Americans claim to practice “no religion” and that 22% said religion “is not a factor in my life.” There has also been a growth of secular groups and organizations, particularly on college campuses. This growth of secularity means more good news: more people living life guided by reason rather than faith and more people putting their energies into their families, schools, work, the environment and less into worshipping invisible deities.
No. 2: Godless people and secular people are less sexist, less chauvinistic and much more supportive of women’s rights.
When it comes to gender equality, atheists and secular people are generally much more progressive than their religious counterparts. Numerous studies over the past 40 years have found that irreligious and godless people are less likely to endorse conservative or traditional views concerning women’s roles, more likely to support legislation that protects women’s rights, more likely to support working women and more likely to support women’s reproductive independence.
When we look internationally, we see that the pattern is undeniably clear: Those countries that have the highest degree of secularity also have the most empowered women — the most women in government, the most women in upper management in business, etc. When it comes to the love for and respect of women, whether they be mothers or members of parliament or both, secular culture is where it’s at.
No. 3: We are more tolerant and accepting of others not like us.
It is often said that involvement in a religious community makes for good citizens, that it creates caring individuals. And surely there are teachings within the great religions about caring for the other, the stranger, the foreigner, etc. You can find such sentiments, if you dig deep enough — usually, in the bible and Qu’ran, if you just skip over the passages about how to kill a woman who is not a virgin or how to behead infidels or how nations and people who don’t worship God or Allah will be doused in lighter fluid and torched by the scorching breath of a demon baby produced by the mating of Ann Coulter and Gary Bauer.
If you dig deep enough, there’s often some little phrase about caring for the less fortunate, the outcasts, the foreigners, the lepers. And yet, when we actually do the social science, we see that it is the secular and the godless who exhibit the greatest degrees of tolerance and acceptance toward people different from themselves. Research over many decades reveals that when compared to their religious peers, atheists and secular folk tend to be markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less racist, less ethnocentric and less authoritarian.
Studies have found that, when compared to various religious groups, nonreligious Americans are the most politically tolerant. That is, they are the most likely group, along with Jews (who tend to be quite secular), to support extending civil liberties to dissident groups. One recent Gallup study found that tolerance of ethnic minorities is strongest in the least religious countries, whereas the most religious countries have higher levels of intolerance for the ethnic minorities in their midst.
This is a classic example of what social science can reveal. The myth is that religion makes us loving and tolerant toward others, and yet the reality is that the strongly religious are often quiet intolerant, while the least religious tend to be the most tolerant.
No. 4: We are better educated and maybe even a little bit smarter.
This is tricky. As someone who never did well on tests throughout my life, I am always wary of studies that measure intelligence. Who can say what “intelligent” is?
We know there are many ways to be intelligent, many levels to intelligence, and we must always be skeptical of how “being smart” is defined. That said, many studies have at least found that higher education is a strong predictor of agnosticism and atheism, and that being well-educated or having an “intellectual orientation” is a significant predictor of apostasy.
In my recent work on apostates, there’s one consistent theme: “I was always questioning; I’ve always been interested in reading and learning, always intellectual.” My colleague Darren Sherkat has found that — even when controlling for obvious factors such as educational attainment, race, class, etc. — secular men and women score markedly higher on verbal ability tests than religious men and women, and that people who view the bible as a book of fables have substantially higher levels of verbal sophistication than people who view the bible as the actual word of God. Among members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, only 7% claim to believe in a personal God and only 8% believe in immortality.
Other scholars in Australia report that secular people are significantly better educated than the general population, and others report similar findings from studies of secular people in 10 European nations. A 2007 study by the Barna Research group reports that atheists and agnostics are more likely to be college graduates than religious people. Barry Kosmin, drawing from the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, reports that of Americans claiming “no religion,” 42% are college graduates, which is notably higher than the national average of 27%.
When it comes to educational outcomes, specifically in terms of reading and math skills as well as scientific literacy, it is again the more secular nations such as Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Finland that fare the best.
Granted, these are correlations. High educational attainment and verbal ability are correlated with secularity, not necessarily caused by it. We must always be wary of making simplistic causal conclusions that may be unwarranted. Does secularity cause intelligence? Does intelligence cause secularity? We can’t always be sure. Perhaps the relationship is even spurious — that is, caused by some other, third variable. For example, maybe intelligence and secularity are actually both cased by some other phenomenon.
No. 5: The godless are less homophobic.
Concerning the acceptance of homosexuality and support for gay and lesbian rights, atheists and secular folk again stand out. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, religious “unaffiliated” Americans are much more likely to support gay marriage than religious Americans are. For instance: 60% of the religiously unaffiliated support gay marriage, compared to roughly 26% of Protestants and 42% of Catholics. According to Gallup, 76% of Americans who never or seldom attend church consider homosexuality morally acceptable, compared to 21% of weekly and 43% of monthly church attenders.
A recent British Social Attitudes Survey found that nonreligious people in Britain are more likely to hold positive views of homosexuals and AIDS victims and to support homosexual rights such as adoption and artificial insemination for lesbians.
Given that many studies have revealed that secular people are far less likely to be homophobic and harbor negative attitudes or hostility toward homosexuals, this is good news for our children, our parents, our cousins, our aunts and uncles and ourselves. We seem better able to grasp the concept that some people are gay or lesbian, and that this really just isn’t that big of a deal, and is even something to celebrate, as we would celebrate any mature manifestation of human love and attraction.
No. 6: We are more moral and more ethical.
Consider the following results from various recent studies: Concerning the U.S. invasion of Iraq, secular Americans were far less supportive (38%) than evangelical Protestants (68%), Catholics (58%), mainline Protestants (57%) and 47% of Jews. Only 32% of secular Americans considered the Iraq war justified, compared to 89% of Mormons, 87% of evangelicals, 73% of mainline Protestants, 84% of Catholics and 37% of Jews.
When it comes to the death penalty, atheists and nonreligious people are also less supportive than their religious peers. Opposition to the death penalty is highest among Americans with no religious affiliation, which is interesting, because many religions and particularly Christianity, feature mercy and forgiveness as admirable virtues.
When it comes to the general treatment of prisoners, secular people are much less supportive of retribution and are less likely to favor harsh/draconian sentencing. As for doctor-assisted suicide, secular people are much more likely to support it.
As for stem-cell research, the strongest support is among the secular. A 2004 Harris Poll found that nonreligious people were far more likely to support stem cell research. Only 55% of Americans who consider themselves “very religious,” 76% who describe themselves as “somewhat religious” and a full 84% of Americans who describe themselves as “nonreligious” support stem cell research.
A 2005 Gallup Poll found that people who seldom or never attend church are far more likely (49%) to support legalization of marijuana. Only 17% of weekly attenders and 30% of monthly attenders supported legalization.
And, secular Americans are much less likely to support the governmental use of torture.
What about crime? Do atheists and secular people engage in more immoral or criminal behavior than religious people? When it comes to various so-called victimless crimes, such as underage alcohol consumption or illegal drug use, secular men and women do break the law more. But when it comes to more serious or violent crimes, such as murder, there’s no evidence suggesting that atheist and secular people are more likely to commit such crimes.
A quick look at America’s bulging prisons reveals that they are not full of atheists; according to one study, only 0.2% of U.S. prisoners are atheists. Many studies report that murder rates are actually lower in less devout, more secular nations and higher in more religious nations. And it’s the most religious U.S. states, not the most secular, which have the highest homicide rates.
In sum, concerning violence and criminality: The fact is, fundamentalist Christians shoot doctors, fundamentalist Jews kill Palestinians, fundamentalist Hindus shoot Muslims, fundamentalist Muslims behead journalists. Fundamentalist atheists? Well, the only things we tend to behead are blueberry bran muffins, and the only things we tend to kill are hearty pints of microbrews with names like John Barleycorn, Sleepy Hollow Nut Brown and Dragonstooth Stout.
No. 7: Atheists experience and enjoy more oral sex than religious people do.
To be honest, there really isn’t actually that much of a difference when we compare the sex lives of religious people to religious “Nones” (not nuns). In terms of how often we have sex, for example, secular and religious Americans are pretty similar. But when it comes to oral sex, research reveals consistent differences between the godful and the godless, with secular adults more approving of oral sex. Secular people are also less guilty about enjoying sex in general.
Studies have also shown that secular teens are much more likely to use appropriate birth control than religious teens. One recent study found that “virginity pledgers” have premarital sex just as much as nonpledgers, but they don’t use birth control or condoms to nearly the same degree!
It thus comes as no surprise that when comparing the world’s developed democracies, we find that STD infection rates and rates of teen pregnancy are lower in the more secular nations. In short, the good news when it comes to godless sex: It is fun and safe.
No. 8: We are better parents.
Studies have found that secular parents are more likely to promote independent thinking in their children and to support them in “making up their own minds” about things, rather than just trying to brainwash them. For example, Robert Altemeyer found that only 14% of atheist parents actively raise their children as nonbelievers, while the rest preferred to let their children make up their own minds. In contrast, 94% of strongly religious parents actively raise their children to believe what they believe, with only 6% wanting their children to make up their own minds.
Of course, atheist and secular parents face a real dilemma when raising their kids. On the one hand, we don’t want to replicate what we find distasteful among the religious: indoctrination of young minds. We don’t want to force our beliefs on our kids, for we know that children are likely to believe whatever they are taught by those around them.
On the other hand, we want them to understand our values, to be aware of what we think is important. Prof. Christel Manning has been engaged for several years in doing qualitative research on nonreligious families from various U.S. regions. Manning has found that atheist/secular parents, while rejecting religious dogma and not imposing religious faith on their children, still do impart very clearly defined and well-articulated morals and values to their offspring.
That is, they go beyond merely rejecting religion, and engage in “a positive embrace of a meaningful moral order” which they actively convey to their children. Elements of this meaningful moral order include emphasizing the value of pursuit of truth, the importance of “questioning everything,” the responsibility of being rational when solving problems, the importance of seeking to do what is best for humanity, the belief that we are all citizens of the same world and should work together to make the world a better, more peaceful place, and that one ought to act responsibly toward others and the planet and avoid hurting or harming others or the natural environment.
When it comes to child abuse and corporal punishment, studies show that approval of the spanking of children and slapping of teenagers is generally lower among more secular nations and also lower among more secular regions within the U.S. Of the 17 countries in the world that have laws outlawing the hitting of children, nearly all are among the most secular nations, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Considering child welfare, a 2007 UNICEF report found that the least religious nations such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are the best countries for the safety and healthy life of children.
No. 9: When there are a lot of us in one place or one nation or one state or one group, the result is societal success and well being.
We see this pattern when we compare countries, states or even groups in the same country. For example, Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans are the most secular ethnic groups in America. African-Americans and Latino Americans are the most religious ethnic groups. And we know that on every measure of societal success, Jewish- and Asian-Americans fare better.
There are surely numerous factors behind this disparity that may or may not have anything to do with religion or atheism, but the point is clear: Religion doesn’t seem to be helping the highly religious groups, and secularity certainly doesn’t seem to be hindering the highly irreligious groups. When we compare nations — the least religious to the most religious — the resulting patterns are unmistakable. As I argued in my latest book, on all standard measures of societal health (with the possible exception of suicide), the freely secular nations fare the best.
Finally, when we compare states within the U.S. based on data from Kosmin and Keysar, the 10 states with the highest proportion of people with “no faith” are Oregon (31%), Washington (30%), Vermont (30%), Colorado (26.6%), Delaware (26.5%), Idaho (25.4%), California (25%), New Hampshire (24.5%), Wyoming (24.2%) and Montana (23.7%).
The 10 with the lowest proportion of people with no faith are North Dakota (9.3%), South Dakota (10.2%), South Carolina (10.9%), Mississippi (11.5%), Alabama (12.3%), Tennessee (13.5%), Maine (14.5%), Texas (15.4%), North Carolina (15.4%) and Louisiana (15.5%).
According to the Pew’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, God belief is weakest in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona and certain New England states. It’s strongest — with 81% claiming to be “absolutely certain” of the existence of God — in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.
What do we find when we compare these states to one another?
Of the states with the highest murder rates, most tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, and of the states with the lowest murder rates, most tend to be among the least religious, such as Vermont and Oregon. When it comes to other violent crimes, although there are some notable exceptions, the rates tend to be lower for the less religious states and higher for the most religious. As for poverty rates, again the states with the highest rates tend to be among the most religious states, such as Mississippi and Tennessee, while the states with the lowest tend to be among the most secular, such as New Hampshire and Hawaii. The most religious states also have higher rates of mobile-home occupancy. According to Calorielab.com, the five states with the highest adult obesity rates are among the most religious, led by Mississippi (31.6%), West Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina. States with the lowest rates of obesity are among the least religious, such as Colorado (18.4%), Hawaii, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
It’s also the more religious states that tend to have higher infant mortality rates and teen pregnancy rates. The nation’s Bible Belt is also its STD Belt. The Bible Belt states (those with the highest percentage who have strong faith in God and attend church most frequently) have the lowest rates of adults with a college education.
When I was growing up, there was an ad campaign to get people to drink more milk: “Milk — it does a body good.” What the research I have just conveyed tells us is the following: “Secularity — it does a society good.”
No. 10: We’re just better looking.
We’re a great-looking bunch, aren’t we? Have you noticed how much sexier we are than the God worshippers? Now, this is based on my own recent study. I showed pictures of random secular people and random religious people to a class of 50 students at Pitzer College (Claremont, Calif.), and asked them to check which were better looking. Secular people were considered more attractive than religious people, by a landslide. Here are some of the results:
Dan Barker vs. Ben Stein – Dan Barker killed! Annie Laurie Gaylor vs. Beverly La Haye? No contest! Richard Dawkins vs. Lee Strobel? Again, no contest. Ayaan Hirsi Ali vs. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? You can guess. Sam Harris vs. Dinesh D’Souza? Sam killed him. Ron Reagan vs. Jeb Bush? Please. William Lobdell vs. Anita Bryant? No contest. Jennifer Michael Hecht vs. Kirk Cameron? Jennifer, by a long shot. Christopher Hitchens vs. Ann Coulter? No contest.
In conclusion: From educational attainment to safe sex, from supporting women’s rights to not supporting torture, from not committing crimes to loving our kids, from ethics to physical attractiveness — there is deep goodness in godlessness — and we have the social science to prove it.
Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College, Claremont, Calif., teaches, among other classes, “Introduction to Sociology, Atheism, Secularism and Society.” He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Oregon, and has researched the secularization of Scandinavia extensively. His books include Society Without God (2008). Forthcoming is Faith No More: How and Why People Reject Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), and he is editor of Atheism and Secularity (Praeger, 2010). He has also edited Sex and Religion and The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois. Among his many papers and book chapters is “Contemporary Atheism: Numbers and Patterns,” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. His wife, Stacy, a writer and filmmaker, is currently writing a screenplay about Martha Graham. Their three children are 11, 8 and 3.