A month ago, an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by sociologist Phil Zuckerman supplied a reassuring answer for secular parents: absolutely. In the face of a previous study finding that children raised in religious homes have “better self-control, social skills, and approaches to learning than kids with nonreligious parents,” Zuckerman laid out the good news for secular families. “Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic, and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion,” he wrote, “secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children.” Here are the details:

  • There are “high levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth.”
  • There is evidence of “strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation."
  • Irreligious societies, “such as Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, and New Zealand ... have among the lowest violent crime rates in the world and enjoy remarkably high levels of societal well-being.”
  • A significant body of research shows that “secular grown-ups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian, and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.”

These conclusions stem from Zuckerman’s research and from studies conducted by Vern Bengston, a professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California. Zuckerman summarizes the upshot of his findings:

My own ongoing research among secular Americans — as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture — confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem-solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything,” and, far above all, empathy.

I have no doubt that secular parents are perfectly capable of raising morally upstanding kids, and I am a big fan of rationality, inquisitiveness, autonomy, and the rest. Most of these are better construed as intellectual virtues, though, not “moral values and enriching ethical precepts.” And I have some trouble with the extremely broad brush Zuckerman uses to paint the landscape of religious and secular parenting. One line that particularly rankled me was this: “For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule.” Are America’s nonreligious parents an undifferentiated mass of moral educators? And are its pious households hotbeds of jingoism and militant intolerance? Might there be more than one way to be religious, or to be secular?

For me, the best part about reading Zuckerman’s op-ed was the reminder it provided me of a book I loved in graduate school, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. In Book IV of Emile, Rousseau provides an account of a teaching he received from the priest of Savoyard at the break of dawn on a hill above the River Po, with “the immense chain of the Alps crown[ing] the landscape.” The message the Savoyard priest conveyed to Rousseau was, in a nutshell, this: God’s existence is not to be gleaned from books or religious authorities. Understanding God requires only the use of one’s senses and one’s reason. Teaching dogma is an inherently futile enterprise; you have to let children settle on their own array of beliefs:

The greatest ideas of the divinity come to us from reason alone. View the spectacle of nature; hear the inner voice. Has God not told everything to our eyes, to our conscience, to our judgment? What more will men tell us? (Emile, Allan Bloom trans., p. 295).

This constitutes a rejection of traditional religious education, and it entails, I think, an admonition to parents seeking to raise their children to believe, or not to believe, particular divine truths. It is one thing to re-enact and celebrate a religious culture and to expose children to the history, texts, and rites of a religion: that is the way cultural practices are reproduced over generations. But it is another thing to try to instill specific metaphysical conceptions into a child’s mind. Ultimately, the experience of coming to believe is internal, as John Locke emphasized in his Letter Concerning Toleration, and both governments and parents are ill-equipped and ill-suited to coerce young people to come to hold a particular view of the cosmos, or of the presence or absence of some kind of deity.

What that means for how children “turn out” has to be a more nuanced story than Zuckerman tells. Rousseau’s injunction against the indoctrination of youth, and his celebration of setting kids free to find their own metaphysical path, runs both ways.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com