Atheist Parenting on the Rise (Children Still Total Jerks)

Atheist Parenting on the Rise, Children Still Total Jerks

Hey there moms and dads pulling out your hair and swearing you’ll sell your soul to god or the devil if your toddler will just go the eff to sleep, there’s no need to draw up that contract with Jesus (or the Prince of Darkness) just yet…

New research shows U.S. parents are now more than ever raising children without religion in the home — and, spoiler alert: they may be raising more moral children than those raising children in dogmatic, traditionally religious environments. (You may still pull your hair out, though, because KIDS SUCK.)

The research supports what many parents already know—religion isn’t necessary, caffeine and alcohol are. And in many cases, religion, unlike coffee, is a barrier from getting shit done. That’s not to say Christmas is going anywhere anytime soon, so don’t spend that tax return just yet– but according to Phil Zuckerman,  professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and author of “Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions,” there are more religious-less children in the U.S. than at any time in our history. And that’s a pretty big deal, particularly in the current political climate.

“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,” Zuckerman wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “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.”

According to the research Zuckerman points to, the “Longitudinal Study of Generations,” the largest multi-generation study of religion and family life in the U.S., families that don’t adhere to any religious dogmas exhibit “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.”

In other words, religion may not only lead to moral quandaries (and rebellions), but it may also be a confounding pursuit. And that’s even with the likes of the semi-progressive leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, articulating his leniency for abortion, same-sex marriage, and most recently, married men becoming priests, or synagogues and mosques shaking things up with Beatles nights, and Scientology…okay, never mind about Scientology.

Maintaining a regular religious practice for kids, and many parents, can often feel like a chore—a tick on the to-do list that can distract from things that earnestly make us better people, namely pursuing our passions, spending time in nature, relaxing, or just having some chilled-out uninterrupted family time discussing things like why religions shouldn’t dictate ethics.

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

It’s the same argument well-known atheist and author Sam Harris has been making for years—that the absence of religion doesn’t make people inherently antagonistic or void of a moral compass. It’s more often quite the contrary.

“For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative,” notes Zuckerman.

And for many parents, religion is doing the opposite: imposing rigid belief systems that don’t allow for treating others as “the same” but rather, marginalizing entire groups  because of their religion, skin color, sexual preference, or gender identity. These outdated belief systems erode the very fabric of our culture; they’re myopic and self-serving, and in too many cases, organized to make (more) money for churches, temples, or synagogues than to allow for our forward progress as a society guided by principle instead of outdated dogmas.

Zuckerman also points out that kids raised in secular environments are less likely to succumb to peer pressure than religious children, and that air of self-confidence lasts through to adulthood in most cases.

“When these teens mature into ‘godless’ adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study,” Zuckerman explains. “Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.”

And another startling fact was the absence of atheism from prisons: less than half of one percent of prisoners in the late 1990s identified as atheist, which correlates with crime rates around the world in democratic countries with low levels of religion.

“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,” Zuckerman explains. “If secular people couldn’t raise well-functioning, moral children, then a preponderance of them in a given society would spell societal disaster. Yet quite the opposite is the case.”

For any secular parent raising a (mostly) human child, you know the only real religions worthy of your time are the mop and bucket, babysitters, coffee, and maybe a little shrine to the boxed wine gods. And, of course, a solid night’s sleep is infinitely better than any concept of heaven.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.