Phil Zuckerman on the advantages of secular morality

February 1, 2022 • 1:30 pm

“The question is not how can you be moral if you don’t believe in God, but how can you be moral if you believe in God.”  (Phil Zuckerman, below).

The most common criticism religionists make of atheists is embodied in the first part of the quote above, a quote from Phil Zuckerman in a speech he gave at the recent Freedom From Religion Foundation meeting.  The notion that atheism destroys morality has been dismantled several times, most recently in an exchange between Diane Morgan and Ricky Gervais in the terrific show “After Life.” I’ll let you listen for yourself: it’s in Season 3. And here Zuckerman does it not philosophically, but with data (or rather, assertions about data we don’t see).

As you may know, Zuckerman is a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in California, and was the first person to become a full-time professor in that area.  Here’s a list of his books, of which I’ve read just one: the 2008 one, which shows how well two atheist countries, Sweden and Denmark, function without religion. (You can now add Iceland to that list.) It was that book that convinced me that there is no innate need for societies to be religious to function well. As Zuckerman remarks in his talk, and argues at length in Society without God. Scandinavia has some of the most “moral” countries on earth, yet they’re a pack of atheists. Moreover, Scandinavians have nothing I can see to “replace” religion: no “secular churches” or any of that nonsense. Yet religionists ignore this.

Zuckerman’s talk apparently relies heavily on his 2019 book below, but he mentions that he has a new book coming out, which surely has the data he mentions below.

His books (he’s been a busy atheist!)

  • Zuckerman, Phil (2019). What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. ISBN 978-1640092747.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2016). The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199924943.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2014). Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. London: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594205088.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2011). Faith no more : why people reject religion. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199740017.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2010). Atheism and secularity. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. ISBN 9780313351815.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2008). Society without God : what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814797143.

At any rate, in this talk Zuckerman makes the case that atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists have a set of values that leads to a better “morality” than that espoused by believers. He adduces data from a variety of areas—vaccination, acceptance of science, wearing masks, recognizing the existence and importance of global warming, acceptance of LGBTQ rights, animal rights, reproductive rights, and reparations for slavery—showing that nonbelievers seem to group on the “more moral” side. And even religionists who accept these values tend to have, as reader Sastra noted yesterday, a more “secularized” view of religion. It’s the Euthyphro argument of Plato: we can only get goodness from God if we assume God is, a priori, moral, and that view must come from non-religious values. Saying that morality comes from God devolves to the odious “Divine Command” argument espouse by people like William Lane Craig.

Zuckerman then asks why nonbelievers are more moral than religionists, and his response is that we’re motivated by empathy and compassion when constructing our morality, rather than by trying to obey the “will of God.” Well, perhaps, but if you derive God’s nature from secular considerations, as noted above, then there’s not much difference. But where there is a difference is that religion considers as part of morality notions like how to have sex, what to eat, what to wear, and so on—issues that really aren’t what most people consider within the ambit of morality.

Zuckerman also notes that religious folks are more tribalistic than nonbelievers, and tribalism breeds xenophobia and hence immorality.

In the end, I’m a big fan of Zuckerman, and the data may well show that the moral values of nonbelievers are sounder than those of nonbelievers. But the real question, which is very hard to answer, is this: “On the whole, is the average per capita amount of net good done by atheists better than the amount done by believers.” I believe the answer is “yes,” but I’d be hard pressed to prove it. Hitchens answered it with anecdotal data, citing people like Mother Theresa who pretended to be moral but didn’t really help people. But we need more systematic data. Perhaps Zuckerman provides these data in his new book.

After all, as Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

30 thoughts on “Phil Zuckerman on the advantages of secular morality

  1. Zuckerman then asks why nonbelievers are more moral than religionists, and his response is that we’re motivated by empathy and compassion when constructing our morality, rather than by trying to obey the “will of God.” I suspect that I’ve quoted this below the line before, but on page 137 of his 1964 book An Atheist’s Values Richard Robinson recalls:

    the story of a Papist priest saying to a couple of well-behaved atheists: “I don’t understand you boys; if I didn’t believe in God I should be having a high old time”.

  2. I didn’t read any of Zuckerman’s books but, if I had to guess, nonbelievers are more moral than religionists because they aren’t so beholden to groupthink, a big source of immorality.

    1. Correlation or cause? Sure, atheists are generally more educated and higher income, and can afford to be more moral…and by the way are less likely to be tribal. Why did religion evolve? Benefits society and individual. In ways that are less compelling today in high income societies, especially among high income people. Thus religion is slowly shed. (Not denying harms of religion!)

      1. As I see it, religion is a side effect of having a brain that constantly attempts to make sense of the world. Understanding what’s going on in one’s environment and the ability to share it are highly selected. They are the main reasons the human species has been so successful. It is also clear that we won’t understand everything we see but we still feel compelled to come up with explanations nonetheless. Without science, that leads to religion.

        That doesn’t mean that religion benefits us. As I understand it, the evidence is mixed. If religion is a side-effect of an enquiring mind, it’s persistence doesn’t necessarily mean that it is directly selected by nature. It may just be necessary baggage.

        1. While intriguing, is the “side-effect theory” too intellectual? Religion is more about emotions. As for whether religion benefits individuals, I’ll quote from How God Works, DeSteno: “In 2001, the Mayo Clinic conducted a systematic review of hundreds of studies from the previous three decades that examined the links between religion and health. …the vast majority of the studies found that people who regularly took part in religious activities were objectively healthier.” As it gets long (pg117 et seq), I’ll summarize: they die less; suffer less heart disease and high blood pressure, ate better, smoked less, had fewer and shorter hospitalizations, suffered less from depression and loneliness, etc.

          1. Maybe but it seems unlikely that it is the direct cause but reflects a difference in lifestyle. If so, that’s way too high a price to pay even if I could make myself believe in myth.

  3. Very good posting. Much of it is just common sense but it is good to hear it and see it backed up with evidence.

  4. Part of the problem for me is that even when religious people are behaving “morally”, or kindly, or generously, I question their sincerity.

    If I do something nice for someone, it’s because I want to. If religious people do something nice, is it sincere? Or, rather, are they trying to score Jesus points, or lovebombing? How would you tell?


    1. Well, when all of those religious people follow Trump, where are they getting that behavior? I think they get it from very poor morals and the tribal influence of their religion. They go with a corrupt, womanizing crook because he goes for their call for no abortion and white power. They are all very sincere.

  5. “He adduces data from a variety of areas—vaccination, acceptance of science, wearing masks, recognizing the existence and importance of global warming, acceptance of LGBTQ rights, animal rights, reproductive rights, and reparations for slavery—showing that nonbelievers seem to group on the “more moral” side.”

    Hmmm, not sure I agree with those sorts of measures. They are good tracks of tribalism vs. acceptance of mainstream social understanding, but for morality I’d probably stick with the old focus on things like assaults, rapes, murders, etc. In which case, IIRC, there’s not much discernable difference.

    Another thing to think about, though I haven’t read his book to see if he already covers this: are we talking about religious people in the US here? Or other places? To separate the religious from the societal influences, maybe we should ask if those things are accepted in larger/smaller/same numbers by religious people and atheists in other Sweden or Denmark. I’d bet “same”. And if that’s the case, then it’s not necessarily religion per se that’s the problem, but the type of religion we have here in the US. Or the type of society we have here in the US.

    My cynical side says that both atheists and theists suffer a bit from the Attribution fallacy when it comes to evaluating their own moral tendencies vs. others’. No matter who you are, you probably believe something along the lines of “I am moral on my own choice, but most other people need police and rules to keep them in line.” When the truth is that most of us would slide down a little without the threat of state punishment, while most of the “other people” group would not slide down any more than we would. It’s rhetorical dress-up; putting an intellectual justification on social animal instincts towards prosocial behavior in most cases, but having the mental flexibility to behave antisocially when we feel we need to.

    1. These are good points, especially your middle paragraph, which I hadn’t thought of, but now seems obvious.

      Very important since I agree with Jerry (and Marx) that “the point is to change” the world. And to do that you need to separate the causal influence of religion vs other social factors.

  6. As a free will skeptic I have severe doubts about the concept of morality.

    Some actions are moral/immoral in the same way my kitchen chair is red.

    1. Yes, and you can choose to buy red chairs or some other color. Morality is simply making choices based on a code that assigns values to the possible choices. Assuming a gun isn’t held to your head, making a choice is exercising your free will.

          1. Ahh, in that case, if in your locality it was the code to rat out your Jewish neighbour to the authorities it would be the moral thing to do?

            1. If I lived in such a locality and was only concerned with what my neighbors think, then I suppose it would be the moral thing to do. Not sure what point you’re making though.

              1. I’m not following you down the rabbit hole you’re digging here. We’ve gone from free will to tribal code. There’s no connection as far as I’m concerned. If you think there is, you are going to have to draw it more clearly.

    1. I have visited Iceland 10 or 11 times, once for as long as 6 weeks. It seems to me these “elusive-hidden-people-of-iceland” is almost entirely a case of a nation with its collective tongue in its cheek, perhaps gently laughing at a few of the tourists (such as the Newfies do here in Canada), all in good fun.

      As far as Sunday mornings goes, and showing up at church, I once drove for 90 minutes on the national ring road (not near Reykjavik of course, but through populated places towards the East Fjords) seeing not a single human nor car in either direction nor parked car near a church, though I had to stop for a crossing herd of wild reindeer (on their way to practice their religion I suppose).

  7. I wonder how Professor Zuckerman fits into his story of secular humanism’s superiority, the millions of humans killed or virtually enslaved by the Soviet Gulags and Mao’s religion free efforts to transform Chinese agriculture, culture, and society.

    1. To which I would add the Nazis. Hitler was areligious and quite contemptuous about Christianity. Also, Hilter, just like the Stalinist police, believed what he was doing was eminently moral. He truly believed all Europeans one day would be grateful to him for having liberated the continent from the pernicious influence of Jews. The Nazis used gas instead of mass shootings in the later phase of the genocide explicitly because it minimized suffering (both for the killers and for their victims). The top Nazis like Goebbels knew that according to conventional wisdom, what they were doing was a horrendous crime, yet they believed they were following some higher morality that was better than the conventional “Christian” morality of normal Europeans.

      1. I have no idea what you are talking about here. Hitler wasn’t oertly religious himself but many Nazis were. That was not an atheistic society. Further, yuo could say, as one could with Communist China, that these totalitarian dictatorships were not secular humanist societies. They did not kill people in the name of religion

  8. Scandinavia is proof that you don’t need religion to be moral in the sense of, don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t let your aging parents die out in the street and generally follow the rules of your society. Beyond such basics that are shared among all humans, and possibly partly with some other social animals, it will be difficult to reach a consensus on what is moral. But Scandinavian societies are certainly not proof that areligious people are more moral than religious ones, nor are the extremely time-and-place dependent, partisan examples Zuckerman adduces. His examples work only if one misreprensents what the people with the positions he counts as less moral actually think. The unvaccinated certainly do not think: I know this vaccine works perfectly well and is safe and will protect me and people around me, and I’ll still not take it, duh.
    The religious right could make the same type of list and purport to show that Democrats are less moral. Ultraorthodox Jews in New York are much more moral even in the humanist secular sense than other groups their share their neighbourhoods with who are far less religious, they have lots of charitable organizations, violent crime is rare, and if one hears of a random violent attack in the streets, for “fun” or for a pair of sneakers, one can be sure the perpretator was not an ultraorthodox Jew.

    1. I would add to your examples most of the Bahai’s I’ve met. Some of the kindest and most community oriented people and best family members in my experience are members of that faith.

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