Whether it’s to instil traditional family values or simply to get them into a good school, many parents raise their children to be religious in the belief that it is best for them.
But it turns out there’s just no need, with studies showing that children raised without religion do just fine – and in some areas, outperform their religious counterparts.
In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, sociologist Phil Zuckerman explains that far from bringing children up in a moral vacuum, atheism can give them better clarity about right and wrong – because beliefs are more likely to be rooted in empathy than fear of punishment in the hereafter.
He found that a secular upbringing provides children with firm moral foundations.
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.
He explained that for non-religious families, morality is largely derived from the principle of empathetic reciprocity: in other words, treat others how you would like to be treated. This fundamental ethical imperative requires no supernatural being to enforce it.
He quoted studies that found atheist teenagers were less worried about fitting in, more tolerant of others, less likely to exhibit racism, and more likely to support women’s equality and gay rights.
Zuckerman also pointed out that atheists commit fewer crimes as adults – making up less than 1 per cent of the US prison population, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by the University of Chicago found that children brought up in secular households showed more empathy and kindness than those raised in religious ones.
The report looked at more than 1000 children between the ages of five and 12 in six countries, and found that: “Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviours.”
Professor Jean Decety, who led the study, commented:
Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.
Decety analysed children from different religious backgrounds playing with stickers, and found that children from Christian and Muslim families were "significantly less likely" to share their stickers.
So for anxious parents looking to religion as a moral anchor for their children, the message seems to be: don’t bother. They’ll turn out just fine without it.