This is point of inquiry for Monday, April six, 2015.
Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College and the author of several books, including Living the Secular Life. Phil will be speaking at the Center for Increase Reason for Change conference in Buffalo, New York. The conference will be held June 11th, the 15th. My co-host Josh Zepps and I will be there, too, to register go to reason for change dot org. Phil, welcome to the program.
Thank you so much for having me.
You’re an expert on doubter’s disbelievers and heretics of all stripes. What does your research taught you about secular people in the United States?
They are good looking. Honest, upstanding, and play a mean Parcheesi. No. But in fact, there’s something I want to point out. The vast majority of secular folks, America, are not angry. They’re not hostile. They’re not suffering from some kind of tax abuse. They are living upstanding, moral, decent lives. Most of them don’t obsess about religion all that much. They’ve moved on to other things. Family. Friends. Hobbies. Life, work. Nature, creativity. Politics, etc.. And I just think that that is the book of doubters and nonbelievers, people who are just living fulfilled lives without religion. And that’s about that.
How do you go about finding and interviewing your subjects to do this research?
That’s a really good question, because most people who want to study atheists, agnostics, humanist freethinkers would automatically bow to a group of them. I mean, if you would, you would go to Cuba. This group, every freethinking group or atheist group, curiosity Mormons, you’d go to the Mormon Church. If you’re going to the Orthodox Jews, you’d go to an Orthodox Jewish Jewish. So it makes sense that most researchers, grad students, professors, scholars who want to study atheists, agnostics, free thinkers and secular humanist will try to go to organized groups of those people. And that is good. We do need to study organized secular folk. But organized secular folk are a minority. Most secular men and women are not affiliated with such groups.
What percentage would you say of the freethinking people in the U.S. are affiliated with any kind of group at all?
I would guesstimate 10 percent next. This is based on work by Frank Pasquale. Based on my own work, I would say somewhere between five and 10 percent of secular people actually Bitton have infected a community. It’s not that different from environmentalist forgiveable. How many people want to stop global warming? Orcon. How many of those people are actually involved in groups or movements fighting global warming? A very small minority. It’s the same thing with secular people. Most sectary people have walked away from religion, as I said, and moved on to other things. And they don’t feel the need to gather with or organize with other second people. The people that do are usually politically motivated. They want to fight for the separation of church or state or they live in parts of the country where religion is very strong and they feel alienated and they’re searching for community. But your average a person in L.A., in San Francisco, in New York, is not feeling a need in their life to gather. So this is a long winded way of answering your question. While I do roam in circles, I do go to the American Human Association gatherings and I go to Center for Inquiry Gathering largely because I’m invited and I love it. But I do try to keep my pal from things like Sunday Day Assembly when I’m doing my in-depth interviews with secular people. I usually go outside of organized secular and try to find people that are just living their lives. I find them at my kids school. I find them at work. I find them through other avenues, other contacts. And we use what’s called a snowball sample. So I might need a mom at my kid’s school. And then I talk to her and, you know, my uncle, he’s you know, he should talk to him. And I talk to that uncle and he says, well, you know, my neighbor, you should talk to him. And so in my last book, Living the Secular Life of all the people I interviewed, I would say only about five or 10 percent were involved and affiliated with secular life. The vast majority were just doctors or moms or soccer moms or police officers or motorcycle enthusiasts or, you know, people just living their lives outside of secular community but living as nonbelievers.
How many people have you talked to in all of your researches?
You know, it’s a good question. I would say if I if I think about all the last 10 years, I’ve interviewed at least somewhere in the range of 300. And when you think of survey data, 300, nothing, you know, a good survey has at least a thousand respondents. Ten thousand responses what not. And it’s all about sampling. It’s all about getting a random sample and a representative sample that I do, in-depth interviews and in-depth interviews. There’s not so much about generalizability as it is about validity is getting into people’s hearts and minds, having in-depth conversations in a way that you can’t get out with a questionnaire, a survey. And so actually setting up in that area is not so easy to find the person you have to connect with, the person you have to agree to the interview. Does it find a mutually a time to sit down and talk? I mean, you have to have this heart to heart. So I’m actually quite proud of a few people I interviewed, although it doesn’t sound like much to people who are used to statistical house.
People sometimes ask me as an atheist, if you don’t believe in God. What’s to stop you from murdering people? I’m always tempted to say no reason, fear me. But that’s not actually true. What is secular? People tell you about how they’re good without God.
You know, the funny thing is and this is what I tried to tease out in my book. Religious people have these quick answers. They can talk about the Ten Commandments. They can talk about what my Bible says. My Koran says this or my prophet to this, and it’s a very easy, rudimentary way to construct one’s world view and it’s easy to respond to these kind of things. Well, why this? Why that when you’re a nonbeliever, when you’re secular, you don’t necessarily have that ten point plan? Sure. You can look at the fact that the latest issue of free inquiry and see that sort of declaration is statements of what secular humanism is all about. What we support, what we advocate. And I love that. And I draw from that in my work. It’s not like something we carry around in our wallets. Well, let me whip out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Bill of Rights. I mean, there are these sort of structured articulations of what we believe, but most secular people don’t have them memorized. And that’s not really the basis of their world view. It’s something they respect, admire and like. But it’s not worth biting. So the truth is that ugly truth is we don’t have a ready made answer for that. When people say, well, where do you get your world? We don’t we don’t have a quick we can’t say, well, Shakespeare thought it’s your white album or whatever. And that is because morality actually isn’t derived from such simplistic articulation. There are evolutionary underpinnings to morality. Is France to war has details. There are cultural underpinnings to a more morality, neurological underpinnings, historical underpinnings, sociological antipodes. And it’s actually a very complex question because it involves the brain. It involves fossilization. It involves our evolutionary past. All of these contribute to creating healthy moral compass. So what I found is when I would interview secular people, they didn’t have a clear cut Ten Commandments type answer. But if you have a conversation, the answer does emerge. And what I was able to find was secular people get their morality. That’s number one. It’s predicated on empathy, treating other people the way they would like to be treated. And that’s the bedrock universal. It requires no faith in the supernatural. It makes sense. And it’s grounded in our experiences as human beings. So I was on the Dennis Prager Show. He asked me. The first question you asked me is, how do you know that killing is wrong? And I said, I know that killing is wrong from far away. Number one, the evolutionary path of my species has presented me with a brain that allows for empathy. So I thought, what if you kill against my will? I’m not going to kill someone against my will. Number two, I know that killing is wrong because of the people who raised me and what I saw and how I experience life by those who took care of me and the socialization and generalizations I experience. Number three, culture, the cultural norms and values of the society with which I live. And number four, lived experience. Those are the kind of brains we have that allow for empathy. It’s the people who raised us, the culture within which we live and grow up and personal experience. And that’s the source of secular moroun in my.
And as voiced by people, even if it’s not so clearly stated with the secular people, say, about the sort of meta ethical question about I mean, those seem like plausible hypotheses about why we actually do generally follow the straight and narrow and pay our taxes and floss and not kill people.
But do they answer the question, why should we do all those things?
Yeah, most folks would obsess about this, and that’s their majors and philosophy. They are not thinking that deeply about it. It never occurs to them to stop and think, why aren’t I help that boy who just fell off his bike? You know why?
I be upset when I watch the movie Selma and see young African-American kids getting shot by pot. And why ought I oppose police violence? I mean, most secular people don’t go to that kind of epistemological level of, well, what is the objective or so.
In all honesty, it’s a moot question for 99 percent of the people, and it’s pretty much a moot question for 99 percent of religious believers. I mean, most people who believe in God aren’t torturing themselves about why they should care what God commands of them.
Indeed, and they haven’t taken it with logical conclusion, which is it comes from God. And that’s sort of the source of morality then that reduces morality, obedience. Then we must follow the commandments of the sky. God, if he tells us to cut our son’s throat with a razor. We must obey. If he tells us to stone a woman to death for not being a virgin, we must obey. I mean, what I like to say is saying that there’s a God doesn’t solve the problem. It just renders our morality into obedience, which means we’re functionally amoral. We’ve just simply decided to follow orders. And following orders is not morality. So that’s kind of where I go on that one.
One of your interview subjects had a really interesting take on it. He said that he felt that it was wrong, that following religious edicts based on obedience was a kind of moral outsourcing. What did he mean by that?
Exactly. I just love that stuff. I’m using it all the time. So here, as you say, one of the people I interviewed talked about. User knows more outsourcing, the point of morality is adhering to one’s conscience. So a wall may tell us one thing if it violates our conscience. We should just obey the law, Sergeant. They tell us to go and kill it if that violates our conscience and our sense of empathy and wrong. We must obey that soldier and suffer the consequences. The whole point of morality or having a interwar compass is navigating difficult situations that present themselves to us in life where we have to make certain choices. Is this the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Now, the heavy listening of more deliberation is putting in a word with that. What do I do in this situation? This daughter, friend of somebody I know, she’s running away. She’s come to our house. Do I let her run away? And she could get attacked on our way if they fell? Or do I call her parents and say, your daughter daughter’s here. Come get her. That’s just one example. Obviously, whether we’re talking abortion, whether we’re talking, navigating criminal possibilities, whatever, we have to rely on our own inner moral compass. Now, if I take more direction from a parent, I just do whatever my parent says or take more direction from a teacher, whatever the teacher says or from the sergeant to whatever the sergeant says or from a politician, do whatever the politicians or priest. I have advocated my role as a moral deliberator. I’ve suddenly said, well, I’m just following orders. They know better. I’m deferring to them. So whether you’re referring to a visible authority or an invisible authority in this case, God, you are guilty of moral outsourcing. You are saying I am not going to do the heavy lifting of more deliberation. I’m just going to obey. I’m just going to follow orders. And we know that obedience is the absence of war. If the abdication of moral deliberation and moral contemplation and moral choice. So in a sense, when people say to me, without God, that can be morality, I would say I see if there is a God, there can be no morality, that we now no longer have a choice on how to treat each other or how to navigate life. We just obey and follow rules. And that to me is moral outsourcing.
You’re just giving up. One of your interview subjects had a really interesting thought experiment that she calls the eye in the ceiling. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Oh, yeah. Was it’s another kind of way to explore morality and it’s sort of a hypothetical situation, but let’s say we had this exquisite piece of art that was very delicate, one of a kind and easily breakable, you know, some big kind of installation piece with all kinds of wires and bells and branches and whistles and crystals and things that can easily break. And it’s configured and it’s really psychedelic way. And it’s on tour. It comes in elementary school. We put in a room and we say one kid, okay, kid, do get to go and look at this wonderful piece of art for, you know, five or ten minutes all by yourself. We’re going to put you in that room and you could do. Thank you. Now, please don’t touch it, because if you touch it, you might break it. And that will ruin it for others. And it’s a one of a kind piece. And even the oil on your fingers can damage it. Please don’t touch it. And here are the reasons why we explain all the rational reasons why we don’t want this rather touch it. Now, if you do, we won’t know that. Of course it shatters, but otherwise you’re in there on your own. And the kid goes in, looks at the teeth, doesn’t touch, comes out great. Then we say the second kid, OK, you know, there’s this great piece of art. You get five or 10 minutes in that room alone. Please don’t touch it. You’re all the reasons. Oh, and by the way, there’s a hole in the ceiling. Principal Brewsters going to be know watching you the entire time while you’re in there. So if you do touch that Deth, he’s going to see it and you’re gonna get severely punished afterwards. We’re going to hit you with a cat of nine tails. But if you don’t touch it, Mr. Principal Brewster will be watching all time. You’ll get a wonderful reward afterwards. Todd Vandi, gift certificates, Chucky Cheese and stuffed animals and Gameboy. Whatever you want. Now, that can go then doesn’t touch because they know they’re being watched the entire time. And they want the reward. They don’t want the punishment. And out they go. So what this person told me was more moral. A child who actually understands the ramifications of their actions and doesn’t touch that piece of art, although they could have if they wanted to, or the child who’s being watched the entire time by the principal and doesn’t touch it because they’re being prudent and they don’t want to get abuse and they do want a reward. And this is anonymous to a kind of secular or theistic approach to life. Like if you think you’re being watched all the time, then are you really being moral? No, you’re just saving your out. What if there is no eye in the sky watching us? Then we are actually being moral and a self motivated way. And I think that’s just get against something important to stress when we get into these debates of morality.
In the chapter about the impact of religion and irreligion societal level, you have two interesting contrasting stories. One about your friend army and another about your mother in law when you were doing fieldwork in Denmark. Can you tell us about those. Those pairs of stories?
Oh, you bet. I’d just like to use those illustrations quickly. My friend Army in Jamaica. You go there all the time. He loves it. One time they got stabbed and he had a very difficult time getting medical treatment through that in Port Antonio. It was even hard to get into the hospital. The ambulance system wasn’t functioning or they just couldn’t come. Finally did get to the hospital. All that to be told that they were out of future supplies so they couldn’t even pick up a knife wound. That just shows you the kind of unfortunate fate of hospital or healthcare in Jamaica that this poor country, its a struggling country and health care is substandard. That same year, my mother in law fell down a flight of hard stone stairs and Denmark got banged up and bruised and she received excellent free health care, was quickly went to the hospital. They did all kinds of X-rays, exams, treatments, treatment were antiinflammatory meds, anti infection. Know they did everything from top to bottom. It was all state subsidized. As an illustration of Denmark having one of the greatest health care systems in the world, and I simply use both of those stories to stick way into when we look at the healthiest, wealthiest, most successful societies on Earth, the Denmark’s of the world, as it were, they tend to be highly secularized. They’re among the least religious societies on earth by average. And when we look at the most destitute, poor, chaotic, crime ridden, war ridden pull up societies in the world, they tend to be the most Godb leading on average. And I don’t say this to say a ha to secular societies are thus going to be more successful and religious societies are going to be terrible. I simply use these as evidence against a claim that we must have religion in order to have a successful society without religion or religion. Withers and all the way in society will go to SNH after its peak. That’s simply not true.
That we can counter the claims of Ted Cruz and we can counter the claims of Mike Huckabee and we can counter the claims of all those right. Christian Republicans who were always saying God has to be at the center of our society or everything will go to shit. Religion has to be at the center of our study will burst forth. That is falsifiable because those bodies have stopped going to church, have stopped believing in God, are doing quite well. And those societies that are still trapped in the tubes and are still worshiping God, but doing quite terribly. If it was true that lots of faith in God causes Saudis to go to hell, then Sweden and New Zealand would be the worst places to live on earth. And if faith in God was. The heart and soul of a good society, then Haiti and Liberia would be like beacons of social health. And we find the opposite. So it’s all about correlation. I’m not saying correlation is causation, but we have enough data at least to falsify the claim that, well, without religion, society goes to hell. You’ll because of secularism, we have school shootings, poverty, blah. That’s simply not true. The most successful surprise on our for they are among the most secular or the most successful. And among the most physical bodies on Earth.
They tend to be the most riddled with problem and didn’t used to be a lot more religious 100 years ago than it was today. But as it’s gotten less religious, democratically and voluntarily, it hasn’t gotten more chaotic or more violent or more poverty stricken or anything like that. There hasn’t. The two things haven’t gone in conjunction.
Exactly. And that’s just such a wonderful point to make. So we can compare different societies, we can compare different states, or we can simply look at the same society over the last 200 years. And there are so many examples from from Scotland that Denmark, Canada, even our own country. If you look at the last four years, our violent crime rates have plummeted. We’re still a fairly violent society with a high murder rate. But our murder rates and violent crime rates and last 40 years have gone down the same 40 years. But the rise of the nun has exploded where more and more people have become secular. But yet, if you look at Denmark 200, 300 years ago, far more religious than higher poverty rates, higher, you know, domestic violence rates, exploitation of women, oppression of women, hot high degrees of racism, high degrees of inequality. And in the last 30 years, religion has faded and faded, just as you said, in the democratic uncoerced way. And now we see that they have the lowest rates of church attendance in the world, lowest rate, the belief in heaven and hell. I mean, on all these interviews I get their society today, couldn’t be more safe, could be more humane, couldn’t be more successful. So this kind of evidence really counters the malarky. Religion is somehow a guarantee or of societal well-being, and without it, everything is destitute.
The interesting paradox, I think, is that Denmark has a state church and make it doesn’t. It’s funny how some of the most secular places still have, in some sense, a really weak separation of church and state on paper, like Denmark has a Ministry of ecclesiastical affairs still in the cab. How does that work?
You know, it’s one of the ironies of history, just one of those things that that is so fun about sociology, history. You know, one of my favorites is you’d think if there’s a death penalty that would reduce murder rates, hey, I don’t want to get killed. We see just the opposite. Those societies that have abolished the death penalty have the lowest murder rate. Those societies that have the death penalty often have higher rates. So it’s one of those fun things where logic doesn’t seem to work or rational. And so this is the same thing with religion, state and government at church state ties. The irony is that, yeah, when Denmark started created her constitution in 1949, they enshrined the Lutheran Church as a state religion. It became part of government affairs that had the queen or king had to be a member of the church. So you think they’re creating a theocracy here? And then you compare it to the United States with our conception of the First Amendment, which, you know, enshrined the separation of church and state. That’s Jefferson’s wording there. When it says government shall not establish a religion or prohibit the free exercise of that shall not establish religion. Wow. You know, you take well, it comes the secular society in Denmark going the exact and then you go for 150 years and then it’s fascinating. Denmark is among the least religious countries, the love of God. It is one of the most rootes democracies. So what this tells us is actually when government is involved in religion and whether the religious monopoly and that actually maybe harms religious vitality in certain societies. And yet when government is out of religion, then religions are in a kind of free market situation. There’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of advertising and Dunkin Donuts and free Wi-Fi. I mean, religions will do whatever it takes. They bring people into their pews so they actually have a more vital religious society here in the United States. Even with that First Amendment was Denmark. The churches, you know, under the government auspices just became stale, boring old and people hostage. So it is kind of an irony. Sometimes I like to say all those people that want more government involvement, religion should be careful what they wish for, because in most Christian societies, when government has involved in religion, it hasn’t turned out so well.
Rafael Cruz, the father and spiritual adviser, Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, claims that AP is it leads inexorably to sexual perversion. What have you learned about atheists and sex in terms of their sex lives, their sexual mores, their sexual identities?
Oh, my God. Atheist sex is so much better than really just sex. I don’t even know where to begin. No.
Just getting you know, we have a lot of sources. Because ever since Kinsey, we’ve been studying the sex lives of Americans. How often? How many? How long? How this how how hairy? Phil, we do have some data here. The biggest was this. Michael Gagen study from the 90s, which is now pretty darn old. But why have noted what the studies seem to show is that generally on average, there’s not that much of a difference between secular and religious folks in terms of how often, how many times, how many partners, et cetera, et cetera. That only some of the differences we have found, though, is that obviously atheists feel less guilt about sex.
They feel less guilt about masturbating. They’re far more knowledgeable about faith that their teenage children are much more likely to be knowledgeable about safe sex and practice safe sex. We know that there is slightly higher rates of adultery among the secular than among the religious. We know that while sex is more common among the secular, secular women are more likely to receive oral sex.
And religious women feel like we’re not using that enough as a recruiting tool. There are always women interested in secularism.
It’s so funny somehow. I wrote that in an article a few years ago when I just got an e-mail the other day from someone like you. Please give us your source on that, right? Sure. And I just looked it up and it was something like secular women are three times as likely to receive oral sex than religious or something like that, two times or three times as likely. Yes, I agree. It’s a good thing. You know what I mean? I think we need a recruiting tool. The latest Gallup poll show that seven point five million adults have joined the ranks of the non-religious substance 2012. So we’re really skyrocketing right now. There’s a real uptick. But, yeah, so sex is not really my area. But I have perused those many studies that I can trying to tease out the differences between religious and secular.
And those are some of the findings I can think of off the top of my head.
One really interesting chapter in the book is about the challenges and the personal challenges you face raising secular kids in a religious society and with a religious extended family. As a dad, would you say that the sort of secular related Jones is a parenting or among the most difficult parts?
You know, geography is still important. If you’re living in a highly really just part of the country, particularly a rural part, somewhere in Alabama, if I were there, let’s say I got my teaching job somewhere like that. I actually think that being secular would be extremely difficult. Fortunately, I live in a college town in Southern California where most people are not religious. There are really just folks around here and there, but they’re not a dominant cultural presence. I grew up in another part of L.A. where nobody was religious. So I had actually found that raising my kids secularly is more often than not a joy. Yes, their grandparents are evangelical Christians, so that often has created some tension between myself, my wife and her mom and her husband or mom’s husband. But we’ve worked through that. That was really early on. So it does occasionally present challenges. But my wife and I have actually just found it a joy because we have open, honest conversations with our kids about religion, about God, about death, heaven and hell.
And it just feels so nice to not have that worry, you know? I can see that my evangelical Christian in-laws. They worry. They worry about their grandkids souls. They worry that. Oh, no. If they don’t believe maybe they’re going to go to hell, we will really have those kind of existential worries other than the daily worries of wanting our kids to get along with their friends and each other, do well in school, you know, be upstanding, ethical, moral people. But in terms of the kind of religion and secularism. It’s actually been a joy to raise our kids secular and do so consciously because a lot of secular parents just kind of don’t do religion, but they don’t talk about why with their kids, they don’t explore what it means to be a secular humanist. It just kind of like we don’t do much. My kids are nothing. And my wife and I aren’t that way largely because of my work, obviously, and my interests. But, you know, I have this stuff with Mike did. And so they’re very aware of what it means to be a secular humanist. And I’m very proud of that.
It’s funny, he’s been accused by conservatives of, you know, atheist in general being accused of not believing in family values, and I think that’s so ironic. They say things like, well, you know, if your kid became a believer, you would accept them. You say you’re so tolerant now.
But and it’s like but no, actually, that was a big theme of my very secular childhood, was that you’re supposed to love people because they’re family and because they’re good people and because they love you, not because you necessarily agree with them about every little spiritual and metaphysical belief that you can love people regardless of what they believe.
Absolutely. I remember when my daughter was in maybe third grade and she started becoming friends with this girl who was Mormon. And I remember she came over to the popo, what a Mormon Mormons believe. I’m starting to become friends with Piper and I. I wanna know and I stop.
And I mean, I have a lot to say about. I read a thought about the origins of Mormons. I read a ton about Joseph Smith. I have read all the foundational critiques I read and history that I’d be like, oh, where does one begin? Right. Let’s start with South Park.
But instead, she’s a little young for under the banner of heaven. Yeah, so. Exactly. So I said so, Ruby, I’m happy to tell you all, but I know about Mormonism.
But let me start here. Is type a nice person? Yes. Is she kind? Yes. Does she treat you nicely? Yes. Is she fun to play with? Yes. She’s nice to other kids. Yes. And I said, you know what? That’s the most important thing you need to know about Piper and her being a woman, how she treats other people. If you want to know the history and you want other theology, happy to get into it. But really what matters is how people treat each other, not what they claim to believe or what their parents claim to believe. And then I proceeded to talk a bit about the golden plates and blobby costs. But I really you know, I didn’t avoid it. I told her, well, this is the story and this is why I don’t believe it. And this is what I find interesting and this is what I find problematic. But I really tried to emphasize that actions are more important than thought. And I also talk a lot about socialization. I said, you know, Piper is only Mormon because her parents, Mormon justice here are secular girls, because I am. And you’ve always got to remember that. And you always got to be aware of the power of parents to influence and shape the kids identities.
Feel like Mormons also kind of a good training religion to educate kids about in terms of skepticism, because the events of the Bible are so far and distant past and so sketchily described that you really can’t get much of an opinion about whether they make any sense. But when this religion is unfolding under the full glare of modern history, you suddenly realize how crazy and sketchy the whole thing was.
Indeed. Well said.
That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you. My pleasure. Appreciate your interest in my work and appreciate what you’re doing is wonderful.
Thank you. And I’ll look forward to seeing you in June at the Reason for Change conference. I hope all you guys who are listening will come say hi to Phil and me at the conference.