Do Secular Family Values Even Exist?

Do Secular Family Values Even Exist?

Recent assertions in the Los Angeles Times that secular family values result in better-adjusted children than believers rest on three fallacies.
Hans Fiene
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The dominant feature of the Christian religion is belief in Jesus Christ. The dominant feature of Buddhism is the promise of nirvana. The dominant feature of atheism, as best I can tell, is crippling insecurity.

Why does Richard Dawkins speak with such vitriol about how Christianity has nothing of value to offer humanity? Maybe because Christianity produced the Sistine Chapel and he feels insecure that atheism’s greatest artistic achievement is a string of anti-religious memes posted on Reddit. Why did Stephen Fry, the towering embodiment of modern British gentlemanliness, turn a bit grinchy recently and say that he’d lambast God for being a terrible jerkface on the Day of Judgment? I bet it’s because he feels insecure about not being able to find the goodness of God in creation’s tapestry of suffering while those of faith can. And why did Phil Zuckerman recently write a Los Angeles Times op-ed insisting that non-believing, non-church going parents are just as good, if not better, at raising well-adjusted children as the Jesus freaks? Probably because he’s maybe just a wee-bit terrified that this isn’t true.

Though his essay strikes a commendably irenic tone, rare for the average atheist manifesto, as far as the substance of his argument is concerned, Zuckerman has hardly furnished his fellow atheists with a proton pack capable of busting the ghostly feeling of parental inadequacy. To say that his analysis of data concerning religion-less families reaches unjustified conclusions is an understatement. It’s a bit more accurate to say that Zuckerman handles these statistics with more comically awkward stretching than Danny DeVito trying to put a fitted sheet on a king-size bed. So how does he fail to prove the sufficiency of godless parenting with this data? Let me count the ways.

1. The Royal Flush Fallacy

Not to imply that Kenny Rogers has insufficiently instructed us, but in addition to knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em, to succeed at poker you must also know that the house won’t buy it when you tell them, “Actually, a royal flush isn’t an ace through ten of the same suit. A royal flush just so happens to be composed of the five random cards I was dealt.”

In attempting to prove the superiority of secular parenting, Zuckerman has quite brazenly argued that the most precious virtues in the world just so happen to be the traits that he and his secular ilk exhibit in spades.

But despite how useless this trick would be in Vegas, Zuckerman is more than happy to go all in subjectivizing his hand in the competition to raise the most upstanding children. So what grand moral achievements does his kind sport? What unbeatable cards are the unbelievers holding? Among other things, their children will grow into secular adults who, in comparison to religious adults, are “less nationalistic…more tolerant… more likely to understand and accept the science concerning global warming, and to support women’s equality and gay rights.”

In case you just asked yourself, “Hey, why did Zuckerman randomly insert the Democratic party platform into his article?” remember that 70 percent of the religiously unaffiliated voted for Barack Obama in 2008. So it’s not a terribly surreptitious move that Zuckerman has just employed. In attempting to prove the superiority of secular parenting, he’s quite brazenly argued that the most precious virtues in the world just so happen to be the traits that he and his secular ilk exhibit in spades. How terribly convenient.

Of course, in order to justify describing the paragon of moral beauty by looking in the mirror, Zuckerman would need to support his assertion with an appeal to some objective measurement of morality, one that, despite their protestations to the contrary, atheists are hard-pressed to provide. Granted, Zuckerman is certainly welcome to argue that tearing children apart in the womb, incentivizing the kind of sex most likely to spread the AIDS virus, blindly accepting falsified climate data, embracing non-Republicans of any ethnicity, and despising “American Sniper” all compose a royal flush. But without even an effort at proving Progressive traits to be objective virtues, it’s hard to view Zuckerman’s interpretation of these statistics as anything other than an aggressive bluff of circular logic meant to trick conservative theists into folding what he’s rather afraid is a much better hand.

2. The Trust Fund Fallacy

Imagine you have an obnoxiously wealthy cousin whose father gave him a Malibu mansion stuffed with cash for his eighteenth birthday. One day, you’re complaining to your cousin about being worn down by the overbearing boss at your nine-to-five job, and he tells you, “Look, I don’t know why you put up with all that. After all, you don’t need a job to have money. Just look at me!”

The average atheist’s conscience has been formed by Western laws and societal expectations that have been born of a Christian worldview on the sanctity and equality of life.

In arguing that atheists don’t need to believe in some sky ogre to be morally upstanding citizens, Zuckerman shows himself to be the ethical version of the trust-fund brat. “For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule,” he states, seemingly oblivious that the Golden Rule originated from the mouth of Jesus. “Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs.”

But Zuckerman is missing one important caveat in his assertion that atheists are just as capable of living morally, that caveat being “if they live in a house built by religious hands.” So no, an atheist doesn’t need to believe in God to recognize that it’s wrong to take the lives of people who are weaker or seemingly less significant than he is. In fact, the Bible itself actually makes this point in Romans 2.

But history is littered with societies that haven’t drawn this same conclusion, so why isn’t the average atheist arguing that we should chuck our sickly infants off a cliff, Spartan-style? Because his conscience has been formed by Western laws and societal expectations that have been born of a Christian worldview on the sanctity and equality of life. Does an atheist need to believe in Christ to insist that slavery is indefensible? No, but considering how prevalent slavery still is in the world, why do American unbelievers oppose it? Because, just like American believers, their views on slavery have been formed by the Christian conscience that drove the abolition movement and still dominates our culture today.

While faith in Christ can be abandoned in an instant, it takes generations for the influence of a Christian worldview to leave the cultural bloodstream, and we’re nowhere near that point in the western world. So when Zuckerman submits the low crime rates of Sweden and Denmark, two secular nations that were both highly religious until about seven minutes ago, as evidence of atheism’s ability to construct a prosperous society, this isn’t the argument of a man who genuinely doesn’t know why Scandinavia lacks crime (hint: it lacks poverty). Rather, this is the argument of a trust-fund kid who is too insecure to admit that his epically moral life is primarily due to living in the mansion that Daddy Christendom built.

3. The Christian Bookstore Fallacy

Zuckerman sets out to prove that secular parents who raise their children “without prayers at mealtimes and morality lessons in Sunday School” are just as suited to raise “upstanding, moral children” as their religious counterparts. While his use of statistics in making this case is painfully unsuccessful, the weakest part of Zuckerman’s essay is actually his thesis. In asserting that unbelievers can accomplish the goals of Christianity without Christ, he presumes that the actual goal of Christianity is to mold mankind into moral creatures.

We don’t have the right to get angry at Zuckerman for wanting to make his case when we’re the ones who essentially taught him that we worship a functional God who only exists to aid us in accomplishing the goal of moral uprightness.

But this isn’t really the goal of Christianity. Certainly the Scriptures urge Christians to live a holy life, but the very reason Christ came into the flesh was to rescue us from the condemnation we earned by failing to live a holy life. Christ came not only to be our example, but ultimately to be our savior. In John 20, the evangelist states that every word he has written concerning Jesus is given not so that we can live more upstanding lives, but “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” Quite simply, the goal of the Bible, and hence the goal of the Christian religion, is to cover us in Christ’s forgiveness, life, and salvation.

As much as I’ve picked on his bad arguments in this piece, it’s not Zuckerman’s fault that he’s set up a competition with false Christianity. That’s the fault of Christians who are either too ignorant or too hungry for earthly glory to properly confess their own theology to the unbelieving world. Why, for example, does Zuckerman expect to even the score against Christians by telling us that “the vast majority [of secular adults] appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose?” Because a five-second glance at the best-sellers in your local Christian bookstore sort of, kind of, entirely gives the impression that Christians believe the chief goal of their religion is to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.

Christians worship an ontological God, a God who exists because He exists and who has made mankind exist so that we may exist with Him and in Him through the power of Christ’s forgiveness. As much as we have the right to find Zuckerman’s statistical gymnastics embarrassingly weak, we don’t have the right to get angry at him for wanting to make his case when we’re the ones who essentially taught him that we worship a functional God, a God who only exists to aid us in accomplishing the goal of moral uprightness.

By all accounts, Phil Zuckerman seems to be a good representative of the friendly American atheist next door. If this average unbeliever has spent most of his life hearing Christians invite him to church because that’s the only way he can raise an eagle scout, we can’t really blame him for letting his insecurity get the better of him and offer up a handful of non-evidence in an attempt to prove that he can achieve the same feat without the superstition.

Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.

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