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Phil Zuckerman: Data prove nonreligious are more moral

Phil Zuckerman speaks at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 20, 2021. (Photo by Chris Line)
Phil Zuckerman (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Phil Zuckerman says 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?” (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech Phil Zuckerman gave on Nov. 20, 2021, at FFRF’s convention in Boston. To watch it, go to He was introduced by Sue Kocher, a member of FFRF’s Executive Board.

Sue Kocher: I met Phil Zuckerman some years ago, know him through FFRF and through Triangle Freethought Society, and he’s been very kind and generous with his time toward the movement. He is the founding chair of the nation’s first Secular Studies Program at Pitzer College, where he’s the associate dean and the professor of sociology. He’s written many, many books, including Living the Secular Life, Society Without God and The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. His latest book is What It Means To Be Moral.

Please welcome Phil Zuckerman.

By Phil Zuckerman

Man, what a crowd. This is exciting for me. I teach at a small liberal arts college, so this is fantastic. 

Let me start with a couple of stories to get things going. As I was preparing for this, I was just trying to think about what I’ve been experiencing lately, what we’ve been going through, and this just kept sticking in my mind like sand in a jar of Vaseline. I just couldn’t get it out. 

About four or five or six months ago, things were opening up in L.A. I live in Los Angeles and my older daughter lives in a nice hip part of L.A. called Silver Lake. Restaurants were just opening up. So, my wife and I drove across town to have a dinner with her and her boyfriend at an outdoor patio at a hip, cool place in Silver Lake.

Just as we were parking, I saw a crowd of folks. They had some guitars and some signs. And it just so happened that this restaurant my daughter picked was across the street from a Planned Parenthood. These people were organizing a protest. It was early evening, so Planned Parenthood had already closed, but they were out there on the street, and they had all these pro-life signs.

As we’re walking by, there was this woman who was handing out signs. And, of course, they were all saying “Life,” “Pro-life,” “Jesus,” “God.” None of them was wearing masks. As the woman approached me, I said to her, “You say you’re pro-life. Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” She said, “God will protect me.”

I looked down. I said, “You’re wearing shoes.” 

She said, “Well, I’m on the city street.” 

“You’re wearing glasses.”

She says, “Well, I’m nearsighted.” 

“You’re wearing clothes.”

And now she’s offended. 

“So, you have to wear shoes because you don’t want to damage your feet. You’ve got to wear clothes to protect you from the elements. And you’re wearing glasses because God won’t cure your vision. And yet God will protect you from this pandemic?” 

And to me, it spoke volumes. Of course, my kids were pulling me. “Come on. Not again. Not again.”

Differences in morality

I was thinking, how can I contrast this with some of the work I do and the way I think about these issues? And I remembered what happened to a cousin of mine and his mom, my Aunt Edna. 

I have some relatives in Denmark, where I’ve been fortunate to live for a couple of years. Many, many years ago, my cousin, when he was 2, started having symptoms. He wasn’t doing well, wasn’t feeling well, wasn’t healthy. Test after test after test after test. Hospitals. This and that. Not a fun time. 

When the tests came back, it showed he had childhood leukemia. His mom, my aunt Edna, was at the hospital, and when the diagnosis came in, he was 3 years old. A young woman shows up at the hospital and enters where my aunt is and says, “I am so sorry about your son. I understand the diagnosis. I am here for you. I will be your personal secretary. I will be answering any mail you have. I will be paying your bills. I will be taking out your trash. I will be cleaning your house. I will be doing your laundry. I will be doing your grocery shopping. And I am just here for you for anything you need, because you need to focus on your son now, who’s sick.”

You know how much this is going to cost to have this person? Free — subsidized by the National Health Care of Denmark. This woman was a social worker who was paid through taxes to help parents like this in need, so they don’t have to deal with job stuff, bills, just because their kid is having a tough time health-wise. (By the way, my cousin survived. He is alive and well today.) 

These stories kind of illustrate to me the difference between a theologically based morality and a secular humanist-based morality.

In the first one, with religion, is a kind of presented moral superiority that is actually depraved and harmful. And in the second one, is a kind of secular humanist situation, a very understated less-touted morality. No one in Denmark is running around saying, “Look how morally superior we are with our universal health care. Look how morally superior we are by paying attention to the dictates of science and empiricism. Look how morally superior we are by taking care of people in need.” They don’t say that. And yet, it’s actually alleviating suffering, which, to me, is the goal of any moral system or legal system. 

So, it’s interesting to me how this plays out in our world, especially here in the United States, where the moral high ground is claimed by those who are often doing the most damage. And those of us who work to make the world a better place, work to alleviate suffering, we do so out of humanist values that are not proclaimed as such necessarily, and are certainly not recognized as such by the wider society.

We’ve got to change that. 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?” 

Data better than anecdotes

One of the things that I try to teach my students — I’m a sociologist by training — is that you can find an anecdote to illustrate anything. Anecdotes are fun, they’re good, they’re illustrative, they’re engaging. But it’s not solid data. I tell them that when they’re in a debate with somebody, it’s a good idea to present their arguments in the best of light and then show why it’s wrong, not find a certain anecdote, because that can be a strawman argument type of situation.

But we’ve got the data. We’ve got the data on today’s burning moral ethical issues. We’ve got clear, strong correlations. The more religious you are, you fall on one side of these issues, and the more secular you are, you fall on another. 

And by the way, just so you know, I’m often told by people, “Phil, there’s a lot of liberal religious people out there who agree with your positions.” And I’m like, “Right, because they have a secularized version of religion.” I mean, hello. I know friends who are Episcopalians and Reformed Jews and progressive Catholics. And on every issue, they don’t take things literally. They don’t take the bible literally. It’s all because they are leaning toward the secular side of things. And, of course, that’s why we join hands on these issues. 

So let me walk us through some of them. I don’t want this just to be a rambling list here, but I think it’s so important.

When we sit back and think, “OK, what are we facing today, at least in the United States, who among us is doing the most to alleviate suffering? Who follows the stay-in-place mandates, who wears masks, who gets the vaccine?” Well, we’ve got the data.

Atheist Americans are the most likely to get vaccinated in this country. And that’s an altruistic act because you’re trying to help everyone, not just yourself. Some people say, “Isn’t it my right? If I don’t want to get a vaccine and don’t want to wear a mask.” I’m like, “Is it your right to drink and drive?” Give me a break. You’re causing suffering. You’re causing unwanted victims. When it comes just to the basic pandemic, we see our morals are not only just as good as the religious, but better, more active and engaged in helping others and solving problems.

I think about the climate crisis. Who’s more likely to understand it and want to take action to alleviate it? The more secular you are, the more you fall on that side. For example, a recent PRRI study found that over 80 percent of secular Americans accept the evidence that human activity is causing climate change, and they place addressing climate change at the top of the list of their political priorities, while only 33 percent of white evangelicals accept such evidence. And yet it’s the white evangelicals who have been running this country for the previous four years, ran the White House, packed the Supreme Court, packed the lower courts, the appellate courts, the circuit courts. 

Whew. We’ve got our work cut out for us. Thank goodness there’s FFRF. My goodness! I cannot tell you what an honor to be here and the work they do and how many people I refer to them when they’re in legal straits. 

Anyway, women’s reproductive rights are under assault right now in our country, right? Women’s ability to have autonomy over their own bodies. And again, we see, in fact, FFRF did some excellent research on their own membership. I consider members of FFRF the most committed to the secularist cause.

What do we see among supporting women’s reproductive rights: 98.8 percent of active secular voters and FFRF members support women’s reproductive rights. Yes, that is the highest rate there. 

Race and racism. The deep poison, the deep crimes of this nation. Right. Where do we stand? There was a woman, Deborah Hall at Duke, who wanted to do a study on racism and religion. And she wanted to show how the religious care more about racism, are concerned more about racism, particularly, she’s talking about white Americans here. She gathered every legitimate national sample she could find that had a representative sample of folks about correlating religiosity to racism to see where Americans fell. And surprise, surprise, what was her finding? Agnostics, atheists and secular humanists reported the lowest levels of racism compared to all other religions. There it was. 

And we see this time and time again, which is interesting because both the secular and the religious tell a kind of story about the unity of humanity. Every religion claims that there’s this Daddy God — we’re all this Daddy God’s children, so we’re all brothers and sisters. 

Secular humanists know a different story. It’s that we all come from primates. One story has data and evidence to support it. The other is a myth. 

What’s interesting is where do we fall — those of us who accept the scientific, evidence-based notion of all being one, we live that out more, we act out that more and even in our politics reflect that. That’s not to say we don’t have a racism problem. It’s hard to live in the United States and not internalize that racism. And, yet, on these measures, the best measures we have, the more secular you are, the less likely you are to express those and act on those. And I’m proud of that. 

I’ve got some more data here. Among Americans who believe that racial discrimination is a major problem in the United States, 76 percent of all Americans say so. But 96 percent of active secularist members like you say it is such. 

Whether it’s LGBTQ rights, whether it’s animal rights, whether it’s to stem gun violence, whether it’s caring for the well-being of democracy, whether it’s helping refugees fleeing suffering, whether it’s supporting death with dignity, on issue after issue after issue that actually relates to how people experience the world and whether they’re going to suffer or thrive, secular humanists come down on the moral, ethical side and the more religious folks on the opposite. 

And this needs to be known, and this needs to be trumpeted, and this needs to be hammered.

That’s the what. So, now the question is, why does it play out this way?

Empathy and compassion

I would argue that the foundations are quite different. When you accept that there’s no magical beings out there, and it’s just us on this planet spinning around, you tend to frame your morality or base it on empathy and compassion. For each one of those issues that I’ve raised, you just go there, not on obedience to an imaginary and vengeful god.

We base our worldview on a here-and-nowness. I’m sure there’s a word for that in German that’s just perfect. But we don’t really have that in English. But we live in the here and now rather than living our lives yearning for pie in the sky. That’s going to affect decisions we make, plans we make, politicians we support, things we care about. 

One of the issues that my students ask me, “What’s so bad about religion, Phil?” That’s a good question. We got to be able to answer that. But one of them is, in every study we have: The more religious you are, the more tribalistic you are. Religiosity and tribalism, xenophobia, nationalism are highly correlated. Again, that’s not to say there are some secularists out there who are xenophobic and tribalistic and so on. However, the correlation is robust that we are actually more cosmopolitan, meaning we see ourselves as citizens of the world much more than the religious, who see themselves much more in terms of their membership to a particular tribe, a particular group which is conducive toward ingroup sympathy and outgroup antipathy.

And we all have to struggle with that. It’s part of our evolutionary past. But somehow, for some reason, the secular folks have progressed farther along on expanding that circle, as Peter Singer talked about. 

And finally, another sort of cardinal virtue for secular folks is scientific empiricism. We are interested in things like data and evidence and research, and we tend to heed it. We know it’s not perfect. We know it’s flawed, but we know that it is a method that is self-improving.

Whenever science comes up, some student always says, “Oh, science is terrible. Science has done so many bad things. Science has made so many mistakes. They said this and then that was wrong. And they said this and that was wrong.” I was like, “Well, you could only prove that was wrong through better science. How did you know that was wrong? How did you know that was harmful? There’s only one way to know how many teeth are in a horse’s mouth. And that’s to count.” 

We understand this sort of value of the scientific method rather than rely on myths, fantasies and prayers. And that’s not to say that some people in really tough situations need myths, fantasies and prayers to get through the night. I understand that. But our job, as I see it, is to address the conditions that are producing the suffering, not simply provide myths and fantasies in the wake of that suffering. To me, that’s not the way to do it. And we’re actually living that in the choices we make, the pursuits we pursue, and the political choices we make. 

That’s the good news as far as I’m concerned. Thank you so much for listening.