Phil Zuckerman Tries to Argue That Atheists Are Morally Superior. And Fails.

Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.  According to his Wikipedia page, Zuckerman’s academic work seems largely focused on defending and promoting secularism and atheism.  So it looks to me that he is more of an academic atheist apologist/activist than a true scholar.  And my impression is supported by a recent article he published entitled, Staunch atheists show higher morals than the proudly pious, from the pandemic to climate change: When it comes to the most pressing moral issues of the day, hard-core secularists exhibit much more empathy.

Zuckerman argues, “When it comes to the most pressing moral issues of the day, hard-core secularists exhibit much more empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others than the most ardently God-worshipping.”

While this is clearly something we might expect an atheist apologist to believe and promote, Zuckerman never demonstrates this to be the case.  He “shows” it only in the sense that his conformation bias allows him to carefully craft a narrative to discover what he has previously concluded.  Let me dissect his article to expose his sloppy, apologist thinking.

Zuckerman writes:

We can start with the global pandemic. COVID-19 is a potentially deadly virus that has caused — and continues to cause — dire woe. Surely, to be moral in the face of such a dangerous disease is to do everything one can — within one’s limited power — to thwart it. No moral person would want to willfully spread it, bolster it, or prolong its existence. And yet, when it comes to the battle against COVID-19, it is the most secular of Americans who are doing what they can to wipe it out, while it is the most faithful among us, especially nationalistic white Evangelicals, who are keeping it alive and well. Taking the vaccine saves lives and thwarts the spread of the virus. So, too, does sheltering in place as directed and wearing protective face masks. And yet, here in the U.S., it is generally the most religious among us who refuse to adhere to such life-saving practices, while it is the most secular who most willingly comply. For example, a recent Pew study found that while only 10% of atheists said that they would definitely or probably not get vaccinated, 45% of white Evangelicals took such a position.

When Zuckerman insists “while it is the most secular who most willingly comply” to “such life-saving practices,” he provides no evidence for thinking this is because such secular people are motivated by empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being.  None.  He assumes it merely because he wants to insist on it.  In reality,  there is another equally, if not more, plausible explanation.  The most secular are motivated by Fear.  Fear of getting Covid, fear of going to the hospital, fear of being put on a ventilator, fear of dying.  We’ve seen this fear in various atheists on the internet, for example, blogger PZ Myers.  The man has been absolutely terrified of Covid from the start and has complained he was going to die repeatedly over the year.  It is such fear that causes the atheists to willingly comply and demand others do likewise. 

In other words, Zuckerman’s evidence for the superior morality of atheists may just as well instead be evidence of their greater fear of death. 

Boom.  His case implodes.

What’s more, there is no evidence that the hardcore religious people are trying to “willfully spread it, bolster it, or prolong its existence.”  Those who are reluctant to get the vaccine are likely to be so because of……Fear.  They are afraid of some side effect they might get (such stories have been reported in the media) or, depending how far down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories they buy into, they are afraid the vaccine will genetically alter them or deposit some microchip into their body.  While this is the crackpot territory, it does not mean people are being “less moral.” 

So far, the differences in behavior can probably be largely attributed to being afraid of different things and morality plays very little role in any of this.

Zuckerman is not only blind to alternative explanations (a common trait of apologists), but takes an overly simplistic approach, as the response to the pandemic can be much more complex than he seems to realize.  For example, I am someone who had Covid and then many months later, got vaccinated.  Not because of fear, but because I can’t really afford to be sick for a prolonged period of time.  I think people should get vaccinated, but don’t want to force them to.  I will wear masks and practice social distancing, largely out of curtesy.  But again, I will not support vaccine mandates.  Given that Covid is likely to be around for a very long time, this would set the precedent of the government forcing people to be injected with a substance for a very long time.  I don’t want to live under a government that gets comfortable forcing injections on its people.  Anyway, since I am vaccinated, and thus protected, I see no moral obligation to force others to be vaccinated.  If you are afraid of getting infected, get vaccinated.

As far as sheltering in place, that itself is not a clear, neutral demand.  Humans are intrinsically social, and to deprive them of social outlets for vast periods does not seem healthy or compassionate.  There are reports of elevated suicide and substance abuse rates, but I have not looked into them.  I do know that lockdowns hurt the economy and I’m not sure they play a significant role in preventing infections from spreading.  And for what?  According to this page, there is a 1.7% chance of a covid-infected person actually dying from Covid.  That number is probably an overestimate as it doesn’t track the people who died from Covid, it tracks the people who die and happen to test positive for Covid.  Is this sufficient reason to bring about the possible harms from a lockdown?  Is it compassionate to force someone to lose their job, and maybe home, because you are afraid of being infected with a virus? In other words, the pandemic comes with a complex maze of considerations that are completely ignored by Zuckerman’s cartoonish portrayal of a morality play.

In summary, Phil Zuckerman’s case for the moral superiority of atheists fails.  He never provides any evidence that empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others motivates the atheist’s pandemic response. Neither does he have any evidence that the religious are trying to willfully spread the virus, bolster it, or prolong its existence.  Differences in behavior are just as likely to be caused by fear.  And finally, Zuckerman takes a simple-minded approach to a complex reality. 

There are many other problems with Zuckerman’s “argument” and I hope to get time to address some more of those.

This entry was posted in atheism, Morality, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Phil Zuckerman Tries to Argue That Atheists Are Morally Superior. And Fails.

  1. TFBW says:

    Zuckerman’s first error, along with many on the left, is to mistake empathy for a virtue.

  2. Albionic American says:

    People who know the are doing bad things will invoke “empathy” for their behavior to avoid being held accountable and responsible for it. Also considering that secular humanism lately has turned into an anti-white ideology which celebrates the decline and eventual extinction of America’s white population, I’d like to know where humanists’ allegedly superior “empathy” for the oppressed comes into play.

  3. Atheist apologists tend to confuse people who merely speak about the need for compassion with people who actually go out there and show compassion at cost to themselves. Atheists/secularists may well score higher in the former, but I very much doubt they would even come close in the latter.

  4. Andrew says:

    People who are not afraid of what I am afraid of lack morals?

  5. TFBW says:

    No, Andrew. Let me give you a quick guide to aid your comprehension.

    Point #1, atheist claims moral high ground: “… hard-core secularists exhibit much more empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others than the most ardently God-worshipping.”

    Point #2, analysis shows that his so-called exhibitions of empathy and compassion are inferred from behaviour, but an equally valid inference would be that they are motivated by fear. “Zuckerman’s evidence for the superior morality of atheists may just as well instead be evidence of their greater fear of death.”

    Point #3, note that empathy and compassion don’t necessarily produce the kind of behaviour that Zuckerman cites as evidence in any case: that outcome is based on a raft of questionable assumptions, and it’s unbridled arrogance on Zuckerman’s part to pose as though his particular set of assumptions are unquestionably true. “[T]he pandemic comes with a complex maze of considerations that are completely ignored by Zuckerman’s cartoonish portrayal of a morality play.”

    Conclusion: Zuckerman’s claim about the moral superiority of secularists does not stand up to scrutiny. It is mere confirmation bias on his part.

  6. Andrew says:

    TFBW: everything except the question mark should be read as a paraphrase of Zuckerman’s argument. Have I over-simplified it? It aligns pretty well with your #2 & #3

  7. Dhay says:

    I see Phil Zuckerman starts his article, “Two recent events have shed an illuminating light on who is and who isn’t moral in today’s world. First, Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader in the U.S. Catholic Church and a staunch anti-masker/vaxxer, was put on a ventilator as a result of his suffering from COVID-19. …” I’ll look at that first, first.

    Burke isn’t mentioned again in the rest of the article. If argument by selected individual is valid it would be as valid to claim some named atheist sheds “an illuminating light” on who is or isn’t moral – you can be reasonably sure that in such as large country as the USA there will be an atheist staunch anti-masker/vaxxer in hospital somewhere; but the argument isn’t valid, it’s smear-by-association.

    In a previous employment my online Equality & Diversity course highlighted that characterising (and especially deprecating) a whole group based on one individual is a classic sign of prejudice (and, when acted upon, of discrimination) against the group. Zuckerman’s opening sheds an illuminating light upon his anti-Catholic prejudice, though we quickly find out that his main target for being alleged anti-maskers/vaxxers is White Evangelicals:

    > …here in the U.S., it is generally the most religious among us who refuse to adhere to such life-saving practices, while it is the most secular who most willingly comply. For example, a recent Pew study found that while only 10% of atheists said that they would definitely or probably not get vaccinated, 45% of white Evangelicals took such a position.

    Zuckerman provides links, so we find that it was during 16-21 February 2021 that Pew collected the data. Those figures are not recent, they are from very early days in the vaccination roll-out. Since then, more up to date figures (to end of May) have been produced by Ryan Burge, a fellow regular researcher of religious statistics; Zuckerman is aware of Burge’s study but skips quickly past it, insinuating it’s merely a “one study” “exception” (to Zuckerman’s one study quoted):

    Admittedly, how morality plays out in the world is always complex, with numerous exceptions to the correlations above. … One study has found that Evangelicals actually get vaccinated at higher rates than the religiously unaffiliated [Link] (though not at a higher rate than agnostics).

    Following the link reveals Burge’s study, “The Young And Secular Are Least Vaccinated, Not Evangelicals”, tabulates by month, January – May 2021, whether religious groupings have already been vaccinated, and for those who haven’t how likely they are to. Burge’s May figures paint a strikingly different picture to Zuckerman’s

    Burge’s discussion of his results paints a more strikingly different picture:

    One of the primary dimensions that news outlets seem to be focusing on is religion. The headlines are published nearly weekly – evangelical Christians are the ones who are the most reluctant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, when I review the data from a survey that was conducted on May 11, 2021 that was administered by Data for Progress, I don’t find a lot of evidence that evangelicals are the ones lagging behind. In fact, I find that those without any religious affiliation were the least likely to have received at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine.

    The Data for Progress website says it is “the think tank for the future of progressivism”, if there’s any partisan bias it won’t be in favour of conservatives or Christianity.

    Here’s the figures for May, for those NOT already vaccinated (Burge gives figures for those who have been): Evangelical Protestants – 38%; Non-Evangelical Protestants – 30%; Catholics – 38%; No Religion – 53%. Or in Burge’s words:

    By May, 70% of non-evangelical Protestants had gotten at least one dose. Sixty-two percent of both evangelical Protestants and Catholics reported the same. However, it was the “nones” (no religious affiliation) who were lagging farther behind. By May 11, only 47% of nones had reported receiving at least one dose. However, what complicates data surrounding vaccination is that not everyone was eligible to get the shot at the same time. In all states, the oldest residents were eligible first and then the criteria widened as demand waned. However, by May 1, every American who was at least 16 years old was eligible to receive the vaccine.

    Here’s the May figures, showing how likely are those who haven’t already been vaccinated to refuse vaccination in future (I have added together Unlikely and Somewhat Unlikely): EP – 59.3%; NEP – 62.7%; C – 48.7%; NR – 53.6%.

    The percentages of staunch anti-vaxxers in each category is [% who haven’t been vaccinated] x [% of the unvaccinated who don’t intend to be (Somewhat Unlikely + Very Unlikely)]; which I calculate as: EP – 38 x 59.3 = 23%; NEP – 30 x 62.7 = 19%; C – 38 x 48.7 = 19%; NR – 53 x 53.6 = 28%.

    Burge’s figures show that those with No Religion are much more likely to be staunch anti-vaxxers – not vaccinated, won’t – than Evangelical Protestants; and they are 50% more likely to be staunch anti-vaxxers than Non-Evangelical Protestants and Catholics are.


    Knowing there’s lies, damned lies and statistics, and that (for instance) White Evangelicals are significantly different from Black Evangelicals, I looked further on the Data for Progress website that Burge got his figures from and found their own, rather more comprehensive study of vaccination uptake and refusal; on end of May figures:

    To parse through the potential predictors of vaccine hesitancy and their importance, I constructed a linear regression model controlling for race, presidential vote choice, age, education, geography, Evangelicalism, and gender. I find that the demographics with the largest and statistically significant effects on being very unlikely to get a coronavirus vaccine are Donald Trump voters, Black Americans, those without a college degree, and those living in rural areas. …

    Controlling for these variables reveals several interesting findings that are not immediately clear from examining the demographic splits on their own. …

    While those who were “very unlikely” to get vaccinated appeared to have slightly higher shares of those who identified as “born-again”, the effects of evangelicalism on strong vaccine hesitancy disappear entirely when controlling for the other demographic characteristics.

    I take that as a No to Zuckerman’s thesis that White Evangelicals are staunch anti-vaxxers because of their strongly held Fundamentalism and religious fervour; this researcher (Zachary Hertz) says it was the other variables that account for it.

  8. TFBW says:

    @Andrew: there’s succinct, and there’s omitting important context.

  9. TFBW says:

    I live in New South Wales, which is a state of Australia; Sydney is its capital. Usually people outside Australia can’t name the states, but New South Wales has been in the international news quite a bit recently. Maybe you’ve heard of us? We’re the one with government officials telling us not to talk to our neighbours, and arresting people for being outside without a mask on. Basically, we’re world-famous for being an ostensibly Western Democracy which has reverted to tyranny under the threat of relatively small COVID case numbers. At this point, about the only thing positive we can say about ourselves is, “at least we’re not New Zealand.”

    In the face of this rising tyranny, I have been forced into the anti-vax, anti-mask position. I did not start out that way. I have always avoided doctors and medicines to the maximum possible extent, and I thought the masks were ridiculous theatre, but if other people want that kind of thing, then that’s their business. Sadly, with the rising tyranny, this is no longer a tenable position. We are being coerced into a uniform code of conduct: you will wear the mask or be fined; you will take the jab or you won’t get your freedoms back. We are being forced to take sides. As such, I have chosen to join the ranks of the anti-vaxers, because they are the only ones on the side of liberty and the consent of the governed. These should be independent issues, but they’re not: I’m anti-vax because we have an escalating tyranny problem. Thankfully, these tyrants are weak and feckless, and I don’t think we’ll need guns to deal with them.

    If Phil Zuckerman were here, it seems like he’d be on the side of the tyrants. They are, after all, enacting exactly the sort of policies he likes. To be clear, I’m not suggesting he’s simply pro-tyranny, but rather that he has no objection to tyranny in principle. I can’t imagine him saying, “I like the policies, but you’re getting too heavy-handed with the use of force.” On the contrary, I think he’d approve that the appropriately “empathetic” view of things was being backed up with the force of government agency. I would expect him to react to the arrest of anti-lockdown protesters with glee.

    I also think this is a trait of hard-core secularists like him, more than it is of those who believe in God. Secularists recognise no higher authority than the State; if they do recognise something higher, then they’re inventing some kind of non-personal God to fill that role, which puts their secularist bona fides in doubt.

    I wouldn’t publish an article in Salon about it, though.

  10. JD says:

    What’s with secularists and their fetish with empathy? Besides repeating the words diversity, inclusion, equality and social justice, it’s empathy.

  11. TFBW says:

    The obsession with empathy arises from the fact that they equate morality with feelings. They measure moral character in terms of emotional stimulus and response. There’s no principled consistency to what is being measured—that much is mere fashion—but one is considered of good moral stock if one exhibits the appropriately fashionable emotional response to the relevant stimulus. Refugees, GOOD! Orange man, BAD! Vaccines, GOOD! Guns, BAD! The more one reacts emotionally rather than rationally, the better.

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