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.
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.