Austine Cline argues against the notion that you need God to hold family values. He makes the case that values such as love and respect are not a monopoly of theism. Furthermore, the right-wing Christian conception of family values has a strong focus on matters of sex.
How can irreligious atheists have family values? Aren’t God and religion needed for family values?
America’s Christian Right invests a lot of effort arguing for a connection between family values and their religion, but what basic family values require their religion or belief in their god? Godless families exist because values like love, respect, and sacrifice don’t depend upon theism. You don’t even have to be a theist to oppose abortion or support sexual abstinence until marriage. None of the positive family values necessary for raising healthy children are undermined by being godless.
A principle problem with the Christian Right’s rhetoric about family values is the fact that just about all of those “values” are about sex, sexual behavior, and sexuality. Even worse, the focus is almost entirely on what not to do: don’t engage in premarital sex, don’t masturbate, don’t have homosexual feelings (never mind engage in homosexual behavior), don’t look at sexually explicit material, don’t have an abortion, etc. If it weren’t for repressed sexuality, there might not be any room at all for sexuality in this worldview.
Few if any atheist families impose all of these draconian demands on children. Some atheists are opposed to abortion, a few are opposed to homosexuality, and most certainly restrict children’s access to anything sexually explicit. Thus, from the perspective of the Christian Right, it would appear that atheists won’t, don’t, or simply can’t teach their children family values. These same irreligious atheists, however, will deny that such qualities are necessary for family values — or even that they can be part of proper family values.
Irreligious atheists don’t believe that there are any gods out there who are intensely interested in human sexual behavior or what sorts of dirty pictures people might look at on their computers. So what are good, solid family values? They have to be the values which are necessary for strong, healthy families to produce strong, healthy individuals. When it comes to good family values, atheists are more likely to be concerned about things like love, kindness, mutual respect, sacrifice, and building a better future together as a community.
Families are built by people who love each other working together for common goals. Key to all of this is the definition of what a family ultimately is. Families are defined by the love they have for each other and the work they do together, not by the specific genders involved, whether children are present, or even the number of people present. The conception of “family” most commonly used in the Christian Right is extremely narrow; although there is no single standard for what a family is among atheists, it’s certainly not defined by the Bible or Christian traditions.
Religion and theism aren’t needed for family values or for strong families because the values which make families strong exist outside of religion. Religion and gods aren’t necessary for love. Or respect. Or self-sacrifice. Or mutual support. I know this sounds redundant, but what is obvious to irreligious atheists sometimes isn’t obvious to religious theists: since their religion and theism are central to every part of their lives, it can be difficult for them to recognize how others can do without.
The mere existence of strong families in which gods play no role should be proof enough, however, that religion and theism are unnecessary. Even if we were to look solely at the standards utilized by the Christian Right, atheist families can come out better off. For example, atheists are among the least likely in America to get divorced and their divorce rates are well below those of conservative, evangelical Christians. Given the importance which these same evangelicals attach to marriage and how critical they are of divorce, you’d think this would cause them to look more closely at what atheists are doing right.