As Israeli soldiers and settlers continue to brutalize, humiliate, and kill Palestinians with impunity, there is one major human rights organization in Israel documenting and protesting these crimes: B’Tselem. Given that B’Tselem is a humanitarian organization dedicated to fighting for justice, human rights, and the alleviation of suffering, you might think it is a religious organization, right?
The most devoutly religious people in Israel either turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians or actively promote and celebrate that suffering. B’Tselem, by contrast, is a decidedly secular organization, founded by Hiloni (secular) Jews, with members motivated by humanist values of empathy and compassion.
This is not some aberration: In the broader Israeli society, secular people are typically much more willing to see the humanity of Palestinians and defend their rights than religious people.
Secular Israelis evincing more compassion than their religious peers is consistent with a much larger pattern: throughout the democratic world, on issue after issue related to well-being, equality, and morality, secular people are more likely to come down on the side of social justice than the religious.
Given the pervasive misunderstanding that the religious among us are the moral ones, while the secular are immoral, the truth needs to be trumpeted—if not tromboned and bassooned—that reality tends strongly in the opposite formation.
It should be noted that many liberal and progressive religious people hold quite similar positions on many of these issues as secular people. This is to be expected, given that liberal and progressive religious people do not take their scriptures literally, instead accepting their human origins; they tend to favor the findings of science over the claims of faith whenever there is conflict between the two; they tend to be skeptical of supernatural phenomena and not believe in miracles; they tend not to believe in heaven and hell as actual places and are even unsure about life after death; and they tend to hold a more poetic, metaphorical, or decidedly abstract understanding of God.
In other words, liberal and progressive religiosity is itself highly secularized, which explains much of the convergence.
Below is a list of current leading social justice issues which reveals, in all its ethical glory, the secular/religious divide.
Let’s begin with gay rights.
There is no rational justification to jail, torture, kill, discriminate against, or deny the equal legal and civil rights of people because of their sexual orientation. Full stop. Although it has taken us thousands of years to get to this obvious point, no thanks to the world’s homophobic holy scriptures, and although social justice for homosexuals is still not fully realized throughout much of the world, the data show that, when it comes to supporting equal rights for and acceptance of homosexuality, the more secular people lean toward the more moral, compassionate, and rational side of the issue, while the more religious lean toward the more immoral, hateful, and irrational side. For example, according to a national Pew study, while only 70% of Catholics, 51% of Black Protestants, 45% of Muslims, 36% of Evangelicals and Mormons, and 16% of Jehovah’s Witnesses are accepting of homosexuality, 83% of secular Americans are. Another study found that while only 45% of Catholics, 38% of mainline Protestants, and 19% of Evangelicals strongly agree that homosexuals should have the right to marry each other, 67% of secular Americans hold this position.
Closely related: women’s equal rights. Should women be allowed to pursue the same educational, professional, and leisure pursuits as men if they so choose? Should women earn the same pay for the same work? Be allowed to vote? Be allowed to work outside the home? Of course. Again: both reason and empathy dictate such a feminist/humanist position. And while many religious people agree with secular people on this matter, the fact remains that the more religious are the least supportive of women’s rights, while the more secular are the most supportive. Additionally, studies have found that atheists and agnostics are far more likely to believe women’s claims of sexual assault than religious people, who are much more likely to think rape claims are lies.
As for transgender rights: Should people whose gender identity does not align with their birth sex, and who take the courageous step of aligning these two, be afforded the same dignity and rights as others? To the more secular, the answer is much more likely to be “yes,” while to the more religious, “no.”
How about race and ethnicity? In study after study, and on measure after measure, the more secular exhibit the lowest levels of racism and favor enacting more deliberate, effective steps towards achieving racial equality and justice than people who are more religious. (African Americans are an obvious exception, tending to be both highly religious and also highly supportive of correctives to racism.) According to data presented by Professor and Pastor Ryan Burge—and again, aside from African Americans—atheists and agnostics are most likely to agree that racial problems are systemic and common; secular people are among those most likely to strongly agree that white people have unearned advantages; and atheists and agnostics are the least likely to blame African Americans for their higher than average rates of poverty and unemployment. Other studies have found that secular people are far more supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Racism is closely linked to the broader, evolved human capacity for ethnocentrism and xenophobia. How do we feel about and treat those who are not of our clan, our group, our culture, our nation? The data are clear: it is the most secular who are among the most open to and welcoming of immigrants and refugees, while the most religious are the least.
What about Mother Earth? As we know, the unfolding climate crisis created by industrialization’s excesses will cause extended suffering. And yet again, it tends to be the most secular among us who not only understand the evidence around climate change, but are most in favor of doing something about it, compared to the most religious. This is not to say that there aren’t many religious people who are also actively concerned about green issues. But on average, the secular are much more likely to lean towards the eco-friendly end of the spectrum. For instance, a Pew study found that while 42% of Mormons, 45% of Evangelicals, 55% of Catholics, and 58% of Black Protestants support stricter environmental regulations, 68% of non-religious Americans do.
As for the death penalty, yet again, it is the more secular who take the more humane position, while the more religious take the more inhumane; while 17% of Black Protestants, 14% of Catholics, 13% of White Protestants, and 9% of Evangelicals strongly oppose the death penalty, 34% of atheists and 24% of agnostics strongly oppose it—leading the country in this position.
Same things with guns: strongly secular people tend to be more in favor of sane, lifesaving legislation than strongly religious people.
Supporting universal health care? Same deal.
Supporting animal rights? Ditto.
Adhering to COVID restrictions and getting vaccinated? You know it.
In favor of rational drug legislation? You got it.
To be sure, the world is far more messy and complex than captured in the simple religious/secular divide presented here. Many highly religious people of color have a strong social justice bent. And many famous secularists, to say nothing of inhumane atheist dictators, have been strongly opposed to social justice and human rights. Additionally, correlation is not causation, and there are certainly many factors accounting for the relationships and averages presented in this article that transcend the narrow confines of these variables.
But the overall pattern is still robust. Secularism is highly correlated with a social justice agenda. And a social justice agenda is all about increasing human dignity, promoting fairness and equity, and ameliorating oppression and suffering. This is where the moral heart of secular humanism resides, and the world is better for it.