In recent years, researchers have begun to study the moral practices of a relatively new and growing group within America's religious landscape -- the "nones."
Nones are people who, when asked to describe their religious affiliation, respond that they are atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular." As of 2014, the nones, also known as the "unaffiliated," are the second largest religious grouping in America, coming in just under evangelical Christians. As a whole, the unaffiliated tend to be less religious by the standards that surveyors have traditionally used to measure religiosity -- attendance at worship services, for example, or daily prayer.
But if they're not religious by these standards, how exactly are the nones approaching the question of what it means to be a moral person?
Thanks to the Pew Research Center, we now have some data on this. In a recent report on religion in everyday life, the organization asked unaffiliated people whether 16 pre-selected beliefs and behaviors were essential, important but not essential, or not important to what they think it means to be a "moral person."
For the unaffiliated, honesty tops the list, with about 58 percent of the nones saying that "being honest at all times" was essential to being a moral person.
When Harvard chaplain Greg Epstein heard that honesty came out on top, it made a lot of sense to him. As author of "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe," Epstein has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what nonbelievers actually hold to be true about tolerance, community, and morality.
"Of course these are people who are interested in honesty and integrity," Epstein told The Huffington Post. "[Because if you're coming out as non-religious], then you probably feel a very strong pull to tell the truth and to be honest with yourself and others about who you are."
Epstein suggested that the act of coming out as a nonbeliever requires a good deal of soul searching and introspection. In a country like America, where the overwhelming majority of people belong to some sort of religion, and where statistics show most of the public has negative feelings towards people who don't believe in God, Epstein said that there really isn't any incentive or social pressure to come out as non-religious, or atheist, or agnostic.
Some other essentials that the unaffiliated believe make a moral person are being grateful for what you have (53 percent), committing to spend time with family (47 percent), forgiving those who have wronged you (39 percent), and working to protect the environment (35 percent).
Beliefs and practices that have been traditionally used to measure religiosity fell near the bottom of the list. About 10 percent of the unaffiliated believe praying regularly is essential to being moral. Two percent believe attending religious services is part of a moral life.
In an open-ended question, about a quarter (23 percent) of nones wrote that the "Golden Rule," a behavior cited by Jesus in the Bible, was essential to morality.
For Epstein, the results of the Pew survey are evidence that the religiously unaffiliated community values action over belief in the supernatural.
"[Humanist and nonreligious people] respect completely the fact that our religious neighbors also feel the need to pray, but our view is that action is irreplaceable," Epstein said. "Actions ultimately make the difference between living a good life and not living a good life."
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