Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is Godlessness A Virtue?

According to Phil Zuckerman, an associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College, it is. In an essay adapted from his book Society Without God he says many people [such as Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter, and William J. Bennet] assume that religion is what keeps people moral, that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. But that doesn't seem to be the case for Scandinavians in Denmark and Sweden.

To prove his point, Zuckerman highlights the research of a German think tank Hans-Böckler Stiftung that recently ranked nations in terms of their success at establishing social justice within their societies; Denmark and Sweden, two of the least-religious nations in the world, tied for first.

Zuckerman concludes: "It is a great socioreligious irony — for lack of a better term — that when we consider the fundamental values and moral imperatives contained within the world's great religions, such as caring for the sick, the infirm, the elderly, the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable; practicing mercy, charity, and goodwill toward one's fellow human beings; and fostering generosity, humility, honesty, and communal concern over individual egotism — those traditionally religious values are most successfully established, institutionalized, and put into practice at the societal level in the most irreligious nations in the world today." Why do YOU think societies not overtly Christian rank so high in issues of social justice while supposedly Christian countries lag so far behind? Click pic to read essay in its entirety.


Justus Hommes said...

The point that you make which I agree with wholeheartedly is the
use of the term "overtly Christian." There are far too many people who claim overt adherence to Christianity, but their actions do not correspond to Christ's teachings when it comes to the list of mercy, charity, goodwill, and so on.

That said, I am leery of the conclusions Zuckerman draws.

For centuries, Denmark and Sweden were among the most Christian societies. Sweden has been Christian since the 10th century, and it was illegal for a citizen to not be affiliated with a religion until 1951. Today, the Christian Democrats remain part of an alliance of parties that hold majority power in the country.

Denmark is a country so historically Christian that there remains no real separation between church and state, with newborns being registered by the state as new members of the church of their parents.

Religious history aside, times do indeed change, so on to the statistics. The ranges that Zuckerman provides ( are so large as to be almost useless. Somewhere between 43 & 85% atheist/agnostic/non-believer? If the ranges are even correct, and the truth is on the low end of the range, then Sweden and Denmark start to rank behind Vietnam, Japan, Czech Republic, and Estonia, countries that would surely not support Zuckerman's agenda as well.

Using the EU's more robust research ( - Page 11), we see the rate of actual atheists for these countries much closer to 19-23%. This is the same or less than those who state belief in God for the same countries. Those that believe in "life forces or spirits" make up the remaining, which would make the claim of affirmed agnosticism a stretch, with more likely attribution to those respondents being uneducated, uninformed, and/or unintelligent.

So I come to the conclusion that as a best case scenario for atheists, the atheists in Sweden and Denmark simply cancel out the God believers. As a best case scenario for Christians, the momentum of centuries of almost exclusive Christian leadership, along those that remain in power, have propelled these countries to the current state of affairs. This would explain in part why these countries look markedly different than Vietnam.

Of course the reality is not that simple. These are historically strong Christian countries, but they have been strongly influenced by both Christian and non-Christian socialists. A more accurate assessment may be that by dramatically increasing the size of their government's social safety net, Denmark and Sweden have allowed the average citizen to worry less, both about this life as well as the possibility of the next. It's not as much whether God exists, but whether God is relevant. Who needs God when government can provide?

Anonymous said...

Justus Hommes makes some excellent posts. I agree with him that the situation is more complex than this review of Zuckerman suggests.

Three comments:

1. Evangelicals turned more toward chasing conversions instead of doing social gospel. For good or bad, fundamentalists seemed to have purposively swung away from "social gospel" practices to focus on conversion. I think they believed that changing allegiances toward God would accomplish longer term effects.

2. Even mainline liberal denominations, who may have decreased social gospel practices turned toward other social approaches and remedies, like politics and policy.

3. See other studies suggesting congregations and denominations are still more likely to 1)promote and 2) engage in social activities of service than average citizens.

Useful reading: Quiet Hand of God that documents mainlain church quiet role in policy as well as action to improve society.

I also have enjoyed Gunderson Deeply Woven Roots which is really a narrative of the process by which social healing can operate in churches in creative ways.

Habitate for Humanity comes to mind.

However, having said this. I do think that the Children of Darkness are often wiser than the Children of Light. They are doing God's work. we should catch up to them. But I still believe that deep conversion brings lasting change. We want to help people, not only eat, but ultimately connect to the God they need more than anything.

It is not an accident that Jesus reminded his religious listeners that with all the widows and lepers in Israel, the prophet went to foreign lands to find faith in the widow and Namaan.

That is why Zuckerman's main challenge speaks to my own action. I need to get with love...serving. Thanks God for letting us work with You. Duane