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Goodness without God

One of the reasons The Book of Mormon is the hottest ticket on Broadway is that it's a blasphemer's laugh riot. In the show's star turn I Believe, an earnest Mormon missionary sings a paean to some of the religion's more, err, interesting claims, such as that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Mo., and that God lives on a planet called Kolob. Americans don't often get the opportunity to laugh at the way religious credos sound to modern ears, and with such pent-up demand, New York audiences are lapping it up. I know I did.

But if you can't make it to Broadway anytime soon, another enjoyable diversion for nonbelievers like myself is the book Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in California. Zuckerman's book is a response to those who say that the godless cannot be moral and that irreligious societies are inherently depraved.

In fact, the evidence points to quite the opposite conclusion, according to Zuckerman, whose analysis includes extensive sociological data as well as in-depth interviews with people from all social and economic strata in Denmark and Sweden — among the most irreligious places on Earth.

Americans are so used to right-wing preachers and talk show personalities disparaging atheists and agnostics that it goes unchallenged when they claim godlessness is a social menace.

The radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger has said it's impossible for people to be moral without a belief in God or religion. The fear of God, according to her and many others, is what keeps people on the straight and narrow. Television personality and bestselling author Bill O'Reilly has seconded that sentiment, telling his followers that a society that fails to live "under God" will be a society of anarchy and crime.

Americans have taken these views to heart. Zuckerman quotes an international survey in which 64 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: "Politicians who don't believe in God are unfit for public office," whereas only 8 percent of Danes and 15 percent of Swedes agreed.

America is arguably the most religious Western democracy in the world, with solid majorities believing in a personal God. By contrast Denmark and Sweden are godless: Only 24 percent of Danes and 16 percent of Swedes say they believe. And while 75 percent of Americans claim to believe in hell, only 10 percent of Danes and Swedes say there is such a place — the lowest percentage in the world — and even fewer of their countrymen believe in the literal truth of the Bible.

Zuckerman found that when Danes and Swedes say they are part of a church it's cultural; overwhelming majorities don't believe in the tenets or attend services regularly.

Yet by almost any measure the most irreligious societies — those where people have come to their atheism freely, not through state repression — are among the world's healthiest and least corrupt. Just look at the Economist's Quality of Life Index, which reviews a range of factors across 111 countries to come up with the "best" places in the world to live. Taken into account are things like income, health, freedom, unemployment, climate, political stability, life-satisfaction, and gender equality, among others. Sweden ranked fifth in the world while Denmark came in ninth. And most of the top 20 nations on the list, Zuckerman notes, are irreligious. (The United States placed 13th.)

Zuckerman calls it a great "socio-religious irony" that the moral imperatives of the world's great religions, such as caring for the sick, elderly poor and infirm; practicing mercy, charity and goodwill toward others; and fostering generosity, honesty and communal concern, are best put into practice in the most irreligious nations in the world today.

Certainly compared with the United States, where a fifth of children are raised in poverty, tens of millions of people are without health insurance, and the mentally ill are often condemned to homelessness, countries like Sweden and Denmark are models of compassion.

Zuckerman doesn't come to any firm conclusions about why this is, but it's the kind of correlation that needs to be repeated over and over to counter the widespread slanders against atheists. At least, that's what I believe.

Goodness without God 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 5:30am]

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