Atheists can be morally decent

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Registered: 08-23-1997
Atheists can be morally decent
4
Sun, 03-22-2009 - 7:54pm

This article appeared in my local paper. It's nice to have some good press. I'm really surprised they published it because the paper is very right wing (It's called the Republican-American). I canceled my subscription years ago because I couldn't stomach their editorial page anymore and now only read it online.

BY TRACEY O'SHAUGHNESSY | REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
If you are looking for a healthy, stable, economically viable place to raise a family, Denmark is the place for you.

Like its neighbor Sweden, it has a 100 percent literacy rate, a 3 percent annual growth rate, low infant mortality and a healthy per capita income. Denmark's standard of living is among the highest in the world and Sweden has one of the world's longest life expectancies and lowest birth rates.

But there's one element neither of these countries has: religion.

God has about as much place in Scandinavia as Bill Maher does in the Vatican.

Though most Danes and Swedes identify culturally as Lutherans, fewer than 24 percent believe in a personal deity, a conviction held by 90 percent of Americans. Virtually no one goes to church in these countries; like most European nations, Sweden and Denmark are devout secularists.

To a Scandinavian, belief in God, says sociologist Phil Zuckerman, is tantamount to belief in Santa Claus.

And yet life in this defiantly irreligious section of the world is profoundly moral. In addition to crime rates that would make any American envious, Denmark and Sweden are among the most generous donors of international aid. Denmark's government gives 64 cents per capita in foreign aid; Sweden gives 61 cents. The United States gives 13 cents per capita in foreign aid.

These and other revelations led Zuckerman to investigate what in this country can seem an impossibility: An atheistic society filled with morally decent people who make a good living, care for one another, and are generous to those less fortunate.

In other words, godless societies are not the barbarous plains of iniquity some in the Christian Right would suggest, but healthy, happy, productive societies that seem, if you will, more Christian than this one has managed to be.

In "Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment," Zuckerman, of California's Pitzer College, examines the apparent paradox: Heavens to Betsy, atheists can be morally decent, too.

One has to hope that Christians cannot be so passionately blinkered to ignore what is obvious to anyone who has stepped outside of a church: Plenty of deeply principled people have contributed to the meat of this society without the benefit of religion.

Conversely, plenty of indecent behavior corrodes some of the most religious places on earth. This month, a Harvard Business School study found that one of the most "religious" states in this country — Utah — purchases more Internet porn than any other state. The Harvard analysis reported that online porn subscription rates are higher in states that have enacted conservative legislation banning same-sex marriage or civil unions, where surveys show support for conservative positions on religion, gender roles and sexuality.

Even regionally, the "least religious" states in the country (that would be those in New England, according to the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life) are also the safest, healthiest and most tolerant. The states with the highest murder rates, particularly those involving guns, are in the South, the region with the highest levels of religious attendance — and the highest rate of divorce than the Bible Belt.

Even regionally, the "least religious" states in the country (that would be those in New England, according to the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life) are also the safest, healthiest and most tolerant. The states with the highest murder rates, particularly those involving guns, are in the South, the region with the highest levels of religious attendance — and the highest rate of divorce than the Bible Belt.

Is the "religious" swath of this country just filled with moralizing hypocrites of the type so roundly skewered by Flannery O'Connor? Or are Zuckerman and the like neglecting the cultural hegemony of places like Scandinavia, as Yale professor Thomas Ogletree suggests. "The key advantage of both Denmark and Sweden is that they are highly cohesive societies, genetically, culturally and socially," he says. "In cases like that, people don't tolerate wide disparities of income and wealth because they're family."

The U.S. has the highest income inequality in the industrialized world. Economists report that 80 percent of net income gains since 1980 went to people in the top 1 percent of the income distribution. The more income inequality a society has, the more friction, frustration and, alas, crime. "What's troubling to me," Ogletree said, "is why do not persons in faith get more involved in that issue. It's very disappointing to me that even Roman Catholic leaders talk more about abortion than poverty. But classic Roman Catholic teaching says that you should really care about your brothers in need."

Religion, as recent headlines grotesquely remind us, can never be free from apostasy, hypocrisy, or just plain flagrant abuses of power.

One answer to "The New Atheist Crusaders" might be found in the simple Christian hymn, "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love." Rather, it is understood, by our political positions and our volume. It would be a great relief if the strident were to adopt a humility more in keeping with their faith.

It has become more than embarrassing to watch clerics thunder about the ravages of sin one day and shuffle through a perp walk the next.

Still, those who criticize the religious for failing to live up to their own standards of perfection forget that faith is a practice, not an achievement. It is a process, not a fait accompli. It is not law, ethics, morality or jurisprudence.

British critic John Ruskin distinguished between religion, as feelings of love and reverence; and morality, which is the law of correctness in human conduct.

If we could start by being civil to one another, the faithful and the faithless might come to some kind of harmony.

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Registered: 12-20-2003
Mon, 03-23-2009 - 12:18am

I did find the link:

http://traceyosh.com/journal/2009/03/20/theyll-know-we-are-chrisitans-how/

I would love to see what comments are posted.

I am often amazed at all the false witnessing being bourne about our so-called "lack of morals" and being responsible for the down fall of America and people screaming we should get out. I guess I am lucky that where I live and grew up (NYC) that I do not have such numbskulls making such outrageous claims to my face. I have only encountered such slander and libel when watching people on TV or on the internet (especially on the adoption boards), oh and with dealing with Boy Scouts on the national level (my scoutmasters and local district leaders that I worked with would never say such a thing and actually supported me when going up for Eagle). Even most clergy people I encounter around here acknowledge that people of other faiths and those who lack faith are still OK.




Edited 3/23/2009 12:36 am ET by the_navigator84
iVillage Member
Registered: 10-02-2007
Mon, 03-23-2009 - 2:50am

Overall not bad but there were some questionable bits.

The phrase "defiantly irreligious" is absolutely ludicrous in reference to this part of the world. There's no defiance or hostility at ALL. Being "defiantly irreligious" would be just as odd as being vocally devout.

I wonder why Sweden's low birth rate should impress me. Is a declining population a sign of morality, or high standard of living?

Why should porn in Utah concern me when Denmark isn't given that same scrutiny? I don't know how much porn there is here, but there's a lot of divorce, babies born out of wedlock, legal prostitution, abortion, gambling…. None of these things bother me, but if they're going to bad-mouth the Bible Belt for behaviours like that it only seems fair to point out where Denmark stands too, since they're holding it up as being so awesome.

It's always weird to read about how other people view life here.

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Registered: 08-15-2008
Mon, 03-23-2009 - 10:19am
The local Christians think it is impossible for an atheist to have morals without the guidance of God. I had a Christian tell me I was immoral because the basic summary of my personal morals is to treat everyone well and help out where I can. Apparently that is not enough.



For Humor:


iVillage Member
Registered: 08-06-2006
Mon, 03-23-2009 - 12:06pm

"And yet life in this defiantly irreligious section of the world is profoundly moral...These and other revelations led Zuckerman to investigate what in this country can seem an impossibility: An atheistic society filled with morally decent people who make a good living, care for one another, and are generous to those less fortunate.
In other words, godless societies are not the barbarous plains of iniquity some in the Christian Right would suggest, but healthy, happy, productive societies that seem, if you will, more Christian than this one has managed to be."

Why do I find myself so annoyed with the condescension of the tone of this author? SO surprised to find that godlessness does not equal immorality. Bah. OR is the tone supposed to be ironic?

Either way, Thanks for posting the article...I finally got some time to read it!

Peace, Karen

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