Sunday, March 1, 2009

Religion As A Nonissue

Perhaps I should move to Scandinavia. (Why is the New York Times misspelling Scandinavian?)

From Scandanavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists by Peter Steinfels:

Phil Zuckerman spent 14 months in Scandinavia, talking to hundreds of Danes and Swedes about religion. It wasn’t easy.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.

Well documented though they may be, these two sets of facts run up against the assumption of many Americans that a society where religion is minimal would be, in Mr. Zuckerman’s words, “rampant with immorality, full of evil and teeming with depravity.”

Which is why he insists at some length that what he and his wife and children experienced was quite the opposite: “a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.”
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t move to Scandinavia. Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The idea of living somewhere where religion is unimportant is appealing, but the idea of living among people who think that the Bible "is full of nice stories and good morals" is scary.
Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”

Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.

Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”

This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
Then again, maybe I should move to Scandinavia.
Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.

A long list of thinkers, both believers and nonbelievers, have posited something like an innate religious instinct. Confronted by the mystery of death or the puzzle of life’s ultimate meaning, humans are said to be hard-wired to turn to religion or something like it. Based on his experience in Scandinavia, Mr. Zuckerman disagrees.

“It is possible for a society to exist in which most people don’t really fear death all that much,” he concluded, “and simultaneously don’t give a great deal of thought to the meaning of life.”
At one point, he queries Jens, a 68-year-old nonbeliever, about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture. Jens replies: “We are Lutherans in our souls — I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.”
I have never understood how believing in fairy tales and lies makes death more tolerable. I have never understood why life must have meaning. I have never understood why the universe must have a beginning. If God always was and always will be, why can’t the universe? Atheists can be moral people. Religious believers can be immoral people. God does not make any difference.

I believe in helping my neighbor. I do not believe in God.

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