Monday, February 2, 2009

Maybe Religion Does Poison Everything

"Zuckerman proposes what he calls a "socio-religious irony." The world's great religions speak of caring for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned, and of practicing mercy and goodwill toward fellow humans, yet these traits are often more evident in the world's least religious nations."

From Christianity Today Magazine, review of Phil Zuckerman's Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman chronicles 14 months spent in highly secular Scandinavian countries and discovers surprisingly compassionate and contented peoples largely free of the troubling ills of society --failing schools, child abuse, systemic poverty and inequitable healthcare-- that plague more religious nations like the United States. I'd recommend reading the whole review. The bias is fairly heavy handed, but the criticisms are mostly fair and reasonable.

The final paragraph of the review, however, is almost comic and underscores the moral dilemma of believing in an afterlife.

Zuckerman sells humanity short. If people are content but no longer care about transcendent meaning and purpose or life beyond death, that's not a sign of greatness but tragic forgetfulness. Their horizon of concern is too narrow. They were made for more. What does it profit a society if, as this book's jacket notes, it gains "excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer," but loses its soul? Can a country build strong social systems and keep its soul?

Oh no! We can make progress on the eradication of suffering, but we'll have to stop pretending we're made of magic soul-stuff! It's not worth it!

By the way, I think more than a few Scandinavians would probably take issue with the implication that they no longer care about "transcendent meaning and purpose" just because they don't believe in an invisible man in the clouds.


Daniel said...

I'll fully admit that I haven't read one word of Zuckerman's book, so maybe my complaint is moot, but it sounds like a horrendous causation fallacy. To compare the better off Scandinavian countries with Western, Middle-Eastern Nations, etc. and say the one distinguishing trait among them is their religiosity is absurd. Or maybe he isn't trying to connect the dots? Just demonstrating that religious affiliation (or lack there of) has no correlation to so called moral behavior.

In any case, I'm much more inclined to believe that something as simple as geography and, in turn, political-historical ties dictate our societal priorities. Scandinavian countries tend to be fairly isolated and insular and this lends itself to looking inward when it comes to what problems need to be solved and in what order.

Neil said...

"Scandinavian countries tend to be fairly isolated and insular and this lends itself to looking inward when it comes to what problems need to be solved and in what order."

The U.S. is far more inward-looking than most, so why isn't it solving its important problems? Why bother when your imaginary friend is going to take care of everything?

Jay said...

Yeah, I'm a little wary of the argument because it does seem to flirt with the causation fallacy --but I haven't read the book, so I'll have to reserve judgment.

Anonymous said...

Daniel: I believe you are missing the point of his argument. The religious claim that religion, for the most part, is responsible for moral behavior and thus healthy societies. If this were the case, then the most religious societies would be the most just and healthy. The fact that they are not; that no amount of religiosity can negate secular factors such as per capita income, the maintenance of and access to infrastructure, population size, and investment in education, shows that religion does not create moral behavior or an equitable society.

To strengthen his point he brings up some very equitable, very healthy societies that are also very secular. The reasons why Sweden is wealthy, healthy, and secure while Syria is not are complex and rooted deeply in the histories of those different states, and I'm sure Mr. Zuckerman realized that, but he isn't discussing that; he's refuting a specific argument.

normdoering said...

Does Zuckerman's book say anything about the Scandinavian countries being the home of "Death Metal."

Michael Caton said...

Norm: I disagree with your assertion that Scandinavia is the home of death metal - probably the best argument could be made for England serving in that role. That said, Scandinavia has more death metal bands per capita and per square mile than anywhere else on Earth, so I would argue that whatever the Scandinavians are doing, it's right. Even if it weren't for the beer and bike paths.

Neil' said...

As a Unitarian Universalist, I know one can find ethics and meaning apart from the existence of a being beyond the universe. I have my own arguments for why there needs to be something beyond this anyway, but it isn't required to appreciate right and wrong, have sacred respect for the world (through "Earth centered religious practice") and meaningful respect for human life, rituals of marriage and death, etc.

Daniel said...

By what standard is the US inward-looking? I was thinking namely of our foreign policy, where we have, especially over the past 5 decades, taken a very hands on approach with the affairs of countries that in no way affect our domestic security.

Dave2 said...

Michael, Norm:

You're both quite wrong.

England can lay claim to heavy metal: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Motorhead, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, et al.

Scandinavian countries are the undisputed home of black metal: Mayhem, Emperor, Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal, et al.

But where does death metal come from? The good ol' U. S. of A. of course (mainly Florida). Possessed, Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Necrophagia, Suffocation, et al.