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Good without God

I came across this article a few weeks back and was reminded of it today by a discussion of the age-old question of whether or not we need God to be good over at Jesus Creed.  The author of the article offers an answer in the negative, citing the blissfully secular Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Denmark as shining examples that God is not necessary for human happiness and moral decency:

Many people 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 those two countries. Although they may have relatively high rates of petty crime and burglary, and although these crime rates have been on the rise in recent decades, their overall rates of violent crime—including murder, aggravated assault, and rape—are among the lowest on earth. Yet the majority of Danes and Swedes do not believe that God is “up there,” keeping diligent tabs on their behavior, slating the good for heaven and the wicked for hell. Most Danes and Swedes don’t believe that sin permeates the world, and that only Jesus, the Son of God, who died for their sins, can serve as a remedy. In fact, most Danes and Swedes don’t even believe in the notion of “sin.”

A couple of interesting things jump out at me in this quote.  First, the fact (if, indeed, it is a fact) that “most Danes and Swedes don’t believe that sin permeates the world… or even believe in the notion of sin” could, so far from being construed as a testament to their secular moral enlightenment, be cited as evidence that our Scandinavian friends aren’t really paying much attention to the world around them.  Perhaps they need to broaden the scope of their vision, for there is indeed much that takes place in our world for which only the term “sin” seems an appropriate descriptor.  Not “believing in sin” could, in fact, be taken as either a sign of national myopia or flat-out moral insensitivity or indifference.  Neither one seems like a shining example of progress to me.

Second, the quote (and the article in general) betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what it actually means to say that we need God to be good.  If, indeed, the only reason human beings refrain from creating a “hell on earth” is their fear of the watchful eye of a wrathful God, then there is little to commend or admire them for.  But this is not the only (or the best or the most common) Christian understanding of what it means to say that we need God to be good.

A proper doctrine of creation is important here.  If we believe that all human beings (not just Christians, or “religious” people) are made in God’s image, and that God is a moral being with moral intentions, then we ought to expect to see this reflected in (all) his image-bearers (i.e., Romans 2:13-15).  We can certainly choose to reflect God’s image more fully and deliberately.  We can choose to acknowledge the source of our moral intuitions.  We can choose to allow God’s Spirit to conform us ever more fully into the image of Christ (the fullest expression of God’s image).  All of these things require belief in God and the practice of faith.

But to present your opponents’ conception of the issue in such stark terms—either believe in God or descend into anarchic violence and depravity—and then presume to demonstrate the folly of this view by showing a couple of happy “secular” nations is fairly unhelpful and, truth be told, a bit of a straw man.  The fact that the author chooses Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter  as sparring partners probably says about all that needs to be said about the care he has taken to understand Christian conceptions of the role belief in God plays in societal health (to be fair, he also cites Keith Ward and John Caputo but seriously—what is Ann Coulter doing in anything resembling rational discourse about religion?!).

But aside from these concerns, an interesting question I’m left with is: Should countries/regions where Christianity enjoys more public support be demonstrably “happier” than those where it does not? What if being moral/reflecting God’s image most properly does not necessarily lead to happiness as defined on a UN index?

I go back and forth on this one.  On the one hand, I do think that God desires human flourishing and that aligning ourselves with his intentions ought to lead to deeper fulfillment, contentment, etc.  On the other hand, I think that because God’s intentions involve entering and confronting the suffering of the world (as God himself did), the Christian necessarily opens herself up to a good deal of pain and dissatisfaction.  Somehow both of these realities ought to factor into what we think ought to result from a life lived in obedience to Christ.

At any rate, I’m retaining my skepticism about what (if anything) one author’s interpretation of the examples of Sweden and Denmark proves about God, morality, and human happiness.  I think that God is much more involved in who we are and what we (think) we want and need than we—even as Christians—are prepared to acknowledge or can fully understand.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Not “believing in sin” could, in fact, be taken as either a sign of national myopia or flat-out moral insensitivity or indifference.”

    The depends entirely on one’s definition of the word ‘sin’. Saying that you don’t believe in sin (as I happen not to) does not mean you don’t believe that bad things happen.

    ‘Sin’, if I remember my Sunday school correctly, is specifically an act that is an offense or harm against God. If there is no god, then there is no sin, at least under that definition of the term.

    I also think you may be mixing two things up. You talk about ‘being good’, and then you talk about ‘being happy’. The article you cite seems to refer to the fact that the Scandinavians are good without a god belief, not that they are happy without god belief. (Although they may be.)

    I believe I’ve heard of a study that said that the religious are, on average, more happy then the non-religious. I could be remembering that wrong, of course. But either way, we should remember the quote by George Bernard Shaw.

    “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

    I don’t mean that as a particular jab at believers. Only that ones happiness is not related to either their goodness or the truth of their beliefs.

    March 23, 2009
    • morsecode, thanks for your thoughts.

      The depends entirely on one’s definition of the word ’sin’. Saying that you don’t believe in sin (as I happen not to) does not mean you don’t believe that bad things happen.

      I agree, it does depend on how “sin” is defined. For me, believing that “bad things happen” isn’t enough—it seems like little more than an observation of an empirical fact. The question is, why do bad things happen? Well, at least some—maybe even most?—of the bad things that happen are the result of what human beings do. The word “sin” gets at the idea that there was some objective transgression undertaken by a personal agent who ought not to have done it. A religious understanding of the word certainly conceives of sin as “against God” in some sense, but sin can also be against fellow human beings. If “sin” is a word with too much religious baggage, I suppose we could substitute “evil” or “immoral” (or something else) although I’m not sure how much that would change.

      Re: mixing up goodness and happiness, the article seemed to go back and forth between the terms pretty regularly so I assumed the author was arguing for a connection between the two. At one point he cites a Dutch professor who says that Denmark is the happiest nation on earth so he seems to think that unbelief makes you both better and happier.

      I like the Shaw quote, by the way—although, as you allude to and as the author of this article could probably use reminding, it’s just as true when the words “skeptic” and “believer” are switched around.

      March 23, 2009
  2. This is a great post. I agree with the commentor above me that the ideas of happiness and goodness may have been a bit convoluted. However, the original article doesn’t seem to give too many options about when it comes to clarity.

    I think that more than anything else, it’s a good example of the World’s misunderstanding of what it means to believe in God. Orthodox Christianity doesn’t see God as a wrathful task-master waiting to crack the whip. Yet this is the misconception; it’s the way the world thinks of God and this has, I think, a great impact on, well, everything.

    It’s also important to note that society doesn’t differentiate (generally) the difference between a faith and any other social facet. Most will say that the United States is a “Christian nation”, while most orthodox Christians would disagree that that even exists.

    You raise some good thoughts.

    In response to the commenter above me, I have to disagree with your last statement, “happiness is not related to either their goodness or the truth of their beliefs”. I think this is too strong. It would certainly be true to say that “happiness is not necessarily related”, as your example clearly illustrates. However, presumptuous to say that it’s definitely isn’t. Few definite and objective claims can be made about the truth surrounding people’s faith, but it is entirely possible that the happiness the faithful feel is in fact an evidence of that truth. Or, maybe it’s not.

    March 23, 2009
  3. William,

    Forgive me if I was unclear. What I meant is that happiness does not equal truth. You can’t use the fact of a person’s happiness (or sadness) as evidence for the truth of their beliefs.

    I could believe the truth and be thrilled about it. I could also be depressed about the truth. Or I could be incredibly happy but believe a lie. Or I could believe a lie but hate it horribly.

    “Orthodox Christianity doesn’t see God as a wrathful task-master waiting to crack the whip.”

    Then “Orthodox Christianity” (not sure what you mean by that term) needs to provide some sort of explanation for nearly the entire Old Testament and great swaths of the New Testament.

    March 23, 2009
  4. Okay. I agree with that. A person’s emotional condition is an unreliable evidence of the truth of their beliefs.

    By orthodox Christianity, I mean the most traditional teachings of the faith. Citing the bible requires interpretation. No piece of literature means anything unless we interpret it, especially classic literature. The bible does come in two parts, the old testament leading up to Jesus and the new testament recounting Jesus. The orthodox teaching of the Christian faith, based on its interpretation of the bible, is that Jesus was the propitiation (or appeasement of wrath) for the sins of mankind.

    Of course, Christians vary to some degree in their understanding of this. But nearly all agree on the issue of God’s wrath and grace on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross.

    March 23, 2009
  5. Interesting post. I wonder if the distinction between high “petty” and low “violent” crime in a secular society may reflect a lack of belief in the afterlife. If you think this world is all there is and there is no higher authority judging your actions, it seems entirely plausible that you would have little compunction “cutting corners” in matters that are unlikely to get you in substantial worldly trouble, but you may be somewhat less willing to risk committing a major felony that (if you are caught) could wipe out your one and only chance for a happy life. I can’t say how commonly such a view would be consciously defended, but I could certainly imagine it having enough of an unconscious influence to impact society-level statistics.

    In any case, I often think that religion is one of those things that follows the dictum that “the worst things are always corruptions of the best.” That is, good religion (like good family, or good sex) is one of the most beneficial things in the world, but it doesn’t take too much distortion before religion (and family, and sex) becomes one of the worst. What is meant to promote charity, community and self-sacrifice can become an excuse for lack of charity, attacks on “outsiders” and naked self-interest. A religion that should rule crime out as unthinkable (as we are all to be judged by a good God), is distorted into a means of cheap grace and ends up excusing the very immorality it is meant to solve. Nevertheless, abusus non tollit usum.

    A final point: Too often these kinds of discussions equivocate between discussing whether a person can act good with or without God, and discussing whether good and evil themselves make any sense with or without God. Bill Vallicella has a good post on that here.

    March 23, 2009
  6. Ken, that’s a pretty interesting observation about petty and violent crime that I’m not sure that I’ve ever considered. Way to spur on my thinking! 🙂

    March 23, 2009
  7. William, thanks for the reminder that the “wrath” of God must be interpreted through the lens of Jesus. I suspect we might differ a bit in our understandings of the atonement, but I agree that any talk of a wrathful God has to at least take into consideration the central idea of the Christian faith, that of a God who gave himself for the sake of his people.

    Ken, I think your thoughts re: petty and violent crime have a high degree of plausibility. I think the taken-for-grantedness of online theft (music, movies, whatever) might be evidence of this. For many (even in the church), the question of whether this is right or wrong barely enters the equation.

    I also think you’re right to point out that it is the best things that are the most easily (and thoroughly?) corrupted and that have the most damaging and long-lasting effects.

    (Thanks also for the link—very helpful).

    March 23, 2009
  8. You do well to deconstruct the premises that this article supports. There are a number of practical sociological questions that bear asking as well. How do existing legal systems within these countries confound the notion of petty crime? The difference in prostitution laws might be one example. We know for instance in Denmark organized crime rates have dropped signficantly since they legalized and regulated prostitution. While laws do not necessarily determine the moral constitution of the average citizen it certain could factor into any statistical data collected.
    I also love how the author cites the increase of petty crime while summarily discounting its importance as a social phenomenon.
    The article seems to be poorly constructed.
    It also seems highly speculative to suggest that a concept of the after life can significantly influence the rate of more serious crimes. Statistics bear out the influence of alcohol/drugs in 80%+ cases of sexual assualt, and homicide. While that does not allow us to draw conclusions about motivations we can safely assume that careful evaluation of spiritual consequences of one’s actions may be dim at best.
    The most interesting question you asked is whether following God makes us happier or whether it actually forces us to acknowledge the depravity of the world around us. I wonder if the first section of the Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to start with that….

    March 24, 2009
    • Thanks for your comments Dale. The happiness question is an interesting one, and the Sermon on the Mount is certainly worth thinking about in this context. The beatitudes certainly seem to indicate that our happiness ought not be the primary goal, although this is certainly how faith is often presented—as if believing in Jesus is the solution to the problem of why you’re not happy. I’m teaching a class on Philippians right now, and last Sunday we talked about Phil. 3:10. Paul says he wants to “know Christ” by participating in his sufferings. A trip to the Christian bookstore or the “religion/spirituality” section at Chapters is an interesting contrast. To whatever extent “knowing Christ’ is even promoted, the goal is often profoundly individualistic and therapeutic—”I want to know Christ so that I’ll feel better about myself… learn how to obtain balance in my life… improve my finances… unlock my inner hero… become more wild at heart,” blah, blah, blah.

      I certainly don’t think happiness is bad, but it ought to be located under a much broader umbrella (hope? joy?). And sometimes, we shouldn’t be happy. We should mourn, hunger and thirst after righteousness, not shy away from persecution, etc. Any “faith” that does not look honestly at the world as it is compared to the world God intends is missing a significant dimension, in my opinion.

      (Not sure what’s going on with the ordering of the comments on this thread… The powers that be at WordPress have not been helpful in my attempts to figure things out.)

      March 24, 2009
  9. Jesus (the principles of his teaching) should probably be a significant part of the solution to most problems – happiness (our lack of it) shouldn’t be considered a problem.

    March 24, 2009
  10. J #

    I tried to read the article in question and all the coments closely… if my comment merely repeats what some have already said, I apologize.

    I think it’s definately possible to be good without God. Goodness (or happiness?) isn’t necessarily tied to any specific religious adherance… maybe I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but I think most people are good, regardless of them being religous or irreligious. Whether or not we could answer the questions, “why are we good?” or “what is good?” would be a different matter all together.

    March 24, 2009
  11. Thanks for your comment J. I agree that goodness isn’t tied to religious adherence—as I said in the post, the image of God is in all of us, not just Christians or “religious” folks. Having said that, I think people have the capacity for both good and evil in them—there’s too much evidence to the contrary out there for me to affirm that people are basically good. For me, the questions of “what is good?” and “why are we good?” might be difficult to agree upon, but are among the most interesting ones which get right to the heart of the consistency of the various worldviews.

    March 24, 2009
  12. Tyler Brown #

    “ones happiness is not related to either their goodness or the truth of their beliefs”
    “happiness does not equal truth”

    The modern distinction between happiness and goodness seems to be very blurred. However, for Aristotle it was not. Happiness to him was a lifetime of virtuous action. Therefore goodness and happiness are very closely tied if not the same thing. He also notes that happiness is rather unique as it is both the means and the end.

    So regardless of whether God is in the equation, to live happy by this definition, there has to be a good the individual aims for. If we call God ‘the good’, sin is merely is the turning away form that good. If sin is turning away from the Good, happiness is moving towards the good. Or happiness can be equally considered, in a christian context, as moving towards the truth.

    March 29, 2009
    • Thanks for bringing Aristotle in Tyler (I can always count on you for that!). I think this connection between virtue and and happiness is one that is largely lost today. We would probably substitute something like “pleasure” for virtue—if our desires are being met, we are happy. The idea that there is something like an objective “good” or telos for human life (as Aristotle and virtually all the big thinkers of history took for granted) is no longer assumed or, sometimes, even considered.

      March 30, 2009
  13. Tyler #

    I very much agree Ryan. So much emphasis is placed on the individual and thinking about the individual that it is assumed that pleasure will lead is to happiness. As stated by a previous poster, it seems that often then best or the most “pleasurable” is the worst in its perverted form. It is easy hypothesize that because something is so pleasurable it is easy to indulge in, and thus becomes so corrupt.

    If virtue and happiness were to be once again linked and possibly a reduction of emphasis on individualism it would be easier for people to be more Good (although it would requires a lot of practical wisdom). Relating back to the article, its impossible to have good without God or some other objective good, even if the people assume they are not aiming towards some objective good. I don’t have a bible with me right now, but I believe Paul in Romans discusses virtuous traits among pagans and others, and how they have a sense of some underlying morale code.

    March 30, 2009
  14. You’re right Tyler. Romans 2:13-15 talks about how the requirements of the law are known by nature to all of us. Elsewhere Paul remarks that this leaves us “without excuse”—i.e., we ought to acknowledge the existence of an objective “good” and to strive to align ourselves with/discover the source of that good. I think that for Paul (and for Aristotle) it would be fairly obvious that maximizing individual pleasure would not qualify as the ultimate objective good…

    March 30, 2009

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