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.