One of the most puzzling aspects of all things religious – and there are enough of them to choose from – is the belief that without a celestial dictator to give us moral guidance, we are lost. And this direction comes from a cruel, selfish, thoughtless, vindictive deity. Some example.
Thomas Jefferson (an advocate of secularism) wrote these words in reference to slavery, the cardinal American sin. Apparently, it was something of a moral burden to him. However, he wasn’t burdened enough to free his own slaves. And there, in a nutshell, we have the ongoing prismatic paradoxes between God and justice, nations under God and Godless nations, moral conscious and self-gain, modernization and traditionalism, and so on and so on…
The attributes of pro-social justice are nearly impossible to self-install. In a sense, it is remarkable that human beings are able to enact any large democracy at all. In his 2003 writings on “The Puzzle of Prosociality,” behavioral scientist Herbert Gintis remarks that humans are the only species to exhibit extensive cooperation even when they are not genetically related. Gintis attributes this to a number of factors including socially internalized norms, several types of biological and cultural transmissions, and an economic balance between self-interested and generous behaviors.
It is difficult to boil the world’s most “just” and happy societies to a few bullet point attributes, though the recent UK Guardian article “Godless Societies More Benevolent” by Nick Cohen picks one issue of prominence. Religion’s place in society has always been under question as possibly deleterious, though the recent publicity of Church crimes and surge of US intolerance (highlighted by the LGBTI rights issues and rampant nationwide “Islamophobia”), puts the religion question at the forefront.
Would the perennially polled “happy” countries like Switzerland and Iceland see their scores fall if they were as religious as the United States? Is there truth to the statement that becoming a more “Godless” society would aid the implementation of civil liberties and benevolence?
An article by Gregory S. Paul in the Journal of Religion and Science states rather bluntly: “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” He goes on to point out that the United States is a rarity in that it rates both highly religious and highly prosperous. The US has always been something of a statistical anomaly due to its size and geography and demographics. It’s not exactly productive to compare the US to Iceland, for example, because while Iceland is a tolerant and happy, most of their residents are genetically related. In addition, openness to atheism and secularism also does not indicate immediate tolerance. Australia, for example, was a leader in a recent Gallup generosity poll and recently elected an atheist Prime Minister. This is attractive on the surface level, but Australia has also faced notoriously slow improvements in attitudes towards diversity, most recently demonstrated by the anti-Middle Eastern Cronulla riots of 2005. That’s a half-point against the “religion is evil” argument. (I say half-point because religion, in combination with scientific racism, did have a place in building racial tensions in colonial Australia and… see how frustrating and elliptical this argument is?)
But no matter how “apples and oranges” the US and Denmark may be, there may be something behind the pro-secular argument in regards to overall social health, and not only for policy issues like stem-cell research and rampant adolescent gonorrhea rates. Let’s do a crude breakdown of prosocial behaviors and say that it basically amounts to charity, working cooperatively with like-minded individuals or neighbors, and concern for the plight of strangers or people unlike ourselves. The last point can be included in the umbrella category of “tolerance,” which is, in the end, the most glaring line of demarcation between secular and non-secular nations. It is also the cheapest to realize and the hardest to change.
It took Europe a while to change. Europe’s deviation from religion had its impetus in a violent continental history of religious wars. By the French Revolution, France had been dealing with religious wars as long as anyone could remember, and their now-famous (or infamous) brand of laicism is a result of a complete distaste of their own violent religious histories. Ideally, La Terreur should never happen in the US, though with recent deviations in our concept of American values, it looks as though we may get some sort of (less violent) game-changing fission.
The following story will sound something like a “Joe the Plumber” antidote, the kind of story a politician might pull out of his hat to emphasize an agenda, but it’s a perfect example of Gintis’ third point about one of the major components in the formation of prosocial behaviors: the reciprocity factor. The biggest blockade non-secular nations face, I believe, is that religion has simply convinced too many people that all good things in their life stem from the divine. If over 80 percent of Alabamans believe that all good things they have come from God and all goodness within them is God-given, then how are we to expect them to leave all that behind?
I was in a South African airport waiting for a flight when a middle-aged American man sat next to me and asked where I had been. I told him that most recently I was in Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and he began asking me if I knew where he could purchase a lot of Zimbabwean farmland (apparently he hadn’t heard of the dictator Robert Mugabe), and I told him that no, it was probably not a good idea to purchase land in Zimbabwe right now. I asked him what he was doing in South Africa. Charity work, he said, and proceeded to tell me about the hundreds of rudimentary African residents of Limpopo and how they all marveled at his benevolent whiteness and Christianity… or something like that. He said that it was his reconnection with God and Jesus that made him rethink his life and become generous.
No matter how ridiculous he was (and obviously not all religiously-driven donators are ridiculous), can we knock the few contributions he made? Money is money, and help is help. But this inherently self-interested quest for higher spirituality in benevolence is perhaps why it doesn’t work on a state level. There is a different definition of benevolence and sometimes even tolerance when one acts with God in mind or has been told to do so one’s entire life. Acts of charity and justice are, if done in the name of God, filtered through God’s relationship with the charitable individual, which ends up being something of a one-on-one relationship. Religion isn’t the root of all evil. It just doesn’t function very well when it comes to national policies.