C.S. Lewis famously argued that morals need God, that one cannot have universal morals without a divine foundation for those morals. That is, apart from belief in God it is hard to maintain belief in morals. The question Lewis provokes for some is this: Are there cultures where folks are both demonstrably moral and irreligious. One of the more interesting books I’ve read of late is Phil Zuckerman’s new book, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment , because Zuckerman argues he’s found just that.
Here’s our question: How do traditional Christians explain places where there is very little religious belief but there is a clear presence of good, respectable morals and civlity?
Zuckerman studies cultures or societies where folks are:
Zuckerman studied Denmark (esp) and Sweden.
Here are some facts:
First, Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the entire world — according to happiness studies those Danes are near the top every year. They have great life expectancy, wealth/GDP (8th in world), economic equality, gender equality, health care, education, technology, lack of corruption — very good quality of life.
Second, Denmark is one of the least religious — measured by normal markers like church attendance (9%), Bible reading, prayer, belief in God (only 51%; USA is at 90%), belief in life after death (33%), belief in heaven (18%), etc — countries in the world.
Third, Denmark is noted for its decency, civility, and good behavior — and it is known for the absence of crime, etc..
Danes don’t fear death as many religious cultures do; and neither do they think there is meaning to life as much as many cultures. Their religion is inherent to their culture, they pay taxes to the church, etc., but Denmark is noted by “cultural religion” — a high proportion practice religious rites but do not believe in the supernatural dimensions.
By the way, I’m not sure Zuckerman takes into consideration the hangover of a Christian culture on the present morals of the Danes (and Swedes) and I’m not sure the argument of many isn’t “universal grounding for ethics” require belief in God more than good moral behaviors only flow out of belief in God. But, he’s got a good book and he’s got stuff from Laura Schlesinger, Jerry Falwell, and others that contend that without belief in God a society will become immoral.
I suspect many will suggest that there’s more religion in the Danes and Swedes than they let on and that overt beliefs and practices are not always the only indicator of religious beliefs. But in normal measures, he’s got the facts on his side.