I’m not sure what to make of the article in Slate that equates religiosity with niceness, and points out that the atheistic Danes and the Swedes are happier and nicer and have fewer negative social problem than the US which boasts of it’s religiosity.

In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don’t go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don’t believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they’re nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

But from a sociological and evolutionary standpoint, he is wrong.

You wonder why Scandinavians are so well behaved?It’s the genes, stupid.

It’s because Bjorn the Troublemaker, and a couple million other lower class folks got tired of being bossed around, and hightailed it to Minnesota a hundred years ago, and took their ADHD genes with them.

Who are Americans descended from? To paraphrase Bill Murray:

We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world.

I’m joking of course. But not completely.

It’s partly genes, and partly cultural. Scandinavian society has a strict Protestant morality that was there before Christianity and is there after Christianity was discarded.

But if you have to make a comparison, a more accurate comparison in the quality of “niceness” would not be between Scandinavia and the US, but between the less than religious Scandinavians and the good Lutherans in Minnesota. “Betcha” they are the same.

But the article makes one wonder: Is “niceness” considered to be the highest moral value? Possibly, in American society, at least.

But what do we mean by niceness? And again, genes and neurobiology come into that question.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: Don’t confuse goodness with good digestion. He explains: A person with  bad nerves and bad digestion might have to pray to God for strength to remain civil and act nicely, and to restrain his temper, whereas in contrast, a “nice” person might never recognize he had faults (e.g. “I’m okay/You’re okay”) and therefore never feel the need for religion at all.

Often this “niceness” has blind spots: most notably that it cannot comprehend evil, and so allows evil to flourish outside it’s range of sight, as the nice Swedes managed to flourish as nice neutrals during World War II.

Ah, but don’t those nice Swedes have a welfare state that cares for everyone? Doesn’t that prove they are compassionate?

Well, yes, but the dirty little secret is that a welfare state causes personal ethics and personal responsibility for one’s family to wither. Knowing that there is a government paid worker to care for one’s child, the sick, and the elderly in one’s own family lets you go your own merry way without having to sacrifice time or effort to take care of grandmom, or the kid who was probably conceived out of wedlock.

Why marry when the government will take care of them?

Sweden appears to be the most supportive of its families in the area of childcare. It guarantees childcare for children aged one to eleven for parents who work or who are students. Early childhood education centers provide universal coverage for children less than seven years old.

The result?  A falling population, and a lot of the babies that are born are from immigrant families.

Can the nice (aka responsibility free thanks to the welfare state) Swedish culture survive when it has a larger, but ethically  strict, immigrant population?

Of course, the Slate article is unclear if we talking about niceness, or about ethics.

Which brings us to another question: Can morality and ethics exist without God?

Yes, and China proves it. The Confucian ethic is as high and strict as any Christian moral ethic, and does not rely on God or the punishment of hellfire to enforce it.

Yet the numerous injustices against the common people in China over the past 3000 years show that from a practical point of view, morality without theism is no better or worse than morality with a God: indeed, it might be worse, since religion emphasizes the importance of the weak, and that God is above the whims of the government. That is why there is no Chinese equivalent of a  St. Ambrose to tell the Emperor to repent after a massacre of civilians, or a John Paul II to mobilize people against an unjust and oppressive tyrrany.

In other words, a relationship to God is not merely about niceness, but about responsibility for one’s neighbors, and an ability to see things of good and evil in perspective.

But Slate is not the only magazine that seems to be clueless about God.

USA Today has an article for it’s readers to discuss “if Faith makes you happy”.

can spirituality (and not organized religion) have the same effect? How much of a role does it play in your satisfaction with life?

The first problem with this is that in America, “Happiness” is too often defined as having things, of achieving one’s goals, and of course of being able to do what you want to do. So religion or “spirituality” here is assumed to be important because it makes you happy.

Ah, but what if those nasty ten commandments get in the way of what we think is “happiness”?

The only answer to this is the snide remark by one controversial carpenter: What does it matter if one gets everything one wishes in life, but loses one’s soul?

Soul. A religious concept: but perhaps the idea could also be translated as “self respect” or “integrity”.

This idea is not just found in traditional religion, since classical ethics of the west and of the east all insist: That the goal in life is not to be “happy” but to live a just and moral life, to care for one’s family, and neighbor, to control one’s passions, and to work for a just society so that others can do the same.

Ironically, President Obama often echoes this message, which he learned from Reverend Wright and other unpopular prophets,  who preaching against personal and institutional greed and oppression are so needed in today’s world.

Now, if the President would only pull a “Bill Cosby” and start stressing personal responsibility is also part of God’s plan.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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