To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;–
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–
Comes a still voice–Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourish’d thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock,
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould. Continue reading →
B. Hume also argues, by the same token, that it is not reason that is behind morality, but instinct and habit, and that God appeals precisely because so little can be understood or depended on. Which perhaps leads us to your last three books, which have all been written very recently.
AG. Yes, the next three books I’ve chosen to talk about are all contemporary: one published just a few weeks ago, one last year and one a few years before that. None of them are by philosophers. The first one, called “Society Without God”, is by a sociologist called Phil Zuckerman and is a study of a very particular phenomenon: religion in Scandinavia today. Now you might think, why bracket a sociologist with Spinoza and Hume? Well I wouldn’t on a philosophical reading list, but I think that if you’re interested in the relation between religion and secularism today, this book is essential. It focuses on Denmark and Sweden, the two countries in which Zuckerman lived whilst working on the book. They are two of the healthiest and happiest societies in the world, in which most people simply do not give a fig about religion. It doesn’t play any meaningful role in their lives. Obviously there are some religious people there, but the proportion is much smaller than anywhere else. And this is a very interesting phenomenon, because throughout most of history, including the period in which Spinoza and Hume were writing, it was generally held, and is still held by a lot of religious people, especially Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, that a society of atheists must be an evil and unhappy place. For most of human history you didn’t even need to argue that. It was so obvious that atheists were evil…. What Zuckerman found about the Scandinavians is not that they are atheists in the mould of Dawkins and Hitchens but that they just couldn’t care one way or another.
B. So not even agnostics, who in theory are still working on the problem?
AG. Couldn’t even be bothered with that. The questions simply don’t arise. And yet here is the really striking thing. However you want to measure a society’s health—whether it is literal, physical health, social welfare, education, happiness, living standards, life expectancy—these countries are at the top. So here is very convincing proof that it is perfectly okay not to be a believer.
You might think that after all those tens of millions of Evangelical Christians watched The Last Temptation of Christ, they perhaps developed at least a mild disdain for governments that hire soldiers to inflict violent brutality upon their prisoners.
A new national survey just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that it is precisely those folks who ate up Mel Gibson’s blockbuster — church-going Evangelical Christians — who are far more likely to support the use of torture than non-religious Americans. And of several groups representing various religious orientations, it is secular Americans that are actually the group most opposed to the use of torture.
What’s the deal? I thought Christians were into things like mercy, love, and forgiveness. Not water-boarding. Maybe I missed it, but of the thirty or forty times that I’ve read the New Testament — particularly the Sermon on the Mount — I just don’t recall the “Thou Shalt Torture” passages. It is fascinating that on this clear question of morality, church-going Christians seem to be the most, well, challenged.
Peter Steinfels, Religion Editor for the New York Times, devoted an entire column this week to the findings in Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God, which continues to generate new commentary in many spheres. Here’s the full article.
Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”
This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person,” the colleague pleaded.
Proposition 8 passed because of religious folk. There is no question about it. Church-going Black Americans, tithe-paying Mormons, mass-attending Latinos, and Evangelical whites all joined forces in “protecting marriage.” The underlying reason religious people voted to revoke from gays and lesbians the legal right to marry is doggedly theological: God doesn’t like it. And when a society or culture does things that God doesn’t like, that society or culture will suffer. This is a central tenet of every religion, and has been ever since the first shaman first claimed to be able to discern the will of the Almighty by examining the patterns in a bowl full of crushed berries.
Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. In The Ten Commandments, she approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: “Where there is no God, all is permitted.” The opposing view, held by a small minority of secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, is that belief in God makes us worse. As Hitchens puts it, “Religion poisons everything.”
As for faith being the cornerstone of personal morality, Zuckerman would remind us that Scandinavians rank near the top in charitable giving to poor nations, that their murder rate is among the lowest in the world and that the safety net they’ve created for their poorest citizens puts the U.S. welfare state to shame. And all this has been accomplished without God breathing down anyone’s neck.
Indeed, the baldly secular outlook Scandinavians take toward their own deaths rivals Zeno for stoicism. “I think we will be earth, you know,” a Danish woman tells Zuckerman. “I don’t think anything will happen.” “It is as it is,” says a 75-year-old Stockholm publisher. “You just have to live every day,” says a 43-year-old father of two, “and make nice days.”
“You can do whatever you want,” says one Danish man, “just you keep it to yourself.” “In Denmark,” a pastor remarks, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
The candidates are talking a lot about God these days. During his televised conversation with Celebrity Pastor Rick Warren, Senator Obama declared that humans can’t erase evil from the world; that’s “God’s task,” he explained. Articulating strikingly similar theology, Governor Palin has recently remarked that the Iraq war was a “task from God.” Senator Biden invoked the “Lord Almighty” while questioning Ambassador Crocker during a recent Senate committee hearing, and Senator McCain — not known for his piety – has written for Time magazine that for some 20 years he’s been serious about “deepening my relationship with Christ.” And of course, no public political speech can end without the crucial, obligatory: “God Bless America.”
Why all this God-talk among our nation’s leading politicians? Simple: Americans are a religious lot. The vast majority of us believe in God, love God, and are quite certain that the worship of God is a necessary ingredient for a good, moral, strong nation. It is an age-old and well-subscribed-to theory: worship God, pray to God — and elect leaders who have a strong connection to God — and He will reward us with societal happiness, security, and prosperity. Sounds reasonable. There’s only one problem: the facts of the state of the world today don’t support the theory. Continue reading →