Does Religion Make You Nice?

Or, does atheism make you mean? Those are the questions asked by Slate.com writer Paul Bloom in his review of Philip Zuckerman’s Society without God (NYU Press 2008).

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.”

19 Comments on Does Religion Make You Nice?

  1. this I posted on my blog this is the entire article on the blog, in response to Zuckerman’s comments:

    This is in he comment section of a blog (see the last link on the original article published this Blog on Monday Zuckerman part 1). Is this guy really Zuckerman? I don’t know but he claims he is.

    Comment from Metacrock
    Time January 24, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Hey Dr. Z, I think you miss the boat in so many ways. Yes I’m sure you are just a humble socail scientist trying to make a sound contribution to the Western tradition. But, I was a sociology major. I got out of sociology because of their anti-religoius number crunching attitude. I studied soc of religion with Ansen Schupe as an undergraduate. He was not what I would call “anti-religious.” I learned more from him than from anyone in my undergraduate days.

    But miss the boat in several ways:

    (1) you are not distinguishing between belief and participation. When your informants say “I believe in something” that does not make them atheists it doe snot make them anti-religious. It does not mean they are without God. God does not have to be a big man in the sky.

    (2) a vast plethora of data demontrates the innate nature of religious belief. Just showing a culture where the religious participation is different doesn’t mean you have proven that that society is “without God.”

    (3) the basic values that laid the foundation for the welfare state were handed down by the Christian past. The institution of the church had little to do with making the welfare state, Christianity as a belief system and system of values may have had a lot to do with it in terms clearing he way.

    (4) I’ve seen a lot of evidence for a new alternative view of religion in Scandinavia similar or analogs to the “new religions” of Japan. You are not hip to this trend at all.

    (5) There is a vast body of data demonstrated the innate nature of religion and its’ value for society

    340 (at least) studies on mystical experince and the cross culturally verified M scale makes these empirical.

    about 400 studies on Juvenile crime and religion that show religious belief and participation make for less of it.

    all together given studies on religion and health, religious experince a psychosocial value and social ills, there are probably about 2000 studies that show the value of religion. They all over Pub med. They are scholarly, empirical, not hard to find. I”m not even counting those bogus prayer studies or bogus new age like healing at a distance stuff.

    You are just scratching the surface. you are very far from proving your thesis.

    Z’s First reply

    Comment from Phil Zuckerman
    Time February 12, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Dear Metarock — thanks for your message.
    Let me briefly try to respond.

    1) I agree. But BOTH participation and belief are low in DK and SE. I totally that when someone says that they believe in “something” they are not necessarily an atheist. But when people said this to me, I pushed them to explain and discuss this “something” — they had little or nothing to say. I asked them how important this “something” was to them — generally they said not at all — just if pushed they think there may be “something” out there. You can call this theism or spirituality if you like, but it is VERY WEAK — which was my point.

    But being “weak” is not important, because they are also weak in atheism as well. That is not a news story, “Northern Europe is weak in Christian belief” so what? you can hardly conclude that their social welfare state is based upon being weak in Christianity. You are still not accounting for the past when it was strong and that strength built the progressive state they live in. What they are strong in today is not atheism but secularization, there’s a big difference.

    Zuckerman:

    2) If religious belief is “innate” (which by that I assume you mean in-born, biological, or natural), then why are there about 500 or 700 million people that are non-believers? The latest Harris poll shows that nearly 20% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. A recent Barna poll puts it is 9% — either way, we’re talking millions and millions of people. What happened to their “innate” religious belief? How do you explain the low levels of religiosity in DK and SE or Estonia — or heck, among Jews? The whole “religion is innate” theory is hard to square with millions and millions and millions of non-believers.
    3) If this is true, then why are there no excellent welfare states in heavily Christian lands such as Latin America or Africa or the USA? I don’t disagree that Christian values had something to do with the establishment of the welfare state — but so what? What is your point? My point is this: isn’t it interesting that where religious belief is the weakest, society is the most healthy, and where religious belief is strongest, society is a mess. How do you explain this fact?

    That is not true. 20% is way over inflated and ridiculous. You are misquoting Barna, you are not using Gallop and you are ignoring the most important Pew study which is the most elaborate and best representative study every done on the religious landscape in America (2007) and it found 1.6% were atheists! you are falling for the media short hand which lumps in all kinds of people such as those who believe in God but don’t like religion, agnostics, witches and other kinds of religions, you are accepting them all as “atheist.” Every time you find anything over 3% for atheism check the stats to see and every time you find they are including believers in God who don’t like organized religion.

    That doesn’t even disprove innate religious belief. No one says that religious belief can’t conform itself to other kinds of institutions. Atheists use scinece as an er zots religion. Science functions ni atheist metempsychosis as religion does in Christian metaphysics. The state functioned in communist metaphysics as God does in Christian metaphysics.

    4) By all means, do share. Are you referring to the article by Stark, Hamberg, and Miller? I have plenty of critiques of that…

    NO

    5) Then why are the most religious states in the USA (measured both by belief AND participation) the most messed up (highest murder rates, poverty rates, etc)? Why are the most religious nations in the world the most messed up? Why does the USA have the highest murder rate compared to much more secular nations? Hm…I just don’t understand how you can argue this…

    If you can’t understand why that’s argument from sign and way too simplistic correlation you aer not much of a social scientist. I don’t know any sociologist, (yes I do know sociologists it was my major and I completed it) that would make such a simplistic correlation and draw causal conclusions from it. That’s so simplistic when the obvious variables of poverty and education you can link to anything.

    6) I don’t deny that religion has positive social or psychological benefits. But these benfits probably come from the good that comes from being part of a caring community — the benefits of social capital, social support, etc. — I am sure that they don’t come from the precious blood of Jesus…

    That’s where you are demonstrably wrong! The bleief itself is credited with the effects. It probably has something do with the social network but not much. It is demonstrably not the result of just having a good network because no study comparing nets works demonstrates hat secular networks are better. All studies demonstate that the religious networks is better.

    Your last little quip betrays your lack of objective analysis, your ideological motivations.

    300 studies

    Religious Experience Studies

    Dr. Z then adds this:

    Comment from Phil Zuckerman
    Time February 12, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Metarock — also, I am curious: do you really think that all people, all cultures, and all countries are somehow religious in equal measure? If yes, you will have to ignore a shit-load of data that says otherwise, and if no, then why is it that the least religious people/nations tend to be doing quite well, while the most religious people/nations tend to be the worst off (at least when considering standard sociological measures like poverty, homicide, education, life expectancy, etc.)….granted, suicide tends to be lower among the religious (and the poor), but this is an exception that merely proves the larger rule…and the research that I am familiar with concerning mental health suggests that it is the MODERATELY religious that report better health than the secular AND the strongly religious — again, I would explain this being a result of social support and being part of a loving community, not innate theism, per se…

    Your reading of those stats is ideologically motivated and not based upon very keen analysis. Most of this is explained in my comments above. But, the appraise “least religious” is misleading because its a subjective measure. You are not based upon actual beliefs but upon participation in somethings of social institutional nature while ignoring others. Like the Sweds don’t to church as much as Americans but 80s are members. You can’t account for the particularization in Japan. you and Paul used to use (or least he did) Japan as an “atheist country” but in terms particularization in festivals such Bonn it’s still very religious.

    The health thing you are totally out of the loop on. A huge number of studies demonstrate religious particularization is a key factor in heath, not moderate but high participation it’s a siding scale. That research is too diverse to just lump it all into one category or draw short hand conclusions from one liners. I’m not impressed with your off the cuff short one liner analysis that doesn’t dig behind the stats.

  2. OK — More for Karen —
    You stated that “most” reviews of my book in DK were negative, that my sociology fell short and that I was “duped” by the natives. Hm — well — here’s what the Danish publisher of my book had to say in a recent e-mail about the reviews of my book: “What the woman states is wrong! There has been negative comments, and some actually pritty ‘loud’, but it has only been what we expected. Basically the comments can be split up into two cathegories: those comming from a Christian background eagerly defending the Christian entity, and ‘others’ – e.g. including sociologist of religion. Those critical are the ones in the first group. Unfortunately one of these ‘voices’ were asked to give a bookreview in Weekendavisen – and he came out fourious… But the ‘others’ have primarily been positive, embracing your book as raising an important question. So, far from all journalists or bookreviewers have been negative. What is the name of this woman? It shouldn’t by any chance be Karen Skovsgaard??? She was the first to criticise your book – that is what she always do… If you need more data on which reviews were positive and which where not, please let me know.”

    So Karen, you lied about my sample (claiming that my informants were primarily colleagues or friends of colleagues) and you seem to have distorted the truth about how my book was received in DK.

    How “Christian” of you 🙂

  3. Karen — you said that “most” reviews of my book said that it fell short, and that I was “duped” — Hm. Can you please send me or post those reviews? I’d love to see/read them, and have my Danish friends translate them for me. Or was this assertion of yours not completely true?

  4. Metarock — also, I am curious: do you really think that all people, all cultures, and all countries are somehow religious in equal measure? If yes, you will have to ignore a shit-load of data that says otherwise, and if no, then why is it that the least religious people/nations tend to be doing quite well, while the most religious people/nations tend to be the worst off (at least when considering standard sociological measures like poverty, homicide, education, life expectancy, etc.)….granted, suicide tends to be lower among the religious (and the poor), but this is an exception that merely proves the larger rule…and the research that I am familiar with concerning mental health suggests that it is the MODERATELY religious that report better health than the secular AND the strongly religious — again, I would explain this being a result of social support and being part of a loving community, not innate theism, per se…

  5. I just noticed that Karen is affiliated with a church organization. Hm. So let me get this straight: if I argue that secularity is prevalent in Denmark, then I have engaged in “biased” research. But if Karen (a church person) critiques my work (which is fine) and lies about my data/sample (not fine), that isn’t “biased”?

  6. Metarock — something more to consider: Asian Americans are the least religious racial-ethnic group in the USA in terms of belief and participation. Jews are the least “religious” group in the country, by all measures. And yet Asian Americans and Jews are at the top of all indicators of success and social health: educational attainment, income, professions, low crime, etc. — how do you explain this? If religion is so beneficial (and by religion I generally assume you mean Christianity, unless you also include Islam in which case I wonder if you’re eager to move to Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, etc. – what lovely models of societal health:) — then why are America’s least religious peoples (Jews and As-Ams) doing so well? I’m curious how you explain this all…

  7. Karen — you stated that my research was “primarily” based on interviews with colleagues and friends of colleagues. This was a lie. Please admit that.
    Yes, I wish I spoke Danish. I am learning and learning…trying and trying…

  8. Dear Metarock — thanks for your message.
    Let me briefly try to respond.
    1) I agree. But BOTH participation and belief are low in DK and SE. I totally that when someone says that they believe in “something” they are not necessarily an atheist. But when people said this to me, I pushed them to explain and discuss this “something” — they had little or nothing to say. I asked them how important this “something” was to them — generally they said not at all — just if pushed they think there may be “something” out there. You can call this theism or spirituality if you like, but it is VERY WEAK — which was my point.
    2) If religious belief is “innate” (which by that I assume you mean in-born, biological, or natural), then why are there about 500 or 700 million people that are non-believers? The latest Harris poll shows that nearly 20% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. A recent Barna poll puts it is 9% — either way, we’re talking millions and millions of people. What happened to their “innate” religious belief? How do you explain the low levels of religiosity in DK and SE or Estonia — or heck, among Jews? The whole “religion is innate” theory is hard to square with millions and millions and millions of non-believers.
    3) If this is true, then why are there no excellent welfare states in heavily Christian lands such as Latin America or Africa or the USA? I don’t disagree that Christian values had something to do with the establishment of the welfare state — but so what? What is your point? My point is this: isn’t it interesting that where religious belief is the weakest, society is the most healthy, and where religious belief is strongest, society is a mess. How do you explain this fact?
    4) By all means, do share. Are you referring to the article by Stark, Hamberg, and Miller? I have plenty of critiques of that…
    5) Then why are the most religious states in the USA (measured both by belief AND participation) the most messed up (highest murder rates, poverty rates, etc)? Why are the most religious nations in the world the most messed up? Why does the USA have the highest murder rate compared to much more secular nations? Hm…I just don’t understand how you can argue this…
    6) I don’t deny that religion has positive social or psychological benefits. But these benfits probably come from the good that comes from being part of a caring community — the benefits of social capital, social support, etc. — I am sure that they don’t come from the precious blood of Jesus…

    Thanks again, though, for your very thoughtful feedback.

  9. Dear Phil

    First of all: Of course I read your book! And i read the appendix. And i raead it carefully.

    And remember. I was not the only one who laughed at how you had been taken for a ride by the University Culture in Århus.

    As an anthropologist (with a long university carreer behind me) I could not, however, keep it at that. I had to react to your book and your conclusions concerning the interface between morality and faith. because they were so blatantly misguided. And becuase you so obviously had become enamoured by the friendly atmosphere in Århus. Much the same feeling I initally had when I lived for a year at Haverford College back in the 80ties and people continously confided in me, that they “actually” felt more European than American.

    Admit it, you were seduced!

    But then, does it really matter? Not much except that you book took on a special meaning in Denmark where the professional atheists immediately used it for their own political and cultural agenda.

    Your book is a biased enquiry written with an agenda and not a solid piece of research. In order to do a proper study you might start out by getting to know the language to such an extent that you could conduct a piece of proper fieldwork and not the least talk to people in their own language. I am fluid in both Danish and English (lived in the Midwest as a child). And still i should hesitate to believe that I would have the capabilities in terms of language to do, say a sociological study like that of eg. Zaniecki and Thomas. But the of course you never intended that.

    Finally, I am not vicious. I am critical because you use your book to argue for a certain political and cultural agenda: atheism.
    best regards karen
    (Sorry I did not register your remarks until now)

  10. Hey Dr. Z, I think you miss the boat in so many ways. Yes I’m sure you are just a humble socail scientist trying to make a sound contribution to the Western tradition. But, I was a sociology major. I got out of sociology because of their anti-religoius number crunching attitude. I studied soc of religion with Ansen Schupe as an undergraduate. He was not what I would call “anti-religious.” I learned more from him than from anyone in my undergraduate days.

    But miss the boat in several ways:

    (1) you are not distinguishing between belief and participation. When your informants say “I believe in something” that does not make them atheists it doe snot make them anti-religious. It does not mean they are without God. God does not have to be a big man in the sky.

    (2) a vast plethora of data demontrates the innate nature of religious belief. Just showing a culture where the religious participation is different doesn’t mean you have proven that that society is “without God.”

    (3) the basic values that laid the foundation for the welfare state were handed down by the Christian past. The institution of the church had little to do with making the welfare state, Christianity as a belief system and system of values may have had a lot to do with it in terms clearing he way.

    (4) I’ve seen a lot of evidence for a new alternative view of religion in Scandinavia similar or analogs to the “new religions” of Japan. You are not hip to this trend at all.

    (5) There is a vast body of data demonstrated the innate nature of religion and its’ value for society

    340 (at least) studies on mystical experince and the cross culturally verified M scale makes these empirical.

    about 400 studies on Juvenile crime and religion that show religious belief and participation make for less of it.

    all together given studies on religion and health, religious experince a psychosocial value and social ills, there are probably about 2000 studies that show the value of religion. They all over Pub med. They are scholarly, empirical, not hard to find. I”m not even counting those bogus prayer studies or bogus new age like healing at a distance stuff.

    You are just scratching the surface. you are very far from proving your thesis.

  11. Last comments:
    Karen suggested that I based all of my research on interviews with colleagues and friends. I have already stated above that colleagues comprised about 2% of my sample.
    But what about friends? It is true that I did interview many friends — yet if Karen thinks that I was able to make over 140 friends in my 14 months in DK she really has an inflated sense of either my likability or free time! Friends made up about 15-20% of my sample — but the overwhelming majority of my interviewees (approximately 80-85%) were people that I only talked to for the interview, and did not have any contact with before or after.
    Why does Karen think she knows the details of my sample? Why does she make up such nonsense?
    For example, she claims that my informants were essentually university atheists — not only were my informants rarely university people, but only 35% of my informants even had completed a university degree! (All of this is plainly spelled out in my appendix, by the way — again, something I am sure Karen never bothered to look at).
    Finally, I very much appreciated Karen’s sentiments expressed about God in Denmark — how Danes experience their God at regular family occasions. This is a beautiful sentiment, which I actually like very much. But out of 149 people that I interviewed, not one said this. Not one.

  12. Sorry — but I’m dealing with 3 kids so I have to leave the computer regularly.
    Of the 4 university colleagues that I interviewed, one I didn’t quote at all in my book, another I quoted one line, and a third I quoted 3 lines. And of the one university colleague that I quoted and profiled at length — this individual was a believer in God (!). And yet Karen insists that they are all flagrant atheists…whatever…

    My wife has chided me for reacting too strongly to Karen’s initial post. She’s right. I needn’t have gotten so worked up. I welcome criticism of my book. But what irks me is blatant lies and deceptions, which I felt Karen put forth.

  13. Ooops — my mistake.
    It was actually 4. Yes, 4 out of 149.
    That’s what — 2% of my entire sample?

    – Phil

  14. Oh, one more thing.
    Let me be perfectly clear —
    The actual number of university colleagues that I interviewed was: 3.
    3 out of 149.
    – Phil

  15. Dear Karen — my goodness, what a hostile declaration. Why so angry? Why so vicious?

    I tried my best to write an honest account of what I experienced and learned while living in DK.

    I can’t respond to all of your inexplicable anger, but I can at least attempt to counter some of your more egregious claims.

    Honestly, I doubt that you ever even read my book. If you had, you would know the following:

    1. Most of my informants did NOT come from any university. I interviewed 149 people. The vast majority were not academics at all. To say that I based my research “primarily upon interviews with colleagues and friends” is simply a flagrant distortion and a cold lie and again indicates true hostility on your part that I find rather sad.
    2. While my book is indeed provocatively called “Society Without God” I make it very clear that many, many (even perhaps most) Danes and Swedes do certainly believe in God — and I cite several surveys which indicate this. I also devote an entire chapter to discussing the views of several believers. And I quote God-believers throughout my book. All I ultimately argue is that God-belief is WEAKER in DK and SE than in most (all?) other countries. Sorry if that offends you somehow. Deal with it.
    2. You say that “82% of the Danish population are members of the Danish national church” — but this in no way means that they are believers in God. I would expect an anthropologist to know this. I address this extensively — especially in my chapter on Cultural Religion (which I doubt you ever even read).
    3. Most reviews that I read of my book in DK — and had translated by friends — were quite positive and strong. When Karen says that “most academic reviews” said that my book represented a classical example of me being “duped” — this is simply another cold lie. If anyone is trying to “dupe” anyone, it is Karen trying to dupe the readers of this web site.

    4. Karen — in the end, I understand that you didn’t like my book (if you even read it). That is OK. I am not perfect. Social science is not perfect. I completely agree that 14 months is not a life-time, and as an outsider to Danish society, I am obviously not going to “get” everything. I did the best I could with an open mind and an open heart. I think I discovered some key elements to the ways in which Danes and Swedes believe – or as was often the case — DON’T believe.

    Venlig, venlig, mange, mange hilsener,
    Phil

  16. Karen, if I am not mistaken, Danes are by default members of the state Church. One has to do something to get out of it. I still haven’t figured out what.

    That I go to church a couple of times a year by no means mean that God is present in any way. Only that it is tradition to conduct weddings, funerals, etc. there.

  17. Phil Zuckerman spent a year at the Danish University of Aarhus a couple of years ago. Denmark is a small country of about 5,5 mill people. This makes it possible for us all to be more or less connected to each other either through, family, friends or work. The joke is that whenever you travel by train from one end of the country to the other the person in front of you will end up being a relative.

    If you then base your research primarily upon interviews with collegues or friends of collegues at the department of religious science at the aforementioned university, what you get is an intimate snap-shot of a small select group of people heavily enmeshed in each others local culture. Neither is it very complicated for a Danish researcher, who works in this field, to identify the said informants through the description presented in the book. This was easily done by some of us at a meeting in Copenhagen when the book was published.

    One of the characteristics of the three religious science departments in Denmark are, that that they are heavily biased towards flagrant atheism. This is in general a public laughing matter amongst other Danish intellectuals due to the crudeness it projects in its heavily biased research projects. Not only could we thus identify the informants, we could also very poignantly identify the biased character of the socalled research undertaken by zuckerman.

    To readers who were duped by zuckerman’s book it might accordingly be of interest to know, that Denmark is in no way a society without God. 82% of the Danish population are members of the Danish national Church and have a fond relationship with their local church. It is true that the church is considered a different entity and plays a different role in the local community than what is common in US. This has to do with the fact that the churches are not so much old institutions, than old buildings framing the idea of Danishness – Danes don’t talk about God directly; they talk about their family, their history, their traditions. The preferred location chosen for this “conversation” is however their local church, which means that people do not seek the church sunday mornings to celebrate God; but they take part in year-long and life-long celebrations whenever there is a special occasion in the life of our families or communities. Does this mean that “God is absent”? Not at all: it just means that we encounter God under other circumstances than the traditional American way on sunday mornings. We encounter God instead at family occasions on an average of 4 to 5 times a year. Yes, our “God” does not “live” in an American temple or church. It does not mean, however, that “God” in general is absent from the livess of Danes. It just means that the American God is absent. It also follows that the Danish church is an extremely important factor in the construction of what Zuckerman thought was a society “without God”.

    It might be important to know that most academic reviews in the National papers in Denmark noted that Zuckermans book represented a classical example of an anthropologist or sociologist falling short, while being duped by the natives.

    Karen Schousboe
    MA, Anthropologist, http://www.kirkenikobenhavn.dk

  18. What makes a person good is his understanding of what relgion is trying to say to us. We can’t say we belong to a religion and follow it without understanding, then we are terroists regardless of the relgion we follow

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