God-fearing folks like me are taught that moral behavior comes from diligent reading and observance of God’s Word. Indeed, I was moved by C.S. Lewis’ argument in “Mere Christianity”:
“I fully agree that we learn the Rule of Decent Behaviour from our parents and teachers, and friends and books, as we learn everything else,” Lewis writes in the opening chapter of his best-known book for apologetics. “But some of the things we learn are mere conventions which might have been different—we learn to keep to the left of the road, but it might just as well have been the rule to keep to the right—and others of them, like mathematics, are real truth.”
Eventually Lewis completes his argument that morality is placed in us by God. Our desire to do what is right, in other words, is an indication of God’s fingerprint on our souls.
I appreciate this line of reasoning as evidence of God, but I don’t believe it can be reversed, that absent from God people will succumb to total depravity (sorry Calvin). Certainly I have had many friends who, though having rejected God, behaved much better than some—many—of my Christian friends. Correlation is not causation; empirical evidence is mixed:
In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one’s reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.
Maybe, then, religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone. If so, you would expect to find the positive influence of religion outside the laboratory. And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called “niceness.” In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street. Since giving to charity makes one happy, Brooks speculates that this could be one reason why atheists are so miserable. In a 2004 study, twice as many religious people say that they are very happy with their lives, while the secular are twice as likely to say that they feel like failures.
Since the United States is more religious than other Western countries, this research suggests that Fox talk-show host Sean Hannity was on to something when he asserted that the United States is “the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth.” In general, you might expect people in less God-fearing countries to be a lot less kind to one another than Americans are.
It is at this point that the “We need God to be good” case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren’t those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. 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.
Denmark and Sweden aren’t exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.
The important question here, for religious and non-religious people, is: Why?
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