Saturday, February 28, 2009

Christianity without God

This weeks Beliefs column in the NYT discusses Phil Zuckerman's new book on Danish and Swedish nonbelievers:

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.

The upshot is that Scandinavians really don't think about religion much at all, though they tend to think of themselves as Christian. They believe in Christian principles, like "helping your neighbor," and they enjoy holiday rituals, which seem to serve a community-building function. They simply aren't interested in God, or in related questions of what life "means."

This strikes me as utterly sensible. Remove God from the equation, and you have a very "nice" (again, as interviewees put it) set of principles on which to build a just society. God would seem to get in the way of those principles. Say you have a workplace with a remote, mercurial, power-mad boss--along with a likeable but extremely co-dependent Vice President. There's a handful of people who'll try their mightiest to suck up to that boss, eagerly doing his dirty work and hurting their coworkers further in the process. Eliminate the boss, and all you have is you and your colleagues, doing the best you can together. And the VP is freed to be him(her?) self--a good person with good ideas you can use.


Elizabeth Wahl said...

I've often thought of myself as just this sort of "Christian" - maybe it's my Lutheran upbringing. But growing up in the church, I always embraced the principle of "love your neighbor as you love yourself" and found the "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul" part much more difficult to swallow. At least I couldn't give God my mind's allegiance, and increasingly that part of Christianity seemed irrelevant to me so long as I tried to live by the other principle.

BrianMay said...

I now know at least two orthodox Jews who claim not to believe in God. This still strikes me as completely bizarre -- why would you pray three times a day and deprive yourself of great food unless you thought some big scary ghost was watching your every move? -- but then again, Judaism has always been much more about practice than belief, so maybe it makes sense. Still, give me that cool Kierkegaardian protestantism, with its "all faith, no action, no messing with everyone else's life" mentality any day.