Secularists can get on people’s nerves. Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like us. On Friday, November 7, he threw down the gauntlet – once again. He says he will use all his powers as the most respected man in America, and all the powers of Fox News itself, the most widely-watched news network, to fight the secular progressives tooth and claw. Once more he vows to win the War of Christmas.
You see, beleaguered and defenseless Christianity is, again this year, under attack from the massive and overwhelming forces of absurd political correctness. If he finally wins this year, or maybe next year, or the next, no one anywhere will be saying Happy Holidays. They will say Merry Christmas, damn it. He’ll stick up for the underdog, the little guy. He doesn’t like seeing Christians pushed around, by bullies – someone has to stand up for them. The secular progressives started this war, after all – suggesting general tax money should not be spent on one particular religion’s holiday decorations and temporary shrines, and tolerating if not encouraging stores whose clientele are predominantly Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist having the salespeople say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. He is outraged. O’Reilly will make the secularists sorry they chose to go to war – because he’ll win this one, eventually.
Secularists – many of us – just don’t get it. What war? We’re fine with Christmas. It’s a fine holiday and, in fact, many secularists are Christians themselves. They just don’t think that when everyone chips into running things, when they pay their taxes, the general funds should be used for one specific religious group, promoting their views. That’s sort of in the constitution – the government doesn’t favor one religion over another, that establishment business, nor does it allow religious tests for office. The government has enough to do as it is – fixing roads, fighting wars, whatever – and limited resources. Promoting one religion, or to be fair, many, or none, just isn’t part of the deal – it’s not what the government is for. Building a cross here or a crèche there is just not the government’s job – that might be cool to do, but someone else can do it. And as for stores where the salespeople say Happy Holidays in lieu of Merry Christmas, that’s a local marketing decision, and a matter of polite respect. As for all the greeting card companies pumping out cases of Happy Holidays cards, sometimes you want to, or have to send a card to the boss or a client who is Jewish, or Muslim. It happens. What are you going to do? You don’t want to send nothing.
So really, there is no war – just two different views of what the government was set up to do, that we once all did agree upon actually, and two different views of what is polite behavior. If you want to walk up to your important Shinto client, when he drops in from Tokyo in early December to close that big deal, and get in his face, point your finger and proudly shout Merry Christmas, well, knock yourself out. You may feel righteous, sticking up for the scorned and outnumbered Christians everywhere. If you’re lucky your important client will only look puzzled, or smile ruefully. You may not be that lucky.
God only knows what O’Reilly would make of those of us who are secularists – having a limited view of what our government should be doing – and progressives – thinking the government should dip into general funds to help those in tough situations not of their own making, as tough situations can happen to anyone and we’re all in this together – and to top it all off, also not particularly interested in religion. Some of us just don’t think about God much – and you can call us atheists or agnostics. It doesn’t matter to us, really – it’s our business, not yours.
You see, some of us just aren’t militant about our views. You really don’t have to agree with us, and we think that whatever people want to believe is also fine – that’s they’re business, not ours. We just don’t expect supernatural help. We’ll work things out on our own. And there’s not much point in talking about it – we probably won’t ever agree. Just don’t stop us on the street and talk to us about Jesus or about Thetans – it makes us grumpy.
We do understand:
According to Scientology, when a person dies – or, in Scientology terms, when a thetan abandons its physical body – they go to a “landing station” on the planet Venus, where the thetan is re-implanted and told lies about its past life and its next life. The Venusians take the thetan, “capsule” it, and send it back to Earth to be dumped into the ocean off the coast of California.
And that’s how we all get here. Fine – believe what you will.
But we’re not bad people, really. Paul Bloom explains that in his Slate item, Does Religion Make You Nice? (Does atheism make you mean?).
You should know that Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, and he’s currently writing a book about pleasure, It seems he’s one of those Noam Chomsky MIT folks – earned his PhD in Cognitive Psychology in 1990 there and has written a lot on language acquisition.
But he’s fairly accessible – not all arcane theory – and lays out the issue clearly. 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 Schlesinger 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.”
Bloom doesn’t have much use for that back and forth – talk of the Crusades and of Stalin, or if you will, really nasty and evil theists, and equally nasty and evil atheists. That leads nowhere, and he prefers “empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave,” like these experiments by psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff:
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 non-spiritual 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.
So religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone – they are being watched, carefully. Fear of God, or of authority figures, or of your coldly critical peers who might dismiss you as worthless but who you ache to impress, makes you nice? That seems to be the idea.
Bloom does note that this seems to be so outside the laboratory, that there really is evidence for “a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called ‘niceness.'”
Here is the evidence:
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.
We’re miserable? Who knew?
Well, surveys give averages and means. Some of us are happy enough, thank you very much.
Bloom adds this:
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.
But the problem is of course in the concept of who is best – that is, who most generous, kind and nice. Sean Hannity doesn’t come to mind. And you need to look for that correlation between deep religiosity and niceness – belief in God makes you nice, and not really caring much about the God business makes you nasty, mean, brutish, and perhaps even short (it’s a Thomas Hobbes joke, folks).
Are there nice countries full of atheists? Bloom looks into that:
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.
So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well – better, in many ways, than devout ones.
How can this be? Bloom explains that other forces are at play.
In my own work, I have argued that all humans, even young children, tacitly hold some supernatural beliefs, most notably the dualistic view that bodies and minds are distinct. (Most Americans who describe themselves as atheists, for instance, nonetheless believe that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.) Other aspects of religion vary across cultures and across individuals within cultures. There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it – the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.
The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component – rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence – it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”
So the Danes and the Swedes, even if they are godless, have strong communities. And oddly most identify themselves as Christian, just of an odd sort:
They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community- they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.
This does not bode well for those of us indifferent to religion:
American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance.
It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P. Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, “[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them.”
Some of us, then, might not be nice at all – it’s the isolation. And none of us will, even if we are nice enough, get anywhere:
The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlesinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.
Fine – but even so, Bill O’Reilly is not a nice man.