Jerry Muller’s excellent Public Interest article, linked by Hume, references the ubiquitous “social utility” argument for religion: “belief in ultimate reward and punishment leads men to act morally.” The disappearance of religious belief, religion advocates argue, will produce individual and collective moral decay. “Where atheism and agnosticism flourish,” writes Michael Novak in his latest book, “one may expect to find a certain . . . slacking off, a certain habit of getting away with things” (268). It has even been suggested that the subprime crisis was brought on by the “secularizing” of the United States, as epitomized by Americans’ alleged unwillingness to say “Merry Christmas.”
Secular conservatives take most such charges seriously. They appreciate the fragility of social order and understand how complex are the myriad norms that maintain respect for common decencies and the rule of law.
That having been said, it seems to me that a rough survey of the evidence does not necessarily bear out the warnings that waning religiosity encourages moral decadence. Northern European countries are among the most secular in the world. Here’s a thought experiment: Where would a contract to build a highway, say, stand a better chance of fulfillment free from corruption and bribes: Sweden or Mexico? Where is the risk higher that the construction firm’s CEO will be kidnapped and held for ransom: in Sweden or Mexico? Where is the CEO more likely to pay his taxes?
The incidence of secular humanists in Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly a fraction of that in Scandinavia. If you want to run a business or raise a family free from the fear of violence, you’re better off in Scandinavia.
Religion advocates point to the much higher religiosity of the United States compared to Europe as proof of America’s moral superiority. Belief in the divine origin of the 6th Commandment apparently does not do much to restrain behavior, however, since American murder rates are magnitudes higher than Europe’s. Denmark, Sweden and Norway have among the lowest murder rates in the world, despite their populations’ infrequent church attendance. Within the United States, violent crime is highest in red states, with their higher degrees of religiosity, than in blue states.
Religious belief does not reliably inoculate against other social pathologies. The black illegitimacy rate in the U.S. is nearly 70%, despite blacks’ Biblically-inspired social conservatism. Catching up quickly are the country’s heavily Catholic Hispanics, who now have a 50% illegitimacy rate. Unwed teen pregnancy in Europe is a fraction of what it is in the United States. Bible Belt states such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi have the highest divorce rates in the country, Massachusetts the lowest. Sub-Saharan Africa’s religious zeal—whether Christian, Muslim, or pantheistic—has not inhibited rampant AIDS transmission there.
But perhaps Oslo or Newton, Mass., are simply living off of the legacy of religious culture. Michael Novak asserts that “widespread public atheism” takes three to four generations to show its full effects (how he arrived at that interval is unclear) (52). But even if the “full” effects of atheism are not apparent until “three to four generations,” some moral decay should show up before that. The main signs of European moral decline that conservative religion proponents have come up with are the unpopularity of the Iraq War and the continent’s low birth rate. This first piece of evidence is a curious one, since the Holy See itself was no war enthusiast. The Vatican’s foreign minister declared in March 2003 that a unilateral military strike by the U.S. would be a “crime against peace.” As for low birth rates, it is debatable that a patriarchal Palestinian family with eight children occupies a higher moral plane than an Italian or English family with one child. Affluence and women’s liberation ineluctably push birth rates down. This is a demographic issue, not a moral one.
Now it is undoubtedly the case that the influences on violence and other social dysfunction in highly religious countries are enormously complicated. At the very least, more complicated than the assertion that religious belief is the sine qua non of moral behavior.