By Gene Rigelon
Religious fundamentalists share a common belief that worship of God and obedience to his laws is essential to a peaceful, healthy society. Furthermore, fundamentalists maintain that when large numbers of people in a society reject God or fail to make him the center of their lives, social disintegration is sure to follow. If turning away from God is at the root of all society's ills, one would expect that the least religious nations would be bastions of crime, poverty and disease and that the most religious nations would be models of love and compassion.
Such proves not to be the case. In a comparison of religious countries to irreligious countries, the most secular countries are the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy and healthy societies in the world. One must be careful to distinguish totalitarian nations where atheism is forced on people from democratic nations where atheism is freely chosen by a well education population.
A United Nations Human Development report looking at issues of infant mortality, poverty, homicide rates, literacy, per capita income, education, and gender equality found that the top three "happiest countries" to be Norway Denmark and Sweden, the nations with the highest percentage of non-believers. Sweden: 64-85 percent, Denmark: 48-80 percent, Norway: 54-72 percent.
In the United States, only 3 to 7 percent of the people do not believe in God, making it one of the most religious nations of the western industrialized world. Sadly, it ranks a distant eighth on the above mentioned "Human Development Index."
When compared to the other developed, industrialized nations, the United States has far higher homicide, poverty, obesity and homelessness rates than any of its more secular peer nations. It is the only western-style democracy that does not provide universal health care for all its citizens. The fact is, the extremely secular nations such as those mentioned above are much safer, cleaner, healthier, better educated and more humane compared to the United State despite the latter's strong disposition to theism.
That is not to say that if we all became atheists it would solve the nation's ills. The factors that determine a nation's ills such as poverty or illiteracy are far more complicated. The conclusion one should get from this discussion is that high levels of irreligion do not automatically result in a breakdown of civilization, and that religion is the only path to a righteous society. The fundamentalist pious solution is clearly not supported by the facts. Belief in God may be a comfort to the individual believer, but at a societal level it does not at all compare favorably with more secular societies.
Despite claims to the contrary from the fundamentalists, one can be good without God. Morality is not about sinners and saints, heaven and hell, damnation and punishment. It is the coming together of the religious and non-religious communities in preventing unnecessary human suffering and promoting human dignity. Being good springs from within. It is nurtured by people who are energized by the bonds of love and who sympathize with the plight of those in need and are dedicated to make the world a better place.
The answer to a more stable and loving society is not bringing the Ten Commandments in the public schools, rather we must teach our children the following commitments to their fellow human beings.
ALTRUISM: I will help others without hope for rewards.
CARING FOR THE WORLD: I will help take care of the earth.
CRITICAL THINKING: I will question everything I'm not sure about.
EMPATHY: I will stop to think about how others feel.
ETHICAL DEVELOPMENT: I will be truthful, kind and fair.
GLOBAL AWARENESS: I will be a good neighbor to the people who share the earth with me and do what I can to make the world a better place for everyone.
HUMAN RIGHTS: I will stand up for everyone's rights to be themselves and to find their own happiness.
PEACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: I will help people solve their problems and handle disagreements without violence.
RESPONSIBILITY: I will tell the truth, help others, keep my promises, obey the law and be a good citizen.
SERVICE AND PARTICIPATION: I will help my community in ways that let me get to know those who need my help.
I promise - and really mean - to do each of these 10 things.
Gene Rigelon of Front Royal is coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, sash.wash.org. Email him at email@example.com