Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College, uses Sweden and Denmark as examples to counter the assertion that without religion, society is doomed:
Many people assume that religion is what keeps people moral, that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Scandinavians in those two countries. Although they may have relatively high rates of petty crime and burglary, and although these crime rates have been on the rise in recent decades, their overall rates of violent crime—including murder, aggravated assault, and rape—are among the lowest on earth. Yet the majority of Danes and Swedes do not believe that God is “up there,” keeping diligent tabs on their behavior, slating the good for heaven and the wicked for hell. Most Danes and Swedes don’t believe that sin permeates the world, and that only Jesus, the Son of God, who died for their sins, can serve as a remedy. In fact, most Danes and Swedes don’t even believe in the notion of “sin.”
Belief in God may certainly give emotional and psychological comfort to the individual believer—especially in times of pain, sadness, or uncertainty—and history has clearly shown that religious involvement and faith in God can often motivate individuals or cultures to promote justice and healthy societal development. But the fact still remains that it is not the most religious nations in our world today, but rather the most secular, that have been able to create the most civil, just, safe, equitable, humane, and prosperous societies. Denmark and Sweden stand out as shining examples. The German think tank the Hans-Böckler Stiftung recently ranked nations in terms of their success at establishing social justice within their societies; Denmark and Sweden, two of the least-religious nations in the world, tied for first.
It is a great socioreligious irony—for lack of a better term—that when we consider the fundamental values and moral imperatives contained within the world’s great religions, such as caring for the sick, the infirm, the elderly, the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable; practicing mercy, charity, and goodwill toward one’s fellow human beings; and fostering generosity, humility, honesty, and communal concern over individual egotism—those traditionally religious values are most successfully established, institutionalized, and put into practice at the societal level in the most irreligious nations in the world today.
Read his full piece in The Chronicle Review.