Religion and Morality

There has been quite a lot of discussion in the last few years generated by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. I have not followed if closely. But, being a moral philosopher, I am certainly interested in one aspect of it: the relation of religion and morality. It is often said that morality is based on religion, in the sense that members of society can only be depended on to behave morally if they accept some religion. Since I and a number of my friends are atheists, and at least they are morally upright and, in some cases, quite admirable, I’ve long doubted this. (I’ll let others describe me.) But today’s New York Times suggests that we may now have something more than anecdotal evidence on this question. Peter Steinfels, their excellent writer on religion, reports on the research of a sociologist who studied the attitudes and beliefs of the Danes and the Swedes. Present-day Scandinavians are well known for the fact that non-belief is quite widespread there. Not only is it not true that crime and other sorts of misbehavior are common there, but, Steinfels says,

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.

Steinfels’ article about the findings of Phil Zuckerman is fascinating. See

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/us/28beliefs.html

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