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Imagine No Religion: Can a Society Be Successful Without It?

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Imagine a place where almost no one ever goes to church, the majority of people do not believe in God, and among those who do, their belief is fairly watery and thin. Imagine a society where people see Jesus as perhaps a nice man who taught some nice things, but was certainly not a miracle-performing son of any god. Try to conceive of a modern corner of the world where religion has virtually no place in politics, almost everyone accepts the evidence supporting evolution, almost everyone knows that the Bible was written by humans and not the divine, and nearly everyone understands that morals and values exist independently of religion. In such a culture, religion is so weak, marginal, and downright quaint that people aren't even anti-religious. They're just indifferent and perhaps uninterested. 


But you don't actually have to imagine too hard -- just hop on a plane to Denmark. Such a secular haven really exists, in the here and now. Contemporary Denmark is indeed one of the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world.

I'm back here again, living for another year in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city. It is my second extended stay here in Scandinavia, and just like last time, my mind reels at just how damn rational, humane, civil, safe, and calm everything is. Let me give a few examples: 


My elder daughter recently had a cough, so I took her to the doctor. There was no wait, the office was clean and aesthetically pleasing, the doctor was professional yet easy-going, and it was totally free. Healthcare here is universal, state-run, tax-subsidized, and it couldn't be better. (Not a death panel to be seen for miles.)

My younger daughter attends a language immersion school on the other side of the city. Unfortunately, we don't have a car. No problem: the county provides taxi service for my daughter, free of charge. And the taxi drivers are unionized, so they are well paid, have excellent benefits, ample vacation time, and are thus in a relatively chipper mood. (They're also well dressed and their taxis couldn't be cleaner.) 


The bike lanes here in secular Scandinavia are wide and safe, and I am happily stunned each day, as I bike to and from work, at how the cars readily give bike riders the right of way, rather than the finger. There are no homeless people, begging in the streets. The bread is devastatingly good, as is the jam. And the yogurt. I could go on and on.


But my own personal experiences aside, one can simply look at the sociological facts: on nearly every standard measure and nearly every international index, from economic well-being to educational attainment, from low violent crime rates to low unemployment rates, from quality of life to happiness and life satisfaction, this religion-lite land is among the best on earth.


Are there any problems here? Of course. No society is without its troubles and challenges. But you can be sure that here in Denmark, troubles and challenges are faced by marshaling human reason, logic, discussion, debate, empathy, observation, and rational problem-solving -- not by prayer or faith. 


The existence of Denmark (and similarly secular, successful societies such as Sweden, Japan, etc.) is noteworthy for several reasons. 


First, Glenn Beck, Christine O'Donnell, and their conservative Christian sheep are wrong: religious faith is not necessary for a society to be successful and well-functioning. Belief in God, love of Jesus, prayer, and Bible study -- these things are clearly not required for a country to be happy and prosperous. They may even be unnecessary distractions.


Second, people can clearly find meaning in their lives outside of religious paradigms. Men and women can find meaning in their relationships with family and friends, in their work, in their love of the outdoors, or in their hobbies and personal pursuits. Religion is simply not the only thing on this planet that can provide people with a profound sense of purpose. 


Third, and maybe most importantly, people can be upstanding, decent, and just without religious faith. Denmark is not only one of the safest places on earth, but it is also one of the most moral and ethically conscious cultures in the modern world. Children are well taken care of, as are the elderly, as are the physically and mentally challenged, as are orphans, and the sick, and the afflicted. Equality, freedom, democracy -- these things are not only highly valued but successfully realized. And all without much concern for an eternity of heavenly bliss or torturous hellfire. 


John Lennon asked us to imagine no religion. I'm not only imagining it, but I'm living it. And I'm loving it.