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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Is Scandinavia a Secular Paradise?


(From How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, David Marshall)


As noted above, the secularist community has, in recent years, often pointed to such countries as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to demonstrate the superiority of Secular Humanism over Christianity.  The work of sociologist Phil Zuckerman has been especially important in making this argument popular and seem credible.  While more cautious than some of his disciples, Zuckerman does indeed write with enthusiasm and persuasiveness about happy, “peaceful, and relatively godless Denmark” and Sweden:

“Quaint towns, inviting cities, beautiful forests, lonely beaches, healthy democracies, among the lowest violent crime rates in the world, the lowest levels of corruption in the world, excellent educational systems, innovative architecture, strong economies, well-supported arts, successful entrepreneurship, clean hospitals, delicious beer, free health care, maverick filmmaking, egalitarian social policies, sleek design, comfortable bike paths – and not much faith in God.”[1]

But that is to look at people horizontally, as Blais also does, and ignore our vertical dimension.  Scandinavians were once Vikings, after all.  Zuckerman sometimes overlooks what many of his “secular” Scandinavian friends tell him about how the Nordic lands got where they are today, and the role Christianity played in that transformation. 

Harvard historian David Landes notes that "in the tenth century, Europe was just coming out of a long torment of invasion, plunder, and rapine, by enemies from all sides."  The Vikings came from the north: "So terrifying were these marauders, so ruthless their tactics (taking pleasure in tossing babies in the air and catching them on their lances . . . ), that the very rumor of their arrival" sent everyone running. [2]

A Muslim traveler named Ahmad ibn Fadlān gave first-hand testimony early that same century, in 922 AD, of what the Vikings were like on their own turf.  (Or in Russia, where they had been establishing themselves.)  He found them “the filthiest of all Allah's creatures . . . addicted to alcohol, which they drink night and day."  They left the poor to die (so much for free health care), and would have sex with a slave girl before sacrificing her upon the death of her master.  ("The men began to bang their shields with the sticks so that her screams could not be heard and so terrify the other slave-girls, who would not, then, seek to die with their masters."  So much for egalitarian social policies.)  Their king lived like Jabba the Hut, immobile, surrounded by courtiers, needing help to get on his horse if he ventured outdoors.  (Perhaps that fit under the category of “free health care?”)

So a millennia ago, the ancestors of modern Danes were sacrificing maidens and cruising the North Sea looking to pick up monastic bling.  Now they ride bicycles to flower shops in Copenhagen.  What occurred to alter their habits?  

At the risk of being simplistic, the Gospel occurred.  Christianity impacted Scandinavia in three stages: Medieval Catholicism, which worked top down after the often largely nominal and pragmatic conversion of kings, Lutheranism, which made every believer a priest, then finally pietism, which taught commoners to read, so they could read the Bible.  Even during the first stage, Christians founded hospitals and began for almost the first time to care for the poor, as Eljas Orrman explains in the Cambridge History of Scandinavia:  
"Whatever the religious impact of Christianity in Scandinavia, there is little doubt that it brought with it a new conception of responsibility for the poor and needy in society.
The murder rate in Stockholm followed that historical trajectory.  In the 15th Century, while Viking raiders had settled down and stopped exporting mass violence, the local murder rate was still 47 per 100,000, about what it is in New Orleans today, America’s most homocidal city.  The homicide rate then halved over the next century, dropped to four in the 18th Century, then just one in the 19th Century.  That was still long before Scandinavia became the land of IKEA and avant-garde film-making, or the secular humanist Valhalla.  Thus the murder rate among Scandinavian Americas, who do still often go to church (I often visit one), is also quite low.   
Zuckerman is honest enough to point out that Scandinavians themselves, even atheists, recognize the source of the power that reformed their cultures:
"For the vast majority of Danes and Swedes . . . when I asked them what the designation 'Christian' meant to them, they almost invariably all stressed the same things: being kind to others, taking care of the poor and sick, and being a good and moral person." (10)
A skeptic named Anders explained:
"I'm believing in good things in human beings, which are the real things of Christianity.  You can't kill other people.  You have to help old people, and so on and so on.  I think those are some good rules to live by.  That's why I am a Christian man." (11)

A woman named Elsa explained that for her, being a Christian meant "To be a decent human being and respect other people and yeah, to be a good person." (11) Zuckerman responded, "Anders and Elsa offered fairly straightforward articulations of what could most easily be characterized as secular humanism." (11)  
But is it not possible that Anders and Elsa understood the foundation of their own society better than a sociologist from Southern California?  Indeed, Jens, a 68 year old atheist whose grandfathers were both pastors, told Zuckerman: 
"I remember my father saying very often a sentence which has a lot of morals and ethics.  He said, 'Never do to other people what you don't want them to do against you . . . ‘ We are Lutherans in our souls -- I'm an atheist -- but still I have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor." 
Sonny (an agnostic), added, "Those Bible stories are fundamental for the values we have, and for the laws that we have made."  He especially liked the story of the Good Samaritan. (84-5)  A respondent named Helle summarized what many secularist Swedes and Danes told Zuckerman, who let me point out is the founder of America’s only secularist study program in public American universities: "Our culture is based on Christian values." (159)  Zuckerman noted, "Multiply them by a factor of 10 and you'll get a good idea of the volume of responses that I got along these very same lines" (159)
So the evidence, both according to historians, and by Phil Zuckerman’s own account, is that the best qualities of “humanist” societies like Denmark and Sweden did not arise spontaneously, still less can they be credited to “Secular Humanism.”  Some force turned Vikings into Danes, and it wasn’t IKEA. That same force also challenged and transformed societies that had developed forms of secular humanism untouched by the West, like Chinese neo-Confucianism.  No one, outside rare patches of remote forest in Amazonia perhaps, has gone untouched by that flow. 

Dr. Zuckerman also describes other residual blessings that Christianity lends secularized Scandinavians, many of which were not touched on in the last chapter, and may be common to other religions as well.  Religious ritual:

"feels special . . . gives their lives a sense of rhythm and poignancy . . . brings families together . . . makes them feel like they are part of something grand and auspicious . . . is fun . . . it . . . connects them with previous and future generations . . . they like the music . . . it enriches communal bonds." (155) 

We need, it seems, some sense of the sacred.  To my aesthetic eye, this is the most terrible thing about rapidly growing cities in mainland China: the denuded, rectangular concrete jungles here too often lack the human touch, which may necessarily require a superhuman touch, it seems.  

Modern secularized society still faces grave challenges: high debt burdens, loss of hope for the future, demographic implosion, the growth of radical Islam.  Zuckerman also admits that religious faith encourages parents to have more children, which helps solve such problems.  I do not deny that Christians may often have things to learn and gain from our secular neighbors, as well: delight in diversity, and outside and often on-target critique of our worst arguments and preachers, being among the benefits Christians can receive from secular humanists.  And clearly it is unfair to blanketly demonize our secular neighbors as some in the Christian community most unfortunately do.  

But just as clearly, neither Scandinavia nor even modern Japan undermines the claim that God has greatly blessed the world through Jesus, fulfilling a chain of golden promises laced across the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, both civilizations lend additional support to that thesis.  And after the sheer success of the Gospel in a host of diverse cultures, and the fact that such success was promised beforehand, that blessing constitutes the third way in which Christianity passes the Outsider Test for Faith. 



[1] Phil Zuckerman, Society Without God, 2-3
[2] David Landes, Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 29 

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