Is it Necessary to Believe in God to be an Ethical Person?

Many Christian evangelists think that if belief in God declines, there will be social chaos, crime and disorder. Michael Gowens, in his book Ready to Answer, states that disbelief in God “produces, first of all, moral collapse and degeneracy. . . . The resulting social chaos will eventually destroy that society. Excessive violence and crime, unrestrained sexual perversion, drug addition, child abuse, abortion, and virtually every form of debauchery and decadence known to man will eat away at the foundations of life until the civilization like Ancient Rome, will crumble.” (Lexington, Ky: Sovereign Grace Publications, 2011, p. 59). A video from a Harvard professor states that “if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.” (https://www.huffingtonpost. com/ronald-a-lindsay/atheism-leads-to-moral-de_b_6423018.html.)

It seems important to find whether this is true because, offhand, there are many societies as well as religions that do not believe in God. Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Bhutan, for example, which have large populations of non-theistic Buddhists, have remarkably low crime rates.

A useful source to find out if such a hypothesis is true are the crime statistics of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Here are the incidences of murders in four countries that are overwhelmingly Catholic and Protestant: There are 9.84 murders per 100,000 population in the Philippines, 26.74 in Brazil, 57.15 in Venezuela, and 108.64 in El Salvador. How about countries who generally do not believe in a God, either because of atheism, agnosticism or Buddhism? The crime rate of Hongkong is just 0.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, while Japan has 0.31.

In 2005, an American sociologist, Phil Zuckerman, went to and stayed in Scandinavia for 14 months and made a study of the relationship between belief in God and quality of life in Denmark and Sweden. He published his findings in a book entitled Society Without God. The reason he chose Denmark and Sweden was that they were “probably the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world.” A 20-year old grocery clerk in Jutland, Denmark, told the author: “Young people think that religion is kind of taboo. As a young person, you don’t say, ‘I‘m a Christian and I‘m proud of it.’ If you do that, you often get picked on.” This is in spite of the fact that three-fourths of the people in Denmark nominally belong to the official Church of Denmark with is Lutheran.

The first thing that the author noticed when he came to Scandinavia was that there were no policemen anywhere. In Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, he saw the first cop only after 31 days of staying. “In Aarhus, the violent crime rate there is among the lowest in the world for a city of that size. For example, in 2004, the total number of murders in the city of Aarhus was one.” Compare this to cities of similar population size: Victoria, Mexico, has 293 murders in 2006, St. Louis in the US had 188, and Vitoria da Conquista in Brazil had 208.

Zuckerman listed various facets of the social condition of Denmark and Sweden as compared to the rest of the world. He wrote:

“Despite their relative secularity, Denmark and Sweden are not bastions of depravity and anarchy. In fact, they are just the opposite: impressive models of societal health.”

Based on the United Nations Human Development Index of 2006, Sweden ranked 5th among 175 countries listed, Denmark was 15th. In terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita, Denmark ranked 4th and Sweden 8th in the world. In terms of absence of corruption, Denmark is 4th and Sweden is 6th in the world. Their crime rates are among the lowest in the world. (In 2016, Denmark has a crime rate of 0.99 per 100,000 people, while Sweden has only 1.15, compared to the rates mentioned above.) How about happiness of the people? Based on a study of Erasmus University, Denmark ranked number one in happiness among 91 countries.

Zuckerman wrote: “The fact is, the majority of the most irreligious democracies are among the most prosperous and successful nations on earth.”

All these studies show that it is not necessary to believe in a God in order for a society to live peacefully and ethically.

A recent study by Pew Research Center shows a clear correlation between national economic progress and their view that belief in God is necessary for people to be ethical. Those who rank highest in the view that in order to be good, belief in God is necessary, rank lowest in terms of economic development, such as Ghana, Pakistan, Jordan, Nigeria, Uganda, Indonesia, Philippines, etc. Those who rank low in this view, that is, they believe one can be good without belief in God, are among the most progressive in the world: Australia, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Japan, etc.

Research and statistics do not therefore support the view that societies that do not believe in God or religion would fall into chaos and depravity. The opposite seems to be true. The least religious nations are the ones who rank high in important benchmarks of an ideal society: high income, low crime rate, well-established democratic institutions, high in gender equality, low in mortality rates, and high in the happiness scale.

Albert Einstein wrote: “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”

Author J. K. Rowling similarly wrote: “It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it’s perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God.”

Pope Francis has similarly stated that even atheists can go to heaven provided that they are good or ethical persons.

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