|by Phil Zuckerman|
Here in the States, people willing to call themselves “atheists” are a rare breed. When we gather for a convention or other social function, we find that we have certain traits in common, much like gamers do. Even more than gamers, atheists are brought closer together by the general population’s distaste for us. The same would not be true in Denmark. There, atheism is so common that there’s little to distinguish atheists from the general population. They are the general population. We atheists like to point at Nordic countries as models of modern society. There, we say, atheism is normal and life is good. Why can’t it be like that everywhere? Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without God takes a close look at Denmark, with an eye toward what atheism, belief and Christianity are all about there. The Danish atheists, it turns out, are not New Atheists reproduced on a national scale. Surprisingly, these atheists say they’re Christian. They support “Christian” values, pay taxes to support the state church, and even have their atheist kids baptized and confirmed. Can you imagine American atheists happily watching their adolescent children affirm a Christian creed during confirmation ceremonies? Here in the US we take our religion too seriously for that, and our atheism too.
Christianity is different in the US because we have never had an official church to suppress demagogues and to force religion to stay boring. The Founding Fathers supposed that people would use their freedom from state control to reasonably throw off the superstitions of the priests. Jefferson predicted that the nation would turn Unitarian. Instead, Americans used their freedom from state control to make religion more thrilling. Given free rein in the US, religious visionaries and hucksters have delighted the masses with apocalyptic visions, Doomsday predictions, faith healing, speaking in tongues, new revelations, and the “prosperity gospel,” according to which giving money to a televangelist will make the giver rich. In Europe, by contrast, the official churches kept religion reasonable, respectable and dull. The official church was your religion by default, so all it had to do to retain members was not drive anyone away. The resulting religion is so innocuous that atheists don’t bother to quit. If Danes don’t feel much need to go to church, neither do they see much need to leave it.
Atheist Danes don’t just go to Christmas services; they get their kids baptized and confirmed, too. Unlike weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations are about religious identity and faith. Baptism makes an infant part of the Church, and in confirmation a young person declares faith in Christianity’s tenets. So why do atheist Danes baptize their kids and get them confirmed? When Zuckerman would ask them, they often said that it’s just what they do. A big part of religion has always been “what we do,” the customs and traditions of a people. Practically speaking, getting confirmed means a party and presents, so a youngster has little incentive to bow out. I went through confirmation in the Lutheran church I grew up in. Yes, there was a party, but there was also a year of preparatory education so we could know what beliefs we were confirming. The minister’s wife made clear that, if one didn’t believe the doctrines, one was supposed to back out of the process. Family pressure kept me in the program, and I went through the confirmation rite, but it was onerous to be pressured into publicly avowing things I didn’t believe. Atheist kids in Denmark don’t face any such inner conflict when they go through confirmation. The kids aren’t actually devoting their souls to the service of Christ. Confirmation is just what they do.
In the States, atheists complain about how much tax money is being lost by our not taxing churches. Many would like to take away religion’s special tax status, and many would like to see religion torn down altogether. Personally, I’m more concerned that we enforce the laws we already have against political campaigning from the pulpit and against inordinate salaries for clergy. But atheists in Denmark don’t begrudge a special status to the official Lutheran church. In fact, most of them pay a regular tax whose revenue supports the church. This arrangement, where the government collects revenue on behalf of official churches, is common in Europe but strikes Americans as bizarre. Most Danish atheists are happy to support the Lutheran Church as part of their cultural heritage.
While most Danes are atheists, they often think of themselves as Christians who support Christian values. What do they mean by Christian values? Opposing gay marriage and abortion? Far from it. They mean being a decent person, helping the poor, caring for the sick, and the general welfare-state apparatus. As Zuckerman observes, the Nordic welfare state is the best realization yet of Jesus’ message that we are to care most for the people who have the least. US atheists are likely to claim that such concerns are merely natural elements of human morality, but this drive to help people who can’t help us in return only feels natural in a culture that’s been steeped in Christian idealism, as ours has. Nietzsche hated Christianity for the way it promoted concern for the lowly and equal rights for all. He saw and despised unspoken Christian ideals motivating the supposedly logical schemes of the utilitarians. Will atheists in the US ever speak admirably of these “Christian” values that they uphold and honor? Not any time soon, I’d reckon.
The atheistic Christianity of Denmark makes neither side in the US happy. Believers don’t want faith to be stripped from their sacred rites, reducing them to mere cultural traditions. Atheists don’t want to pay taxes to support churches, and we don’t want to send our kids to be baptized and confirmed in a church. Both sides take religion too seriously for going through the motions. But if Denmark’s example is too accommodating on both sides to work in the States, can we still learn something from it? If nothing else, Denmark shows us that the bitter animosity in the States between atheists and believers is not the only way.