Religion and niceness

A number of prominent atheists have recently argued that religion is bad for the world (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, et al). Their basic premise is that religion creates radicals and radicals are inherently dangerous. In a recent slate.com article, Paul Bloom points out that many Americans believe the opposite to be true – religion makes you a better (i.e., nicer) person. He goes on to argue, though, that scientific research does not justify this conclusion. Although some studies indicate that religious persons in America are generally ‘nicer’ than atheists, this is not true in largely atheist countries like Denmark and Sweden. His conclusion is that it is not religiosity per se that creates ‘nice’ people, but communities. That is, the more connected people feel to one another, the better they are likely to treat one another.

This entire discussion, though, operates independently of the more fundamental issue. What does it mean to be ‘nice’ and what does being ‘nice’ have to do with religion? According to the dictionary, the two most applicable definitions of ‘nice’ are “pleasant and agreeable” and “of good character and reputation.” Neither of these is particularly helpful, though, given that both are dependent on what is deemed “agreeable” or “good character” in a particular cultural context. That is, being ‘nice’ in America is decidedly different than being ‘nice’ in Saudi Arabia. It would thus seem that the entire discussion of whether religion makes us ‘nice’ presumes at a fairly fundamental level the rather pragmatic notion that the (or ‘a’) primary purpose of religion is to serve as a vehicle for the cultural ideals of the community (long live Nietzsche). Christians, of course, along with most other religious people, reject this pragmatic foundation and believe themselves to be pursuing something of more transcendent value.

But does this mean that we can simply ignore the standards of ‘niceness’ in our culture? Some contemporary Christian authors treat the word ‘nice’ almost as if it were an offense to the Gospel. We should be radicals overturning tables and offending people just like Jesus. Being ‘nice’ is about capitulating to a sinful world. While there may be a time and a place for this, such a perspective overlooks that ‘nice’ is simply shorthand for the rules that govern a society to enable the development of strong communities and functioning relationships. To the extent that we want to operate within and have a meaningful impact on a community, we need to be able to function as ‘nice’ people insofar as possible within the framework of the Gospel. Maybe this would be most appropriately described (in theologicalese) as a christoform niceness.

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3 Responses to “Religion and niceness”

  1. Adam B. November 11, 2008 at 8:31 pm #

    I feel like this fits somewhere in the discussion of Christ “against,” “of,” and “above” culture posited by Neibuhr, You are right, of course, that there is a time and a place to be nice and to forgo niceties. To say that Christ is always against culture, that we always need to pursue the most aggressive and anti-cultural way of spreading the word, ignores the good things that have been done by men. I particularly like Lewis’ view of heaven in Narnia that bears some marks of human achievement like Big Ben. While this may be taking things a bit too far it does show an appreciation for culture and the humanities that a strict Christ against culture view cannot maintain. At the same time I feel that many churches have been too concerned with how the world is interpreting their actions and consequently have conformed their practice and doctrine to cultural sensibilities. Yes, the culture will certainly love these nice, hell-less, Judge-less, bold-less Christians, but we simply cannot capitulate. Too much is at stake. (Is it not nice of me to say so?)
    I feel that these individuals (you noted some above, but I am thinking esp. of Bill Maher who has been rather outspoken lately) that blame religion for all war and radicalism have forgotten about communism. Is there any system more God-less than this, a system that demands all religion be put away? And yet, in this “utopian” ideal we have witnessed some of the most heinous slaughters of people by government the world has ever seen! Religion produces radicalism, yes, but so does non-religion. Saying religion is to blame for a lack of niceness in the world feels as arbitrary as blaming crustaceans (granted, many are crabs).

  2. Marc November 12, 2008 at 3:02 am #

    We do need to be careful about going too far in the direction of being ‘nice’. The ‘cultured’ Christianity of Schleiermacher’s 19th century Germany, among others, should caution us against equating ‘nice’ with godly. Some of this comes out of reflecting on my role as a parent. To what extent should Christian parents be concerned about raising ‘nice, well behaved’ children? I’ve heard a number of people recently critique the idea that we should be concerned about raising nice children, as though that were inherently contradictory to biblical living. While we as parents (indeed anyone involved in Christian discipleship) need to beware the temptation to emphasize outward conformity at the expense of inward transformation, we should not at the same time communicate that cultural norms are irrelevant. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the solution should not be simply to stop balancing.

  3. Marc November 12, 2008 at 3:06 am #

    And you’re right about the arbitrariness of the popular atheist argument. Indeed, it is such a faulty argument that I forgot to comment on it. They would be on safer ground if they simply argued that religion makes no demonstrable difference to the overall behavior of its adherents (they’d be wrong, but they’d be on safer ground). But this rather non-sensational argument wouldn’t sell books.

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