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.