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Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

Phil Zuckerman

(New York University Press; US: Jun 2010)

Phil Zuckerman wants all Americans to take a bus ride through a city in Denmark. A pleasant, uneventful bus ride, in a clean bus. We will see bustling shops and people biking, jogging, and driving without honking. Everything will be orderly and calm and remarkably fine.


Most importantly, we will not observe any signs of God’s wrath.


One of the primary reasons Zuckerman has written his fourth book, Society Without God, is to “soberly counter the widely touted assertion that without religion, society is doomed”. He piles on statistics about how Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious countries on Earth, and then offers substantial evidence on the high quality of life in Scandinavia—enough, in fact, to make you want to jump on the next plane and move there. He argues that a society can “lose its religious beliefs and still be well-functioning, successful, and fully capable of constructing and obeying sound laws and establishing and following rational systems of morality and ethics”. Zuckerman, who spent 14 months living in Denmark to research this book, says that one of the first things he noticed was how few police officers there were.


Zuckerman interviewed 149 people in Sweden and Denmark about God, religion, and faith, and his book contains lengthy excepts from these interviews. He says it was challenging to find interviewees because many people he approached maintained that they had little to say about religion. It was simply not a major issue in their lives. Inevitably, the people he speaks with either say that they don’t believe in God or that they believe in something, but are not quite sure what. They also worry little about death or the meaning of life, and are content with this lack of introspection. Another reason to get on that plane—no nagging worries about Heaven and Hell or where we might end up after life, if anywhere. 


Interestingly, most of Zuckerman’s interviewees identify being Christian with specific traditions and values rather than with the Bible, God, or Jesus. They typically abide by cultural aspects of Christianity, such as baptism, confirmation, and getting married in a church, and feel that Christianity has given their society an important set of values to live by. However, they have largely abandoned belief in the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith. Zuckerman calls this phenomenon “cultural religion”, and posits that it might be a more prevalent form of religion today than many surveys indicate. 


Most of the Danes and Swedes that Zuckerman interviews feel that their friends would look at them strangely if they said they did believe in God. In a significant portion of the US, the opposite would be true. President Obama caused waves when, in his inaugural address, he said, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers.” Commentators marveled at—and, in some conservative circles, reviled—the inclusion of non-believers.


I’ve lived in Pakistan and Zimbabwe, and in both places I was told that it was preferable to say that you belong to some religion—any religion—than admit to being a non-believer. Even in Muslim Pakistan, it is more acceptable to say you are Christian than an atheist. So it is not just in the US that there is great suspicion of, and sometimes even fear and anger towards, non-believers. This book forces us to ask why, especially given the evidence that non-believers can still nurture a society that is, by and large, good.


Zuckerman himself is an agnostic, who clearly enjoyed the “secular fresh air” in Denmark. Although he is not anti-religious, he does pose tough questions that would enliven any dinner party willing to break the no-talk-of-religion taboo. For example: “What does it mean for a society to be moral or ethical? Is a society considered moral if its citizens love the Bible a lot (as in the United States), or rather, if its citizens virtually wipe out poverty from their midst (as in Scandinavia)?”


While this might be a false choice—poverty has complex causes and the US has made efforts, however insufficient, to alleviate it—the central query is quite valid: Does believing in the Bible and going to church every week automatically make a society moral and ethical? Or, should we make our judgments based on how these morals are reflected in the way a society is organized, such as how it promotes the well-being of all citizens, especially the most vulnerable?


For me, one outstanding question, impossible to answer, is if Denmark and Sweden would be such lovely places to live if they did not have a historical grounding in religion. Religion informed how their institutions were set up, their laws, and their cultural mores. Perhaps history will move beyond belief in God, as it already has in Denmark and Sweden, but is belief an initial prerequisite for fostering a just society?


Despite this book’s weighty topic, with its conversational writing style, Society Without God is amazingly readable, even fun. It presents rigorous arguments that are deceptively simple to understand but that are, when you think about them more deeply, quite transformative.

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