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

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NYU Press, Oct 1, 2008 - Social Science - 248 pages
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“Silver” Winner of the 2008 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, Religion Category

Before he began his recent travels, it seemed to Phil Zuckerman as if humans all over the globe were “getting religion”—praising deities, performing holy rites, and soberly defending the world from sin. But most residents of Denmark and Sweden, he found, don’t worship any god at all, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to religious dogma of any kind. Instead of being bastions of sin and corruption, however, as the Christian Right has suggested a godless society would be, these countries are filled with residents who score at the very top of the “happiness index” and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer.

Zuckerman formally interviewed nearly 150 Danes and Swedes of all ages and educational backgrounds over the course of fourteen months. He was particularly interested in the worldviews of people who live their lives without religious orientation. How do they think about and cope with death? Are they worried about an afterlife? What he found is that nearly all of his interviewees live their lives without much fear of the Grim Reaper or worries about the hereafter. This led him to wonder how and why it is that certain societies are non-religious in a world that seems to be marked by increasing religiosity. Drawing on prominent sociological theories and his own extensive research, Zuckerman ventures some interesting answers.

This fascinating approach directly counters the claims of outspoken, conservative American Christians who argue that a society without God would be hell on earth. It is crucial, Zuckerman believes, for Americans to know that “society without God is not only possible, but it can be quite civil and pleasant.”


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Society without God: what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment

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In an anecdotal and eminently readable manner, Zuckerman (sociology, Pitzer Coll.) offers a novel idea within the study of religious sociology. Specifically, he investigates what it means to be a ... Read full review

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Phil Zuckerman has written an interesting book about religion and prosperity and claims that Sweden and Denmark are examples showing that a secular society promotes prosperity. A major advance compared with other similar attempts is that he uses qualitative interviews. However, as a Swede i see several shortcomings which sums up to the conclusion that Zuckerman largely overstates the case and has no scientific basis for his claim. First, his selection of interview subjects is not representative since he does not make any random selection from the population but finds people where he finds it suitable (nobody would trust a theologian who only interviewed people outside the Church and then made generalizations based on that). Second, he used a crude measure of religiosity, which is mainly inspired from the USA. He clearly has no deep knowledge of Scandinavian mentality where personal questions like religiosity, political view etc is something people don't like to speak openly about (but does not mean that people are uninterested in religion or politics). In fact, several polls have shown that the percentage of people in Sweden who explicitly believe in a Christian God is between 15-25% (see e.g. World value surveys 1990-2006 and Hagevi M. Journal of Church and State 2012), the percentage of non-believers is around 20%, the percentage believing in a "higher spirit/power" is around 40% while the remaining fraction "don't know". In fact, the believers and non-belivers are quite stable while the fraction of people believing in a higher spirit/power increase. So Sweden is secular in the sense that people don't go to Church, but there is a high degree of private religiosity in an individual non-traditional manner. Third, Zuckerman makes a simple correlation between secularity and prosperity, without taking into account the historical causes behind the prosperity. In fact, Sweden and Denmark are "Lutheran secular" countries, meaning that the Lutheran attitude to work, to all people's equal value and to the vocation to support the society are essential components. Indeed, the foundation for the prosperity was laid in the first half of the 20th century, at a time when Scandinavian people were still Church-goers and believers at a high frequency. So, Mr Zuckerman, nice try, but correlations and circumstantial evidence has never convinced a real scientist, and does not so in this case either.
Per Andersson
Medical Scientist Sweden


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Being Secular
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Cultural Religion
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About the author (2008)

Phil Zuckerman is Associate Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion and Strife in the Sanctuary: Religious Schism in a Jewish Community.

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