Book Review – Society Without God

Phil Zuckerman‘s Society Without God: What The Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment will not surprise any European reader. But I suspect we are not the audience for this book. This book is clearly geared towards an American audience. It is highly readable and would be appropriate for undergraduate students and provides a nice demonstration of debunking of the idea that societies need religion in order for morality to prevail against chaos (something that US students, knee-deep in American culture, are prone to be thinking).

And while being a short and easy read, the book does provide homeopathic doses of theories as well as a methodological appendix. In addition, Zuckerman peppers the text with personal narrative and impressions that lighten the read and add a human element. I found that distracting and useless but I can see why he did it. In other words, it is not a book for an academic for other academics. It is for a general audience.

As a caveat before I go any further into the review, I have to confess (pun intended) that sociology of religion is not my field of expertise and that I have close to zero interest in the subject (in that sense, I am close to many of Zuckerman’s subject). But, as a European living and working in the United States, I found the topic intriguing.

The core of the book revolves around the year (or so) that Zuckerman spent in Denmark where he was surprised by the general lack of religiosity (Denmark has a national church subsidized by the state and people can opt out of the taxes that go to subsidize the church if they so choose). National statistics supports this impression. Scandinavian countries are the least religious in the world. In general, Western European countries all more or less combine low religiosity with high quality of life in a world awash in religion and violence.

As a good American, Zuckerman wonders how it is possible to have low religiosity combined with very high quality of life and morality. This, to me, a faulty premise. Scandinavian countries are not unusual in Europe. They are at the top of the distribution on quality of life and at the bottom of the distribution on religiosity. It is the United States that is the outlier here, the oddity: rich country, unequal quality of life and high religiosity. So, the “how weird is that?” attitude that pervades the book regarding Scandinavian secularism is a bit ethnocentric. But that is the starting point of Zuckerman’s study: a series of interviews with a variety of Danes, from all walks of life regarding religion or lack thereof and related matter. The shaping of the questions also reflect an American attitude: if you are not religious or don’t believe in God, then what is the meaning of life? Or are you afraid of death?

The bottom line is that lack of religion is no hindrance to prosperity, democracy and general quality of life.  For Zuckerman, this also debunks the idea of religion as basic human need, maybe encoded in our genes, something that the sociologists of religion that Zuckerman mentions take for granted with their own version of argument by popularity: if most people are religious, then, that means that religion is part of human nature and fulfills some basic need (and then, they all use that as accepted starting point rather than social fact to be explained). Scandinavia stands as major counterexample to this.

Overall, based on Zuckerman’s interviews, it appears that that the Danes do not concern themselves much with religion and death and exhibit low levels of death anxiety. Zuckerman seems to find this suprising. I do not. I would argue that religion creates death anxiety by turning it into judgment time and potential nasty punishment. As Zuckerman’s interviews show, it is the Christians in Denmark who are afraid of dying, not the non-religious. Similarly, they do not concern themselves with abstract notions of the meaning of life. At the same time, international surveys show that Scandinavians rank among the highest on happiness and satisfaction, combined with strong social engagement. Strong social welfare, equality and security will do that for you. Why should anyone be surprised?

“The notion that religious belief is somehow childish, that earnest prayer is something that only children engage in, and that faith in God is just something that one dabbles with in childhood, but eventually grows out of  as one becomes a mature adult, would strike most Americans as offensive. But for millions of Scandinavians, that’s just the way it is.” (94)

And yet, such immaturity is omnipresent in American society, visible not just through childish religiosity but also through emotional displays that makes Americans recognizable everywhere in the world. Extreme religiosity maintains individuals in a state of permanent immaturity in many respects.

But what interests Zuckerman is what it means to be secular. After all, he argues that secularists are the most understudied of categories. Zuckerman’s research shows that being secular in Scandinavia involves three attitudes towards religious matters:

  • Reluctance / reticence
  • Benign indifference
  • Utter obliviousness

All three attitudes, with different degrees reflect simply a lack of interest in religion and talking about it. In the interviews, subjects are not much interested in religion as a topic. They are either uninterested, have not much to say, or are just plain bored by it.

So why are Scandinavian societies so secular? Zuckerman identifies several potential explanations:

  • Lazy monopolies: state religions do not have to struggle for, or advertise to, potential “customers” since there is no competition.
  • Secure societies: due to the high quality of life in Scandinavian societies, there is no need for religious comfort (or opium for the people)
  • Working women: women used to be the pillars of religious communities, dragging their husbands and children with them (not to mention free labor for the churches). Once invested with the paid workforce, women lose their religious focus and so do their families.
  • Lack of need for cultural defense: Scandinavian countries are secure and homogeneous.
  • Education: Scandinavian societies have a highly educated populace. High education tends to correlate with lower religiosity.
  • Social democracy: social democratic system reflect the values of the population, especially equality and undermine religious tenets and eliminate religion from public life.

(Consider all the opposites to these propositions and you have, according to Zuckerman, a depiction of religion in the United States… although that might explain high American religiosity but not the presence and growth of religious fundamentalism)

Even though they are mostly secular, Zuckerman’s subjects do not reject their Lutheran cultural heritage. But that is just it, Scandinavian societies are more oriented towards cultural religion where religious rituals are perceived as traditions inherited from the past, but devoid of supernatural content but they do see it as part of their history and identity.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Society Without God

  1. Pingback: Should Atheists Slam Religion or Show Respect? « Freethought

  2. Pingback: The Atheist Visibility Movement: Should atheists slam religion or respect it? | Away Point

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