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

As the tide of secular self-awareness and public discussion of nonbelief rises, Phil Zuckerman’s latest book, Society without God, is not only a major contribution to the study of irreligion and religion today, it is an eye-opener for anyone who believes that religious societies have an advantage when it comes to health and happiness.

Zuckerman spent fourteen months in Denmark and Sweden between 2005 and 2006 interviewing 149 people at length about their religious and/or secular beliefs. It is, of course, widely known among secularists that a majority of people in both countries don’t believe in God, but Zuckerman’s interviews bring to life the reality of a society “in which the belief in God is muted, minimal, and marginal.” He presents excerpts from the interviews that allow us to understand how nontheists experience their lives and see themselves. He asks them about their family background, death, whether they believe in some form of afterlife, and their friends’ beliefs on such topics. We encounter people of various educational levels, professions, and ages, and they give us a mundane, ordinary collective image which, in the American context, turns out to be no less than sensational. These people live decent lives, raise their children, hold jobs, meet their obligations, face their strains and struggles—without God and without religion.

The book is personal as well as scholarly, and Zuckerman, an engaging writer, brings it to life with anecdotes about his time in Denmark and Sweden in addition to subjects’ testimonies. He begins by highlighting the numerous differences between Denmark’s lack of religiosity and the pervasiveness of religion in the United States—focusing on God’s absence from public view there, whether in the media, in schools, or in politics. Denmark is, by our standards, as “deeply good” a society as we can imagine, which leads him to think about social goodness in terms both broader and deeper than usually defined by conventional religious morality: that is, by healthcare, gender equality, cleanliness of public spaces, life expectancy, gross domestic product, social order, functioning public amenities, the absence of crime, and a wide and deep sense of security.  Contrary to American fundamentalists’ warnings, this irreligious society is “gentle, calm, and inspiring.”

Zuckerman goes on to present his fascinating interviews, typically focusing on three subjects in each chapter and framing their responses with appropriate theoretical and historical reflections. He refuses to blink before controversial questions, but never relaxes his scholarly rigor. Some of the conversations will be especially striking to Americans, such as a friend’s confession reported by Christian, a prosecutor in the city of Aarhus. Inebriated, the friend confided that he didn’t believe in God and then remarked, “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person.” In general the interviews convey more the absence of religion than the presence of any powerful secular outlook. Mette, a twenty-four-year-old daycare teacher said that religion or God simply weren’t discussed by her childhood friends or parents, not even when her grandmother died. She was asked why Danes are not interested in religion. “I don’t know, because…we just don’t care.” Zuckerman does report people’s religious ideas, such as those of Johanne, a novelist and painter pursuing a PhD in religious studies. Her “religious or spiritual identity is quite present and important, but more than anything else, it is quite personal and amorphous.”

What sense can be made of the claim of many American academics that people are “hard-wired” for religion, or that religion is an “instinct?” “Ubiquity,” Zuckerman astutely points out, “is not biology.” Given the millions of irreligious people in modern societies, “it is hard to conceptualize religion as something intrinsically, naturally human.” Rather, most humans must be religious for reasons that are “cultural, social, political, psychological, emotional, economic, or philosophical—and then some.”

Is religion dying in Scandinavia because it has taken the form of a “lazy monopoly” in which the state-supported Lutheran churches have not needed to compete, in contrast to the “supply-side” situation of American churches? Zuckerman acknowledges that this may possibly be one factor. But there are others: the Scandinavian welfare states with their high levels of security and equality; the large number of women in the workplace who are no longer devoted to fostering religion in their families; and the centrality of social-democratic parties in each society.

In his interviews Zuckerman also asks some less-than-conventional questions and comes up with important and original answers. He discovers three different ways of “being secular” in Scandinavia: “reluctance/reticence,” “benign indifference,” and “utter obliviousness.” People in the first group, he says, “were often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion, and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.” The second and largest group, unlike any Zuckerman has encountered in the United States, are not themselves religious but have slightly positive views about religion (“well, it is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”) The third and smallest group, for which he was also totally unprepared, are people who have never at all thought about belief in God: “We never talk about it.”

Nevertheless, a striking feature of life in Denmark is that the National Church is state-supported, and a high percentage of people pay taxes to maintain it. Many of them marry, confirm their children, and hold funerals in it—despite being nonbelievers. In this sense Denmark is a society without God, not a society without religion. Zuckerman explores this paradox in depth, and far from finding any residual religiosity or belief in religion as an “insurance policy,” sees church membership as a traditional form of belonging to the wider community, rich with social and historical meanings but not at all reflecting a belief in God. In much the same way, many Jews identify with their historical and cultural community despite being nontheist in outlook. Zuckerman calls this a “cultural religion.”In these reflections, is he suggesting a possible path for an increasingly secularized America, where hostility to religion among nonbelievers is slowly replaced by a respect for the sense of community and other values that it fosters? It certainly works in Denmark and Sweden.

Zuckerman’s final extended reflection is stimulated by returning home. Obviously, being back in religious America was jolting, and drove this sociologist to try to understand why the United States is so different not only from Scandinavia but also nearly the entire advanced world in its attitude towards religion. In examining factors such as the role religious freedom played in the founding of the nation, immigration, cultural diversity, and the aggressive marketing of religion here, Zuckerman discusses the one factor most usually ignored by writers on American religiosity (but explored at length by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide): the inequality and insecurity in which this country leads all advanced nations. By comparison, Scandinavians, no matter how down and out, “can always find food, shelter, and health care.” And good care in old age, and child care, and free job training, and free education. “Life in Scandinavia may be many things, but precarious isn’t one of them,” Zuckerman concludes.

In a bit of good luck, Zuckerman met up with a Danish friend after he returned home to the United States. Morten spent nine months here, and Zuckerman, having interviewed him in Denmark in 2005, did so again in 2007. The interviews make up the book’s last several pages. Morten had been among the minority of believers in Denmark, but having lived in the United States and having witnessed the extent to which American believers center their lives around religion, he realized how vague his own sense of religion was and returned to Denmark realizing that he was really “an agnostic, maybe an atheist.” And he carried with him a second awareness, of the profound difference between Denmark and the United States, where “religious fanatics have a very high influence on what’s going to happen,” for example in going to war. Morten had become determined to warn his fellow Danes about this. “I don’t think they would be afraid—but I think they would say, No, no, we don’t want to be part of that.”

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