Sunday, 14 December 2008

Society Without God: a review

(note: this is quite a bit more lengthy than a typical blog post)

In today’s rapidly evolving religious climate, few studies have been made of secularity in the modern world. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist from California, brings us Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment to help fill that void. It is an ambitious project, blending personal stories and sociological data gathering, as well as historical, political and theological insights. For those of us in America who can feel that our country is a bit (religiously) strange, but can’t quite put our finger on how and why, this is the perfect book. It is, indeed, an apology for secularism, showing how it is woven into the wonderful societies of Denmark and Sweden. For readers of Progressive Buddhism, we find questions of “Cultural Religion,” discussions of issues such as belonging vs. believing, and perhaps some hints at where we as individuals as well as Buddhism as a whole will fit in to the above-mentioned rapidly changing religious climate.
There have been two noteworthy trends in our society of late. The first is the rise in somewhat hokey movies (Signs, Henry Pool is Here) and some not-so-hokey ones (The Passion of the Christ) trying to convince us of the existence of God or miracles. And the second is the recent boom in psychology, popular writing, and even philosophy, trying to describe and teach us the so-called science of happiness, the art of happiness, or (one of my favorites) the accident of Stumbling on Happiness.

It has become commonplace in America to equate religiosity with happiness, with some even pointing to social and sociological studies suggesting the greater contentment of believers. Atheists (and often Buddhists by implication), now as much as ever, have quite a challenge in modern American society. In one scene in Henry Pool is Here, a movie I only watched because it was shown on a plane, two of Henry’s nosy neighbors are talking about him and one says (I paraphrase), “he seems so unhappy,” to which the other replies, “well, no wonder, he is an atheist.”

It is perfectly acceptable or perhaps even common sense, it seems, to connect atheism and unhappiness. As a Buddhist (and atheistic), this is not only ignorant, but offensive. It is an assumption based only on prejudice. What if they had observed instead that he seems angry: “well, no wonder, he is a Muslim” or wealthy: “well, no wonder, he is a Jew.”? Attacks on atheists seem to slip through the cracks in our society, perhaps simply because they are so widespread. Indeed, Zuckerman recounts the vitriol spewed by a half-dozen media pundits and religious leaders from Bill O’Reilly to Pat Robertson (pp. 19-20). All make similar and patently false statements regarding the demise of any society lacking a robust faith in God.

Religion, and by that I mean mostly the Religious Right, has exerted itself mightily in the last twenty years in America despite, scandals and abuses. And whether it is a science, an art, or an accident, happiness is a hot topic these days. It is into this melting pot that Phil Zuckerman throws his latest work: Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. In this book Zuckerman takes us to Denmark and Sweden, two countries that seem today to be less religious than ever (p.2).

It’s a difficult book to classify. It is the work of a trained sociologist and thus carries the mark of that discipline: interviews, data, statistics, and the analytical tools needed to make sense of it all. But it is also something of a travel-log by an intelligent atheistic American in an amazing society that, as he points out, so many Americans would not – could not – believe exists. As he says in the end of chapter 2, after describing an idyllic bus ride through a major city in Denmark, “So many Americans assume that without strict obedience to biblical laws, society would be chaotic and horrific. If only they could take this ride with me, I thought to myself” (p.31).

The third genre is something of a socio-religious biography of the people, 149 formal interviews with adult Scandinavians of all ages, education levels, and jobs. The sample, while large and in some ways random, did have a ‘convenience’ factor (meaning Zuckerman interviewed people who were readily available and even sought some out based on interesting conversations or their occupation) so it shouldn’t be misconstrued as representing the entire Scandinavian population. (see note 1 at bottom) It is in these interviews that one gets the best feel for Scandinavian life and thought, as you hear the views of so many ‘average’ people. These interviews reveal a richness of life in family, friendships, and social responsibilities all without a faith in God.

The very existence of the people in these interviews and their stories would not be remarkable, Zuckerman points out, if they were the exception to the rule in Scandinavia. In fact, atheists are the norm. Their existence and the flourishing of these “Godless” societies should put an end not only about the vitriol of the Pat Robertsons of the world, but also those who attempt to show by science that we are ‘hard wired’ for faith in God (cf. pp.55-56). If only it were so simple.

Interestingly, in interview after interview the Scandinavians speak of their society as being based on the ethics of the Bible, following ideals of kindness to others, honesty, and so forth. To them it seems that it is these teachings that are important, not the belief in God, heaven, or hell – not to mention biblically motivated anti-Semitism, discrimination of homosexuals, or denial of women’s reproductive rights. And Scandinavian society reflects just this: higher openness, a welfare state (based on the belief that free education and healthcare benefits everyone), strong community relations, the virtual eradication of poverty, and so on. Many of these same interviewees hypothesize that in past generations, when belief in God was far more prominent, the reason was precisely the lack of equity and stability in society. As life became better, as the society became more socialist (to use an overly and unduly harangued term), the need for religious belief simply fell away.

Further into his analysis, Zuckerman covers this very idea in his discussion of Why? (chapter 6). Several theories are presented, including the idea that “Secure Societies” are more likely to be irreligious. Other theories suggest that “Lazy Monopolies” – in this case the Lutheran church – lead to decline or that “Working Women” no longer keep their husbands and children in the churches. What we find is that while some theories match up remarkably well in Sweden and Denmark (all three of these, in fact), it is impossible to pin the cause of secularism on any one of them. Each also faces counterexamples elsewhere in the world.

Society Without God includes a history of religion in these countries, attempting, albeit very cautiously, to discern the religiosity of these people over the last 1000 or so years. We also find a discussion of what it means to be a Christian (chapter 8). Reflecting on his own (very secular) Jewish upbringing, Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are similarly “culturally” religious while personally atheistic or agnostic. As Christmas draws near I wonder how many of us (Buddhists and otherwise) might consider ourselves "culturally Christian." Most of us will do something on Christmas, even if it is simply spending a little extra time with family. And if we put up a tree, exchange gifts, put up lights, and God (ahem, I mean Buddha) help us, sing Christmas songs together, then we are “participating in something ostensibly religious, without actually believing its supernatural elements” (p.155). Ergo we are being culturally Christian.

Zuckerman concludes his study with thoughts from back in the US. Within hours of his return, he finds himself in the house of a born-again Christian showing off his “new toy” (a handgun). Ahh, how things change. Then, at a bank, he overhears an employee advising a debt-ridden patron to see a pastor to pray over the indebted person’s bills, give $50 a month to his ministry, and trust that “within a year, God will see to it that your debt is all gone” (p.167). Traveling from a land where God is practically obsolete to trusting Him with your personal debt must have been quite a shock. It was also traveling from a land of general contentment, good health, and security to a country with only moderate life-satisfaction, a perilous (despite being technologically spectacular) health-care system and depressingly high rates of violence.

If one could criticize the book, it would be on the grounds that it is too ambitious. In trying to tell so many stories in under two hundred pages, Zuckerman stretches the bounds of his own expertise and potentially the patience of his readers. Despite its core of sociological data-collecting, it is clear that the book is in fact an extended musing on the fairly personal topic of religion by a young and talented scholar. Yet it is difficult to imagine the book being anything other than what it is. Cut out the interviews and history and it loses its punch, remove the personal stories and ties to politics and contentment and it loses its emotive appeal. This reader was both very satisfied in this book, seeing much more clearly that (in the US) it needn’t be this way - we can be happy and safe without faith in God, and at the same time I left yearning for more.

1) Zuckerman goes over his methodology in a brief appendix.


  1. My Christian friends at the mission believe that are necessarily happier than others, especially atheists, because they have a relationship with Jesus/God and they have the comfort of knowing they will be taken care of in the afterlife.

    I don't think that it is a matter of ignorance or being offensive on the part of the Christians [with regard to them thinking atheists simply MUST be less happy than they are], it is a matter of being fully believing in the delusion of wish-thinking.

    As it happens, last night, in the middle of the night, on my bunk bed in the dorm, I was awakened by the trauma, of sorts, of wondering how in the world my sister can have done what she did to me. Being Buddhist, I can take no comfort in the delusion of having a personal friendship with a saviour. For me, there is no all-powerful God out there to make everything all right in the long run.

    Thus, somehow, I think Society Without God misses an important point, talking past the POV of some christians

  2. I think you're right Tom, that perhaps Zuckerman is simply "preaching to the choir" to some extent. But the nice thing is seeing how that choir is a majority in many developed democracies while in the US, non-Christians are the odd ducks.

    And I often wonder - many Christians are open to other faiths and practices being perhaps just as valid as their own. But for those who absolutely are not, should folks like you or me or Zuckerman spend much time trying to talk to their POV?

  3. I think there's a very real difference between taking comfort from something and being genuinely happy - a child that is attached to a secururity blanket is not necessarily happier than a child that is not. That security blanket is an addiction, a crutch that itself needs to be defended and - in the case of religious faith - perhaps propped up with self-deceptive arguments.

    This is a really thorough and thoughtful review Justin, with penty of your own thoughts and experiences in there too.

    I too grew up an atheist and have spent a good deal of time debating with Christians. I never found the arguments for the existence of God convincing. Nor did I find the secondary moral arguments persuasive, arguing for example that without belief in moral absolutes (from God) everyone would go around killing each other and eating babies. Not once did I have an urge to kill someone or eat a baby and the crime statistics just didn't back it up. Also most of the most passionately humane people I knew were humanist atheists.

    The idea that believers are more happy generally is one more argument in this camp. On this count however, I have read more than one study of happiness which does include active religious participation as a positive factor in happiness (although it wasn't clear why - it may have been related to social networks for example). I suspect that a sense of meaning is very important. However this is not the same as saying religion is necessary for a healthy society. People can find meaning and social networks in other ways.

    Thanks for taking the time to review this Justin.

  4. I see that for individuals in a society to be at peace with each other society as a whole must be without God, or no-God. This implies that there can be God within each individual, although no dependence on it. To speak of the God within me needing to be the God within you is nothing but imposing a particular God without. Because the medium we communicate and structure our society is language there's an illusion of a "not" involved in everything we say to each other. A God is allowed for each one of us, although no God is not imposed on everyone. The thought of everyone is the fictional thought of a society that is not the indiviual. We live together as if there are others when there are not and living the other way is childish fighting that ends up in bloodshed and misery attempting to make the "not" real. If I need you to live for my God and not yours that is not mine, then my God is as dependent as I am and how can that "really" be comforting? I think Dogen is talking about this when he says that chanting the Nembutsu, etc., is alright for you to do although it can't be considered as the universal practice. Just sitting is something everyone, without exception, has always already done.

  5. Oh, and there is no freedom to be happy if being not happy is not allowed.

  6. Bud Phil asks, "[S]hould folks like you or me or Zuckerman spend much time trying to talk to [Conservative Christians with] their POV?"

    Hmm, well. I think we should understand their point of view. As I wrote in the comment section of a Danny Fisher blogpost rather recently, I certainly think that becoming a Conservative Christian is a closed-door trap.

    But, be aware, that Christian congregants are not the nutjobs that their conspicuous leaders are. At the mission [where we so-called 'guests' are ~67% black], the great majority [85%?] are Conservative Christian and, probably, 90% were robust Obama supporters.

    Many people do believe they need to be anchored to avert the tug of bad life-choices that will pull them away, into a Sea of Trouble, where they might fall off the edge of the planet.

    From what I understand, alcohol- and drug- abuse-ending programs work best if attached to trapping religosity.

    I would guess that America will become less Christian over the long haul. We don't have the history of the Inquisition that Europe has; I think that is one reason why the US seems so backward.

    I continue to think that Christians may be happier than the rest of us. But I would still prefer to have a better take on The Truth of things and be less happy than the other way around.

  7. Thanks for a thought-provoking review!

    I think there's a faultline here, though, between 'religious' and 'nonreligious' as opposed to 'theistic' and 'atheistic'. Buddhism lies right on this faultline, having all the cultural attributes of other major religions, except a belief in a God.

    Despite this or because of it, I see a lot of Buddhists criticising the lack of spirituality or wholeness in secular society, which is then related to a lack of 'spirituality' (that's the term most often used, in my experience) - though ideological materialists like Richard Dawkins must shoulder some responsibility for this response too, at least in recent times.

    I often think that this kind of discourse is actually related to utopian imaginings about a past in which life somehow had more meaning, and also that non-Western societies are somehow less spiritually bankrupt or crisis-ridden than the present-day secular West. That is, modern Western society is seen as having a unique lack, and a lack of authenticity.

    The authentic is a culturally determined matter - for example, the very 'chopping wood and carrying water' which Sakyamuni's sangha conceived as a deterrent to practice, came to be seen as the epitome of practice in later, more mercantile/economised societies.

  8. Amatuer Dharmatics,
    I criticize your last paragraph. The authentic is politically determined, as apposed to culturally. The difference between your examples is that Sakyamuni's sangha was apparently left alone while the more centralized government in China co-opted a Zen saying that was political in nature. Without says "No",no wood or water for those who have someone else do it for them, which would be consistent with the earlier sangha.

  9. "I think there's a faultline here, though, between 'religious' and 'nonreligious' as opposed to 'theistic' and 'atheistic'. Buddhism lies right on this faultline, having all the cultural attributes of other major religions, except a belief in a God."

    That's why it's more accurate to categorize Buddhism as "nontheistic" rather than "atheistic". That's my answer when people ask..has a little more kick.

  10. "Is there a God?", is a rhetorical question. Answered with,"No, there is not a God."

  11. I have talked about belief and non-belief with Christians... how much do you have to believe to be "religious"? In some sense, beliefs are empty inasmuch as they are just beliefs on their own("who?" or "what?" does the believing? That probably sounds like a koan). One can "believe" in God and live as if He doesn't exist, after all OTOH, beliefs help people out, and who knows... some of them might actually be true. It's hard to say if belief in God is really all that bad, or secular atheism is really all that good. For all the evil attributed to belief in God, rarely do people point out the good.

    Scandinavians are happy, but they aren't free from social problems (alcoholism, divorce, sexual assault), they don't have as much freedoms as some other countries (which probably wouldn't bother progressives all that much, but if you are a moderate or conservative, it would- I'm a political moderate, BTW), so it is hard to say what is right or wrong about those countries. Their material prosperity is dependent on a colonialist/capitalist past based on exploitation of other countries (and other peoples, such as the Saami). Take that away, and would people really be happy without alot of religion?

    I actually think alot of poeple who say that the "values" of the Christian world are OK, but the beliefs, they have to go, well, that is just being intellectually naive. Who is to say in time those values won't erode as belief erodes? The beliefs and the values intersect in so many ways it is hard to take them apart and have them remain coherent. You end up with a wordliness that isn't part of authentic religion. Authentic Christianity is all about the next world, and about how our life in this world impacts that (and the "Kingdom of God" ties both worlds together). Not focusing on the temporal, but the eternal.