Abstract: 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.
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.