Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review: Society without God

Society without God - What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment by Phil Zuckerman

About 10 years ago, while I was studying full time, I had a part-time job in the evenings. One evening, when I was at work, I was talking with my colleagues, and the subject of our talk turned to religion. This is not an usual subject to talk about in Denmark, except in general terms and not touching upon personal opinions. This time was no different, and we somehow touched the idea that some people take the Bible literally, believing in a seven day creation etc. Much to my surprise, even shock, one of my colleagues told us that she believed exactly that. I was stunned, and after asking if she really believed that the world had been created by the Christian God in seven days, we all dropped the subject.

At the time, I was 24 or 25 years old, and that was the first time in my life I experienced a biblical literalist (or at least one who told me that he or she was one), and I have yet to meet another such in Denmark.

Depending on where you live, this story could surprise you in different ways. If you live in the Bible belt of the US (or even most of the rest of the US), you'd be surprised that I've only worked with one biblical literalist in nearly 35 years of life. On the other hand, if you're Danish, you'll surprised that I've actually met a biblical literalist, and that she admitted it.

The difference between these two cultures are really that stark.

It was these differences that Zuckerman experienced when he moved to Denmark for 14 months in 2005, and being an atheist, he appreciated the differences. What's more, Zuckerman noticed that while fundamentalist, evangelistic Christians in the US always claim that non-religious societies will descend into amoral atheistic anarchy, this was far from the picture he saw in Denmark and the neighboring Sweden, two of the least religious countries in the world. As a matter of fact, a good case could be made that those two countries could be considered among the best to live in in the world (he argues for this by presenting a number of metrics by which this could be measured, in which Denmark and Sweden usually rank among the highest in the world).

Given this fact, his atheism, his profession as a sociologist, and the simple fact that he, as he admits, has an axe to grind, he decided to set out to find out what godless countries like Denmark and Sweden might teach religious countries like the US.

Very early in the book Zuckerman made a distinction between a society without religion and a society without God, since Danes and Swedes to a large degree are members of the official churches and call themselves Christians, but don't believe in God, the divinity of Jesus, nor heaven and hell. Outside Denmark and Sweden, these concepts would seem essential for being Christian, but here, being a Christian is considered a cultural thing. People consider themselves Christian since they come from a country with a Christian background, and because they like the Christian ideals, not because they actually believe in the supernatural baggage the Christian faith carries along.

Unrelated to anything in the book, I should perhaps mention that this is something that causes problems with integrating immigrants and children of immigrants. You'll frequently hear people refer to others as Muslims, even though the people being referred have grown up in Denmark, and don't hold any religious faith. Since their parents come from a predominantly Muslim country, people think of them as Muslims, and thus non-Christians (and thus non-Danish).

Well, back to the book. Zuckerman tried to get to understand the religious feelings of Danes and Swedes better by interviewing both religious and non-religious people from both countries, trying to get them to answer questions about religion and their views on life. Based on these answers, Zuckerman has written a book with chapters focusing on such issues as "Fear of Death and the Meaning of Life", frequently referring to the answers he got, and the experiences he had while interviewing these people.

Now comes the part where my review will probably differ from what the experience people from religious countries will have.

What I found interesting about the book wasn't so much the answers to the questions, since they were pretty much as I would have expected, but rather the absolute astonishment that shines through the pages. Let me give you an example.

The first noteworthy part of the "group interview" [of 3 Swedes on a train] came when I asked them if they believed in God. Two of the women immediately said no. But the third, Katarina, hesitated before answering. She sat there, paused in thought. We quietly awaited her reply. She looked out the window, at the night blurring by. And then she said that she hadn't really thought about it before. She didn't know whether she did or didn't believe in God - not because she was philosophically agnostic, per se, but rather, because she found it somewhat a novel question. She asked for some time to think it over. Finally, after several moments, she came to her conclusion: no, she didn't think so. What struck me as so remarkable about her response was not that it was in the negative (I was quite used to that), but that she had needed time to mull it over, having admitted that it just wasn't something she had pondered much before. This was a slight shock to me. Never thought about belief in God before - come again? How is it possible to be in one's thirties and not yet have formed an opinion in God


Emphasis in the original. While not having thought about religious questions is a bit unusual, even in non-religious countries like Denmark and Sweden, it's not really that unusual (I believe Zuckerman found approx. 15% mot having done so), yet Zuckerman acts as I felt when I experienced a perfectly intelligent person tell me that she actually believed that a God created the Universe, Earth, and life in literally seven days (and not figuratively as Danish religious people usually do).

So, while the book will give Americans a good introduction into what a non-religious country can be like, it also will give Danes and Swedes an idea of how prevalent religion is in the US. This is probably not something Zuckerman had in mind when he wrote the book, but is just a lucky side effect.

In other words, I highly recommend the book, whether you are an American trying to understand non-religious countries, or you're a Dane or Swede trying to understand how our societies appear to outsiders.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Paul Claessen said...

Regarding the girl who hadn't thought about the existence of (a) God: I know QUITE a few (Dutch) people who would say the DO believe in (a) God, but when pressed would admit that they really hadn't thought about it much. And I know even MORE, church going Christian people in the Netherlands, who would feel VERY uncomfortable discussing their faith with an non-believer. In fact most would simply reject the invitation. Of the few that DO engange in such a discussion most know shockingly little about their own faith! Most simply believe whatever it was their parents believed.

May 24, 2009 3:25 PM  
Blogger majo said...

Thanks for a good review! I found your story about meeting your first fundamentalist Christian amusing, because I've been on the other end of what seems a complementary experience. I'm European and living in Denver, far from the Bible Belt. A couple of years ago I went on a date with a man born and brought up here, who on discovering that I had no belief in god looked strangely uncomfortable, and later sent me an email to tell me he'd been shocked because he'd never met anyone who didn't believe in a higher power (I should point out that he was in his 40s). I was equally appalled by his comments on evolution ("we must have had a helping hand"), so needless to say, the relationship went no further.

May 24, 2009 4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does you guys always leave out the Norwegians? :P

May 24, 2009 6:16 PM  
OpenID Jacob Wintersmith said...

As a former Episcopalian, I can attest that Paul's characterization of Dutch church-goers also applies to many non-literalist Christians in America. Those in America are able to take a degree of comfort from the fact that their religious beliefs are so widely held here, but it's still very easy to make them uncomfortable by asking them to explain the specifics of what they believe. And just as in the Netherlands, most of them avoid that discomfort by not thinking much about their own religion.

May 24, 2009 6:41 PM  
Blogger Patrik Lindenfors said...

As a Swede, I personally confirm Kristjan's observations. Religion is just not a big deal here.

May 25, 2009 10:13 AM  
Blogger shonny said...

As a Norwegian coming back after nearly 30 years in Australia, I can with reasonable certainty that Aussies on the whole are quite like Scandinavians in their lack of religiosity.
Exceptions where the Dutch Free Reformed, a loopy mob of Calvinists, and a few other similar fairly fundamental ones.

Best of course about coming back is to not have to speak English!
(and yes, I love split infinitives!)

May 25, 2009 12:03 PM  
Blogger geetha said...

complementary experience in india too. meeting an atheist is so rare and the general response when i reveal my lack of belief in god is one of consternation.

May 26, 2009 8:56 AM  
Blogger Kaethe said...

I consider myself just such a cultural Christian, since I'm an atheist now. Living in the bible belt I have a hard time imagining a secular country. I guess you didn't have assemblies in high school where a band comes and plays some hit songs and then talks a little about how Christianity rocks?

Thanks for the review. I'll try a read the book soon, as an antidote.

May 26, 2009 4:31 PM  
Blogger Grindstone Journal said...

It's settled, then. I'm moving to Denmark.

May 26, 2009 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm moving to Denmark or Sweden. Maybe I'll feel like I fit in instead of feeling like I'm outcast because I of my beliefs.

November 23, 2009 8:29 PM  

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