(all the numbers in brackets within this posting are citations which reference the stated page numbers within the book Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman)
A common trope amongst the devout is that morality is derived from religion, and therefore a society lacking strong religious beliefs would be an utterly immoral, un-free, irrational society which denies human dignity (20); effectively, a hell on earth. Indeed, there are philosophers who argue variations on the statement that “belief in God is actually part of the wiring of the human brain, and therefore innate, and that a lack of religious belief is ‘unnatural'” (55).
Having heard these statements, and noticing that the majority in Scandinavian countries classify themselves as irreligious, professor and sociologist Phil Zuckerman was curious as to what sort of culture would actually emerge from such a society, and how secularity affected both the people and their society (96). Consequently he spent just under two years in Denmark and Sweden, interviewing people regarding their religious beliefs. While he is careful to note that his research is not scientifically rigorous, he does believe he was able to achieve “a much richer, subtler, and more nuanced understanding of what it means to be secular in a relatively secular culture” (97). His research resulted in the fascinating little book Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, published in 2010.
Zuckerman’s surprise and delight in Danish society — and by extension Swedish and the other Scandinavian cultures — is extremely vivid. He writes in glowing terms of how peaceful, civil, clean, healthy, educated, and calm it is, and how much he enjoyed his time there. He also specifically mentions Denmark and Sweden as being among the wealthiest and most egalitarian societies in the world, due in great part to “the most well-developed welfare systems within the democratic world” (114). He also references some startling data, such as: “nations with high rates of belief in God also had higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infections, teen pregnancy, and abortion than nations in which belief in God is relatively low” (193).
Zuckerman also verifies that the Scandinavians he interviewed are, in the vast majority, mostly indifferent to what is considered the standard human “need” for religion — to the extent that people who were previously chatting animatedly with him on a multitude of other subjects will fall silent when the subject turns to religion. Often they’ll shrug and admit they’ve not really thought about the subject, and it’s clear they don’t really care about it. Further, a great many of them relate that their grandparents may have been extremely devout, but this religious devotion has been fading through the generations. This leads the author to ponder whether the meaning of life is perhaps really of critical importance to only a select few — but those few tend to think (and write) long and hard on the subject, while also assuming their curiosity is shared by all (73).
Zuckerman is fascinated by the differences — which are related to him by individuals who work with the sick and/or dying — in how the religious and the irreligious face death. As he notes, one would expect the religious to be comforted by their religion, but it would appear the reality is almost exactly the opposite: it is the irreligious who face death with calm equanimity, having already lived their lives as best they can, and not fearing being part of Nature’s cycle (59, 61, 71). Indeed, many of them find more beauty and meaning in nature and life itself than in some manipulative and domineering god who might or might not reward his followers with life after death (63, 70, 72). The author discovers that it is instead the religious who apparently suffer greatly from both guilt and fear of death: have they been good enough? Will their god forgive them their sins and take them to heaven? Is their god a kind and loving one, or a fierce and vengeful entity? (59, 46, 63)
To explain the fact of many Danish people who belong to the state Lutheran church without being believers, Zuckerman borrows the concept of “cultural religion” (150) from sociological examinations of Jewishness. Zuckerman defines it as: “the phenomenon of people identifying with historically religious traditions, and engaging in ostensibly religious practices, without truly believing in the supernatural content thereof” (155; italics his). He also notes the negative (as in: “too condemning. It has a hostile ring” ) connotations atheist has in such a cultural milieu, such that people will admit to not believing in god but eschew the label of atheist.
Zuckerman goes on to examine several current hypotheses as to why religion is effectively dying in the Scandinavian countries. “Lazy monopolies” (111) refer to religions as being equivalent to commodities: if you have no competition you have no pressure to work at drawing in new believers. “Secure Societies” (113) considers religion the opium of the people: during insecure times religion helps ease the pain. Zuckerman wonders whether the irreligiosity of Scandinavians is due to the security of their lives and the healthiness of their societies, removing the need for the “balm and comfort that religion often provides” (115). Remember this thought: it will be important later. ;).
Another example places this onus of religious change on working women (115): historically it was the non-working women who most often pushed their male relatives to be religious. Further, women are ordinarily more religious than men (116) — we don’t know why; it’s just a sociological norm in the Western world today (199). Now that they’re working, though, these women have no time to waste on religion — especially since the vast majority of Swedish and Danish women work, and Danish women “currently have the highest employment frequency in the labor market in the world” and are on the brink of being more numerous than men in the job market (116). Understandably, none of these completely satisfy Zuckerman.
The author also spends some time comparing the Scandinavian countries to the US in an effort to explain their extremely differing religiosities. He suggests, for example, the homogeneity of the Scandinavian peoples and cultures, as compared to the wild subcultural differences in the US due to constant immigration. He notes the Europeans who initially settled the US were all religious zealots, whereas Christianity in Scandinavia was a rather top-down affair, with many of the peasantry never completely eschewing their pagan beliefs. In the US also there is the separation of church and state, and aggressive marketing of religion — both factors which are missing in Scandinavia. Perhaps most striking, however, is the extremely wide difference in levels of security in both countries. As the author himself notes, “I don’t think it is a mere coincidence that the nations of Scandinavia (the most irreligious) have the lowest poverty rates of all developed democracies and the United States (the most religious) has the highest” (173).