Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment
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“Silver” Winner of the 2008 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, Religion Category
Before he began his recent travels, it seemed to Phil Zuckerman as if humans all over the globe were “getting religion”—praising deities, performing holy rites, and soberly defending the world from sin. But most residents of Denmark and Sweden, he found, don’t worship any god at all, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to religious dogma of any kind. Instead of being bastions of sin and corruption, however, as the Christian Right has suggested a godless society would be, these countries are filled with residents who score at the very top of the “happiness index” and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer.
Zuckerman formally interviewed nearly 150 Danes and Swedes of all ages and educational backgrounds over the course of fourteen months. He was particularly interested in the worldviews of people who live their lives without religious orientation. How do they think about and cope with death? Are they worried about an afterlife? What he found is that nearly all of his interviewees live their lives without much fear of the Grim Reaper or worries about the hereafter. This led him to wonder how and why it is that certain societies are non-religious in a world that seems to be marked by increasing religiosity. Drawing on prominent sociological theories and his own extensive research, Zuckerman ventures some interesting answers.
This fascinating approach directly counters the claims of outspoken, conservative American Christians who argue that a society without God would be hell on earth. It is crucial, Zuckerman believes, for Americans to know that “society without God is not only possible, but it can be quite civil and pleasant.”
health: definitions, 25–26 Denmark, 17, 25–30, 67, 114–115 nonreligiousness, 17–18, 25–30 Scandinavia, 18 Sweden, 17, 25–30, 67, 114–115 Sonny (Danish interviewee), 81–87, 92, 93 soul, belief in: Denmark, 45, 65, 78–79, 86–87, 176–177 Sweden, 107, 108 South Korea, 25, 119 Soviet Union, 21, 22 Spring Goddess, belief in, 139 Stark, Rodney: demand for religion, 55 impossibility of secularization, 196n5 Lazy Monopoly theory, 111–112 meaning of life, concern with, 68–69 supernatural
ceremony and . . . get . . . people together. My father wasn’t a member of the church, so there was no priest there. But, you know, his burial or funeral was just as good as my mother’s, I think, because then we just . . . I made the prayer, the speech, you know, and then my mother did. And that was good. That was just as good as for my mother, the priest was the one saying the prayer and talking about my mother. But she did a really good job. I think it was very good what she did. But . . .
to say that I was sick and I would die in a few months, I would say yes I am afraid—I can’t know—but I know that if someone said in three months you are going to die, I would be scared. . . . Of course I‘m afraid in that way. And maybe I‘m more afraid because I know there is nothing. Admittedly, not all Danes and Swedes have such secular outlooks on matters pertaining to life after death. They certainly don’t all believe that “nothing” happens after death. I did interview some people who had
to live also. But, then one night I was asleep in bed and I had a dream . . . and in that dream I dreamt that I was dying, and it came out very strangely because I didn’t, you know, just walk out in front of a bus or something, but I dreamt that I could see Jesus coming down to get me and to take me. And it was not . . . well, it was the shape of a man, but very bright . . . there was light all over. And I felt this happiness . . . and said, yes, yes, I‘m going to die, I‘m going to be with Jesus
to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 41. Human Development Report of the United Nations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). 42. Human Development Report of the United Nations (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2005). 43. UNICEF REPORT, 2007, “The State of the World’s Children"; go to www.unicef.org/sowc07/. 44. Human Development Report of the United Nations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). 45. Global Competitiveness Report