I just finished reading Society without God, by American sociologist Phil Zuckerman. The book came out back in 2008, but I heard about it recently on a skeptic podcast and I felt I just had to buy it. Phil Zuckerman spent a year in Denmark in 2006, and also visited Sweden during that time to perform interviews with a wide sample of what seems to me to be typical Swedes and Danes, trying to understand their attitude towards god and religion. His conclusion is that the Nordic countries today are a special little area of deep secularism in a world that is mostly religious and apparently growing more religious recently. Even in fairly secularized Western Europe, the Nordic countries stand out (or at least Denmark and Sweden does, in his research). So what? For a Swede like myself this is pretty obvious… but when you combine this with the fact that the standard of living and overall feeling of security and quality of life in Denmark and Sweden is very high, Zuckerman finds a great argument against a certain argument brought forth by Christian conservatives in the US…
An argument against the idea that without strong religion, societies degenerate and become inhumane and cruel.
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.
Pretty obvious, right? that’s where I live. Makes sense to me. Living here in Sweden I can only agree with both sides of the book’s observations. Life is pretty good and seems better than in many other places, and sure, we are pretty secular. I feel that Zuckerman captures the overall attitude to religion very very well. The interviews that make up the bulk of the book are actually not all that much fun to read in depth, they rather just present a large sample of typical normal attitudes to religion in this part of the world. But once again, given the background that he is trying to prove a certain point, it is necessary (and I agree that this point unfortunately seem like it has to proven).
But the real insight this book gave me was not about myself and life in Sweden – but about life in the US and how the US works. The fact that Zuckerman is astonished to encounter a society that is not permeated with religion is incredibly revealing. Every point where he describes in detail some peculiar norm in Denmark and Sweden becomes a mirror where you can see the US norm clearly – and how they differ.
To me, this book finally gave me a handle on some of the things that had always struck me as strange about the US, but not quite been able to articulate. I now understand much better why US companies and leaders tend to sell big visions and big words, and why might actually even work. In a society where people are used to believing in things without too much rational afterthought, such things are much more likely to work. It is ingrained in society, in a way it is not in a secular society. Swedes often strike me as a bit skeptical or cynical about such visions, and I always wondered why. I now think it is because we are simply not very practiced in believing things, rather being used to look for facts and rational reasoning (in general, there are always exceptions to any such sweeping generalization). It explains why Swedish politics seem less inspiring and exciting than US politics – while at the same time mostly being more efficient and rational.
I do recommend it to anyone, but you can get about 80% of the insights just be searching for blog posts, blog comments, and reviews of the book. In many cases, seeing what people say about it is just as interesting as anything inside the book itself.
As an aside, this book can also be read as a feel-good book for us Scandinavians – it is almost scary how well Zuckerman liked being here. Reading many liberal, atheist, and secular blog posts and reviews about this book it does make Scandinavia seem like non-religious heaven on earth… except the cold weather and the high taxes, obviously. It gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, basically.