15 November 2023

Society without God

I don't remember where it was I ran across a review of this book (probably Harper's or The Atlantic), but it sounded interesting. Now that I've read it, I have to say that I was not at all disappointed; it is very thought-provoking and a worthwhile read.

The book is Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, by Phil Zuckerman (New York University Press, New York and London, 2008.) The author lived in Scandinavia (mostly in Denmark) in 2005-2006 and while there conducted tape-recorded interviews with hundreds of people, asking them about their religious beliefs (or, more commonly, the absence of such).

Here's the premise of his book:
“First of all, I argue that society without God is not only possible, but can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at countering the claims of certain outspoken, conservative Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral, and prosperous societies…”
He's careful not to extol the absence of religious belief as preferable for a society, while arguing strongly that when religious belief (or dogma) is absent, society can crank along just fine. Herewith some excerpts and some of my notes from the book -

p. 6 - “…their overall rates of violent crime – such as murder, aggravated assault, and rape – are among the lowest on earth. Yet the majority of Danes and Swedes do not believe that God is “up there,” keeping diligent tabs on their behavior… In fact, most Danes and Swedes don’t even believe in the very notion of “sin.” Almost nobody in Denmark and Sweden believes that the Bible is divine in origin. And the rate of weekly church attendance in these Nordic nations is the lowest on earth…”

p. 8 – religion hasn’t disappeared from Danish or Swedish culture altogether… the majority are still tax-paying members of their respective national churches, prefer to get married in church, and baptize their children. But overwhelmingly they participate in these Christian rituals out of a sense of cultural tradition. They pay about 1% of their annual income in taxes to support their national church because “that’s what one does.” One pastor asked couples he was marrying why they chose to get married in church. Out of 200, only 10 mentioned God – the rest said they were just following a tradition “with a white dress in this old church.”

p. 10 – Most Danes strongly believe in reason – 82% accept Darwin’s theory of human evolution (one of the highest proportions in the world).

p. 10 – "When they say they are “Christian” they are just referring to a cultural heritage and history. When asked what it means to be Christian, they said 'being kind to others, taking care of the poor and sick, and being a good and moral person.' They almost never mentioned God, Jesus, or the Bible in their explanation of Christian identity. When I specifically asked these Nordic Christians if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah, they nearly always said no – usually without hesitation. Did they believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he rose from the grave? Such queries were usually met with genuine laughter – as through the mere asking was rather silly.”

p. 104 – Most people express “benign indifference” to religion, think church buildings are nice, services at Christmas are lovely and pastors are decent and thoughtful men. Religion to them (Lutheranism) is harmless and innocuous and it helps some of their fellow men. And Jesus must have been a nice guy, and the Bible has good stories and admirable ethics. They are not anti-religion, as some outspoken atheists in the U.S. are.

p. 110 – Notes the decline of religion in many western countries. 100 years ago 100% of Dutch belonged to a church, now only 40%. France baptism rates have fallen from 91% to 51% 1958-1990. Several possible reasons why –
a) in some countries (Denmark), one church has monopoly, so no competition, no proselytizing, no effort to attract new members.
b) when people feel secure, they have less need for religion. Danes have food, jobs, housing. Poverty has been essentially eradicated, life expectancies are high, medical care excellent, crime limited.
c) working women have less time for religion
d) lack of need for cultural defense. During conflict people often rally around a church as around a flag (cf Irish Catholics and Protestants). Might change as Muslims immigrate.
e) education levels are typically high in countries where religion is less important. In the U.S. belief in resurrection of Jesus, Virgin Birth, existence of Hell correlates inversely with college education. Denmark and Sweden have 99% literacy rates for adults.

p. 160 – re baptism. “ “For most parents… the religious aspect is of minor importance, and the church ceremony is just part of the ritual. They use the christening ceremony as an excuse to have a party to introduce their baby to their relatives and friends.” The undeniable fact is, almost everyone who witnesses, enjoys, and engages in the baptizing of babies in Denmark and Sweden doesn’t actually believe in the literal existence of sin or the devil, the deliverance from death, or eternal salvation as promised by God. I doubt if even most Danish and Swedish pastors truly believe it.”

p. 170 – Compared to Denmark, the U.S. has much more immigration and more varied ethnic groups who take refuge in religion as a mark of their identity. Also the church is separated from the state (in Denmark and Sweden church is supported by state and by taxes). “Whether the framers of the Constitution intended it or not, the First Amendment has actually played a significant role in helping to keep religion alive and well in this country” (by preventing a monopoly). U.S. has religious pluralism to an extreme degree unlike anywhere else on the planet. Religion in U.S. aggressively marketed. Also Americans much less secure – has highest poverty rates of all developed democracies.

This was not a truly “scientific” study, and the number of interviews cannot guarantee that a true cross-section was interviewed, or that observer bias by the author didn’t influence the responses or the interpretation. But it’s not meant to be hard science. It’s an observational study, a compilation of anecdotal observations, by someone who has thought long and hard about the subject. I find his hypotheses and conclusions to be quite logical, but of course my own biases may be at work there. The book will not change the opinions of those who feel strongly that religion is important and crucial to a society, but it should at least provide some food for thought. It is well written and easy to read; if you're in a hurry, just skip the prolonged transcriptions of the interviews and jump to the conclusions of the chapters, and you should be able to finish it in an evening or two.

Reposted from way back in 2009 to accompany an adjacent post.


  1. "He's careful not to extol the absence of religious belief as preferable for a society"

    Maybe he won't, but I will. I cannot see how a world/society without religion could possibly NOT be better.

    You might find this article interesting: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

    1. Updated link: https://cdr.creighton.edu/bitstream/handle/10504/64409/2005-11.pdf
      "Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly."

  2. My youngest daughter's husband was raised entirely without religion, and they are raising their two sons with no religious training of any kind. Brian is highly moral, ethical, and considerate of others, and the boys appear to be following in his footsteps. I was raised with broad exposure to many religions. I find that the people I know who most follow the teachings of Jesus are not religious, and do not call themselves Christian. On the other hand, I find many who loudly proclaim themselves to be Christian are hypocrites who scorn "the least among us".

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking post! This being a research study and also an argument, it all depends on the definitions - how does he define religion? Because some would say that 'being kind to others, taking care of the poor and sick, and being a good and moral person.' is all that there is to it, all that there should be to it - and then by this account, Danes may be the most religious people.

    Let me share this (longish) quote from CS Lewis's Narnia book, The Last Battle:

    "Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash [worshiped by the Tisroc] all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion [Aslan] and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

  4. Maybe the reason the country isn't quite as... exciting... and some religious countries is because, as one of the quotes says, people are basically indifferent to belief, not AGAINST it. There's a big difference between a de facto atheist who thinks the Bible is a neat story, and one who goes around telling Christians they are brainwashed idiots.

  5. Very interesting; thank you for posting this!

    I had some religious preconceptions blown right out the window after moving from the secular (in theory) United States to the Catholic (in theory) nation of Portugal. This is the place where the Spanish Inquisition found fertile ground, and where "auto de fe" became a part of the national vocabulary. It's a place where many of the national holidays are still named after saints or Mary.

    But the presence of religion in the public life of the Portuguese is far more muted than in the US. No Portuguese would ever put a bumper sticker on her car saying "What Would Jesus Do?" or "God is My Copilot." It would be considered rude and unseemly. Religion is private, a personal choice. The Portuguese would be appalled at the idea of pushing their private worship on others.

    Another interesting aspect is that the Portuguese version of Catholicism focuses largely on Mary as the mother of Jesus. She is the patron saint of the nation, and in terms of national holidays and/or celebrations, she gets a lot more attention than either God or Jesus. But the most intriguing part to me is that she is almost never referred to as the Virgin Mary.

    People here find comfort in the concept of Mary as a mother -- a woman who suffered, who lost her son, and who understands grief. They feel a more personal connection with this view of Mary than with a virgin, or an unwedded, childless man, or a nebulous God. My personal theory is that this is due to the tremendous importance of family in Portuguese culture, but that's just guessing.

    The biggest surprise to me, as an American transplant, is that the Portuguese constitution forbids any reduction in civil rights to go before a popular vote. Religion simply cannot be used to deny any minority group their civil rights, and so the ongoing battles in the US regarding gay rights are viewed here with bewilderment.

    As an aetheist, I've found myself more comfortable here than back home in the US. Comfortable enough to take part in a decidedly religious holiday parade, honoring the grief of Mary upon losing her son. I found it uplifting and an amazing community experience, and am planning to take part again next year. Because it wasn't about religion, it was about people.

  6. Manuela-"how does he define religion? [...]"

    Oh please. Attempts at COMPLETELY redefining words like "religion" in that matter are just incredibly pathetic and transparent ways of trying to forcefully make the world fit into your little mind's narrow, black-and-white conception of the world. This is obviously due to some sort of childish attachment to a bunch of letters and sounds, the inability to look in a dictionary, and a deep lack of vocabulary. What you are talking about is called "ethics", "morality", "kindness" etc. Here's the actual definition of religion: http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=religion

  7. Anonymous, the language and attitude and anonymity of your response make it impossible for me to engage in a respectful, open dialogue, which I felt this thread here was until now.

  8. Manuela- My reply to your comment depends on how you define "impossible". Because some would say that something being "impossible" means one should try very hard to accomplish it. They'd say that that is all there should be to it.

  9. Great review and interesting topic. I can relate to the subjects but, as an atheist and an American, I would be quite upset if I had to pay any percentage of taxes to a national church. Also, I can't imagine harboring any romantic notion of getting married in an old church because that's "what people do." People everywhere do tend to cling to church membership, despite their own more-developed belief systems, out of some sort of need for tradition and famaliarity. Not knocking anyone who maintains their faith in God, just wondering why people who make the break from church attendence and absolute beliefs still support these institutions, especially the bigoted and still oppressive Catholic church.

  10. Manuela has a point about the definition of "Relgion". Of course, most of us would say that Religion must, as part of it's definition, include a belief in a god.

    James himself, in the Christian Bible, says: "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world." (James 1:27)

    It seems James definition of true religion matches Manuela's suggestion closely.

    Annon, if you wish to debate, you should learn to do so with reason, civility and avoiding spurious personal attacks on your opponents.

    Understand also that words do not have intrinsic meaning, but only meaning which people give them. Dictionaries or only disseminators of public opinion on word definitions.

  11. I meant to address the book as well. The idea that secularized nations are better off isn't a new one. But we must be careful of any article or books which cherry-picks its evidence. For example, Sweden's murder rate may be lower than the U.S., but what about its alcoholism or burglary rates (for example)? People on either side of an argument tend to get excited about data which support their already-held beliefs while ignoring or not seeking out other information.

  12. "[...]you should learn to do so with reason [...]"

    I did use reason, I just expressed my feelings along the way. It is actually you and manuela who did not use reason. If you want to know how to define something, you go look up the definition. It's not rocket science, it's basic reason. It's also basic reason that you do not arbitrarily decide to redefine a word just to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. As for what you did- who cares even what iota what james says? The bible isn't the authority on religion. You take what's in james seriously BECAUSE of religion, so your argument is circular.

    No, words do not have intrinsic meaning- that is precisely what I think is wrong with trying to redefine religion. The one and only reason why anyone would want to redefine religion in such a way that being ethical is the sole criterion for it is because they are too attached to the word, and want to apply it to themselves and others who would not fall under the category of "religious" otherwise. It's what I was hinting at in my first post. They also want to LIE/mislead either themselves or other people by using the fallacy equivocation and defining "religion" in such a way that it will cause confusion and lead people to assume things which are not true (that you or other people are "religious", when they are not). It's cowardice and manipulation.

    as for words having only meaning which people give them- Sure, that's right. But YOU aren't "people". You are a person. A person cannot arbitrarily choose to change the definition of a word which PEOPLE have already defined. You yourself said it- Dictionaries tell you what PEOPLE have decided a word means. In fact, that's partly why dictionaries have numerous entries under each word- they tell you all the definitions PEOPLE have for each word. I dare you to find even ONE legitimate dictionary (no christian apologetics website or something) that includes "ethical", "kind", "moral", or variants thereof in the definition of "religious" or "religion"

  13. Oh, right. as for your last post, mike, it is worthless to us and dishonest of you to completely dismiss the evidence that HAS been presented without presenting your own evidence.

    WHAT about Sweeden's alcoholism or burglary rates (for example)? Are they actually higher than the rates for the US/etc? Unless you show me the articles or books, your comment is utterly worthless.

    as an analogy, it's not valid to say that scientists are cherry picking locations to test the theory of gravity, and that gravity might be different in the far side of the moon (for example)... at least unless you actually show that gravity IS different in the far side of the moon (for example).

  14. He seems to be mistaking correlation for causation - an original NFL team wins the Super Bowl and hence the stock market goes up. The Scandinavian countries are also the wealthiest (per capita) on the planet. Maybe that explains their contentment. I imagine the Swiss are pretty happy too.

  15. Don't know why this is such an issue for you, but here are some other definitions for you, from some books you feel are better authorities on religion that the one I cited:

    3. personal beliefs or values: a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by

    4. obsession: an object, practice, cause, or activity that somebody is completely devoted to or obsessed by

    4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    4. Strictness of fidelity in conforming to any practice, as if it were an enjoined rule of conduct
    (Websters 1913 Dictionary)

    So you see, more than one of the multiple meanings of religion does not require a belief in a deity. No one here is "forcefully making the world" to fit our own minds conceptions.

    Can we get back to the original topic of the post now?

  16. None of the definitions you pasted include what I asked for(although they ARE pretty bad). Many of them are used in a different context anyway.

    I never said religion required the belief of a deity. I would generally consider Buddhism to be a religion, but many/most do not believe in a deity.

  17. I'd say I try to behave in a moral and caring way, and I'd also say I do not believe in Jesus as the son of god, nor as having been resurrected after death, nor that he was born of a virgin.
    Is there a god?
    I do not know.
    So far, I've seen nothing to convince me.
    As for religion, yes, I'd say buddhism is a religion, but buddhists do not believe in a god, in the sense that other religions do.
    I've met some very fine people who are christians (and I've met some fine moslems too).
    I've met some very nasty people, who would also claim to be christians.
    In any war, both sides, on going out to slaughter thair fellow men, assert that god is on their side.
    When earthquakes happen, the godly die in droves, alongside the unbelievers.
    Mediaeval cathedrals quite often fell upon the heads of their congregations, it was better engineering, not devotions that changed things.
    (in fact, believers often die in disproportionately large numbers, because they have tended to flock toward churches in the belief that the house of god will be safer... Whilst the unbeliever stays out in the open, the church collapses in the quake).
    A belief in god, jesus, the bible as the word of god, is no guarantee of decency.

    The arguments as to differences between Denmark and the U.S. I find hard to connect the attitude to religion to the rates of crime, I think the whole notion of causality would be hard to prove. It's just a very different society.
    How about Singapore? There's a very low crime rate there. I'd put that down not to a disregard for religion, but to robust policing and zero tolerance for minor offences. If you know you can be caned for chewing gum, you're likely not to want to be caught doing anything bad.

    Re. Manuela, and C.S.Lewis, Lewis was very much a christian and his books reflect that, but I suspect his views are no more valid or important than yours or mine.

  18. I see now I should have been more explicit in my comment. I was not asking for the one definition of religion or even claiming that there is such a unique definition.

    All I asked was how did the author of the book define religion. The conclusions of any research study depend heavily on how the concepts are defined and used, and I would have liked to know what definition was he working with.

    I also offered an example of how another possible definition of religion would give completely different results than what he found.

    As for CS Lewis quote, I offered exactly because he was a committed Christian, and yet he's writing something to the effect that you need not follow Aslan verbatim, and yet follow him in spirit. All of this in support of the point I was making above.

  19. It's odd to find a troll in your comments section, Stan. Most of your readers debate and/or discuss in a civilized manner, and do not attack each other personally. Maybe you should do away with the Anonymous option.

  20. Barb, one of the reasons that trollish comments are rare is that I weed them out soon after they are posted (I deferred on the screen-before-print option because it slows the dialogue). I've considered deleting the anonymous option, but the number of comments are still modest enough to allow me to moderate them.

  21. you have no idea how much better i feel after reading this

  22. Here are some stats you guys might find interesting : http://i.imgur.com/xyH3n.png

  23. *I am not the original anyonymous in this thread*

    - Barbwire: The original Anonymous was not a troll. If anything, you are the troll.

    - Manuela: "I was just asking what definition of religion was used..." and then u gave an example definition which in no way resembled the definition of "religion" in use by people today. THAT was Anonymous' point, that any variation in people's definitions would be inconsequential, and would come nowhere near your definition. You are casting doubt on the findings in the book, suggesting that the people interviewed didn't know what they were asked, likely because of your religious motivations, and this is ridiculous. The findings are quite clear.

  24. The current epidemic of Trumpism and upsurge of religious fundamentalism are no coincidence, in my opinion. To me, they have the same bottom line: I have no patience for people who can't spot a fairy tale when they see one.


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