Here's a post on a new book of interest: Phil Zuckerman, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment.
A description of the work, from the press webpage:
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, beginning in 2005. 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 nonreligious 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.”
I haven't seen this book, so will offer no particular opinion here; rather, just a couple of thoughts. First, I'm definitely in favor of great bike paths and quality beer. Second, there would not appear to be any evidence locally, here in Colorado Springs, that religiosity leads to any particular virtue, personal or societal (just the opposite, I'd say, based on how our local politicans operate in the state legislature and in Congress), so to that extent I could be favorable to this argument. Evangelical fervor didn't stop southerners from lynching thousands of people; indeed, it may even have encouraged it.
On the other hand, whether a "society without God" is civil and pleasant, or hell on earth, may be unrelated to whether God is there or not, but to a host of other factors. Atheism didn't prevent Mao from creating policies that led to the greatest famine in twentieth century history. And, I'm guessing Denmark and Sweden would still be perfectly nice places even if a lot of folks still found their way to the Lutheran church. Also, I wonder whether the "cultural capital" derived (in part) from the religious heritage of these places has operated like principal that has produced interest that people can draw down on now. In other words, what is it that produces the cultural capital of work, delay of self-gratification (something I could use a little more of), and a communal concern for our neighbors? What are the cultural origins of virtues that make for better societies? There are, of course, socio-evolutionary explanations for this, as well as religious and other ones. And, this also returns us to the debates on the Weber thesis, and the meanings of the transformation of the "Protestant ethic" into the "work ethic" that Daniel Rogers traced in his book on that subject.
Anyway, this appeared to be an intriguing title that would interest some of you. Zuckerman is also the editor of DuBois on Religion, a volume of DuBois's writings on religion put out a few years ago by Rowman & Littlefield.