Society Without God: Pretty Hobbesian, or Pretty Cool?

Paul Harvey

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.


John G. Turner said…
Thanks for the thoughtful post on a thought-provoking book.

Two non-thoughtful thoughts:

1) Isn't there a high rate of suicide in Scandinavia?

2) Isn't there lots of good beer in Colorado (even in the Springs) even with a lot of evangelicals there? In fact, some evangelical friends of mine in Colorado drink quite a bit of it.
Randall said…
Thanks for the great post, Paul. I tend to agree with the rosy picture of Scandinavia. My wife's family is from Norway. Whenever we visit, I get the feeling that it is a kind of secular utopia. Oslo rocks! Notwithstanding all the suicides, seasonal depression, and alcoholism.

I find these UN surveys on quality of life and satisfaction to be interesting. That might be a gauge on all this. Tony Judt's piece a few years back in the NYRB is indicative:

You mentioned Colorado Springs. What about the American South? This is the most Bible-y of all Bible Belts, yet has the highest incarceration rate and crime rate, the lowest standards for health and human services, and the most regressive tax structures. (Florida is cutting back because of the financial crunch. First on the chopping block... disabilities services.)

Of course, as my mentor Bert Wyatt-Brown notes you can read this sorry story through other cultural lenses besides religion.
Paul Harvey said…
John: There's great beer here, indeed, in a highly religious locale; and there's great beer in the Pacific Northwest, in cities that are among the least religious in the country (Portland and Seattle in particular). Anyway, I drink plenty of it, and I doubt beer quality relates to religion in any form. I doubt Zuckerman does either; that little bit of the book blurb sounds like it was a bit of humor.

Also, we have great bike paths here, largely as a result of a small "open space" tax which somehow or other made it through the anti-tax zealotry of our usual local voting patterns. Thank God for that!!
John G. Turner said…
I love Colorado bike paths. For me, there would be a very high correlation between bike paths and happiness. [Well, if that were literally true I'd be pretty depressed here -- there is a good bike path two hours away in Hattiesburg, Mississippi]. Here we get letters to the editor basically warning bicyclists that they will be run over.
Paul Harvey said…
John: We get the same letters to the editor -- which is why I stay on the bike paths and off the streets!

Randall, as for the U.S. South and high rates of everything related to social misery, of course you are right. I blame the Scots-Irish -- my people.
Anonymous said…
Sometimes happiness depends on one's own sense of place in a community.

I know Sweden a little bit. My maternal grandparents were from Sweden and I've visited my relatives there more than once. Let me just say I love the place and could definitely imagine myself living there. However, my take on the country is that it is great for the Swedes (and it's a vast majority, no doubt) who accept the rather strict communal boundaries of being a Swede. For the minority of more independent-minded Swedes, other lands (and their lower tax rates) have a great appeal.

I'm not sure what religion has to do with it, but one can't help but notice that secular/atheistic tendencies seem to lead to strict communal adherence, whether it's soft, gentle and positive like in Scandinavia or hard, cruel and negative as in N. Korea or Cuba.

It should also be noted that while Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world and even in Europe, it may actually have Europe's highest percentage of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. I have no idea if that means anything or not.
Randall said…
Two words: Laughing Lab.
Matt Sutton said…
I had my first full beer in Colorado. Coors Light, of course.

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