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Society without God

Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

Phil Zuckerman
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Society without God
    Book Description:

    Silver Winner of the 2008 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, Religion CategoryBefore 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9747-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    THE WORLD SEEMS more religious than ever these days.

    Across the Middle East, fervent forms of Islam are growing more popular and more politically active. Muslim nations that were somewhat secularized 40 years ago—such as Lebanon and Iran—are now teeming with fundamentalism. In Turkey and Egypt, increasing numbers of women are turning to the veil as an overt manifestation of reinvigorated religious commitment. But it isn’t just in the Muslim world that religion is thriving. From Brazil to El Salvador, Protestant Evangelicalism is spreading with great success, instilling a spirited, holy zeal throughout Latin America. Pentecostalism is proliferating,...

  5. 1 Society without God
    (pp. 17-35)

    WHAT ARE SOCIETIES like when faith in God is minimal, church attendance is drastically low, and religion is a distinctly muted and marginal aspect of everyday life? If people don’t do much in the way of praying, they aren’t too concerned about their soul’s salvation, and they don’t instill in their children a strong belief in Jesus, what might be the overall condition of such a relatively secular society? Having recently lived in just such a society, I can confidently declare that the answer is not chaos, selfishness, criminality, or societal decay. As I stated in the Introduction, despite their...

  6. 2 Jens, Anne, and Christian
    (pp. 36-56)

    IN ADDITION TO what the international surveys tell us about indicators of economic prosperity or infant mortality rates, and along with my own personal musings while riding buses through Denmark, to get a fuller, richer, and more intimate sense of life in a society wherein religion is minimal, it is necessary to sit down and talk with as many people as possible who are from those societies. That is, in order to attempt to understand people’s beliefs and worldviews—which would ideally offer a glimpse into the culture and society from which they spring—you have to conversationally engage various...

  7. 3 Fear of Death and the Meaning of Life
    (pp. 57-75)

    IT IS OFTEN stated that religion is so enduring and widespread because it deals with death as well as existential matters concerning the meaning of life. Because people fear death, they turn to religion for comfort. Furthermore, people are deeply concerned about the ultimate meaning of life, and so they turn to religion for existential answers. To me, these propositions always made sense. Of course people are afraid to die. Of course people wonder about the meaning of life. And so as long as religion claims to offer solace or insight concerning these presumably eternal, universal problems, people will be...

  8. 4 Lene, Sonny, Gitte
    (pp. 76-94)

    IT WAS NOT always so easy to get people to agree to be interviewed by me. It wasn’t like I could just stand on a street corner or walk into a grocery store and stop strangers and ask them to sit down with me for about an hour to discuss their personal beliefs—with a tape recorder running, no less. For the most part, I had to have some “in” with people before I felt comfortable asking them for an interview. This “in” was usually established through friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, or people I met through my daughters’ schools and...

  9. 5 Being Secular
    (pp. 95-109)

    WHAT DOES IT mean to be secular, and what does the term “secular” actually connote? Dictionaries will offer a variety of definitions, including “of or pertaining to the world,” “of or pertaining to the temporal rather than to the spiritual,” “not pertaining to religion,” “not overtly or specifically religious,” “not having any connection with religion,” and so on. As with any adjective, there is no single, definite, or absolute meaning of “secular” that everybody can agree on. Rather, its meaning is nebulous and fuzzy—and changes over time and in different contexts. But generally, when we speak of something as...

  10. 6 Why?
    (pp. 110-127)

    IN CERTAIN COUNTRIES today—many of them in Western Europe—religion isn’t doing so well.² Sure, one can occasionally read about a successful Pentecostal church springing up here and there,³ but the overwhelming trajectory for religion in most Western European nations over the past century has been that of unambiguous decline. In Germany, for instance, most people aren’t going to church anymore, and church buildings that were regularly frequented by Germans for hundreds of years are now being converted into restaurants, coffee houses, discos, and apartments. One study predicts that in the coming years, 50 percent of Germany’s churches will...

  11. 7 Dorthe, Laura, and Johanne
    (pp. 128-149)

    IF I WERE to give the impression that there are no religious people in Denmark and Sweden today, or that the only religious people are the elderly—such as Kirsten’s grandmother—I would be presenting a very false impression indeed. There most certainly are men and women of all ages in Denmark and Sweden who can be readily characterized as religious—or if not religious, then certainly spiritual.¹ These individuals are people who believe in God, or who find solace in religious or spiritual teachings, or who consider Jesus a holy man, or who believe that the Bible is full...

  12. 8 Cultural Religion
    (pp. 150-166)

    WHAT DOES IT mean to be Christian? Many people might suggest that a Christian is someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God and also simultaneously God, and that about 2,000 years ago he was crucified for the sins of humanity but was subsequently resurrected. They might go on to suggest that if we believe in him we will spend eternity with God in heaven after we die, as is all more or less explained in the book that came from God, the Bible. This account of Christian identity is all well and good. But during my year...

  13. 9 Back to the USA
    (pp. 167-184)

    MY FAMILY AND I left Denmark at the end of June 2006. We flew up to Norway, where we spent three weeks inhaling the air, swimming the waters, hiking the trails, and pondering the lichens of the most devastatingly gorgeous country on earth, and then we flew back to the United States after over a year of living in Scandinavia. Our first stop was Colorado, where we spent some time with my in-laws. On our second day there, we were invited to their good friends’ house for a hearty dinner. After the meal, the man of the house showed me...

  14. Appendix Sample Characteristics and Methodology
    (pp. 185-188)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 189-204)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-214)
  17. Index
    (pp. 215-226)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 227-227)