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

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Overview

“Silver” Winner of the 2008 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, Religion Category

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. 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.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Society Without God" offers a unique perspective on the active debate regarding the necessity of religion . . . By turning to one of the most secular societies in the world, Scandanavia, Phil Zuckerman offers an empirically grounded account of a successful society where people are happy and content and help their neighbors without believing in God. The book is fluently written and highly illuminating. It offers an accessible entry to important questions in the study of religion and secularism."-Michael Pagis,Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Much that he found will surprise many people, as it did him.”
-The New York Times

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“[Zuckerman] tells of a magical land where life expectancy is high and infant mortality low, where wealth is spread and genders live in equity, where happy, fish-fed citizens score high in every quality-of-life index: economic competitiveness, healthcare, environmental protection, lack of corruption, educational investment, technological literacy . . . well, you get the idea. Zuckerman (who has explored the sociology of religion in two previous books) has managed to show what nonbelief looks like when it’s ‘normal, regular, mainstream, common.’ And he’s gone at least partway to proving the central thesis of his book: ‘Religious faith—while admittedly widespread—is not natural or innate to the human condition. Nor is religion a necessary ingredient for a healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and . . . deeply good society.’ ”
-Louis Bayard,Salon.com

“For those interested in the burgeoning field of secular studies’ or for those curious about a world much different from the devout U.S.—this book will offer some compelling reading.”
-Publishers Weekly

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“In an anecdotal and eminently readable manner, Zuckerman offers a novel idea within the study of religious sociology.”
-Library Journal

Publishers Weekly

Sociologist Zuckerman spent a year in Scandinavia seeking to understand how Denmark and Sweden became "probably the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world." While many people, especially Christian conservatives, argue that godless societies devolve into lawlessness and immorality, Denmark and Sweden enjoy strong economies, low crime rates, high standards of living and social equality. Zuckerman interviewed 150 Danes and Swedes, and extended transcripts from some of those interviews provide the book's most interesting and revealing moments. What emerges is a portrait of a people unconcerned and even incurious about questions of faith, God and life's meaning. Zuckerman ventures to answer why Scandinavians remain irreligious-e.g., the religious monopoly of state-subsidized churches, the preponderance of working women and the security of a stable society-but academics may find this discussion a tad thin. Zuckerman also fails to answer the question of contentment his subtitle speaks to. Still, for those interested in the burgeoning field of secular studies-or for those curious about a world much different from the devout U.S.-this book will offer some compelling reading. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In an anecdotal and eminently readable manner, Zuckerman (sociology, Pitzer Coll.) offers a novel idea within the study of religious sociology. Specifically, he investigates what it means to be a nonbelieving person in a pervasively secular society. Zuckerman offers personal reflections and sociological analysis of two of the least religious countries in the world today: Denmark and Sweden. His yearlong study consisted of 150 formal interviews of people from all vocations and areas of these countries. Through these findings, Zuckerman attempts to analyze the answers that a relatively nonreligious society offers for dealing with death, considering deep philosophical questions, and creating personal contentment. Unfortunately, he offers much more personal reflection than sociological analysis, and his study does not include controls for statistical (rather than haphazard) sampling to produce accurate representation of these societies. As a result, this book is an interesting conversation starter, but it has little sociological value. Optional for libraries with large religious sociology collections.
—Dann Wigner

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814797143
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Phil Zuckerman is associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion and Strife in the Sanctuary: Religious Schism in a Jewish Community.

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Table of Contents

1 Society without God 17

2 Jens, Anne, and Christian 36

3 Fear of death and the meaning of life 57

4 Lene, Sonny, and Gitte 76

5 Being secular 95

6 Why? 110

7 Dorthe, Laura, and Johanne 128

8 Cultural religion 150

9 Back to the USA 167

Appendix 185

Notes 189

Bibliography 205

Index 215

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