“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.”
|Publisher:||New York University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
About 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.
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
About the Author 227
What People are Saying About This
Despite this book's weighty topic, with its conversational writing style, Society Without God is amazingly readable, even fun. It presents rigorous arguments that are deceptively simple to understand, but that are, when you think about them more deeply, quite transformative."-PopMatters,
"While never presuming to offer a strictly generalizable snapshot, by focusing his attention on what are "probably the least religious countries in the world" (2), his provocative and engagingly written book is very effective in helping readers to examine numerous assumptions concerning the place of religion in the modern world... The real strength of this book is that, by challenging widespread analytical assumptions, it presents us with more complexity and with more nuanced questions regarding the nexus of the religious and the secular in contemporary life. To quote a famous Dane on this very point, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." If, as Horatio should have done, we are to heed these words in terms of expanding the frameworks of our sociology accordingly, it will be due in good measure to paying attention to thoughtful and creative books like this one. In my estimation, not to do so would be, well, a tragedy."-Sociology of Religion,
"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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The author spent a little over a year in Denmark and Sweden. During that time he carried out a large number of interviews exploring their attitudes and beliefs about religion, death, meaning of life etc. They revealed themselves to be a secular society spending very little time worrying about such questions. He concluded that religion was not innate; Society could be moral and just without religion. He also explored theories as to why those societies were secular while the US is so religious.All of his logic made perfect sense and almost seems obvious to me. Perhaps for that reason I found his technique of quoting from interview after interview to drive home his point repetitious. It made the book boring to me.
Reading this book reminded me of a conversation I once had with a psychotherapist acquaintance. I had asked her somewhat distractedly what she was planning to do for the holidays, meaning Christmastime. She looked at me rather strangely, and said, "Well, I'm Jewish. Christmas has no meaning for me at all. Christmas Day is like any other day for me. I'll read the paper, have breakfast with my family, and enjoy a day off." There was something so bland about the way she said it, that it really struck home how little one of the seemingly routine annual parts of community life can mean to someone who lives in the same society. I mean, I knew Jews didn't celebrate Christmas, but I figured that in a Christmas-crazy country such as the U.S., everyone was touched in some way. Apparently not.I had the same aha! moment reading this analysis of the secular societies of Denmark and Sweden. In our own rich and self-touted "Christian" nation, we talk incessantly of faith, and of solving homelessness, poverty, hunger, joblessness, lack of health care, and illiteracy. Somehow, though, we don't fix those things. We talk the talk and then go off and pretend we've done our duty because solving such problems isn't really possible (right?), even in a country where faith would seem to be an overwhelming impetus to succeed.Denmark and Sweden, on the other hand, have almost entirely secular societies in which thoughts of religion, faith, God, and the meaning of life have little or no place in everyday life. Shockingly little, the author thought, and so did I as I read the book. And yet these two countries rank at the top or close to the top in all areas of social welfare, and certainly above the U.S. They have solved, for all intents, all the social ills listed above. With no religious nudging, at least of the type touted in the United States, they have transformed their society into what I've always thought should be a "Christian" approach to society: sharing resources so that no one suffers who need not. In interview after interview with Danish and Swedish citizens, the author found a repeated disinterest in religion. Not rejection, but simple disinterest. Animated and opinionated in all other areas of life, subjects often fell silent or grew bored with the topic. The supernatural, it seems, is not a topic of normal thought there. Nor is the existence of the soul, the meaning of life, or existence after death. People who do have opinions on such matters consider them private, and discussing them is considered rude. One interviewee recounted a drunken evening during which a longtime friend asked if he could share a secret about himself. He was, he said, a believer in God. He was rather embarrassed talking of such a personal issue and hoped his friend wouldn't think him a bad person for his belief. The author proposes various reasons for the secular versus religious natures of different societies. He discusses church monopolies and the need (or lack thereof) for marketing churches, the greater or lesser degrees of personal and national security, the percentage of working women (historically the family members with the most time and interest to devote to church activities and to getting their families involved), and the history of how religion came to be adopted in a particular society (i.e., from the top down or the bottom up). He then goes on to discuss secular religion, that is, people who define themselves by religion, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., but who are not involved in religious activities.The book closes with interviews with a fellow professor, first in his native Denmark, and then after a year spent in California. This fellow came to the U.S. believing himself to be a Christian and left having decided that if what he saw here is Christianity, then he wasn't a Christian after all. The author asks him, So when you go back to Denmark, if someone were to ask you, what would you say to them about the religion here?...
Why should I buy it if it is boring?