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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Society without God

I just finished reading a book called "Society without God: what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment," by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College. The book recounts his ethnographic research into an interesting puzzle. The societies of Scandinavia (particularly Sweden and Denmark) are by all measures secure and successful: low infant mortality rate, long life, among the lowest disparities between rich and poor, well educated, cared for in old age, and by their own account, quite happy. Their countries are prosperous, peaceful, and stable. They have among the lowest rates of crime, illiteracy, political corruption, and poverty in the world. They also pay high taxes. Yet the average Scandinavian is irreligious -- despite the pronouncements of Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and others that the absence of God can only lead to tyranny and evil.

Zuckerman divides the irreligion of Danes (based on many interviews) into three broad categories: people who are reluctant/reticent to even talk about religion (talkative about anything with everybody -- until it comes to this topic), people who have benign indifference to the topic (churches are "nice" but irrelevant to their lives), and utter obliviousness (a surprising number have just never even thought about God, not once, in their whole lives).

This is not to say that there are no religious people in Scandinavia. There are. But they mostly keep it to themselves, for fear of the kind of ridicule and suspicion that is reserved in the United States for people who proclaim themselves to be atheists.

Zuckerman advances several theories to explain the secular nature of Scandinavian society:

* lazy monopolies. Counter-intuitively, the state monopoly on religion (Lutheran) means that most people ignore it. Pastors make a comfortable living poking around religious treatises, giving an occasional sermon, presiding over weddings, baptisms and confirmations. Moreover, pastors are generally well-liked (and many of them are women). But they don't have to advertise. They are just part of the cultural backdrop. In America, of course, religion is relentlessly and aggressively marketed, from postcard invitations to bumper stickers.

* Secure societies. Statistically, religion thrives where there is unrest, poverty, and ignorance. The Scandinavian countries all offer a remarkably secure environment. Rationality seems to work quite well; no supernatural comfort is required. And again, this has not resulted in lawlessness or tyranny. The Danes are sociable, helpful, and quite moral. They're not in the least worried about the afterlife.

* Working women. The idea here is that religion is mostly transmitted and reinforced by women. "Women are more religious than men, on all measures." But women in paid employment are less religious than those who work from home -- and so church attendance, rituals, etc., decline.

* "Lack of need for a cultural defense." Danes see themselves as Dane -- a mostly homogeneous group. They don't need a religious affiliation for their own identity.

* Education. Here in America, a Gallup poll found that "of Americans with no college education, 44 percent consider the Bible to be the actual word of God to be taken literally, but of Americans with graduate degrees, only 11 percent maintained this view of the Bible."

* The influence of the Social Democrats (a longstanding political party with a tradition of secularism).

* Christianity imposed from above, versus Christianity brought by immigrants. It's hard to say if the Danes were heartily religious back in the days of Odin and Thor. But Christianity was more or less established by fiat by chieftains and kings. In America, it was a deeply felt individual matter. Perhaps this leads to a cooler religious feeling in Denmark than here, just as a matter of historical precedent.

Zuckerman makes a good case that most Scandinavians are like many Jews today: their religion is cultural, not a matter of strong belief in the supernatural. That is, even when many Danes describe themselves as Christians, they're a kind of Christian that wouldn't pass muster in the United States: they don't believe Jesus was the Son of God, they don't believe he was born of a virgin, they don't believe he was raised from the dead. But they baptize their children, get confirmed, get married, and pay taxes to support the state church, because it's kind of a nice place to celebrate some of life's milestones.

I found the book lively, interesting, and quite readable. It has me pondering still about how it is that cultures and attitudes truly get established. Short answer: it's complicated.

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