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

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

Book Description

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.


  Acknowledgments ix

  Introduction 1

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

  About the Author 227


“Most Americans are convinced that faith in God is the foundation of civil society. Society without God reveals this to be nothing more than a well-subscribed, and strangely American, delusion. Even atheists living in the United States will be astonished to discover how unencumbered by religion most Danes and Swedes currently are. This glimpse of an alternate, secular reality is at once humbling and profoundly inspiring–and it comes not a moment too soon. Zuckerman’s research is truly indispensable.”
– Sam Harris, founder of the Reason Project and author of the New York Times best sellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

Society without God is both a sociological analysis of irreligion and Zuckerman’s apologia pro vita sua. He wants us to know that, contrary to the deeply held beliefs of some Americans, a society without god can be a good society and an irreligious person can be a moral person, too. To his credit, Zuckerman provides enough nuance and detail to allow a skeptic like me to see what Peter Berger called ‘signals of transcendence’ in the society without god he portrays.”
– David Yamane, author of The Catholic Church in State Politics: Negotiating Prophetic Demands and Political Realities

“Puts to rest the belief that you need God in order to be a moral person, that irreligious societies are wracked by social problems, and that godless people are unhappy and unmoored…. In the case of Scandinavia: God may be dead, but Swedes and Danes lead rich, full lives. Society Without God is a colorful, provocative book that makes an original contribution to debates about atheism and religiosity. Ideal for classroom use, it will get students thinking about their own lives and choices.”
– Arlene Stein, Author of Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture

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