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Book Corner January 2009

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

by Phil Zuckerman  (New York University Press, 2008) Pp. 226

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl


This work joins a list of many works in the last several years by authors who assert either an agnostic or atheistic stance.  Zukerman is an associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College.  Zuckerman notes that the world is awash in religious conversation, but his intent is to discuss “notable pockets of irreligion out there.” (2)    He addresses this phenomenon by offering a book based on his experiences as a visitor in Denmark between May 2005 and July 2006.

Zuckerman’s volume uses a variety of interviews and statistics from a wide range of sources that attend to irreligion in both Denmark and Sweden.  His compilation of facts seems to indicate there is no connection between religious practice/religiosity and the general societal health of a country.  Some of the categories he taps to prove this include life expectancy, wealth/GDP, gender equality, technological activity, lack of corruption, crime (including suicide and murder).  In all of these categories both countries receive high if not the highest marks on the global scene.  Since human behavior has to do with ethics, Zuckerman would seem to assert that one may indeed behave ethically well without any resort to religion.

Both Denmark and Sweden have been linked for a long time to the reality of a Lutheran State Church.  Zuckerman’s collected interview responses about  what it means to believe in God, Jesus, the Bible.  The responses frequently indicate what Zuckerman describes as boredom with the area of religion.  Overall, participation is related to baptism, confirmation and weddings.  Respondents do not link religious feeling to such participation; instead the interviews indicate a general sense that ‘Church’ basically means social, cultural and family obligations. 

One teacher, a man named Sonny, says in response to a question about church services: “There’s a sermon also, but it’s very low key. It’s very “Then Jesus said blah, blah, blah” and then we sing a song and then “blah, blah, blah,” and there’s a lot of kids and people want to go home to their Christmas duck or whatever, It’s just for the façade, I think… because as you probably know, if you go to church on a common Sunday, there’ll be 5 or 10 people.”   (83) 

One Dane responds to “why do you think it is that Danes are not interested in religion?”  “I don’t know, because…we just don’t care.” (103)

One of the more interesting respondents was involved in a revived worship of the old Norse gods, a religion or cult called Asartu.  This religion was officially recognized by the Danish government in 2003.  The person questioned said of Christianity: “…I think the Christian way is so naïve.  You don’t have any responsibility yourself, you don’t have to be good.  I think you have to be true to yourself, and I think you have to be decent and honest and all these things…It’s up to the human…to the individual.” (139)

Zuckerman offers a number of theories about irreligion, culled from several different sociological theorists.  He challenges the claims that religion is innate and wonders about the true extent of Christianity’s actual impact in Scandinavia given the political and social structures of the last few centuries.

This work offers significant challenges to those who seemed amazed that there can be other than a religious perspective on life.  The work also deserves a close read in a time when seminaries of all religious perspectives are closing or losing ground in America.  How might these realities be connected to Zuckerman’s analysis in terms of secularity and so-called irreligion??