Book Review: A society without God

society-without-godWhat does a country look like if you take faith out of it? What kind of world would it be for those that live there and how did this come about? These are some of the questions that sociologist Phil Zuckerman tries to answer in  A society without God.

The book is the fruit of a year and half living in Denmark and interviewing hundreds of Danes and Swedes about why they, mostly, do not believe in God. It makes for fascinating reading.

Zuckerman convincingly demonstrates that most Scandinavians no longer have an active concept of sin, do not particularly fear death even though they believe there is nothing after, and that science has convincingly disproved the case for religion and are almost completely ignorant about Jesus. He investigates the Scandinavians slightly puzzling attachment to cultural religion and shows that despite all this the Nordic countries remain pleasant places to live, filled with mostly pleasant people who are mostly content with their lives.

This final insight comes as no great shock to a European but to an American agnostic is something of a revelation. It is the author’s own backdrop of cultural religion, only not the mild innocuous Lutheranism of Scandinavia but the tub-thumping fundamentalism of American Christianity.

Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others are liberally quoted in the early parts to establish the narrative that godly America has about godless Europe. Ann Coulter is quoted having “written in one of her best-selling books that societies which fail to grasp God’s significance are headed toward slavery, genocide, and bestiality and that when Darwinian/evolutionary theory is widely accepted in a given society, all morality is abandoned.” Zuckerman sets out to prove that this is indeed as idiotic as it sounds.

However, in doing so Zuckerman falls repeatedly short in his analysis – he regularly assigns credit to the current state of Scandinavia to their lack of belief even though he shows that Danes and Swedes proudly believe that their society is Christian and that they behave Christianly (even if they don’t believe in God), so that they have low inequality, low crime, buses that run on time, healthy respectful and generally honest.

What will be interesting is to see what kind of changes are happening to Swedish society as decisions and policies are made that are, by and large, no longer formed by Judeo-Christian values and morality but the morality of modern secularism and humanism. One would expect the health service to remain good and the buses still to run whatever the case.

The one area that is seen most clearly, of course is in personal morality and here the facts are stark. As Zuckerman says:

  • Scandinavians are among the most approving/accepting people’s in the world when it comes to premarital sex.
  • Danes and Swedes are world leaders in supporting abortion rights.
  • Danes and Swedes are world leaders when it comes to accepting/approving homosexuality.
  • (I would add world leaders in divorce rates although the author doesn’t mention it).

To some of course these facts only add to the appeal of Scandinavia and certainly in western eyes give these small countries very significant cultural power.

Zuckerman also operates under two broad assumptions about religion that it is first a response to the fact of our own morality. We are all, so the theory goes, scared of dying so we make up religion that has an afterlife to give us comfort and hope. The second theory is that religion gives us the answers to the big questions, why are we here? Where are we going? What’s my purpose in life? All the questions that anyone who has ever run an Alpha course will be familiar with. The problem Zuckerman found was that none of the people he interviewed were asking those questions. Life was what you made of it, love your family, enjoy the time you have, be kind and then you die without regrets. That basically sums up the view on life.

Fascinating.

As a sociologist, Zuckerman tries to steer clear of questions of truth and mostly does, although it is quite apparent what the author himself thinks is ‘not true’. What was more interesting was the complete lack of rigour the interviewees themselves had in approaching the question of, ‘is what I think true?’ There was just a massive basic acceptance that no one believes in God because there is no God because science has shown the universe to be very old and not made in 6 days a few thousand years ago. Agnosticism is rational and reasonable, faith is irrational and unreasonable. That’s their narrative and they have faced almost zero pushback from the church. It is after all very possible to be both a priest and an atheist here.

The reason for this is that there is a second stream that flows into Nordic life and that is, that faith is something so deeply personal that no one ever talks about it. Ever. This huge silence has led to the almost total disappearance of genuine faith from most people’s lives. They may never know that they know genuine believers because no one talks about what they believe. Religion is not a hot topic it is a non-topic.

As one Dane is quoted as saying, “Danes are very open. You can talk about sexuality and you can talk about a lot of problems. But when it comes to what you believe, we just never talk about it. Even with very good friends, it’s very seldom you share those things. That’s a bit funny, I think, but I think it is—it is very private.”

Zuckerman gives four main reasons why the Nordic countries evidence such high rates of unbelief:

  1. Lazy monopolies. The Lutheran church has had state sanctioned taxes for hundreds of years, giving them a dominance in cultural and civic society and has no sizeable competition. With no need to get people in through the doors to keep the lights on, most priests haven’t bothered very much while slowly becoming ever more liberal. As the church has increasingly mirrored the society around them, there has been decreasingly less reason to join.
  2. Secure societies. Essentially the Nordic countries are among the richest, safest, cleanest, best governed and generally amenable places to live in all the world there is no push from circumstances to believe in God. If people believe in God when life is hard then no wonder people don’t believe here, life isn’t hard at all. No disease, massive material comforts and long-life ahead of everyone. “Life in Scandinavia may be a lot of things, but precarious simply isn’t one of them.”
  3. Working women. The Nordic countries are the most egalitarian in the world occupying the top four places and all five being in the top ten. Callum Brown has argued that it is the women that have historically kep religion alive in the home but as they have returned to the workplace their concerns and energies have become work focused and their interest in religion declined. The correlation (although not causation) is significant.
  4. Maybe they’ve never been very religious. Perhaps faith was always imposed from above and never really a matter of the heart. Well, maybe.

Some general observations:

Scandinavia is a great place to live although perhaps not quite the utopia that Mr Zuckerman sometimes gets all misty-eyed about. Cultural religion is very strong here, the church is very liberal and the alternatives small or invisible. However society is changing, the consumerism and narcissism of modern life is proving to be wearing and empty. Scandinavians are prodigious users of antidepressants which seems at odds with the fact that it’s such a great place to live.

Faith isn’t dying, not even here, and in fact through immigration (there are 400,000 Muslims in Sweden out a population of 9 million) that in many places it is re-emerging as factor in society even as the state churches continue their decline to oblivion.

Scandinavians avoid extremes of almost anything. Few are real believers and few are committed atheists. That’s too strong, too negative, too extreme. Zuckerman ends his work with the story of Morten, a Dane who oddly enough believes in God, goes to America and comes back an agnostic, thoroughly scared off by the religion he sees while loving the strong social fabric and community life of some of the churches he went to.

A Society without God is a must read for any church planter working in Scandinavia and probably for that matter western Europe or northern Europe as many of the trends here are played out in other countries and the difference is by degree. It is given me considerable insight into the challenges posed by secularism and some of the opportunities that remain. One thing is certain, the renewal of Christ filled faith in these northern lands is the work of generations and will require hard labour, much prayer and perseverance in church planting.

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