Phil Zuckerman is a sociologist who currently teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He recently wrote a book, “Society Without God” (New York University Press, 2008), about his 14 month stay in Scandinavia talking to hundreds of Swedes and Danes about religion .
Polls have consistently shown that Sweden and Denmark are the least religious nations in the world. The citizens rank religion, belief in life after death, and church attendance at the bottom of their priorities or worries…yet they are always in the lead for child welfare, literacy, standard of living, economic equality, life expectancy, and competitiveness.
These facts run smack into most American’s assumption that a society where religion is not in the forefront or in a state of constant reaffirmation and belief will be full of evil, rampant with immorality, and seething with sexual depravity.
Mr. Zuckerman insists at great length that that is not the case. He, his wife and children experienced the exact opposite: “a society…a markedly irreligious society…that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.”
The nonbelievers he interviewed informally and in structured taped sessions were not anti-religious and most did not really accept the label of atheist, and most had been baptized or confirmed at an early age, or even married in the church. But, at the same time they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk to me about religion, and once they agreed to, they usually had very little to say on the subject.”
Though they denied the traditional teachings of Christianity, they do call themselves Christians and most continued to remain in the traditional national branches of the Lutheran denomination.
Do they consider religion a deeply private or personal matter? One Lutheran Bishop in Denmark has argued that deep religiousness could be found if one scratches the surface.
Mr. Zuckerman replies that he spent a year and scratched and scratched, and scratched to no avail. His conclusion was that “religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather a non-issue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it.
The writer found what he termed “benign indifference and utter obliviousness. He says that the key word used in their description is “nice.” Religion is “nice.” Jesus was a “nice” man who taught some “nice” things.” The Bible “is full of “nice” stories and good morals, isn’t it?”
The Swedes and Danes were generally thoughtful and well educated and reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death, etc. as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” and added, “it’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never think about.”
The indifference to religious matters is subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told the writer, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
Mr. Zuckerman also noted that the people he interviewed seem to speak of death without any fear or anxiety, and had a notable lack of existential searching for the ‘meaning of life,’ but he emphasizes that his interviewees were in no way despairing nihilists but “for the most part, a happy, satisfied lot” who “generally live productive, creative, contented lives.”
Humans are said to turn to religion or something like it, when faced with the mystery of death and the puzzle about life’s ultimate meaning, however, based on his experiences in Scandinavia, the writer disagrees. “It is possible for a society to exist in which most people don’t really fear death all that much,” he concluded, “and simultaneously don’t give a great deal of thought to the meaning of life.”
Mr. Zuckerman queries Jens, a 68-year-old nonbeliever, about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture and Jens replied: “We are Lutherans in our souls…I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.” (my emphasis)
Mankind it seems can survive just fine outside of the stifling confines and restrictions of any religion…just as I have known for 50 years.
As anybody who has paid some attention to the news in the last 10 or 20 years can tell you… religion or people who are religious are not protected from “SIN.” Witness the many stories of pastors, priests, ministers, and rabbi’s who are constantly in the news, having been caught cheating on their spouses, doing drugs, cheating on taxes, having homosexual trysts, or even child abuse and murder. Our prisons are full of Christians…not very many atheists though.
“In the eleventh century, Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish court physician of a ruler in Muslim Spain, pointed out that a list of Edomite kings that appears in Genesis 36 named kings who lived long after Moses was dead. Ibn Yashush suggested that the list was written by someone who lived after Moses. The response to his conclusion was that he was called “Isaac the blunderer.”
History however has proven him to be correct.
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