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Society without God

What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

Phil Zuckerman

Publication Year: 2008

“Silver” Winner of the 2008 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, Religion Category

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. 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 non-religious 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.”

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

The research for this book was financially supported in part by Pitzer College and the European Union Center of California, as well as two generous grants: the Jack Shand Research Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Joseph Fichter Research Award ...

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pp. 1-16

Across the Middle East, fervent forms of Islam are growing more popular and more politically active. Muslim nations that were somewhat secularized 40 years ago—such as Lebanon and Iran—are now teeming with fundamentalism. In Turkey and Egypt, increasing numbers of women are turning to the veil...

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Society without God

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pp. 17-35

What are societies like when faith in God is minimal, church attendance is drastically low, and religion is a distinctly muted and marginal aspect of everyday life? If people don’t do much in the way of praying, they aren’t too concerned about their soul’s salvation, and they don’t instill in their children ...

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Jens, Anne, and Christian

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pp. 36-56

In addition to what the international surveys tell us about indicators of economic prosperity or infant mortality rates, and along with my own personal musings while riding buses through Denmark, to get a fuller, richer, and more intimate sense of life in a society wherein religion is minimal, it is necessary to sit down and talk ...

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Fear of Death and the Meaning of Life

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pp. 57-75

It is often stated that religion is so enduring and widespread because it deals with death as well as existential matters concerning the meaning of life. Because people fear death, they turn to religion for comfort. Furthermore, people are deeply concerned about the ultimate meaning of life, and so they turn to religion ...

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Lene, Sonny, and Gitte

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pp. 76-94

It was not always so easy to get people to agree to be interviewed by me. It wasn’t like I could just stand on a street corner or walk into a grocery store and stop strangers and ask them to sit down with me for about an hour to discuss their personal beliefs—with a tape recorder running, no less. ...

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Being Secular

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pp. 95-109

What does it mean to be secular, and what does the term “secular” actually connote? Dictionaries will offer a variety of definitions, including “of or pertaining to the world,” “of or pertaining to the temporal rather than to the spiritual,” “not pertaining to religion,” “not overtly or specifically religious,” ...

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pp. 110-127

In certain countries today—many of them in Western Europe—religion isn’t doing so well.2 Sure, one can occasionally read about a successful Pentecostal church springing up here and there,3 but the overwhelming trajectory for religion in most Western European nations over the past century has been that of unambiguous decline. ...

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Dorthe, Laura, and Johanne

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pp. 128-149

If I were to give the impression that there are no religious people in Denmark and Sweden today, or that the only religious people are the elderly—such as Kirsten’s grandmother—I would be presenting a very false impression indeed. There most certainly are men and women of all ages in Denmark and Sweden ...

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Cultural Religion

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pp. 150-166

What does it mean to be Christian? Many people might suggest that a Christian is someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God and also simultaneously God, and that about 2,000 years ago he was crucified for the sins of humanity but was subsequently resurrected. They might go on to suggest ...

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Back to the USA

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pp. 167-184

My family and I left Denmark at the end of June 2006. We flew up to Norway, where we spent three weeks inhaling the air, swimming the waters, hiking the trails, and pondering the lichens of the most devastatingly gorgeous country on earth, and then we flew back to the United States after over a year of living in Scandinavia. ...


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pp. 185-188


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pp. 189-204


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pp. 205-214


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pp. 215-226

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About the Author

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pp. 227

Phil Zuckerman is an associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814797471
E-ISBN-10: 0814797474
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814797143
Print-ISBN-10: 0814797148

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2008