Monday, April 6, 2009

Book Review: "Society without God" by Phil Zuckerman

Over the past decade or so, a debate has been raging in the US. On one side, the religious right has been warning us that the rise in secularism in this country will lead to an erosion of social values and a corresponding rise in crime, violence and incivility.
On the other side, the so-called “New Atheists” (a misnomer in my opinion since their arguments aren’t new at all though the degree to which their arguments and ideas have permeated the nation’s ideological landscape certainly is) have argued that religion is, in fact, harmful to society in that it eschews logic and reason for antiquated doctrine and attempts to impose unproven religious dogma on others through government coercion.
And so the debate raged with nothing to really break the stalemate… until now.
In one of those “Why didn’t somebody think of that BEFORE?!” moments, sociologist Phil Zukerman decided to actually LIVE in a couple of the world’s least religious nations and see for himself what they were like. Zuckerman spent a year in both Denmark and Sweden, not only observing what things were like, but also conducting in-depth interviews with Danes and Swedes from a variety of backgrounds.
What he found impressed him. Though he pointed out that neither country was perfect, they were far from the dystopian hellholes the religious right would have us believe would be the result of a society without god. Both Denmark and Sweden have some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, excellent (and free!) health care, well-funded arts programs, some of the world’s best childcare and a populace that rates at the top of “happiness index” surveys of the level of contentment of a nation’s residents. As Zuckerman himself notes “society without god is not only possible, but it can be moral, successful and downright pleasant”.
In the personal interviews, he found that rather than being hostile toward religion, most Danes and Swedes simply don’t think that much about religion one way or another. It’s sort of a “benign indifference”. They also aren’t freaked out by death “When you die, that’s it. You rot.” is a common shrugged matter-of-fact response to questions on that subject. They see their nations as “historically” Christian without accepting the tenets of Christianity in particular or religion in general.
But could the Scandinavian experience ever work here?
One of the most interesting chapters of the book is an account of the culture shock the author felt upon returning to the US. The “God, guts and guns” mentality that permeates some parts of this nation are brought out in stark contrast when one is free from it for over a year.
So if you want to read an interesting account of what a future secular world might hold, track down a copy of “Society without God”. It’s well worth reading!

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