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The sociologist of religion, Phil Zuckerman, visited the closest thing to Nirvana for those who dream of living in a society without God—Denmark.  Zuckerman’s plan to spend several months in one of the most secular places on the planet was driven by his desire to demonstrate that there’s a link between a general lack of interest in God and the existence of a successful society in which people are happy and help their neighbors.

What did Zuckerman find after living in a typical Danish city and interviewing some 150 Danes and Swedes about their religious views?

  1. 25% believe in a personal God
  2. 10% believe in hell
  3. 7% believe that God the Bible is the literal word of God
  4. 100% identify themselves as Christians

In his book, Zuckerman argues, in part, against scholars of religion who claim that human beings are naturally religious.  Against this assertion, Zuckerman shows that Danes and Swedes do not look to religion or God for answers about the meaning of life and death.

Perhaps more interesting was Zuckerman’s discovery that these questions only rarely crossed the minds of Danes and Swedes.  His contacts simply lacked curiosity about God and about the meaning of life and death.  Indeed, the examples he provided, based on interviews and ordinary day-to-day interactions, reveal that, in Denmark:

  1. Questions about why bad things happen are not central to everyday life
  2. Religion, God, and the meaning of life rarely come up
  3. When asked about the meaning of life, people answered that there is no meaning
  4. When asked what gives them reasons to live, they cited friends and family
  5. When asked about death, they said it was part of life

However, this picture is in tension with several other facts:

  1. The majority of Danes and Swedes pay taxes to the Lutheran Church without complaint
  2. They tend to baptize their children
  3. They get married in Church
  4. They follow the Lutheran teaching of being kind to their neighbors
  5. Tensions exist between the Lutheran population and the growing Muslim population

Zuckerman postulates that, for Danes and Swedes, the religious practices and institutions of the Lutheran Church have become cultural, secular vehicles.  If his assessment is correct, then Denmark’s “cultural” religion—secular Lutheranism—resembles other “cultural” religions such as secular Judaism.

Nylars Round Church

Because hardly anything that appears simple, is simple, a reviewer of Zuckerman’s book, Michal Pagis, raises several thorny questions.  Even hardcore cheerleaders of Denmark’s “society without God” should pause to wonder whether important complexities and tensions remain to be identified.

Many of Pagis’ questions (which appear below) were posed by the intellectually-honest Zuckerman.  Although he attempts to address some of them, he acknowledges that they will require further research to answer:

  1. Are people around the globe less interested in ultimate existential questions than philosophers or religious scholars have long assumed?
  2. What is the connection between secularism and the lack of interest in the meaning of life and death?
  3. How do we explain the fact that novels, poetry, or philosophical texts tackle these questions (and that there is a market for them)?
  4. Why are secular Jews (and other relatively secular Europeans like the French and the Germans) attracted to these questions, but not secular Danes?
  5. Could the long religious monopoly of Lutheranism, and hence the lack of competition among religions have led to a loss of interest in religion among the Danes and Swedes?
  6. Could Denmark’s high degree of social and economic security explain the low interest in religion?
  7. Could the high percentage of independent women and the rise of feminism account for the decline of Christianity in Denmark?
  8. Is it possible that Scandinavian society was never a religious one?

Resource:  Michal Pagis, review of Society Without God:  What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment by Phil Zuckerman, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79:1 (March 2011): 264-267.

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