The Gift of Godlessness

Edd Doerr

Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, by Phil Zuckerman (New York: New York University, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8147-3) 227 pp. Cloth $35.


In the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Free Inquiry, Gregory Paul (“The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved”) exhaustively compared the high degree of religiosity in the United States with the rather low levels in the rest of the advanced industrial world. In Society without God, sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who spent more than fourteen months in Denmark in 2005 and 2006, narrows his focus to just two of the countries Paul researched: Denmark and Sweden.

Zuckerman’s central finding, based on his residence in Denmark and extensive interviews with nearly 150 Danes and Swedes, is that “society without God is not only possible, but can be quite civil and pleasant.” And, contrary to “the claims of certain outspoken, conservative Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teaming with depravity,” in reality, “Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral and prosperous societies.”

“It is crucial,” Zuckerman adds, “for people to know that it is actually quite possible for a society to lose its religious beliefs and still be well-functioning, successful, and fully capable of constructing and obeying sound laws and establishing and following rational systems of morality and ethics. Worship of God can wane, prayer can be given up, and the Bible can go unstudied, yet people can treat one another decently, schools and hospitals can still run smoothly, crime can remain minimal, babies and old people can receive all the care and attention they need, economies can flourish, pollution can be kept to a minimum, . . . and children can be loved in warm, secure homes—all without God being a central component of everyday life.”

Zuckerman acknowledges that a much-attenuated cultural Lutheranism continues in Denmark and Sweden. Most Danes and Swedes still pay the church tax (though they can easily opt out), have church weddings, and baptize their children even though they rarely darken the door of a church. Most Danes and Swedes regard themselves as Christians, though like Thomas Jefferson they regard this simply as being a good and moral person and pay no attention to traditional creeds. “Benign indifference” is the term Zuckerman uses for the Scandinavian approach to religion, and he emphasizes that this indifference is neither hostility nor plain atheism; religion is simply a “non-topic.”

A low degree of security typifies societies that tend to be more religious. A high degree of security, “taking into account such factors as homicide rates, levels of violent crime, levels of disrespect for human rights, . . . political instability, levels of distrust among citizens, etc.,” leads to “benign indifference.” Denmark and Sweden rank third and seventh on the 2007 Global Peace Index, while the United States comes in 96th. Norway comes in first, which reminds me that while on holiday in Norway in 1972 I had a long chat with a local Baptist minister who told me that within a generation churches in the country would be empty. It is also interesting to note that Norway has the largest humanist organization in the world, both proportionately and numerically, no doubt aided by the fact that the Norsk Human-Etisk Forbund gets its fair share of the national church tax.

An obvious conclusion to be drawn from Zuckerman’s important book is that traditional religion fades in a society not as a result of aggressive atheist activity but due to a society’s achieving a high level of personal security. The United States, according to Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul, would do well to emulate the Scandinavians.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, by Phil Zuckerman (New York: New York University, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8147-3) 227 pp. Cloth $35. In the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Free Inquiry, Gregory Paul (“The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved”) exhaustively compared the high degree of religiosity in the United …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.