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Society without God [Kindle Edition]

Phil Zuckerman
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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, beginning in 2005. 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 nonreligious 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."

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sociologist Zuckerman spent a year in Scandinavia seeking to understand how Denmark and Sweden became probably the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world. While many people, especially Christian conservatives, argue that godless societies devolve into lawlessness and immorality, Denmark and Sweden enjoy strong economies, low crime rates, high standards of living and social equality. Zuckerman interviewed 150 Danes and Swedes, and extended transcripts from some of those interviews provide the book's most interesting and revealing moments. What emerges is a portrait of a people unconcerned and even incurious about questions of faith, God and life's meaning. Zuckerman ventures to answer why Scandinavians remain irreligious—e.g., the religious monopoly of state-subsidized churches, the preponderance of working women and the security of a stable society—but academics may find this discussion a tad thin. Zuckerman also fails to answer the question of contentment his subtitle speaks to. Still, for those interested in the burgeoning field of secular studies—or for those curious about a world much different from the devout U.S.—this book will offer some compelling reading. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Society Without God" offers a unique perspective on the active debate regarding the necessity of religion . . . By turning to one of the most secular societies in the world, Scandanavia, Phil Zuckerman offers an empirically grounded account of a successful society where people are happy and content and help their neighbors without believing in God. The book is fluently written and highly illuminating. It offers an accessible entry to important questions in the study of religion and secularism."
-Michael Pagis,Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Much that he found will surprise many people, as it did him.”
-The New York Times


“[Zuckerman] tells of a magical land where life expectancy is high and infant mortality low, where wealth is spread and genders live in equity, where happy, fish-fed citizens score high in every quality-of-life index: economic competitiveness, healthcare, environmental protection, lack of corruption, educational investment, technological literacy . . . well, you get the idea. Zuckerman (who has explored the sociology of religion in two previous books) has managed to show what nonbelief looks like when it’s ‘normal, regular, mainstream, common.’ And he’s gone at least partway to proving the central thesis of his book: ‘Religious faith—while admittedly widespread—is not natural or innate to the human condition. Nor is religion a necessary ingredient for a healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and . . . deeply good society.’ ”
-Louis Bayard,

“For those interested in the burgeoning field of secular studies’ or for those curious about a world much different from the devout U.S.—this book will offer some compelling reading.”
-Publishers Weekly


“In an anecdotal and eminently readable manner, Zuckerman offers a novel idea within the study of religious sociology.”
-Library Journal


Product Details

  • File Size: 446 KB
  • Print Length: 239 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0814797148
  • Publisher: NYU Press (October 1, 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0029VCUVK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #369,770 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
138 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars WHAT'S GOD GOT TO DO WITH IT? NOT MUCH! October 27, 2008
Phil Zuckerman, a social scientist, has a really pleasant story to tell in this easy-to-read book about the people living in Denmark and Sweden. According to Zuckerman, who spent 14 months in Scandanavia between 2005 and 2006, the Danes and Swedes live a comfortable secular life in which they doff their cap to Christianity (state Lutheranism) the way sneezing in the U.S. warrants the response "Bless you": easy-breezy and without much fervency or depth of thought. They live a "cultural religion," much as George Santayana (not mentioned in this book) characterized himself as a Catholic atheist.

The people of Sweden and Denmark are largely a nice people with largely secular lives. From the social scientist's viewpoint, the fact that there exists these two nations whose people exhibit little religious fanaticism or fervency disproves any notion that there is a "God gene" or that religious belief is somehow intrinsic to the existential nature of being human.

The last chapter, "Back to the USA," sadly shows not much hope exists, however, that such a way of life as the Scandanavians presently possess can be widely achieved in the U.S. The cultural, historical, and sociological forces are much too different. The book offers a shining glimpse of what life can be like -- unfettered by irrational stupidities and fanatical hatred, especially on the political level.
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95 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spot on! From a Scandinavian perspective. December 25, 2008
I'm a Scandinavian, living and working in Stockholm, Sweden, and I read Mr. Zuckerman's book from that perspective.

Obviously he is very well read on the issues of Scandinavian societies and on religion in general, but I have to say that given that he only spent a year or so in Scandinavia, I'm very impressed with his thorough understanding of the finer nuances of the Nordic countries and the mentality of its people (he mainly deals with Denmark and Sweden) - and his descriptions and analysis of people's attitudes to religious and societal matters are interesting.

In his book he shows that societies can be sane, prosperous and humane without people having a God-fearing approach to life, and he also presents some interesting ideas and explanations as to why the Scandinavian societies have become so secular, and reversely, why the USA has become so religious.

His book and studies are clearly built on sociological research methods, but he carries a personal tone throughout the book which makes it very pleasant to read. And although some of the interviews in the book can be a bit lengthy at times, they provide a direct and valuable insight into the way the common Dane or Swede thinks on matters of religion, the church, life, death, etc.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in society and religion. And I also think it's a valuable read for us Scandinavians, to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves on the matter of religion...
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62 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The world can be more peaceful without organized religion December 13, 2008
By W. Roth
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book presents an excellent case study of how solid, peaceful, and advanced society can be when we collectively view the world without acting out the literal word of the books that support organized religion. One major takeaway that surprised me was the contrast and comparison between how the Danes and Swedes viewed religion with a sense of spirituality and culture and the Americans viewed religion with a sense of literal and rigid interpretation and how that translated into our societies differences. I am personally embarrased of how our America thinks and behaves relative to this topic. To a great degree, we can step back and view American Christianity similar to how we view the worship of ancient cultures - Greek, Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, and see how antiquated our thinking is around this subject.

This book was recommended to me through the Sam Harris blog, and I recommend it for anyone that is asking the question, what would society look like if we walked away from the literal interpretation of the Bible? While the book doesn't get into Islam, the same parallels can be drawn and points inferred. It briefly touches Judaism, which is ironically viewed more similarly to the Dane and Swede view of Christianity. Jews are surprisingly secular when viewing social topics.

One last stat that surprised me was how large the secular/free-thinking/humanist population is across the world - 4th largest group (if you had to group this populus against labeled groups of believers and non-believers). Of the 6.8 billion of us currently on our planet, 2 billion are admittedly Christian (Catholic, Episcopal/Anglican, Lutheran,etc), 1.2 are Muslim, 900 million are Hindu, and 750 million are admittedly freethinkers.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth a read September 25, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A readable and interesting presentation of preliminary field research showing rather convincingly that societies need not be religious/god fearing in order to be good. The methodology was a bit loose (interviewees were anyone the author could cajole into sitting for a rather lengthy interview) and the presentation of results was for the most part anecdotal.

I just had a couple quibbles with the author. First, in his introduction Zukerman states that in the U.S. and much of the world religiosity is on the increase without citing any studies to back up the statement. Since so much of the book is well documented I found this a lack, coming from an academic. This is particularly the case given the results of the recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (published after Zuckerman's book.) This is a minor quibble and in no way detracts from the conclusions in the book.

My second quibble I find a bit more troubling. In his discussion of social well being in Denmark and Sweden Zuckerman cites studies showing that these two countries rank very high in economic competitiveness, gender equality, lack of corruption, quality of education, etc. He frequently mentions other countries that also rank high, but never does he mention the country that consistently ranked higher that Denmark and Sweden, and was more often than not ranked first: Finland. Granted, Zuckerman didn't get to visit Finland during his stay but I find it rather puzzling that he never once mentioned their ranking in these studies, considering that Finland is a Nordic country sharing many characteristics with her Scandinavian neighbors.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars secular ethics vs organized religion
This is an informative and thought provoking book that explores the European move away from organized religion in favor of a secular ethic. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ron Adams
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
book was interesting but somewhat repetitive. could have left out about one third of the book. otherwise. very thought provoking
Published 4 months ago by Mnj
5.0 out of 5 stars Society without God ROCKS!
It's good to see a book that demonstrates what people can do without god. It's time to dump the myth.
Published 10 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Hagar the Horrible gets saved!
As an historian with a few drops of Norwegian, maybe Swedish blood in me who has hung around the Scandinavian ghettos in Seattle, I found this book fascinating. Read more
Published 10 months ago by David Marshall
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read
I really enjoyed reading this one. It was a bit repetitive which became annoying, but overall the reasons he posits were worth exploring.
Published 11 months ago by P. Farraday
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking
It was interesting to read about countries where the majority of people are nonreligious. The comments they made during the interviews with the author pointed out that many still... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Pamela Avis
5.0 out of 5 stars Hopeful
I thoroughly enjoyed Society Without much so, that I read it twice and am recommending it to my book club. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars A Little Exaggerated But Great Interviews
Phil Zuckerman stretches the truth slightly on how secular Sweden and Denmark are. Although they are non religious by a large margin a decent portion of the population still... Read more
Published 16 months ago by JH347
3.0 out of 5 stars Zuckerman overstates the case
Phil Zuckerman has written an interesting book about religion and prosperity and claims that Sweden and Denmark are examples showing that a secular society promotes prosperity. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Per Andersson
5.0 out of 5 stars For me it was like taking a breath of fresh air.
A very interesting and illuminating report on very successful societies who can manage pretty well without spending their time and energy in praying and in going to church or... Read more
Published 20 months ago by O. Gandolfi
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