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Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment Paperback – June 7, 2010

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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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Puts to rest the belief that you need God in order to be a moral person, that irreligious societies are wracked by social problems, and that godless people are unhappy and unmoored. . . . In the case of Scandinavia: God may be dead, but Swedes and Danes lead rich, full lives. Society Without God is a colorful, provocative book that makes an original contribution to debates about atheism and religiosity. Ideal for classroom use, it will get students thinking about their own lives and choices.”

-Arlene Stein,author of Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture

“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

“The book succeeds in documenting how the conditions of a liberal social welfare state promote contentment.”


Society without God is both a sociological analysis of irreligion and Zuckerman’s apologia pro vita sua. He wants us to know that, contrary to the deeply held beliefs of some Americans, a society without god can be a good society and an irreligious person can be a moral person, too. To his credit, Zuckerman provides enough nuance and detail to allow a skeptic like me to see what Peter Berger called ‘signals of transcendence’ in the society without god he portrays. Along with the volume’s engaging writing style, this makes it ideal for classroom use. I know my students will enjoy reading and discussing Society without God.”

-David Yamane,author of The Catholic Church in State Politics

“His reporting of previously published material is invaluable to persons not previously familiar with such information.”
-Humanism Ireland

“Most Americans are convinced that faith in God is the foundation of civil society. Society Without God reveals this to be nothing more than a well-subscribed, and strangely American, delusion. Even atheists living in the United States will be astonished to discover how unencumbered by religion most Danes and Swedes currently are. This glimpse of an alternate, secular reality is at once humbling and profoundly inspiring— and it comes not a moment too soon. Zuckerman’s research is truly indispensable.”

-Sam Harris,author of the New York Times

"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

“Despite this book’s weighty topic, with its conversational writing style, Society Without God is amazingly readable, even fun. It presents rigorous arguments that are deceptively simple to understand, but that are, when you think about them more deeply, quite transformative.”-PopMatters

“[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,Salon.com

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

“While never presuming to offer a strictly generalizable snapshot, by focusing his attention on what are “probably the least religious countries in the world” (2), his provocative and engagingly written book is very effective in helping readers to examine numerous assumptions concerning the place of religion in the modern world... The real strength of this book is that, by challenging widespread analytical assumptions, it presents us with more complexity and with more nuanced questions regarding the nexus of the religious and the secular in contemporary life. To quote a famous Dane on this very point, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If, as Horatio should have done, we are to heed these words in terms of expanding the frameworks of our accordingly, it will be due in good measure to paying attention to thoughtful and creative books like this one. In my estimation, not to do so would be, well, a tragedy.” -Sociology of Religion

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


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press (June 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814797237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814797235
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #437,428 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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By Emeritus on 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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Danes and Swedes live in countries that consistently rank among the world's best in terms of social conditions. They have low crime and high economic equality. They have some of the lowest rates of infant mortality and highest life expectancy. They have one of the most educated populations on earth and as well as highest levels of happiness. They also are some of the most secular societies in existence today.

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent over a year there interviewing and trying to ascertain how and why this is. His findings and explication of this culture would shock many believers who think that society and morality is founded upon religion.

For instance, most Americans would describe about 75% of these people as atheist or agnostic for if they do not explicitly say they don't believe in God or a higher power, they will only say that they "believe in something." And many evangelicals would take that 75% to 95% for only about 5% of these Scandinavians believe that the Bible is the "Literal Word of God."

But this isn't some simplistic screed saying that secularism begets a heavenly society for by no means is correlation necessarily causation. Nor are these countries without their share of problems (as is documented in the book).

However, Zuckerman delves deeply into the multi-faceted and complex web of interactions that have led to such a very good society and his answers are many. They have a welfare state with free healthcare, virtually no poverty, and some of the least disparity between the rich and poor. They have had a different historical relationship with religion. Their state religion of Lutheranism has, like a lazy monopoly, failed to market its message (contrast that with the constant religious advertising we see in the US).
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