Review: Society without God, by Phil Zuckerman

My original reason for reading this book was a curiosity in how an “outsider”, an “american”, perceived the Danish and Swedish societies. Recent years have made me very aware of the rather large differences between Swedish and US culture, be it northern, southern, eastern or western brand, and so looking at this through the eyes of someone who knew how to dissect those differences held it’s lure.

Zuckerman states in the introduction that he has an axe to grind – with ultra-religious people, zealots who claims that a society not firmly centred in Christian religion is a society in chaos, where people live without regard of others. He then goes on to discuss his methods, being open about the fact that the method he used is slightly biased and that the results cannot be used to make specific conclusions – the selection is too small and too non-random.

I started to suspect that what he was about to present would be too influenced by his agenda.

What I found was… a very apt description of Swedish and, I assume, Danish culture, especially as regards to the role of religion and faith in the society.

He paints a picture were most people just don’t care much, and never have put much though on issues like what happens after we die, or the meaning of life, or religion. A lot of people expressed a vague belief in “something” but his impression was most people would think that if someone claimed he had been told by God to do this or that this person would be viewed as slightly off his head. He then describes the societies as caring, even emphatic, with strong security networks, and goes on to try to find an explanatory complex of theories.

While I, from a Swedish perspective, can see large glitches in this “caring society” – as per more than one of my previous posts (and with great surety more than one to come in the future!) – compared with the US the general security network is strong and encompasses most people, as is the educational system.

During the read I more than once had to stop, to reflect and ponder my own experiences and my own opinions, to look at myself and the people I meet. And I had to realise that yes, my own atheism is viewed, even by myself, as too aggressive a stance on an issue that’s not that important, to most people. (Off topic I also think this is a large part of why most people don’t realise that the agenda put forward by the right-wing Alliance is inhumane in its consequences – they can’t analyse it as the fundamental RELIGIOUS agenda that it is; “Oh, so you’re deaf? You have yourself to blame /or God would had helped you/ so you can pay for your own health care”. If more people understood that the Alliance wouldn’t be as strong as they are. Because most people while not wanting to pay too much tax doesn’t genuinely believe illness is caused by a life in sin, either.)

I think the most shocking episode he tells about is when he describes how he after he returned to the US stood in line at a bank, overhearing a clerk speaking to a client with heavy debts giving the advice to put all the debt statements in an envelope and go visit a certain pastor. The pastor would bless and anoint the envelope, and then the person should donate US$50 a month to that church, and then the debts would be gone. Well, if that’s how US society works I’m not amazed that the author gawked through his stay in Denmark.

The cover is cheesy, the title and the chapter headings have a distinct New Age feel which makes it awkward to read in public. But – don’t judge a book by it’s cover; this one is thought-provoking, and therefore a good read. Highly recommended!

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2 thoughts on “Review: Society without God, by Phil Zuckerman

  1. Thanks for the review on this one, Pella. You brought up some interesting points. I think of myself as religious, but I can’t imagine ever telling someone at the bank to do such a ridiculous thing.

  2. Normally I’m in the habit of tolerating all kinds of beliefs as long as people accept me and my views. But that one… It was just too much.

    I think this book is a good read for everyone except perhaps for the most zealous fundamentalists (in any camp).

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