Monday, November 10, 2008

Phil Zuckerman's "Society Without God"

Phil Zuckerman is associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College. He is the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion and Strife in the Sanctuary: Religious Schism in a Jewish Community.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Societies Can Tell us About Contentment, and reported the following:
If someone were to only read page 99 of my new book Society Without God: What the Least Religious Societies Can Tell us About Contentment, they would certainly get a main element of my book: that Denmark and Sweden are the least religious nations in the world today. However, they would also miss a great deal of what my book is all about and why I wrote it. Indeed, if someone were to only read page 99, I would feel quite disheartened as an author, and feel like several main ideas had been totally missed.

Ok, so here’s what they would get: a clear articulation of the nature of Scandinavian secularity. As I write on page 99: “For many or even most contemporary Danes and Swedes, religion is not something to be discussed or analyzed, nor is it something to be debated or debunked, nor is it something to be resisted or feared. Rather, it is something quite altogether different: a non-topic. And when religion becomes a non-topic for significant segments of a modern society, we are dealing with an extraordinary social reality: secularity, par excellence.”

That said, here are some key elements of my book that aren’t captured on page 99:

1. The conservative Christian right – along with most strongly religious folk — argue that if a nation doesn’t place God at its center, the result will be societal chaos and misery. The nations of Scandinavia prove this false: God-belief is very weak in Denmark and Sweden, and yet these nations are among the most secure, prosperous, humane, and moral nations on earth.

2. Many theorists have argued that all humans fear death and need existential answers to the meaning of life. And yet millions of relatively secular Danes and Swedes show that this isn’t necessarily true: it is possible to live a full, content life and still accept one’s mortality, and many people can have meaningful lives without religious interpretations of the Big Picture.

3. What is the worldview of men and women who live life without much religion? How do they understand morality, ethics, family life, work, religion, etc.?

4. Why are many European nations so secular, while the USA is so religious?

Points 1-4 are at the very heart of my book, and yet are not even marginally captured in page 99. Nor are the colorful, compelling voices of the many men and women I interviewed — it is their stories and words that make up a significant ingredient of my analysis.

But that said, if you only read page 99 — well, that’s better than nothing!
Read the introduction to Society Without God, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue