Phil Zuckerman, author of the very interesting Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, has an article online, “The Religious Support Behind Proposition 8.” There, he uses Scandinavian secularity and social success as a counterexample against religious worries that deviations from God-given policies invite social calamity.
Now, Society without God is a good book. It’s hard to argue with how it presents Scandinavian countries (focusing on Denmark) as very secular societies who remain culturally Christian in some sense but where ordinary people have lost interest in God and very regularly have no explicit theistic belief. It’s also hard to argue that by most secular measures of societal health and quality of life, the Scandinavians are doing very well indeed. (I spent a few days in Denmark a year ago, and was very impressed.) And the data and interview excerpts Zuckerman presents are very useful in giving some depth to these observations.
I am not, however, so sure what more general conclusions can be drawn from the Scandinavian example. These are small, ethnically homogeneous countries with a very particular history. It may well be that many different factors promoting secularity happened to come together there, and that this is not to be expected elsewhere, certainly not beyond Western Europe. And Zuckerman leaves many important questions unanswered. This is no defect of the book; no one can do everything. But it’s not just unclear whether the Scandinavian example has more general implications. It’s also unclear whether the current situation in Scandinavia has much long-term stability. Maybe twenty years later we’ll see a Christian revival, perhaps in reaction to Muslim immigration. Changing economic and environmental conditions may undermine the prosperity that undergirds Scandinavian worldliness. The diffuse, unorganized supernatural beliefs that remain very much alive among Scandinavians may yet be channeled in a more coherent religious direction.
So I’m somewhat dubious about Zuckerman using his Scandinavian research as an example for Americans to ponder. He hasn’t really even given a proper counterexample to religious concerns that lack of religion means societal ruin, because the long-term stability of Scandinavian-style secularity is still open to challenge. I hope Zuckerman is right, but I’m still not completely convinced.