Scandinavian secularity

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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: It’s also unclear whether the current situation in Scandinavia has much long-term stability.

    Are you saying that secular societies are by their nature inherintly unstable or more fragile than non-secular societies? If so, how do you justify that statement?

    TE said: The diffuse, unorganized supernatural beliefs that remain very much alive among Scandinavians may yet be channeled in a more coherent religious direction.

    Or they may fade away completely….

    TE said: He hasn’t really even given a proper counterexample to religious concerns that lack of religion means societal ruin…

    Are religious countries shining examples of perfect or near perfect societies? If they were surely other countries would want to emulate them wouldn’t they? Where exactly are the religious places that cry out to be emulated?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Cyberkitten: “Are you saying that secular societies are by their nature inherintly unstable or more fragile than non-secular societies?”

    No; I’m saying that this is an open question. We don’t know.

    I’m also saying that if you want to answer religious concerns that secularity means social disaster, it’s useful but not enough to point to secular societies that are doing very well. There is also the question of whether very secular societies are stable in the long term, whether they can successfully reproduce their way of life, and how they do in competition with more religious societies. We don’t know the answers to these questions.

    “Or they may fade away completely”

    Unlikely. For most humans, there appears to be a “cognitive optimum” level of belief in supernatural agents that requires explicit effort to overcome. This basic level of magical belief shows up in many of Zuckerman’s interviews.

    “Are religious countries shining examples of perfect or near perfect societies?”

    The issue isn’t perfection. You can have very long lived, successfully self-reproducing ways of life that make most people miserable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: There is also the question of whether very secular societies are stable in the long term

    What do you mean by ‘long term’?

    TE said: and how they do in competition with more religious societies.

    What do you mean by ‘competition’ in this context? Is it strength of culture – whether one can overcome the other? How much historical perspective do you need to make such as assessment? Is a century enough? Remember when Mao (IIRC) was asked about the significance of the French Revolution he is reputed to have said that it was too early to tell. Maybe in 500 years time it will be considered ‘obvious’ that global religion was already in terminal decline at the start of the 21st Century? We just can’t see it from our perspective…..

    TE said: For most humans, there appears to be a “cognitive optimum” level of belief in supernatural agents that requires explicit effort to overcome.

    Probably because so few of us actually are born into or grow up in a non-religious society. We often imbibe religion/spirituality/superstition with our mother’s milk. It is hardly surprising therefore that many find the act of throwing off such beliefs to be rather difficult. If a child was born into and grew up in a purely secular society would they inevitably develop supernatural beliefs? Personally I don’t think so.

    TE said: You can have very long lived, successfully self-reproducing ways of life that make most people miserable.

    Indeed. Unfortunately we’re living in two of them [laughs].

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis: “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 have not read the book, so I can’t know whether this is correct, but isn’t a major point of concern that individuals who abandon religion will become immoral or abandon morality?

    Pointing to a few examples of atheists who have lived morally good lives might not be satisfactory, since the concern can be put in terms of a general tendency, as opposed to a 100% correlation.

    A broader look at a specific society or culture that is largely non-religious provides sufficient grounds for doubt about a correlation between irreligion and morality in relation to the lives of individuals.

    Thus, it seems to me that a study of Scandinavians could provide sufficient evidence to counter a key assumption that underlies the view that irreligion brings social ruin.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13939147823645982746 R

    Taner, I think you are asking too much of the book … Of course, we don’t know whether in the long term secularity is stable. In fact, we can’t know. It depends how long is “long term”.

    We don’t know the long term stability of religious societies either. In fact, we know that christianity in particular is very unstable, and prone to divide into more and more denominations that sometimes make war among themselves and also on other religions (this cannot be said about buddhism, for instance).

    Scandinavian societies are a good counter-example to the christian claim that society is impossible without religion. Long-term?. I think it’s been long enough.


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