Friday, October 18, 2013

Phil Zuckerman, Society Without God

As an historian with a few drops of Norwegian, maybe Swedish blood in me, who has spent some time hanging around the Cool Whip Ghettoes of North Seattle, I found this book fascinating. 

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman interviews five long ships full of Vikings, mostly Danes, but some Swedes, about their lives, perceptions of God, religious beliefs (or, more often, lack thereof), morals, and thoughts about death. He notes that most Danes and Swedes don't seem to require much belief in God to live happy and reasonably virtuous lives, as good or (by his count) better than Americans, by and large. (Though a more apt comparison would be to Scandinavian Americans, who by my observation seem more pious, and no more crime-ridden.)

Those interviews are full of interesting details -- for instance, the nurse who doesn't believe in God, but has she thinks observed spirits leave bodies on their death, so is a bit "heretical" in relation to strict naturalism. And the fear some express of being looked down on, for believing in God in a secular society. Unlike some of those who interpret his writings, Dr. Zuckerman is careful not to go beyond his evidence to claim that atheism or secular humanism is the cause of Scandinavia's success.   He argues, reasonably I think, that the evidence demonstrates that society can succeed (at least in the short run, one might cautiously add) without much strong faith in God.

Or at least, without much faith in God among the present generation. The ironic thing is -- and here I have to give a nod to Zuckerman for honesty -- numerous interview subjects point out that Christianity is the basis of their own morality, or of traditional Danish / Swedish morals and laws. Zuckerman even admits that he could give many times more such quotes, and he gives at least half a dozen.

I think there is strong historical evidence to buttress this view. What we know of the Vikings, before Christianity arrived, is at stark variance with their present pacifist and productive reputation. One Muslim traveler in 922 AD reports wanton drunkenness, slavery, filth, lack of concern for the poor, and human sacrifice. The rest of Europe, of course, came to know the Vikings from their depredations. Sifting through the Cambridge History of Scandinavia and other historical accounts, and a biography of the pietist Norwegian reformer Hans Hauge, I found lots of support for the notion echoed by Zuckerman's subjects, that Christianity originally transformed Hagar the Horrible into his present, milder descendent. So even if Scandinavian society does not need faith in God at the present moment to maintain its virtues, those virtues may yet have originated in such faith.

And there is also the question of the future. Zuckerman himself elsewhere expresses concern over the low birth rate common among secularists. Combine that with Muslim immigration and a lack of civilizational confidence, one has additionally to ask if secularism can long sustain what it probably did not create. The Roman Empire decayed demographically before that decay was manifest in loss of territory, and that could certainly happen again. I am not certain of the answer, but it may be that some time in the future, Scandinavia will recognize its need for God, to confront new existential threats, or because, after all, there is more in heaven and earth, as many of Zuckerman's subjects put it. (Do they all read Hamlet in school?)

What makes this book interesting is the series of lives it lays open. Zuckerman enters into the story himself, honestly relating his own views and perceptions. You may disagree, but I prefer that kind of social science to dry, "objective" statistical analysis. Zuckerman knows his stuff, and lets it inform, without intruding on, his interviews, helping to put the "human" back in secular humanism. I would especially recommend this book to missionaries headed to Scandinavia. :- )

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