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July 14, 2016 / compassioninpolitics

Book Review of Phillip Zuckermans “Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment”

Analysis, Critique, Criticism of Zuckerman’s “Society without God”

As the footnotes of his wikipedia page point out: “Zuckerman’s work is based on his studies conducted during a 14-month period in Scandinavia in 2005–2006.” or this key distinction: “Zuckerman interviewed Danes and Swedes. He didn’t interview Finns or Norwegians.” Initially, that seems to be a rather small data points. The question of representativeness and sample size is certainly in question. He only had 149 interviews.

The question of the Dane’s Christianity or religiousity is intitially problematic:

The problem of interpreting religion in Scandinavia is highlighted in Ina Rosén’s 2009 dissertation, I’m a Believer—but I’ll be Damned if I’m Religious. x It concerns the difficulty of using traditional religious language in interviews and surveys. When the focus groups in her survey/interviews talked about religion, they connected to what Rosén calls “routinized religion,” a category in line with her concept “packed religion.” When using this type of category or conception, religion appears “thin, cultural, declining or diffuse” in Denmark—a statement, therefore, in accordance with Zuckerman’s findings. However, when Rosén used an “unpacked” conception of religion, she was able to conclude that three-quarters of the Danes are believers;xi a “glaring contrast” to Zuckerman’s results. In sum, after passing a religious language barrier, this recent study shows that a “majority of Danes believe or are willing to identify as religious to a lesser or greater extent.”xii Putting the pieces of evidence together thus allows a critical perspective on Zuckerman’s contention that the Scandinavian societies are secular.

Not to mention, I think the notion of secularism is a historical one too, which some have critiqued Zuckerman about.

But more to the point, the level of analysis (countries and states) is particularly odd. Studies at the level of the individual, which is ultimately where we make decisions like this favor religion as a means to happiness and well-being. Large swaths of research point in this direction, such that its one of the core principles that the research aggregated at the University of Pennsylvania (and others) points to this connection. The Berkeley Center for Good even points to the importance of character, wisdom, and religion for happiness.

Such analyses of secularity and civility have been faulted for cherry-picking both their social health measures (for example, excluding suicide) and their countries (omitting North Korea, China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet states). Instead, they focus on secular countries whose values were fed by a Judeo Christian heritage. Still, ]* Zuckerman’s point can be extended to U.S. state-by-state comparisons.

The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates and much higher crime and smoking rates. So once again, it looks like the least religious places are the healthiest and most flourishing.

But it’s individuals who experience more or less faith, happiness, and health. And, surprise, the correlations across individuals run the other direction. Among 45,859 American adults responding since 1972 to National Opinion Research Center surveys, the percentage of “very happy” people ranged from 28 percent of those who never attended religious services up to 48 percent of those who attended more than once a week.

The Heritage Foundation has two white papers on this topic which summarize social science on this question:

  1. “Why Religion Matters”
  2. “Why Religion Matters Even More”

I highly recommend scanning the conclusions here in bullet list form:

Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability

Professor Philip Zuckerman even admits to alternative causalities, which is at least honest. And moreover, even atheists admit this connection (see the The Atheist Case for Religion).

David Myers, a psychologist points to the weaknesses of these comparisons:

You can read about the religion and well-being connection here:

A 2012 review of more than 326 peer-reviewed studies of mainly adult populations found that out of those 326 studies, 256 (79%) found only significant positive associations between religiosity/spirituality and well-being. The author postulated that the positive influence of religion or spirituality on well-being can be explained through a few key mechanisms, such as religion’s role as a coping strategy and as a support system for prosocial behaviors. In addition, religious beliefs can potentially alter the way individuals cognitively react to stressors, and often, the regulations of most faiths decrease the likelihood of individuals experiencing particularly stressful life events (such as divorce or incarceration) (2).

I also don’t think Zuckerman looks at the benefits of the US system (innovation in health care, freedom, etc…). Also, the US defends the world, so that military spending is what enables a socialist experiment like those countries to survive in the first place. And, there is no way to know if the US had a more robust social safety net if similar cultural features would arise, which puts significant holes in his overall thesis if its mean to be comparative and/or apply to the US (and be, well scientific in any sense of the term).

Not only that but as sociology professor Lisa Graham McMinn points out

Zuckerman sells humanity short. If people are content but no longer care about transcendent meaning and purpose or life beyond death, that’s not a sign of greatness but tragic forgetfulness. Their horizon of concern is too narrow. They were made for more. What does it profit a society if, as this book’s jacket notes, it gains “excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer,” but loses its soul? Can a country build strong social systems and keep its soul? While I am thankful for Zuckerman’s reminder about Christianity’s social implications, and the example of a place that meets those obligations differently than we do, I am sad he misses the rest.

Given that, this points to:

  1. significant problems with Zuckermans study and method which call his study question
  2. a large swath of counter-veiling peer reviewed studies (over 326) which focus on the individual, which call his conclusions into serious question.
  3. A question about Zuckerman’s goals and priorities and assumptions.

Its worth noting that one of the main advocates of the secularism thesis from Boston University recanted.

Moreover, the work of Randy Foster has demonstrated the massive economic value of Christianity in quantiatative numbers, and its specific to the US’s history.


Source: Review: <i>Society without God</i>

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