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Journal of No. 118

November 12th, 2012

Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman @ 02:31 pm

Society Without God presents the results of Zuckerman's yearlong stay in Denmark, interviewing Danes (and a few Swedes, and a couple miscellaneous) about their religious beliefs and the religious culture of Scandinavia. Although Zuckerman is a trained sociologist, he's also a secular person himself, and admits here and there that he has an axe to grind. Nevertheless, the result provides some great straight-from-the-horse's-mouth information on a culture that is overwhelmingly secular, and ranks highly on any number of socioeconomic factors that contribute to happiness and stability.

He spends some time discussing why the Scandinavian countries have turned out so secular. I think the most convincing to me is the idea that these societies take care of their people so well, that this stability and support obviates not only material needs, but spiritual ones as well. Another more interesting idea that gets explored a little bit is the idea that the Scandinavians were just never very religious in the first place. With Christianity being largely imposed from above for political reasons by kings or arbitration, one can wonder about the depth and sincerity of belief in the countries, even after 1000 years.

In any event, belief in one or more gods is a minority position. However, many of his subjects profess a belief in 'something'. And it's also clear that many of the subjects just don't want to talk about it. Possibly they are 'hiding' the unpopular view that they actually believe in god. Or possibly it's just that their culture seems to be very reticent to talk about religous matters. I think one subject said it would be much easier to talk about sex with his grandparents than gods. Here's another example:
"Q - If I were to ask you, “Do you believe in God?"—and I‘m not going to say what that means, just that question—how would you respond?
A - It’s none of your business. [laughter] No, I would be polite, but I would kind of want to talk about something else."

It's also interesting that, although belief in gods or an afterlife is very rare, Danes typically still consider themselves Christian, and I think about 80% of them belong to the national church (which collects taxes from them). Zuckerman makes a very apposite analogy with modern American Judaism. Many American Jews are very secular, but nevertheless carry out the various rituals. Many have bar (and bat) mitzvahs, despite a lack of actual belief; the Danes are similarly Confirmed in the church.

But it is so interesting to see what 'being Christian' means to them:
"From Annelise, a 47-year-old manager at a telecommunications company: Being an okay person, being nice to people, not hurting anyone, helping when help is needed, that sort of thing. But nothing spectacular, you know. Just being nice."
"From Anika, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mom: Being Christian means to look out for the poor and the challenged in our society . . . to feel compassion, to be able to think of other people than yourself . . . to look out for the weak, the poor . . . to not discriminate . . . but to think that everybody has the same value."

There's precious little mention of Jesus, or sins, or redemption.

There's a lengthy, but not very insightful, interview with a believer in Asatru.

But the most interesting interview is with a guy who at first identified as a Christian and a (somewhat tepid) believer in God. Then he was interviewed again after having lived in the US for several months...
"And that puzzled me because I thought the United States would be more like Denmark—believing in, you know, rationality."
"And I was just like, what is Hillary Clinton praying?! I don’t know. It’s just scary—that even the Democrats are so religious. So if I was to live here I would have a problem voting for a president, because I don’t want a religious leader."

Ultimately, the experience of bumping into American-style Christianity destroyed his belief in God:
"Yeah, because when I came here I believed in God and I was Christian—but in a Danish way. So there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that just doesn’t make sense, but—you know—sure, I thought God was up there and he helped us, he tried to make a book and we tried to behave according to the book, and you know, humans make errors so maybe the book isn’t 100 percent correct, but you can kind of do it. But when I came here and saw all the people being so—explicit—like Jesus died and he was the Son of God and he was born by a virgin. And I added it all up and said, okay if I need to say I‘m a Christian, then I need to believe in all this stuff. Because there’s so much that you have to buy into in order to be Christian. And I didn’t buy into it. I don’t believe it."

And what will he tell the people back home?

"I think I would say to them, maybe you don’t believe me, but the American society is—all politics and media discussions—is based on that everybody is very devoted Christians. Meaning that you cannot hold an office, you cannot be a president, you cannot be whatever, if you don’t publicly say that you believe in God and all of your sentences end with God bless America or whatever. That we, as Danes, have to be very, very careful with joining the United States when they want us to go to war or they want us to join them in whatever endeavors they want us to join with them, because the religious fanatics in the United States have a very, very high influence on what’s going to happen in the United States, and I don’t think Danes know that. I think that if Danes knew that, they would be very—I don’t think they would be afraid—but I think they would say, “No, no, we don’t want to be a part of that.” And I don’t think they know. But I‘m going to tell them."
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Date:November 12th, 2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
As an aside, I can't pass up this quote, which provides some insight into the Nordic art community (and maybe the Nordic LARP community?):
"I had just painted this big painting and everybody said “Wow"—I was good at painting, but they thought that my way—what I painted in this religion dimension was absolutely stupid. But she came and I just remember, she looked at that picture and I had been painting all night and I hadn’t had any sleep, and then she said, “When you go to the bathroom, do you ever really, really shit, you know, and get red in your face and just—I want to hear you tell me about being at the bathroom. I want to be able to imagine you just shitting this big shit in the bathroom."
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Date:November 15th, 2012 05:17 am (UTC)

Really fascinating. Thanks for sharing this.
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Date:November 19th, 2012 08:13 am (UTC)
The more I discover about Scandinavian countries, the more I communicate with their people, the more I realize that I'm not a true American. I may not even be American--my birthplace in Mountain View, California, notwithstanding.

Journal of No. 118