Learning from Secular Nations
Scandinavians are content, caring people who don't worry too much about what happens after they die. And they aren't a tad bit religious (well, maybe a tad, but just barely). Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and author of Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment (NYU Press), spent 14 months in Scandinavia and witnessed a compassionate way of life and societal well-being. He contrasts Danes and Swedes with the marginally less-contented and less-charitable folks in the United States, who nevertheless show great religious zeal. He asks, "Is a society to be considered moral if its citizens love the Bible a lot (as in the United States), or rather, if its citizens virtually wipe out poverty from their midst (as in Scandinavia)?"
Highly secularized Scandinavian countries consistently rank high on international well-being and life-satisfaction indices (though so does the United States, a point Zuckerman fails to make). Zuckerman rarely saw a police officer during his 14-month stay, because people are just so dang nice to each other there. (Mostly, they just steal each other's bicycles.) He acknowledges that elderly people sometimes die alone in old-age homes, alcohol consumption can be too high, and racism and even murder make the newspapers occasionally. But he was mostly met with overwhelming friendliness and a sense of societal goodness that ran deep in the hearts of Scandinavians. The great social ills of the United States—failing schools, child abuse, domestic violence, systemic poverty, and inequitable health care (to name a few that Zuckerman highlights)—are largely absent in Scandinavian countries. Zuckerman marshals his observations, international well-being rankings, and interviews with Danes and Swedes to counter popular opinion that a nation has to be religious to be good, and that people have to be religious to be content. (And, contrary to popular perception, Scandinavian countries do not have unusually high suicide rates; they are only marginally higher than U.S. rates.)
While Zuckerman attributes the differences between Scandinavians and Americans largely to the presence or absence of religion, he acknowledges they might be related to other variables. A stronger explanation comes from the social, political, and economic realities that shape our values and inclinations. While the U.S. and Scandinavian countries blend capitalist and socialist ideals, Americans have put more faith in the market and individual freedom to meet human needs, while Scandinavians have entrusted government with this responsibility. In both cases, values are shaped by our cultural histories. If we are less attentive to the poor than are Scandinavian countries, it may come from our established belief that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps rather than expect the government to do it for them.
And here is the point that makes Zuckerman's book worth, well … worth checking out from the library. Zuckerman proposes what he calls a "socio-religious irony." The world's great religions speak of caring for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned, and of practicing mercy and goodwill toward fellow humans, yet these traits are often more evident in the world's least religious nations. Maybe that's so, at least as reflected in governmental policies, but Zuckerman does not effectively explain why it might be so. Nor does he say how U.S. Christians might respond to this irony.