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 ...

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Learning from Secular Nations
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February 2009

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