What Happens When Atheism is the Norm Instead of the Exception? February 28, 2009

What Happens When Atheism is the Norm Instead of the Exception?

It’s like you’re in an alternate universe in which Al Gore was president and Sanjaya won American Idol.

Peter Steinfels writes all about it in The New York Times.

Phil Zuckerman spent 14 months in Scandinavia, talking to hundreds of Danes and Swedes about religion. It wasn’t easy.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

Zuckerman writes all about his findings in the book Society Without God.

How weird is this alternate non-religious universe?

Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”

This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”

One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person,” the colleague pleaded.

Are you shitting me? This is so not fair. In my world, religion has the power and we still have to argue about evolution and gay marriage.

We find out that Scandinavia was “a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.” We find out “many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.”

They didn’t like the word “atheist,” though. And why would they? Why would they need a word to describe something that is so obvious to everyone? It’s what Sam Harris was alluding to a couple years ago in his remarks at the Atheist Alliance International conference when he said we need to drop the “a-word” label.

Scandinavia has kept some of the cultural aspects of religion — baptisms and marriages in church — but without any of the superstitious beliefs that go along with them. I’m ok with that.

How long will it take for America to become more like Sweden and Denmark? (And why do I even have to ask that question?)

(via Secular Right)

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  • Bart the Pirate

    The Soviet Union happens?

    Religion is benign; it neither good nor evil. Rather is it a vehicle through which evil and altruism can be expressed.

    Atheism is the same.

    Sadly, atheist leaders of the 20th century include Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Mao, etc.

  • today, the only people I encountered were atheists/agnostics. It was a first, and very nice. I think I will do it again.

    Of course, if there were no Dobsons, no Falwells, no Haggards, where would we get half our laughs?


  • Yo! I’m following your blog from Denmark – and have done so for some time now. Thank you for some nice posts.

    It’s actually funny, because we (Denmark) are still not a totally secular country, the protestant church is still part of the state and law in Denmark. You guys have a secular society, when looking at the constitution, but in reality, USA is so poisened with religion that I just can’t believe it.

    How can a secular society be so “religulous” (as Bill Maher would have said it)?

    What is the reason that religion is so strongly represented in your country? Is it because of lack of education? Is it because the churches have a lot of money? Is it because people are miserable and need “hope”? Tell me why?

  • Epistaxis

    Religion is benign; it neither good nor evil. Rather is it a vehicle through which evil and altruism can be expressed.

    Atheism is the same.

    Sadly, atheist leaders of the 20th century include Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Mao, etc.


    Stalin, Mao, et al. didn’t take over their respective countries by getting atheist ministers to preach favorably in their atheist churches and sway their atheist congregations. Communism may be atheistic, but they used it as a pseudo-religion to enforce social control and conformity.

    You may be correct that religion can be used for either good or evil, by manipulating the beliefs of its followers, but atheism can’t really be used for either in the same way.

  • Bart the Pirate


    They were, nonetheless, atheists.

    How embarrasing.

    Ayn Rand, on the other hand, would have taken a much differernt direction.

  • Jeff Satterley

    Actually Bart, religion fosters uncritical thinking and blind obedience, which is never benign. Personally, I despise any ideology which is designed to suppress freedom of thought and expression, whether its religious or not. Stalin, Mao, and the rest, fostered the same types of restrictions on their people, they just did it without reverence to a deity.

  • GullWatcher

    Bart, that line of crap is seriously old. You mentioned some names like that makes a point rather than a coincidence. If you meant to do something other than annoy people with allusions to discredited religious talking points, it didn’t happen.

    Jakob – I don’t have a full answer to your question, but here are some factors to consider. One of them is the sheer size of the US, which means we are far from a homogenous society, even in the computer age. The south and the midwest are highly religious, the coasts much less so. Your question about education was spot on – the most religious areas are the poorest educated, but since we are a mobile society, there’s a factor there of choice. The less religious and the well educated often leave the south and midwest to head for one coast or the other. Or at least that’s what all the midwesterners and southerners who move here tell me.

    Then there’s history – when the Republicans came up with the ‘southern strategy’ to win elections, it started a lot of public pandering to that segment of the population, which resulted in the religious pollution of our government (and religion inside of government IS pollution) and the incessant injection of religion into public discourse. The pandering was, furthermore, not directed toward the more enlightened religious segments, but the most backward and repressive ones. Fortunately, after the last election, I think we can kiss the worst of that goodbye.

    Why is the south and the midwest like that? I have no clue.

    Then there’s also the diversity thing. We have immigrants from all over the world, and they tend to bring their religions with them, and then center their communities around their place of worship. It helps provide a social identity that a more homogenous place like Denmark might not need. I’d be interested to know – do your immigrants behave differently?

    Does that help any, Jakob?

  • Siamang


    I think it has to do with a negative feedback loop our country is stuck in.

    The dominant religious sects in the country have a political movement behind them that serves to benefit it: they defund schools. Which makes the next generation less educated and more likely to be religious, (and right wing, and fund the schools even less).


    God doesn’t exist. Arguing which bastards of the 20th century were atheists and which were Christians doesn’t change anything about the actual existence of gods.

    Btw, all the people you mentioned were also human. But none of them were humanists.

  • Curious. How is it that places that are as thoroughly non-religious as Steinfels says Denmark and Sweden are even have enough functioning churches available for said baptisms and marriages?

    Of course, I’m ignoring the lower birth rate there and the fact that marriage is less common (or, dare I say, necessary, considering there is never a need to share health insurance and such) there…but still, I don’t quite understand.

  • The MoUsY spell-checker

    In my world, religion has the power and we still have to argue about evolution and gay marriage.

    Hong Kong society is largely non-religious, but I don’t think they have legalised gay marriage either. It is possible to be conservative without being religious. I’m pretty sure they don’t have to argue about evolution though.

  • i am a dodt


    I agree with Gullwatcher and Siamang, but would like to add that there is a lot of money and power in the major churches. There is a lot of power to be gained when a church or other religious organization (or any organization, for that matter) has hundreds of members, and those members are also voters.

  • GullWatcher

    Justin, you might want to read the NYT article by Peter Steinfels linked to at the start of the post. Being a non-believer there seems to be completely different from in the US. Here’s a quote from the article that addresses your question:

    The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

    Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.

    They appear to have kept the form and ceremonies while abandoning the actual religious part of religion. I think I’m going to have to read this book….

  • geru

    Baptisms and church weddings are somewhat the norm still here in Finland too, although they are decreasing in number rapidly.

    Lately there has been an even sharper decline, in 2000 about 80% of all weddings were held in a church as a Christian ceremony, last year it was only 57%. This will surely also affect the number of baptisms, and I’m guessing there will be quite a drop in in them during the next decade.

    And I’m sure all this will have quite an ripple effect, as people start to notice that most of their friends and relatives aren’t getting church weddings and baptizing their children any more.

  • I know it’s not the topic of the post, but after reading Bart the Pirate comment at the top, I couldn’t stop from getting a laugh.

    Including Fidel Castro in the list of supposedly nefarious atheist leaders of the 20th Century is an awesome (for non-US folks, at least) example of just how biased is the pop-culture in Jesusland, (a.k.a. USA).

    The “Christian” values of former US Presidents were the genius who endorsed 638 failed assassination attempts against a former admirer of Roosevelt: Fidel Castro. BTW, he never tried to murder any President.

    Castro never planned armed invasions of Florida or anywhere else, even if the CIA did invade Cuba, at the infamous Bay of Pigs. The attack was authorized by Kennedy. Only afterwards, Castro said: “If Mr. Kennedy does not like Socialism, we do not like imperialism. We do not like capitalism”, and declared Cuba a commie nation.

    A dirty, red, ugly communist nation. Such a terrible offense it was! That’s why the United States declared an embargo on Cuba, that as a side note, the United Nations General Assembly has condemned the embargo as a violation of international law since the 1990s, but of course the USA can’t play by the same rules as everyone else.

    Against the embargo are quite some religious leaders, so it’s quite intriguing where the “Christian values” from the government come from: Pope John Paul II called for the end to the embargo in 1979 and 1998. Patriarch Bartholomew I in 2004. In 1998, the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ called for the easing of economic restrictions against Cuba. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Minister Louis Farrakhan have also publicly opposed the embargo. Even if not a religious leader, Pres. Jimmy Carter called for an end in 2002.

    And BTW, the supposedly good fella’ of Pres. Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, an increase of the illegal embargo, with extraterritorial pretensions, as it applies to non-USA citizens and corporations. a quick search to wikipedia will tell you that the European Parliament in 1996 passed a law making it illegal for EU citizens to obey the Helms-Burton act.

    I can’t find anything fearsome of Cuba, aside from showing how much can be done with little resources, and how much some superpowers have spent not helping their citizens or the world, even when they claim they do:

    A couple of islands with eleven million people, Cuba boasts some of the highest rates of education and literacy in the Americas. The Cuban state, through tax receipts, funds education for all Cuban citizens, including university education.

    The Cuban government operates a national health system and assumes full fiscal and administrative responsibility for the health care of its citizens. Cuba’s epidemiological profile is closer to that of Britain than that of an under-developed country. Incidence of AIDS is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.

    Cuba provides medical care as foreign aid, providing free care to victims of disasters, including 16,000 victims of Chernobyl, and sends medical teams to scores of poor nations, numbering some 26,000 medical personnel as of 2005.

    Cuba sent 600 English-speaking doctors to make up for the shortfall caused by the emigration of white South African doctors after the end of apartheid (and the USA even supported the apartheid because it was good money). Cuba has had up to ten percent of its doctors serving abroad, fielding more doctors than the World Health Organization.

  • geru

    Oh, and I guess that the older more conservative wartime generations are one reason young people still get Christian weddings and baptisms.

    I’m sure it’s easier to just baptize you child, than to explain to your 80-year old grandmother why her grandchild isn’t going to be baptized. 🙂

  • Bart the Pirate Says:
    “Sadly, atheist leaders of the 20th century include Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Mao, etc.”

    My Response:
    Is that all you got?

    Hitler was a professed Christian who designed and led the killing of millions of people, supported by the Catholic Church, who allowed thousands of children to be molested for decades if not longer.

    Do I need any others to trump the destruction the supposed atheists you mentioned provided for mankind, because it would take me all day?


    Here are the choices:

    “We the People” where we have:

    Equal rights for everyone;

    Health care for everyone;

    Education/trade training for everyone;

    Work less hours a day and less hours a week;

    Live in a country that forces its government to force corporations and individuals to not poison our food, water, environment, children’s toys, medications, etc;

    Doesn’t send their young to die in other countries over some other countries imperialist terrorism;

    Forces the government to spend most of their taxes on their own country;


    Gee….I wonder which world/country/town/tribe/family MOST people would want to live in?

  • Hehe, I still get a giggle at people like Bar trying to seriously peddle that line. And offering up Ayn Rand as some kind of shining example? Give me a break…

    Anyway I’ve long been jealous of the religious attitude in Scandinavian countries. The point in the article that hit home most strongly was the lack of existential angst over a search for some kind of ultimate, objective meaning of life. The sooner people realise that there isn’t one the happier we’ll be! Call off the futile search and just live, you’ve not got long here so enjoy it while you can.

  • Bart the Pirate

    Jeff Satterley,

    You nailed it!

  • miller

    At jakobs comment about a secular society being so poisoned by religion, I think religion in America is actually a perfect example of the benefits of a free market. With no state religion it was a free for all between churches and competition between them led to an explosion of religion in America.

    Whereas the european countries with state religions provided no competition between churches and over time belief dwindled.

  • @GullWatcher

    Thanks for the answer. Immigrants in Denmark tend to follow danish ways of living life, but still preserving parts of their old culture (including religion). With most muslims it’s a bit different, they tend to get even more religulous than what they are in their home country (from what I hear). They tend to pick up on their old values and hold on to then event stronger in a “foreign” environment.


    Thanks – that makes sense.

    @i am a dodt

    Do you think it would be a “danger” to the danish society if we removed the church as part of the state and law? Do you think religulous groups and churches could “take over” the minds of people just because of money and power? Would that be possible in a country were most gods are PRACTICALLY dead (in everyday life they are, but when things get rough some people can’t leave them behind)?

    Personally I can’t see that happening, but maybe you think that’s a possible risk – so that I would like to know.

    Best regards

  • The Everyday Atheist

    I’m not educated enough on world affairs or atheism to add to this discussion. But, I want to thank all of you for helping me learn more about both subjects. I truly look foreword to reading each post.

  • Justin – Denmark still has a state church and the Church of Sweden only separated from the state about ten years ago. 7 out of 9 million Swedes are still more or less unwittingly members of our former state church (having been enrolled as infants back when that was automatically done) and pay hundreds of dollars to it every year in membership fees, sneakily collected through the same governmental body that collects taxes (hopefully this will change eventually). Also, all sufficiently old churches – I can’t remember exactly how old – are protected by the state as “cultural mementos” and hence receive extra money for upkeep. That’s why we have so many churches, still. We just see them as pretty buildings, mostly.

  • Ada

    Felicia is spot on for Denmark as well. Most people are members of the Church of Denmark and pay the “church tax” which keeps it all in business. My husband (one of the few who happily calls himself an atheist and has consciously thought about these things) was a member until a couple of years ago, defending his decision by saying it keeps the buildings in good shape to preserve history.

    As an American atheist living in Denmark, the “religion” here is glaringly obvious. I mean, American atheists would never send their kids to church to sing hymns for fun, and though they may still put up a “solstice tree,” they weed out the songs that reference Jesus. Danes don’t care about these things. Sure, teach them Christianity in public schools. No one takes it seriously anyway. That attitude doesn’t work in America.

    In my experience, openly being an atheist in Denmark is about on par with openly being a Christian in Denmark. Everyone is still asking, “why do you care enough to mention it?”

  • i am a dodt

    Maybe it’s a matter of state-supported power versus self-supported power? I don’t know.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    I live in England but follow American politics regularly, one thing that always makes me laugh is the way right wing types (well hello Fox news) go crazy at the idea of socialism. And yet social deomcracies seem to have the best standard of living, health care, education, etc of any nations in the world. I know many Swedes and have been to Stockholm and far from being a grotty dark hellhole i have to say that the city beats anything England has to offer. Swedes live longer, healthier, happier lives than Americans and Brits. Its definately the culture to emulate. Indeed on getting back to Blighty my girlfriend and I immediately swore we would return to Sweden, we liked it that much.

    As for the religion angle. I believe that state religions combined with an enlightnment such as many European nations (England included) helped deal a grevious blow to religion. I also believe that when the living is good, there is less desire for god. America is a very capitalist country and while some people do very well for themselves, they are the few. I am very much shocked by how little Americans have in the way of workers rights, job protection, healthcare, education, etc. I think that maybe religion provides a stable anchor for the lives of many people who otherwise live lifes of great uncertainty.

    For those of you who have not been to Sweden, i cannot recommend it enough. I am reliably informed that Denmark and Norway are also lovely (although my Swedish chums were quick to point out that they were less lovely than Sweden).

  • Polly

    I have a colleague who grew up in Japan. He told me that society is based purely on what’s reasonable, there are no religious considerations in public policy. OK, we probably all knew that, but what really struck me was when I asked him about his own religious beliefs (Xian):

    Me: Wait a minute, you’re a Christian? Do you believe in Noah and that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?

    Him:You mean ACTUALLY happened? No, that’s crazy. Nobody thinks those things actually happened. They’re just stories making a moral point.

    me: Do you think Jesus is the son of god, and god himself.?

    him: What?!? No, he’s just a man teaching good things.

    He really couldn’t fathom that people take this stuff LITERALLY. He didn’t BELIEVE me when I told him so!

    I swear I almost packed my bags for Tokyo! 🙂

    I really had fun imagining living in a society not pervaded with the AUTHORITY of religion. I know they have religion and even rituals. But, I don’t think it’s the same.

  • I just finished Society Without God and found it completely and utterly fascinating. Hemant, I’d love to see you do a book review of this one! I definitely learned a lot, and it’s a compelling look at a society that is so different from what most of us are used to.

  • Denmark, my home, is an amoral nation of atheists. Thanks for pointing that out.

    It is also a nation marked by some of the highest per capita rates of chronic depression, suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, low self-esteem, and petty thievery in the world.

  • Here in Denmark, people are considered stupid if they believe in a god. And with Denmark (and scandinavia in general) being among the happiest places on earth… Well, it makes you wonder.

  • Litesp33d

    A quick trawl of the web will show that the incidence of suicide in Denmark is not dissimilar to the USA.  I did not have time to research the other negative notes on humanity you made but I would suggest they are too complex to put down to whether a nation is classified as religious or not.  And also doubt that they are all particularly any higher in Denmark than the USA (I know both countries having family in both) which has all those issues and more.  Gun crime, per head in prison, especially incarcerated illegally.

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