Society Without God.


When we last Skype’d with our missionary supervisor,  we asked him how we could best prepare ourselves for the work ahead of us. Of course he answered with prayer, and learning a few major words in Finnish, and so on. Along with those, he recommended this book: Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, and has taught in Denmark and Sweden where he did most of his research to write this book.

Society Without God has opened my eyes wide to the worldview of most Scandinavians – specifically a worldview possessed by most Finns. Growing up, strong Christians surrounded me; my parents, my siblings, my mom’s parents and grandparents, as well as my aunt and uncle and cousins on my mom’s side are all very strong Christians – all of which lived just a few miles away. Because of these surroundings I believed that all people went to church and not only believed in God, but also loved and were devoted to Him. In middle school I started to realize that this wasn’t the case. Not everyone believed in God, not everyone went to church, and certainly not everyone loved God. But even still, until recently (really, until I read this book) it seemed obvious to me that everyone is religious, at least to some degree. According to Zuckerman, 90% of Americans believe in God, 81% of Americans believe in life after death, and 88% of Americans believe in some form of heaven.[1] But these numbers aren’t the same in Scandinavia. Zuckerman says that 51% of Danes and 26% of Swedes believe in God, 30% of Danes and 33% of Swedes believe in life after death, and 18% of Danes and 31% of Swedes believe in heaven.[2]

Although these numbers are the lowest in the world, most Scandinavians consider themselves to be Christians, even though they don’t believe in God. In America, it seems that being a Christian means that you believe in God, but in Scandinavia, being a Christian simply means you live a good life taking care of yourself and the people you love, and maybe you’re a member of the National Church. Here is an excerpt from Zuckerman’s conversation with a woman named Annelise:

“What does being a Christian mean to you?
            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.
            It doesn’t mean to you that “I believe in Jesus as my-“
            No, it doesn’t.”[3]
            Zuckerman showed a number of conversations he had very similar to this one, and said he had hundreds more. Many priests do not even encourage their members to believe in God or to take God “too” seriously. He had in interview about child baptism with a man named Laurits who said,
At the time I was not so convinced that there was a God. We had a lot of discussion with a priest at the time, a very good priest. And he said, well, I’ll put it this way, “Maybe you shouldn’t take the concept of God so literally, so seriously.” He said you should think of it this way: that there’s good things and there’s bad things, and the ceremony of baptism is one that you want to give this kid to get the good things. I think that’s a good way of putting it. Yes, it’s important sometimes to make a certain stop in life and say that this is a milestone and you are celebrating this and that. I think afterwards I had a lot of discussions with people about exactly that – and I always used that argument. I think it’s a very good way of putting it.”[4]

To most Scandinavians,
Christianity has nothing to do with
God, religion, or the supernatural.

It seems strange to think that there are people in the world who have never thought about what happens to people when they die, or if there is a God. Many of the conversations Zuckerman had while interviewing people for this book showed the lack of thought given to these topics. A man named Goran said,
It’s not a very typical conversation… I don’t really know, for myself, how to really address these questions. I haven’t really thought about them.”[5]
            One woman when asked if she thought people had souls, she claimed she wasn’t sure because she had never thought about that before. Another woman was asked if her parents believed in God said,
Well, I actually don’t know. We never, ever discussed religion. So actually I don’t know… it’s never been discussed.”[6]
            One person even said,
I’m just not interested in God or the question of whether he exists or not.”[7]

Zuckerman gives three reasons for the lack of religion among Scandinavians: lazy monopolies, secure societies, and working women. His first explanation became a huge burden to me, for a few different reasons. He explains that because the National Church in Denmark (and in Finland) is funded by taxes, the priests don’t need to worry about gaining members because they will always have the funds for their salary or for the expenses of the church building. Many Scandinavians he interviewed said that their priest spent most of his weekdays hiding away, writing or studying in his/her office. The priests see no reason to invite people to their church or to share the Gospel, because they are already fully funded. Zuckerman contrasts this to America, where pastors and ministers must have a congregation in order to provide for themselves and for their church. He is almost implying that the motivation for ministers in the U.S. to invite people to their church or to share the Gospel is to gain funds.[8] I was burdened by this explanation because I know it is true for many churches in Finland, and in the United States. It angered me to think that the job security Scandinavian ministers have is a hindrance to their sharing the Gospel, and that the lack of funds is the main motivation for many American ministers to invite people to their church. I know that this is not the motivation for all churches in America, but I know it is for many.

His second explanation is one that I was already familiar with before reading this book. In Scandinavia, their economies are some of the best in the world, poverty rates are the lowest, equality and class segregation is the best, the governments are the least corrupt, and children, mentally handicapped or ill, and elderly people receive some of the best medical treatments. People in Scandinavia do not realize that they need God because they do not have many needs.[9]

Their needs have been met,
but they have not met God.

I am reminded of a girl who lived in the same building as me before Cody and I got married. She grew up in China and went to a Buddhist school growing up. She said that they were amazing because they gave her great scholarships and even helped her family out when they needed it. But of all the years that she attended this school, she was never encouraged to believe in the Buddhist faith. Yes, they provided for her needs, but no one tried to convert her. Similarly, if Christians simply attempt to meet people’s needs but do not share the Gospel, the needs of the people might be less, but they will still go to hell. I absolutely believe as Christians, we have a responsibility to take care of people who have needs, but we also have an even bigger responsibility to introduce people to Jesus.

The third reason Zuckerman gives for the lack of religion in Scandinavia is the growing number of working women. Zuckerman says that in Denmark and Sweden, the number of working women will soon exceed the number of working men. Prior to this trend, women were the ones who encouraged church attendance and religiosity within the household, as the men followed behind them in that area. As women began spending less time at home, they had less time to encourage their families to read Scripture together or to pray. Zuckerman says that at the same time the number of working women grew, the number of religious people began to decline.[10] I have heard Dr. Paige Patterson (president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) say many times that when sharing the Gospel with a family, he directs the conversation mostly towards the father of the household. His reasoning for this is that it is more likely for the entire family to accept Christ and attend church if the father does, it is not as likely for the entire family to follow if the wife of the house accepts Christ or begins to attend church first. I wonder if this would ring true in Scandinavia?

I am very glad that our supervisor had us read this book; I have learned so much from it, and because of that I have been able to put a great amount of thought as to how to go about having these discussions with the people that I meet in Finland. It has been so interesting getting to know more about the worldviews of the Scandinavian culture and thinking on how to best address these things when talking with the Finns. I am eager to see what the people with whom I come in contact believe and if they reflect the popular views of their culture.

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If you would like to purchase this book, you can buy it on Amazon here.
You can also read this post on .

[1] Phil Zuckerman, Society without God – Page 24-25. [2] Page 24-25. [3] Page 157. [4] Page 160. [5] Page 108. [6] Page 109. [7] Page 109. [8] Pages 111-113. [9] Pages 113-115. [10] Pages 115-117.


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