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C. John Sommerville

Happy in the State of Denmark

A society without God?

Is completed secularization, a total absence of religion, possible? How viable or coherent, for example, were the officially secular societies of the Communist era? Were their failures due to particular circumstances, or intrinsic to their anti-religious nature? Up till now, all our studies of secularization have been studies of the process of declining belief, not studies of the state of unbelief. We haven't been studying how things work in the absence of any religious/secular tension whatsoever. What we study are societies in the process of secularization, but not a final condition of secularity.

But now we have Phil Zuckerman's Society Without God, based on interviews in Denmark, which Zuckerman thinks is the country in all the world that registers the least measurable evidence of religion. First, a couple of caveats. Zuckerman conducted only 149 interviews (103 with Danes, 39 with Swedes, and 7 with immigrants from outside Scandinavia). As he acknowledges in an appendix, his sample was nonrandom, which means that "valid generalizability to the wider Danish and Swedish populations is not possible." Even so, there is good reason to suppose that a random survey would not produce greatly different results.

Zuckerman admits that he could not have called his book "Society Without Religion." While his interview subjects were hardly ever aware of thinking about God or considering Christianity, the great majority identify as Christians in some cultural sense. Only 3 percent of Danes claim to go to church in any given week, but 83 percent voluntarily make the traditional payment to support the state church. Half say they think they believe in a God, though only a fifth say this is at all important to them. But many more than this are married in church, baptize their children, have them confirmed, and keep the old holidays. They like church buildings, don't like to be called atheists, and have some understanding that their values go back to Christian roots.

What interests Zuckerman ...

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