Because of blogging and my involvement in the skeptical pro-science movement, in recent years I have come into close contact with Americans as never before in my adult life. More than half of Aard’s readers are in the US. It’s almost like when I met my wife and suddenly learned lots about China.
A couple of things recur in people’s commentary here, largely on religious and political issues. My outlook is clearly quite exotic to many Americans. I view mainstream US politics as half of a full political spectrum, where voters really only get to choose between two different brands of conservative. And I can’t quite understand the passionate relationship Americans have to religion, regardless of their individual beliefs. Because most Scandinavians don’t care about religion.
Some may think that Scandinavians are hostile to religion. That’s actually not true: we’re indifferent to it. What my countrymen tend to be hostile against is passionate views on religious issues. A Swede will typically react with great discomfort if you tell him you really believe in Jesus – and equally so if you tell him you really disbelieve in Jesus. It is considered bad manners and/or a little crazy to even bring the subject up.
This disorientating meeting between religiously charged US culture and quietly secular Scandinavian culture is beautifully captured in Californian sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He spent 14 months in Scandinavia, mainly in Aarhus, Denmark, interviewing people about their religious attitudes and family history. And although Zuckerman is a secular Jew with no supernatural beliefs of his own, he was clearly blown away by the complete indifference to religion that he encountered. The typical attitudes he met with were, according to his own descriptions,
- Reluctance or reticence to talk about religion
- Benign indifference
- Utter obliviousness
One story told to Zuckerman is particularly illuminating. Upon being asked if any of his friends were “real Christians”, a man who works as a prosecutor in the city court of Aarhus first said no, but then added:
“…actually one of our friends up there, and that surprised me a lot, we’ve known them for some years and suddenly one night we had a few drinks and then he said to me, ‘I have a confession to make.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, and then he told me that he believed in God. And I was quite surprised. I never thought in my whole life that … well, he was getting pretty loaded, you know, and then he had this urge to tell me. … I never expected anybody to tell me something like that. That was – I almost fell down off the chair. I said – [pantomimes an expression of shock] – and I didn’t know how to react, and then he said to me, ‘I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person.’ So he said that to me and I said, ‘Oh, of course, you can believe whatever you want as long as you respect me,’ I said to him. But it was something he had kept for a long time, and finally he got the mood, you know, and it was after a few bottles of red wine, you know. It was a confession … ‘Now we are so good friends, I can tell you this because this is my inner secret’, you know.” (pp. 53-54)
This cultural context explains why I’m not very interested in the fire-and-brimstone atheist writings of e.g. Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I agree with them about almost everything. I would never grant religious truth-claims any special status above and apart from issues like whether there’s milk in the fridge. It’s just that where I am, their mode of expression is completely out of proportion as their issues are non-issues here. I have many US contacts on Facebook that have added me to their rosters because of the blog and my modest visibility in skeptical media, and I’m just amazed at how focused their attention is on atheism. Some of them post several public items a day on the subject. And of course, if I was feeling daily pressure from society to believe in the invisible pink unicorn or be damned and shunned, then it would be a much bigger deal to me that I don’t believe that such a beast exists. But really, a denial of the divinity of Jesus is about as novel and interesting to me as pointing out that the Pope has a funny hat.
Zuckerman’s book held few surprises to me as a Scandy native. I’m not really part of the target audience. But to any American with an interest in secularism, I highly recommend it. It’s short, solidly researched and referenced, well-written and engaging. People without my professional bias are unlikely to be bothered by the somewhat weak historical section. Regardless of your personal religious or irreligious orientation, as an American you’re likely to find the picture Zuckerman paints quite fascinating: an image of the world’s safest, most affluent and most democratic societies where freedom from religion is the norm.