Lukewarm Normative Scandy Atheism

i-d06cda766f646baae81ee7eab7b18794-society_without_god.pngBecause 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.

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69 thoughts on “Lukewarm Normative Scandy Atheism

  1. Reading everyone’s comments, it seems to me that Scandinavian societies haven’t eradicated religion as much as they have succeeded in driving these powerful ideas back into the realm of individual conscience where they belong, free to either inspire or to be discarded as each person sees fit.

    That’s actually a pretty old idea: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” — Jesus in Matthew 6:5-6

    The US is well on its way, and both religion and national politics will be better for it.


  2. I keep expecting to see Myers announce that he’s discovered these gold tablets in the woods (does he actually do any field work?)

    he’s a developmental biologist. AIUI, his field work involves a tank full of zebrafish.

    and no, he doesn’t blog about his work very much anymore. i regret that too. then again, that’s never been any strict criteria for scienceblogs apparently — or else how would Ed Brayton ever have got invited in the first place?


  3. I keep expecting to see Myers announce that he’s discovered these gold tablets in the woods (does he actually do any field work?) but an angel kyped them, right before him and all his breathless syncophants relocate to Utah.

    This is just so utterly bizarrely and pathetically silly on every single level of silly that it can possibly be.

    It’s fractal silliness.

    I wish these guys could get it through their thick skulls that actual science is interesting

    Which they would not dispute.

    harping incessantly about the foibles of religionists is not.

    De gustibus non est disputandum. And no-one forces you to visit Pharyngula — except, perhaps, yourself.


  4. Said Isabel:

    The US is a huge country. Do you feel that way about the European Union?

    I have no feelings for it. Of course, the US populace could cultivate their state identities instead, but that would probably spell the end of the federation.

    often there is a connection to our ancestors on “the land we stand on” i.e. they first settled in a particular area in North America.

    By now you most likely have about 128 ancestors in the generation that first settled in North America. Pick a spot.

    It’s surprising to hear an archaeologist refer to one’s “ancestors” as people who emigrated in the 1960’s, or suggest that we forget our histories!

    As an archaeologist I am deeply skeptical about attempts to justify current identities with reference to the past. That’s not what archaeology is about.


  5. Said d:

    What burns me more than anything is that those science bloggers who stay on topic – who actually write about science – may get two or five comments on an interesting and beautifully written little essay, whereas Myers will get hundreds of comments on some shrill tirade against the pope or some fundamentalist whacko.

    Hey, don’t knock it: I agree that PZ is far more read-worthy when he writes about evo devo, but you should see the traffic he drives to all other Sb blogs. He’s getting asses in seats on an incomparable level around here.


  6. You guys should IMHO forget about your recent migratory ethno-history and cultivate a shared American identity built on the land you stand on. The English don’t dream of southern Jutland anymore.

    not sure that is a very sensible comment – I can’t speak for Sharon but the phenomena she is referring to is not just about a link to the past in the “old country” but a link to one’s American past – to family and family traditions. America has no real unified culture – just as there is no real common geology of America – Americans live in deserts, mountains, tropical climes, and the standard northeast hills and forests. What sort of common culture would Sweden have if it encompassed in one nation Morocco, Brazil, Switzerland, England, and arctic Finland? That is America – so many different climates and topographies. New immigrants keep on arriving – and keep on adding to America – so the culture is not common across the continent and it is always changing. Hence the desire to find some stability in traditions and identity.

    Sure the English don’t dream of Jutland anymore – but they sure do love their Anglo Saxon re-enactments and more to the point – England ain’t as big and varied as America and the Jutes aren’t still arriving on their shores.


  7. “By now you most likely have about 128 ancestors in the generation that first settled in North America. Pick a spot.”

    I have many more than that, and the vast majority were from the same ethnic group. My heritage is unusual, but I also don’t think random mating occurs at the level you assume.

    “As an archaeologist I am deeply skeptical about attempts to justify current identities with reference to the past. That’s not what archaeology is about.”

    Oh no – charges of racism – will I ever escape them? So I guess you have no ethnicity either? You and your wife have no difference?

    Recently you disparaged geneology, implying that someone assumes they’re Irish because of a single ancestor from 1860. I don’t think people are that simple-minded, and I also don’t think 1860 is so long ago. There are people in my family who can tell anecdotes about relatives alive in 1860. It gives a nice feeling of continuity.


  8. @d: the phrase is ad nauseam if my Latin serves…
    @Martin: when you’re not wearing your archaeologist’s coat, how do YOU justify, or rather define, your current identity? Being cosmopolitan and enlightened is all good and fine, but don’t we all have our roots which have come about by the workings of history?


  9. Codero, I’m Swedish, more specifically a Stockholm middle class academic from the seaward suburbs. My ancestry, to the extent that I am even aware of it more than three generations back, is not important to me.


  10. Isabel, I’m confused. I didn’t mean to imply that you were a racist. I meant that I reject the justification of identity and land rights by reference to ancestry.


  11. Most Americans of some ethnic descent don’t dream of a vaterland of any kind, at least by the second or third generation. The Jews could go to Israel if they wanted, but they sure as heck have no desire to go back to Germany and Poland, and for compelling reasons. African-Americans except for a very brief period mostly don’t want to live in Africa. Irish-Catholic, American Jew, African-American are fundamentally *American* ethnic identities – these are not longings for a past, but subcultures of a large single culture. Having a tie to one’s ethnic, religious and cultural history (normally not primarily experienced through genealogy, but through day to day life in things like churches and foods and home culture) and still being American is a way of distinguishing yourself from the other 300 million or so of you. Moreover, often it is based on the place you come from – this is less so in the West and Southeast, but the Northeast and Northern Midwest have long traditions of communities shaped by the settlers who came there. The place as you know is not merely its geography, but its community.

    I’ve actually made a version of the same argument that you are about America – trying to shift American culture away from what I think is a deeply destructive Patriotism based on an abstract longing for identity to one rooted in an actual patria, to the dirt under people’s feet, but I don’t think that this is best done by eradicating subcultures.

    And in America’s limited defense – there are a lot of things to dislike about America, including our lack of a meaningful left and our tendency to extreme religious fervor, but our cultural history of not always pushing for assimilation has served us. At the same time my husband’s family, had they tried to enter Sweden, would have been forced to convert to Lutheranism, they were able to enter the US openly as Jews – not without prejudice, but with more legal freedoms than anywhere else in the world. The US is always teetering on the verge of falling en masse into some hideous extreme, but unlike many countries in Europe, we rarely have actually done so in a whole scale way. And in many ways, I think you could make a historic case that it is our lack of unity that has prevented some of the worst possible excesses.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is about as enthusiastic a defense of my country as I’m likely to mount ;-), but I don’t think America’s religiosity is always a bad thing – I think in some measure it has helped us keep a shallow nation slightly more complex, and that’s a good thing.



  12. I’d like the bible thumpers a lot better if they were the radically pacifist, communalist, tolerant Christians that some readings of the New Testament suggest that Jesus was envisioning. But then, he seems to have thought that Judgement Day would come in like AD 40.


  13. Martin, I was referring to the link you posted in your comment to me. I wasn’t implying land rights or anything like that. Sharon has done a good job of explaining what I was trying to say, I think anyway.


  14. Reading everyone’s comments, it seems to me that Scandinavian societies haven’t eradicated religion as much as they have succeeded in driving these powerful ideas back into the realm of individual conscience where they belong, free to either inspire or to be discarded as each person sees fit.

    In The Secular Conscience, cited above, Austin Dacey argues that matters of conscience belong in the public realm:

    If secular liberalism is to continue to stand for reason and freedom, the separation of religion and state, personal autonomy, equality, toleration, and self-criticism, secular liberals must stand up for these values in public debate. This means returning conscience to its proper place at the heart of secular liberalism. Matters of conscience–including religion and values–are open. Like the sciences and open source methods, they are fit subjects of public discussion, they are guided by shared, objective evaluative standards, and they are revisable in light of future experience. The point of the open, secular society is not to privatize or bracket questions of conscience, but to pursue them in conversation with others. Like a free press, conscience is freed from coercion so that it may perform a vital public function: reasoning together about questions of meaning, identity, and value.


  15. I’m not a fan of the “bible thumpers” either, and I agree with you about the Christianity I’d like to see. But I do think it is important to note that it would be easy to get the impression that all American Christians are “bible thumpers” when in fact, that’s not at all true. There is a radical Christian left in the US, for example, although it is extremely small, and there have been times in American history when it has been politically powerful. There are regions of the US where bible thumping is regarded with the same quizzical distaste that it is viewed with in Sweden, more or less, and regions where it is the dominant subculture.



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