Five Essential Books Weighing Secularism vs. Religion

Fantastic interview with Anthony Gottlieb, former Executive Editor of the Economist, on five books weighing secularism vs. religion, one of which is Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman.

B. Hume also argues, by the same token, that it is not reason that is behind morality, but instinct and habit, and that God appeals precisely because so little can be understood or depended on. Which perhaps leads us to your last three books, which have all been written very recently.

AG. Yes, the next three books I’ve chosen to talk about are all contemporary: one published just a few weeks ago, one last year and one a few years before that. None of them are by philosophers. The first one, called “Society Without God”, is by a sociologist called Phil Zuckerman and is a study of a very particular phenomenon: religion in Scandinavia today. Now you might think, why bracket a sociologist with Spinoza and Hume? Well I wouldn’t on a philosophical reading list, but I think that if you’re interested in the relation between religion and secularism today, this book is essential. It focuses on Denmark and Sweden, the two countries in which Zuckerman lived whilst working on the book. They are two of the healthiest and happiest societies in the world, in which most people simply do not give a fig about religion. It doesn’t play any meaningful role in their lives. Obviously there are some religious people there, but the proportion is much smaller than anywhere else. And this is a very interesting phenomenon, because throughout most of history, including the period in which Spinoza and Hume were writing, it was generally held, and is still held by a lot of religious people, especially Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, that a society of atheists must be an evil and unhappy place. For most of human history you didn’t even need to argue that. It was so obvious that atheists were evil…. What Zuckerman found about the Scandinavians is not that they are atheists in the mould of Dawkins and Hitchens but that they just couldn’t care one way or another.

B. So not even agnostics, who in theory are still working on the problem?

AG. Couldn’t even be bothered with that. The questions simply don’t arise. And yet here is the really striking thing. However you want to measure a society’s health—whether it is literal, physical health, social welfare, education, happiness, living standards, life expectancy—these countries are at the top. So here is very convincing proof that it is perfectly okay not to be a believer.

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