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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Comments

  1. #1 abb3w
    April 19, 2010

    Martin R: It’s just that where I am, their mode of expression is completely out of proportion as their issues are non-issues here.

    Currently. Denmark’s immigration-related religious troubles (from Islam, rather than Christianity) suggest that may not be permanent. A poke at Google turns up at least one screed worried about immigration implications.

    The status of religion in the US is a bit of an oddity, due in part to the country’s colonial history. There’s long been a strain of conflict between the religious worldview and the enlightenment values, and both have prominence to US history. More exactly, I consider the conflict between the Religious idea of scriptural Inerrancy (“Word Of God”, whether Bible or Qur’an) and Science’s insistence that all descriptions of evidence may be tested.

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 19, 2010

    We haven’t had major Muslim immigration for very long in Sweden. But if I read the signs correctly they seem to become less religious here rather than heightening religious tension in society at large. I have many Muslim neighbours, and I perceive no separatist tendencies.

  3. #3 paddy
    April 19, 2010

    I guess it is and always will be a much bigger deal for those of us who were brought up with this rubbish shoved in our faces 24-7. We simply have a much bigger axe to grind with religion and can’t so easily ignore that it is still out there, a big festering sore ruining the childhoods of others like it ruined ours.

    Priests are not just a funny news story for many, but a blatant and nasty reality. And I try to happily ignore it, except when people talk god to me. Then it’s easy to overreact.

  4. #4 ali
    April 19, 2010

    In Switzerland we also don’t talk about religious beliefs. But it is more of a taboo. After all, modern Switzerland was founded after a religious civil war in the midst of the 19th century. But the taboo is part of a slightly different problem: Admittedly it is a lesser problem than a society that force feeds religion. However it also implies a tacit believe that certain religious assumptions are true and it is very difficult to challenge them because the topic is not discussed. Such unchallenged tacit assumption facilitate discrimination. The minaret ban is only one of the consequences, the lack of separation between church and state in many places another.

    Indifference about the other’s religious beliefs can also be problematic.

  5. #5 Martin R
    April 19, 2010

    The minaret ban is ridiculous. It might make sense as part of a general ban on towers on religious buildings. But try to get the people who voted for the ban to tear down the country’s church steeples…

  6. #6 John S. Wilkins
    April 19, 2010

    I would love to live in Sweden or neighbouring nations if only I didn’t have to learn Swedish, etc. I am getting increasingly pissed off at the rise in religious exceptionalism in Australia, a one-time areligious nation. Could you convince your countrymen to speak only English?

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 19, 2010

    Hey Wilkins!

    Most people here actually speak reasonably good English, but of course, the language of daily discourse is Scandy.

  8. #8 Nomen Nescio
    April 19, 2010

    learning Swedish, for an English-speaker, is no great feat. the two languages are quite similar, and the added grammar not much of a burden. a decent class followed by immersion training for a few months should do it. Finnish, now, that is tricky to learn.

  9. #9 razib
    April 19, 2010

    the surveys in germany, france and UK show that native born muslim populations are invariably more religious and socially conservative than non-muslim native born populations. they’re relatively liberal and secular compared to the populace of islamic states, but that’s like giving someone a genius grant for not being retarded.

    from what i have read the somalis and arab muslims are the a-grade primitives among the swedish muslims. in contrast the iranians are secular and civilized. but that makes sense as the first wave of iranians were fleeing the islamic revolution.

  10. #10 codero
    April 19, 2010

    I would gladly give ‘Scandy’ a try and move north if it weren’t for the cold weather.
    Maybe global warming will eventually remove that obstacle.

  11. #11 razib
    April 19, 2010

    some data:
    http://www.euro-islam.info/2010/02/24/islam-in-sweden/#footnote_7_12102

    100-150,000 of sweden’s 400,000 muslims are “practicing.” that indicate a much higher level of religiosity than lutheran swedes, as i doubt anyone could say that more than 25% were practicing. though again, i’m pretty sure this is very heterogeneous by community.

  12. #12 Martin R
    April 19, 2010

    We don’t get many people from the Arabian peninsula. Anyway, regardless of what the first generation is like, almost everybody’s kids attend culturally homogenising schools.

  13. #14 razib
    April 19, 2010

    We don’t get many people from the Arabian peninsula.

    more arabs are not from the arabian peninsula. your nation has accepted 20,000 iraqi refugees in the past 5 years for example. your kurdish community is not too progressive either (i believe they are rooted in a refugee community which fled during the baathist period).

    Anyway, regardless of what the first generation is like, almost everybody’s kids attend culturally homogenising schools.

    sure. in parts of malmo they do attend homogenising schools, but they’re mostly muslim schools. they’re homogenising toward their own swedish islamic culture where they look down on your “uncircumcised drunks” and have shame bleeding your welfare state dry :-) (you’d be surprised what people will tell you when they perceive that you’re on “their team”)

  14. #15 Janne
    April 19, 2010

    The first generation immigrants – no matter from where, or to where – tend to become more culturally conservative and more insular. It’s a natural reaction, I suspect, to try to turn inward toward the culture and the countrymen you know when you’re confronted daily with a foreign, incomprehensible culture around you. Their children are often split as well.

    But over time, each generation loses more of their ancestral culture to become an unremarkable part of the society around them. Whereas the first generation frequently does not speak the new language at all, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will more often than not never learned a word of the ancestral language. And while they may still identify as muslims, they’ll tend to be muslim the way other people are christian – bland, non-offensive and without much active thought or engagement.

  15. #16 Martin R
    April 19, 2010

    20,000 iraqi refugees in the past 5 years for example. your kurdish community is not too progressive either

    Many of those Iraqi refugees are Kurds.

    Muslim schools are rare in Sweden.

    I have several friends whose parents came here from Italy and Yugoslavia in the 60s to work. All that is left of the ancestral identity is a surname and a smattering of language.

  16. #17 paddy
    April 19, 2010

    @John S. Wilkins: You lazy bugger! Sweden has learned English for your benefit, now you can at least return the favour!

  17. #18 Nomen Nescio
    April 19, 2010

    @Janne: it probably varies between different immigration destinations. in the USA, the pattern is somewhat more complex — first-generation immigrants are typically fairly insular (with some exceptions, e.g. myself), their second-generation kids tend to integrate almost completely, and the third generation sometimes starts wanting to reclaim some of their ancestral culture (while still living in practice primarily as integrated people).

  18. #19 Eric Lund
    April 19, 2010

    One factor which may be contributing to the rise of religious fervor in the US is the tendency in this country for people to move into created-from-scratch suburban developments with little in the way of community. The churches get there first, so they often become the only thing out there that provides any since of community. Perhaps Australia is seeing the same thing. In Europe (and in the northeastern US, the least religious part of this country) suburban developments are invariably part of some pre-existing municipality with the implied community infrastructure, much of it secular, already in place.

    As for why American atheists are more militant than Scandinavian atheists: We have to be. In Europe, religious zealots are not a threat to secular society (this may change if the Muslim population remains marginalized, but for now this is only a potential, not an actual, threat). Here in the US, being a religious nut is not sufficient to disqualify somebody from being a significant politician–there are some parts of the country where it is hard for anybody to be elected who is not a religious nut–and the religious nuts therefore are a threat to secular society. I would prefer to live and let live, but like Paddy above, if I’m pushed hard enough, I will respond.

    With respect to language assimilation, there is a significant difference between Islam and Christianity. Most Christians (possibly excepting some conservative Catholics) do not care what language ordinary people use to read the Bible; only serious scholars are expected to read it in the original Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek. Not so with Islam: The Arabic Quran is considered the definitive version, and translations thereof are treated in the same category as commentaries. Thus the Muslim, regardless of actual ethnic origin, has an incentive to learn some Arabic.

  19. #20 Bob Carlson
    April 19, 2010

    A friend who moved back to Sweden after having lived and worked for a long time in the USA has pointed out how Swedes are apt to mistakenly think that Americans who vote for politicians of the Democratic Party are somehow like the Swedish Social Democrats, but that, in reality, Americans who vote for candidates of the Democratic Party are apt to be philosophically to the right even of Swedes of the more conservative ilk. On the issue of the secularity of Swedish citizens versus the non-secularity of American citizens, an American sociologist of Swedish ancestry published a paper available on the web titled How Sweden became so secular.

    Perhaps one of the more important factors is indicated in this quote from the paper:

    At the highest levels, the Swedish Church had become secularized by the first half of the nineteenth century. Becoming a bishop was considered a natural outcome for leading cultural figures. Until mid-century, in fact, appointments to high ecclesiastical office were determined primarily by scholarly and cultural attainment; piety and orthodoxy were of lesser importance.

  20. #21 Jp
    April 19, 2010

    The typical attitudes he met with were, according to his own descriptions,
    Reluctance or reticence to talk about religion
    Benign indifference
    Utter obliviousness

    This makes wonder: are Scandys also oblivious to religion as a part of human culture? For example, I find many religions interesting in and of themselvs—their trappings, their histories, etc. Is this kind of attitude also unusual in Scandinavia?

  21. #22 Aster
    April 19, 2010

    The question of why the USA is such an outlier in terms of religious fervour is interesting and not as easily answered as suggested by some of the responses. For instance, my country (Canada) is much more similar to Sweden than the USA in this respect even though the two countries have the same per capita levels of immigration, both have a colonial past, and both share many other aspects of culture.

  22. #23 Bruce Paulson
    April 19, 2010

    I started doubting Christianity when I was a teenager (I’m 62 now) and I found it best to keep my mouth shut here in Northeastern Wisconsin or risk banishment by family and friends. But here is an example of how far Christianity really goes. Not driving anymore due to diabetes affecting my vision, I walk ninety minutes for physical therapy and ninety minutes back. A couple of weeks ago while walking to and from PT it was raining hard with a strong westerly wind. I walk with a cane and my left arm in a sling. Seventy-eight cars passed me on the way, including the local Lutheran pastor alone in the car, and no one stopped to give me a ride. And I am not scary looking. I look Scandinavian. Where was Christianity that day? If these assholes would practice what they preach and allegedly believe in I would have been given a ride home. And I’ve said for years that if the second coming of Christ took place in my hometown at the Lutheran church, he would have to live here for four generations before he was accepted into the church community. Christianity – bah!

  23. #24 Mikael
    April 19, 2010

    This makes wonder: are Scandys also oblivious to religion as a part of human culture? For example, I find many religions interesting in and of themselvs—their trappings, their histories, etc. Is this kind of attitude also unusual in Scandinavia?

    No, it’s not (in my opinion at least). A lot of people are interested in the history of buddhism, islam, daoism etc.

  24. #25 Bob Carlson
    April 19, 2010

    The question of why the USA is such an outlier in terms of religious fervour is interesting and not as easily answered as suggested by some of the responses. For instance, my country (Canada) is much more similar to Sweden than the USA in this respect even though the two countries have the same per capita levels of immigration, both have a colonial past, and both share many other aspects of culture.

    I don’t know how or why the Canadian situation may differ from the American, but in his book titled The
    Secular Conscience
    Austin Dacey summarizes the American picture in a way that provides an interesting contrast to the paragraph I cited on the Swedish one in response 20. Dacey said:

    In the American religious bazaar, the individualism of Protestantism was exacerbated by the Great Awkakenings, charismatic movements in the 1730s to 1740s and 1820s to 1830s that place a premium on personal conversion experiences. The awakenings produced a schisming of Christianity into increasingly competitive and individualistic strains. By the middle of the twentieth century, the free market in religion was tending to produce theologies catering to personal worldly needs at the expense of eternal verities and narratives of sin, redemption, and duty. Belief systems sought to outdo each other in offering a diverse buffet of beliefs from which browsers could pick and choose the timeless wisdom best suited to their immediate needs.

    Dacey goes on to talk about the evangelical movement in which “churchgoers are seen as consumers to be lured away from competitors with offers of superior childcare, health and counseling services, as well as more entertaining and affecting worship.” Many of the purveyors of this evangelical woo become very wealthy, so perhaps, to this extent, American religiosity can be seen as an outcome of Capitalism American style.

  25. #26 Joakim Storck
    April 19, 2010

    I feel a bit uncomfortable with entering this kind of discussion, but I’ll give it a shot. As a native Swede I can only confirm what you say. More than ten years ago, when I was 25, I spent a summer at Universidad de Salamanca in Spain to learn some Spanish. Me and a guy from Michigan rented rooms from an old lady in her 70’s. One day we went together to visit a nearby town, and as we stood outside the impressive cathedral he suggested we should go inside and sit down for a while. We did, and only after several minutes I realised he was not only admiring the architecture. To me, the idea of praying was so far fetched I didn’t even think of it as a possible reason why he wanted to go inside. But I’m not hostile to religion, I don’t even call myself an atheist. It’s just that I feel that the basic premises of religion are so utterly improbable that I don’t even see why I should care to make that statement. On the other hand I care much about meaning, love, friendship and care, but that’s a totally different thing as I see it.

  26. #27 Akhôrahil
    April 19, 2010

    This completely agrees with my long-standing idea that atheism isn’t important (although it’s the rational position) – what matters is secularism.

    If you’re a barely-even-lukewarm Christian, or just someone who vaguely believs in “something larger”, but don’t particularly let it affect how you treat people, or make you push a political agenda, why would it be a big deal to me? I would prefer it if you came to a reasonable conclusion instead, but it’s as if you’re mistaken about the capital of Burkina Faso or something – it would be better if you weren’t, but really?

  27. #28 Jules
    April 19, 2010

    Obviously no culture is perfect. They all have there pros and cons, but as a citizen of the US, I am envious of Martin’s cultural situation.

    At my age and financial situation it is probably not feasible, but I would love to live in a culture where religion is just looked on with objective indifference. The obstinate intransigence of my native country has become very depressing. I think our excessively overt religiousity is a major part of the dangerous polarization of our culture. It has become much too political.

    I really appreciate the charitable works that religion does and the sense of community and socialization it can bring, but all of that is entirely possible without having to worship something supernatural. There is so much in the real world that needs our cooperative attention and community action. Much of religion as it is today causes seperation,divisiveness and compartmentalizng instead of promoting unity, or seeing a larger context,accepting our natural connections and appreciating and cherishing the whole awe of physical life.

    To me the naive faith and evangelical part of religion is a convenient distraction and comforting fantasy to avoid addressing the real ecological and social issues which we alone, not supernatural forces, are responsible for.

    Religion has become a socially accepted form of denial.

  28. #29 ChicagoMolly
    April 19, 2010

    I spent years being happily indifferent to religion since I absented myself from the Roman Catholic church as a teenager. I would remain so were it not for the recent rising of the militant christists who model what HL Mencken said: “The trouble [with them] isn’t that they want you to think as they do; it’s that they want you to do as they think.” Add to this their serious ignorance of our history (the Framers deliberately conceived a godless Constitution for a secular democratic republic just so that we each could hold our own religious beliefs without being bothered by others) and eventually secularists (many of whom are religious) end up having to push back. And then they say we’re angry and pushy and militant. {shrug}

  29. #30 kevin
    April 19, 2010

    All this religion-hating is silly. Secular cultures (e. g. Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany) can be equally unpleasant. I could make a pretty good case that the freedom of conscience championed by the Reformation made modern atheism culturally possible.

    I think the traditional spectrum from left to right is tired and old. Abstract ideas, whether religious, political or philosophical, are ok and more or less irrelevant from a pragmatic point of view as long as nobody tries to force anybody else to conform. It’s holding an abstract belief too strongly and insisting on its place in daily life that causes antisocial behavior. There are a lot of people with whom I’m in perfect political agreement that I’d never share a beer with, they’re just too hard core.

    I want to redefine the spectrum on an up-and-down axis to place all people and social movements that strive for social conformity on the lower end and those that value leaving people alone on the higher. Shake up society on that basis, and I think all of us on the higher end would be surprised at how many devout Muslims and Christians would be among us, and how many rabid atheists and leftists would be on the other.

  30. #31 Xray
    April 19, 2010

    I agree with ChicagoMolly. I think I went many years without being concerned about religion. There were always plenty of kooks out there, but they could be ignored. Now, however, the kooks have taken over one of the two political parties in the U.S., as well as a major TV news network, and they have real power. We have to push back.
    I’m not sure when this transformation happened. I have an inking that the Roe v Wade abortion decision really awakened the political fervor of the evangelicals, since not long after that Falwell & Robertson appeared on the scene. It’s truly a shame and makes me envious of the Swedish.

  31. #32 Bob Carlson
    April 19, 2010

    All this religion-hating is silly.

    It isn’t religion-hating at all; it is realism. For a politician in the USA to admit to being a nonbeliever would, in most parts of the USA, mean the end of his political career. Even the atheist, Karl Rove, recognized the political value of pandering to the religious and exploited it to the max. Perhaps this situation will correct itself over time if science education in the USA improves and results in a decrease in religiosity. I find it difficult to fault some of the militant voices of atheism for being impatient to see this happen. There apparently are, after all, 40 million nonbelievers in the USA. That is four times the population of Sweden.

  32. #33 Joshua
    April 19, 2010

    I think I have a similar view to the one you’re describing, Martin. I don’t call myself an “atheist” because the word seems to imply that I devote lots of time or energy to *not* being a theist. Which I guess I would have to if I lived in a highly religious country (USA, Saudi Arabia, etc).

  33. #34 Isabel
    April 19, 2010

    “It’s just that where I am, their mode of expression is completely out of proportion as their issues are non-issues here.”

    Some of us think they are way over the top here in the US. I agree, how can someone get so worked up about the same issue, that they claim to not even actually care about or believe in, several times per day, every day?? I find the whole SienceBlogs anti-religion fervor to be pretty weird also, and I grew up in the US in a pretty religious family. And no, we don’t often discuss our beliefs, even the born-agains (we’re mostly Catholic). Like other commenters here I gradually fazed it out, and since nothing traumatizing ever happened to me, I think of it as a sort of charming and comforting cultural inheritance. I enjoy going to Mass for example, but I rarely actually make it there.

    And Dawkins is British. Britain is much less religious. What’s his story??

    “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.”

    I have never felt such pressure. It most certainly can be completely avoided in the larger cities here. For politicians maybe not, and people in small towns in certain parts of the country, but I honestly think it’s a non-issue for most people here as well.

  34. #35 Isabel
    April 20, 2010

    I guess that should say “I gradually phased it out” :)

  35. #36 paddy
    April 20, 2010

    @kevin: Oh don’t you DARE pull out that old jaded “secular cultures are BAAAAD” line. Nazi Germany and every communist state WERE religious cultures, with worship of a god replaced by worship of the state. Religion is simply an enemy of reason, and infringes upon human rights, and must be faced off like any enemy of reason. No “special case” for religionists.

    And “leaving people alone” is all well and good, but we can start by getting religious people to leave the rest of us, and their own children, alone from their ramblings.

  36. #37 Cate
    April 20, 2010

    First time posting but a lurker for some time – especially enjoy your posts re: archaeology. A few observations re: this topic. 1) On a day to day basis most Americans are not talking about religion and one can work with people for many years and never know what or if they have religious beliefs. The notion that the US is this super charged religious environment is not part of one’s daily experience. 2) the anti science religious groups are a minority – a very small minority but they get a lot of attention. Whenever these anti science religious factions seek to impose their views on the broader populace they are generally rejected – i.e. abortion, teaching creationism in schools etc. I have only met one person who is a creationist in my entire life – it is a regional and class phenomena 3) I think the move to the suburbs actually decreases religious participation in the US – the move to the suburbs has coincided with the drastic reduction in church attendance. 4)the research suggests that the majority of Americans are “moral therapeutic deists” – people who vaguely believe in God and think one should be charitable etc. They have no specific theological beliefs.
    5) we have in the US one of our political parties which has catered to this fundamentalists religious minority to get their votes and ended up being captive to this minority. Hence the power fundamentalist religions seem to have in the US despite their being a minority. 6) antagonism towards atheism is also a function of class, region and education.

    There is a view among American sociologists that religion flourishes in the US because we have never had an established (state) religion as most European countries had in their past. The lack of state sponsorship means that religion functions in a market place – unsuccessful religions fail and new more appealing religions can emerge. I suspect too that so many Americans immigrated here from places where they were persecuted for their religions. In many ways, religion is the last vestige of the “old country” identification people have. They lose their forefathers language and connection to the old country – but at least they still have the religion. There is a saying among sociologists that when the Irish came to America they remembered they were Irish because they were Catholic – now the Irish Americans remember they are Catholic because they are Irish (Irish Americans). This illustrates my point. I have Swedish-American extended family and they are not really terribly religious in their beliefs but they are still Lutherans because this is where they connect with other Swedish Americans.

  37. #38 Roman
    April 20, 2010

    @why Europe is less enthusiastic about talking religion

    Europe (esp. Germany, Sweden and other countries which took part in the Thirty Years War; more recently the Northern Ireland) went through violent conflicts partly about religion. This left a lasting impression in the culture that religion can be a dividing thing and it’s better to be quiet about it.

    @muslims in the uk

    I work with many Muslim people in my office and it’s very easy to find a common language with them. Most of them party much harder than me ;-)

  38. #39 Martin R
    April 20, 2010

    Good comments, thanks everybody! Reading Zuckerman really underlined to me how mainstream my views are in my local context.

  39. #40 windy
    April 20, 2010

    Europe (esp. Germany, Sweden and other countries which took part in the Thirty Years War; more recently the Northern Ireland) went through violent conflicts partly about religion. This left a lasting impression in the culture that religion can be a dividing thing and it’s better to be quiet about it.

    That’s a bit of an anachronistic explanation – for example, the worst Swedish witch hunts came after the 30 years war.

  40. #41 Roman
    April 20, 2010

    @windy

    Oh well, the lesson took some time to sink in ;-)

  41. #42 yogi-one
    April 20, 2010

    Very interesting conversation.

    I grew up secular on the east coast USA and in Germany as a US Military Brat. I must say I am pretty much indifferent to it, but that’s after a long time of being a ‘spiritual seeker’, which for me meant mostly practicing meditation everyday for decades of my life.

    Currently my view is that spirituality and religion have nothing to do with each other. Spirituality is an individual thing. Religion is a community thing. Religion is always defined in the context of a group, a church, an organization, a culture. Spirituality is just one-on-one, you and the existence (I don’t even use the word god anymore, to me it’s just a historical term loaded up with whatever emotional crap an individual wants to dump into it.)

    So I’m a pretty happy camper, and it has lot to do with freedom from religion.

    Values like compassion, empathy, altruism, and an expanded view of the human being’s place in the cosmos all opened up in me after I gave up religion.

    Other people can have it, that’s their business.

    And mind you, I also don’t have a belief in no-god either. I just accept that my limited brain cannot comprehend large swaths of the existence, and that if there is a god, it probably has an existence in dimensions I cannot even perceive, and is a type of beingness I cannot comprehend, even if it is all around me all the time.

    It is certainly not some Big White Man in the sky who spends all his time taking sides in Bronze-Age tribal wars that happened 3000 years ago between some small clans in what we now call the Middle East. That god certainly does NOT exist.

    But the woo knows no bounds, and I even got sick of all the new-age crap I saw from my buddies in the meditation movement. Whatever the correct response to forced religion is, I think it must not be running into the arms of all the tea-leaf readers and witch doctors out there. Just looks like more of the same to me.

    I find the term “marketplace of religions” being batted around here quite amusing. I thought the Jesus everybody is so insistent on believing in spoke out quite strongly against spirituality becoming a marketplace, but that’s exactly what the true believers (and their ever-present accompanying parasites, the hucksters) have turned it into.

    Next we’ll have fast-food religion, drive-in religion, and 24/7 karma banks. Hahaha. Whatever sells!

  42. #43 Thinker
    April 20, 2010

    Codero @ #10:

    I would gladly give ‘Scandy’ a try and move north if it weren’t for the cold weather.

    Actually, summer here can be quite nice — I especially enjoy those years when it is on a Saturday!

    What gets to a lot of people who move here is not so much the weather, but the short days during the winters. On the other hand, you can get used to that, too: it usually just takes two or three generations…

  43. #44 Martin R
    April 20, 2010

    you can get used to that, too: it usually just takes two or three generations…

    Actually, the unit that can get used to it isn’t the individual or the lineage, but the population. (-;

  44. #45 Sharon Astyk
    April 20, 2010

    I think it is worth observing that America has many subcultures, and while none of them may be quite as indifferent as Scandinavia or Canada, there are certainly regional variations that are quite vast. Growing up in the American Northeast (MA, CT, RI), one often vaguely knew of the religious affiliations of one’s neighbors because the occasional holiday that you weren’t celebrating would illustrate them (off to first communion, off school for Rosh Hashana, etc…) or because some other child had some afternoon obligation (Greek school for the Greek Orthodox, Hebrew School for the Jews, Catechism…) but it simply didn’t matter and it wasn’t a matter of discussion in the same way whether the Red Sox were going to lose again (yes, and until the 21st century this was an article of faith far more certain than anything divine, but still worthy of comment).

    Religion was cultural, and tied to one’s ethnic life (one was Irish-Catholic or Italian-Catholic or Latino-Catholic, and the churches were largely different, or Jewish (and there were still the remnents of distinction between Germa and Eastern European), or African Methodist… It is no accident that in this region the mega-churches of general protestantism have never prospered or gained a significant foothold – because religion here is not general, it is largely ethnic, liberal and quiet, and if it has a public identity it is as part of an ethnic identity, rather than separately.

    It is perhaps because of this that I find some elements of new atheism troubling – because I live in an area where religious culture is the method of transmission for ethnic and historic identity, I think that hostility to religion here often operates as an attack on the last link to the past most Americans have. Since we are such a short-memoried and deeply ahistorical people, I find that troubling.

    Sharon

  45. #46 Martin R
    April 20, 2010

    religious culture is the method of transmission for ethnic and historic identity, I think that hostility to religion here often operates as an attack on the last link to the past most Americans have.

    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.

  46. #47 Nomen Nescio
    April 20, 2010

    You guys should IMHO forget about your recent migratory ethno-history and cultivate a shared American identity built on the land you stand on.

    we’d have to either fight another few civil wars, or split the country along regional-cultural lines, before there could be enough shared identity for that to be really realistic. for all the USA is proudly multicultural, not a few of those cultures are violently xenophobic. consciously styling ourselves as a nation of immigrants, even generations after the actual immigrating took place, may be one way we’re dealing with seemingly irreconcilable differences.

  47. #48 Bob Carlson
    April 20, 2010

    Whenever these anti science religious factions seek to impose their views on the broader populace they are generally rejected – i.e. abortion, teaching creationism in schools etc.

    The troubling part of the teaching aspect of the story, though, is the tremendous impact that Texas has on the content of school textbooks used throughout the USA. This is much discussed on the web as the Texas Textbook Controversy. I suppose that even Scandinavians will remember Texas as the place from which George Bush rose to political eminence as a consequence of the political vision of Karl Rove. Rove didn’t move to Texas until six years after he had dropped out of college to get involved in Republican politics.

  48. #49 Isabel
    April 20, 2010

    Martin,

    The US is a huge country. Do you feel that way about the European Union? (Which would be more comparable in size and diversity).

    Also, 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.

    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!

    :)

  49. #50 d
    April 20, 2010

    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 agree with Dawkins & Myers about most things too, yet I can’t stand either one of them anymore. They’ve quit doing science and have become fixated on tediously reiterating the message: “Supernaturalists are stupid” ad nauseum. 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. It’s as if science blogging was like TV programming: all about ratings. If a shrill tirade against superstitious nonsense that most rational people could give a rat’s ass about can rake in many, many more comments than something written about actual science and the natural world, does the advertiser have to pay more for a space on the more popular blogs? That’s how it seems. Forget science and focus on anti-religious polemics and see ad revenue soar? 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. I wish these guys could get it through their thick skulls that actual science is interesting, harping incessantly about the foibles of religionists is not.

  50. #51 kevin
    April 20, 2010

    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.

  51. #52 kevin
    April 20, 2010

    @d hahahaa amen

  52. #53 Nomen Nescio
    April 20, 2010

    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?

  53. #54 Owlmirror
    April 20, 2010

    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.

  54. #55 Martin R
    April 20, 2010

    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.

  55. #56 Martin R
    April 20, 2010

    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.

  56. #57 Cate
    April 20, 2010

    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.

  57. #58 Isabel
    April 20, 2010

    “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.

  58. #59 Jason
    April 20, 2010

    Interesting discussion. Just curious, what percentage of Scandinavians identify themselves as atheist/agnostic?

  59. #60 codero
    April 21, 2010

    @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?

  60. #61 Martin R
    April 21, 2010

    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.

  61. #62 Martin R
    April 21, 2010

    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.

  62. #63 Sharon Astyk
    April 21, 2010

    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.

    Sharon

  63. #64 Martin R
    April 21, 2010

    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.

  64. #65 Soren Andersen
    April 21, 2010

    Jason,
    Some 17% of the Swedes claimed they were religious in a 2009 poll.

  65. #66 Isabel
    April 21, 2010

    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.

  66. #67 Bob Carlson
    April 21, 2010

    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.

  67. #68 Sharon Astyk
    April 22, 2010

    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.

    Sharon

  68. #69 Nankay
    April 26, 2010

    Sharon A.

    Where is this Shangri-La of which you speak????!!!

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