A Lesson from Scandinavia

Air Date: 
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Tom Shipka
  • During the years 2005 and 2006, American sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent fourteen months in Denmark and Sweden to study these two societies. In a recent book, he reports these findings: (1)
  • Denmark and Sweden have among the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. (pp. 28-29) (2)
  • Denmark and Sweden have the lowest rates of HIV and AIDS in the world. (p. 27)
  • Sweden is third and Denmark is fifth in the world in economic competitiveness. (p. 27)
  • On gender equality, Denmark is second and Sweden is third in the world. (p. 27)
  • On access to the Internet, Sweden is third and Denmark is fourth in the world. (p. 28)
  • Denmark and Sweden are tied for the lowest infant mortality rates in the world with Norway, Iceland, Japan, and Singapore. (p. 26)
  • Denmark and Sweden are tied for first place with the Netherlands in the health and safety of children. (p. 26)
  • Denmark ranks fourth and Sweden ranks eighth in the world in the standard of living. (p. 27)
  • Political corruption is virtually non-existent in Denmark and Sweden. (p. 28)
  • Denmark and Sweden are tied for first in the world in a recent international study of social justice (p. 30) (3), and
  • Denmark ranks second and Sweden ranks third in the world in financial aid to poor nations. (p. 29)

Thus, according to Zuckerman, Danes and Swedes are among the most contented and generous people on the planet. But that's not all that Zuckerman has to report about these two nations. Remarkably, he notes, two of the most prosperous societies in the world are also two of the least religious. (4) Indeed, a huge majority in both countries are atheists or agnostics. Only 24% of Danes and 16% of Swedes believe in a personal God compared to more than 90% in the United States. (p. 24) Only 18% of Danes and 33% of Swedes believe in heaven compared to 80% of Americans. Only 10% of Danes and Swedes believe in hell compared to 75% of Americans. (p. 11, pp. 24-25) This is the lowest rate of belief in hell in the entire world! (p. 25) Next, only 7% of Danes and 3% of Swedes believe that the Bible is the literal word of God compared to 33% in the United States. (p. 25) Further, Danes and Swedes have the lowest church attendance in the world with only 3% of Danes and 7% of Swedes attending regularly. (p. 25, p. 162) (5) Also, only 8% of Danes and 15% of Swedes consider it important for a politician to believe in God compared to 64% of Americans who do (p. 12), and contrary to public and private practice in America, very few Danes and Swedes pray. (p. 2) Finally, more than 80% of Danes and Swedes accept evolution while less than half our population does. (p. 10) (6)

Professor Zuckerman sees an important lesson for us in his study of Denmark and Sweden. Contrary to what we've heard from "certain outspoken conservative Christians" (7), the sociologist suggests, a secular society need not be a scene of violence and depravity. (p. 4, pp. 17-18) Denmark and Sweden, he says, are not only "impressive models of societal health" (p. 17) but living proof that humans can survive and prosper without religion. (pp. 55-56) (8)


  1. Zuckerman reports his findings in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, New York University Press, 2008. All references hereinafter are to page numbers of this book.
  2. For instance, in Aarhus, Denmark, a city of 250,000 residents, there was a total of one murder in 2004. (p. 6)
  3. This study was done by a German group of social scientists associated with an institute called Hans-Bocker Stiftung. (p. 30) Denmark and Sweden are not without problems, however. Taxes are high, there is social friction due to recent waves of immigration, children eat too much candy, rates of bicycle thefts are high, fertility rates are low, and alcohol consumption is high. (p. 34)
  4. Other irreligious societies are the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, South Korea, Estonia, France, Japan, Bulgaria, Norway, England, Scotland, Wales, Hungary, and Belgium. (p. 25) Zuckerman points out that in all of these relatively secular societies the citizens freely gravitated from a religious to an irreligious perspective unlike North Korea, the former Soviet Union, China, and Albania where the governments attempted to impose secularism on the citizens. Zuckerman says that forced secularism doesn't work. See pp. 20-22.
  5. Paradoxically, despite the fact that most Danes and Swedes are atheists or agnostics and don't attend church regularly, 83% of Danes and 80% of Swedes continue voluntarily to pay a tax to the National Church, which is Lutheran (p. 112), and many hold traditional events such as weddings, baptisms, confirmations, and funerals in church. Zuckerman says that Danes and Swedes, while rejecting the supernatural dimensions of Christianity - Jesus performed miracles, Jesus was God, Jesus rose from the dead, the Bible is God's revelation, the Genesis account of creation is accurate, there is an afterlife with a heaven and a hell, etc. – maintain a "cultural religion" similar to many Jews. (pp. 153-155) Oddly, in Denmark a person may be a pastor and an atheist. (p. 154)
  6. Despite the fact that Danes and Swedes are irreligious, they are not hostile to religion, they shun serious discussions of it, they deem a person's views about religion a private matter, and many non-believers dislike being labeled an atheist because they take the term to imply hostility to religion. Further, many non-believers self-identify as "Christians." When one asks them what it means to be a Christian, they say it means being kind, helping people who need help, not hurting others, etc. As a rule they reject the supernatural components. See Chapter 8, "Cultural Religion," pp. 150-166. Also, see pp. 97-109.
  7. Zuckerman lists the following examples of Christian conservatives who claim that a society that is irreligious will fail: Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Laura Schlesinger, William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, and Paul Weyrich. (p. 4, pp. 17-18)
  8. American fundamentalists will no doubt object to Zuckerman's strongly favorable evaluation of Denmark and Sweden by noting that in these countries abortion has been legal for more than thirty years, prostitution is legal, and homosexuality is tolerated.

© 2008 Tom Shipka