Sept/Oct/Nov 2008


Does godlessness go with the good life?

Catherine Tumber

For all the wild exertions of fundamentalist and atheist chest beaters the world over, God seems to be on hold for much of the West. As religion threatens to plunge the twenty-first century into a reprisal of the seventeenth century’s Thirty Years’ War, it is tempting to smite the thing altogether, as many intellectuals sought to during the Enlightenment. But where would that leave us, not only culturally but in terms of “truthiness”? That recently coined term reveals much about our uneasiness and the gallows humor that helps conceal it during these unmoored times.

We could turn to Denmark, with sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who conducted an ethnographic survey of the most secular—and, apparently, most “happy”—society on earth for his new book, Society Without God. Statistics bear out the relative godlessness of Danes and Swedes. Less than a quarter profess belief in a personal God; less than 5 percent believe the Bible is the literal word of God, compared with 33 percent of Americans. Zuckerman believes that such numbers allow him to test religion’s social argument: Is it true, as the likes of Pat Robertson would have it, that without religion, society plunges into depravity, criminality, and moral relativism? After interviewing some 150 of these Scandinavians, Zuckerman concludes that the answer is plainly no. If anything, he finds, they are both content and “deeply good.” As a nonbeliever and admitted polemicist himself, Zuckerman can almost be heard wondering how this widespread secular contentment might be bottled and distributed.

His respondents speak, almost uniformly, with a Beckettian starkness. To questions of the most jarring existential weight, few of them budge from an implacable, slightly begrudging directness. Here, for example, is his exchange with thirty-four-year-old Mia:

What do you think happens after we die?
Yeah . . . I’m just buried, I become earth if I’m buried without being burned, and I return to the . . . yeah. . . .
So . . . I mean . . . it’s not like you’re walking all day terrified that one day you won’t exist?
No, no, no.

And twenty-eight-year-old Maja, a new mother, has this to say about “the meaning of life”:

I’m not sure that there is a meaning. There doesn’t have to be really. No, I don’t think there’s a meaning. It’s just . . . something we’re going to go through. I don’t know why.
When you think of that, how does it make you feel?
Um-m-m . . . in a way relief, because then . . . because then you don’t have to think about it . . .

For good measure, Zuckerman interviews a few believers of varying degrees, but even some of them make clear that they just don’t think about religion all that much. Meanwhile, Zuckerman’s God-indifferent respondents speak matter-of-factly of paying the optional national Lutheran church tax—about 80 percent of the population do so—in order to hold baptisms, weddings, and funerals, as well as Christmas celebrations that are “cozy and nice.” Why? Because, as one Dane put it, “it’s easier to follow mainstream and then do as everybody else.” Zuckerman raises the vexing question of how one studies the absence of something, but surely one approach might have involved subjecting what is dramatically present—this rather dour sense of conformity—to closer scrutiny, after the manner of Kierkegaard, say, or Bergman.

Zuckerman advances several reasons Danes and Swedes are so nonreligious, most having to do with their societies’ cultural homogeneity and egalitarian social-welfare systems. Unfortunately, he also recurs to sharply inapposite terminology in characterizing the religious world—dismissing the anemic state-supported Lutheran churches in Denmark and Sweden as a kind of “Lazy Monopoly,” without any incentive to market themselves, for example. Likewise, Zuckerman makes much of the idea that Danes and Swedes are possessed of a “cultural religion”—long a controversial subject among Jewish and Catholic believers—yet he regards the concept as a recent innovation. These examples are only a few that suggest the reader is not well served by Zuckerman’s efforts to provide historical and religious context. His call for more studies of nonreligious societies may be a good idea, as long as they remain alive to the dark excursions even the most seemingly contented must take by virtue of their humanity.

One could do worse than to start with Sharman Apt Russell, a seeker very much in the American grain. In Standing in the Light, she carefully unfolds the scientific pantheism she has come to embrace relatively late in life. For Russell, the great Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius best captures the idea: “Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy.” This quietly arresting book itself offers a braided narrative, weaving Russell’s own spiritual autobiography with a thoughtfully selected intellectual history of pantheism and accounts of forays into the natural world, as she endeavors to work with other civic-minded folk to preserve the native habitat of their homes in New Mexico’s Gila River Valley. Gradually, generously, and in fits and starts—rather like her own quest—Russell’s encounter with an indifferent cosmos grows slyly compelling.

Russell’s is a melancholy sensibility, occasionally on the edge of personal and cosmic derailment. Beginning with the death of a young fighter-pilot father she barely remembers (and whom she imaginatively identifies with Aurelius, with deft insight), she faces real suffering and finitude with unflinching honesty—almost clinically, like a scientist. And yet, not quite. She struggles mightily with doubt and the problem of theodicy, as when she recounts the horrors of nature by way of the story of the female coot bird, who, after allowing her offspring to grow into vulnerable, fluffy chicks, pecks most of the weakest ones to death.

Russell traces this line of thought through the lives and ideas of kindred souls, many of whom predate modern science, from Thales and the early natural philosophers (or physici), Epicurus and the Stoics, Spinoza, and Bruno to George Fox, Thoreau, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. Russell has an “agenda,” she says, and chooses not to “linger” with classical ethical philosophy beginning with Socrates. She then winnows out aspects of thought that might be allied with pantheism but that cannot be borne out empirically: the Stoics’ belief in providence, Bruno’s magical thinking, modernity’s mystery-denying scientism, any hint of transcendence or polytheism or idealism or dualism. She’s also careful to remind readers throughout, “Any faith I have in a sacred interconnected universe is hard-won” and even tentative: If confronted personally by the face of evil, for instance with the torture and murder of her child, Russell admits that even she could find herself shamelessly believing in heaven and hell in an instant.

Religion has always been that way, she says, full of contradictions and various moods, and one must be prepared for onslaughts of surprise in whatever form: One can never be too sure. Russell finds consolation, she suggests here and there, by dropping anchor and settling into a locale: “I live here, and when you live in a place, eventually you see all its wonders.” Of course, this is not always possible—as the exilic scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (and their appropriation by the brutally dislocated African-American slave community) eloquently attest. Such spiritual witnesses serve to remind us that public religion has its place—and indeed is a place, the historical repository of shared joy and acute suffering and the accumulated effort to sustain hope. Russell seems blind to this, perhaps because she’s preoccupied by the straw man of the early church, which chased down her ilk as heretics and forced pantheism out of the way for hundreds of years.

For all Russell’s identification with ancient Stoicism, her odyssey is essentially modern, a private, if not entirely solitary, encounter with nature and the humble stirrings it evokes. Yet her eloquent, even courageous attempt to tease out an intellectual inheritance (if not a tradition) in order to claim her own allegiance is refreshingly free of the therapeutic self that pervades not only New Age cant but too many American religious institutions, conservative and liberal alike. If living in one place long enough to see its wonders contributes to such forbearance, it is yet another reason to rein in a “globalizing” world intent on ravishing nature and uprooting us all.

Catherine Tumber is the author of American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality: Searching for the Higher Self, 1875–1915 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).