Search This Blog


Buddhism in the News


Monday, December 15, 2008

Society Without God: A Book Review.

I was recently sent a copy of "Society Without God" by Phil Zuckerman to review. The author lived in Denmark and Sweden for 14 months and discovered through personal interviews with average Danes and Swedes that Scandinavia is quite Atheist/Agnostic.

It has been a falsehood heard in many religious circles (especially within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions) for years that society can not succeed without a belief in a creator god. However, Zuckerman presents his thesis that despite their lack of belief Scandinavians are some of the most socially well adjusted and successful people on Earth.

Some give the examples of the former USSR, North Korea, Cuba and China to try and argue that nontheist societies breed oppression and are not good examples of healthy societal life. However, Zuckerman deftly responds saying that those were/are governments who force everyone to be Atheist/Agnostic:

In each case, religion wasn't abandoned by the people themselves in a natural process over several generations [James: Like Scandinavia]. Rather, the "abandonment" of religion was decreed by vicious dictators who imposed their faithlessness on an unwilling, decidedly un-free citizenry.
He gives several interesting reasons for why secular societies are so stable and successful one of which is education. He found that a high level of Scandinavians are educated and that the higher level of education one achieves the less one believes in a god. And while being an nontheist, Zuckerman makes sure to say that not everything about monotheism is negative. He does list positives of believing in a god/supernatualism. Overall though he paints a very convincing picture that belief in a creator god is not necessary to a moral and ethical society.

It is fascinating in that his argument is built directly from primary sources by interviewing average citizens. This strength, however, does become a bit of a weakness for this book because the interviews become too many and the answers become repetitive. That would be my one criticism of this book.

As a nontheist Buddhist I found myself agreeing quite often with the sentiments expressed by these Danes and Swedes. I have read many books on Atheist thinking and I find it noteworthy that most don't even mention/cover Buddhism in their critiques of religion. In my mind that is because Buddhism falls inbetween religion and Atheism. It's kind of in its own category that seems to have more in common with philosophy and psychology than with strict religious dogma.

~Peace to all beings~

Stumble Upon Toolbar


G said...

Living in Thailand, a society without a belief in God at it's cultural heart, the idea proposed by some theists that a non-theistic society cannot succeed is plainly untrue. Despite recent political problems, as featured in the international news outlets, Thailand has remained a predominately peaceful and friendly place to live in. Buddhism has, no doubt, played a large part in the mostly non-violent protests seen in and around the capital Bangkok.

Thailand is, on many levels, a very successful society, with a stronger economy than its neighbors, and an extremely civilized and welcoming populace. In many ways, Thailand is more civilized than my homeland of England, a country itself often held up to be a paragon of civilization and friendliness.

Talking of England, it's noteworthy that like the Scandinavian states featured in "Society Without God", it is largely an atheistic (or at least agnostic) place, and yet what a successful country it has been over the centuries, just like Sweden and Denmark!

Not that as Buddhists we should look down on theists and theistic societies, of course. The Lord Buddha taught tolerance towards those of different views to our own, and in both Theravada and Mahayana scripture he encouraged some people to contemplate the existence of gods and other 'supernatural' beings.

As to the classification of Buddhism, in truth it's in a category of its own: a way of liberation from the delusional ego. People view Buddhism in various ways, as a religion, a philosophy, a therapy, a psychology; we humans have a need to classify everything in ways we readily understand. Also, people often use Buddhism as a religion, a philosophy, a therapy, etc. to soothe the ephemeral ego, rather than to transcend it.

As Buddhists we shouldn't look down on such behavior, however, as though we were 'superior' in some way. As soon as we do that, we've fallen into the trap of using Buddhism as a support for the ego and not a cure for it. That people use Buddhism for a variety of purposes is simply 'the way it is' - the Dharma.

Another great article, James!

G at 'Buddha Space'.

Carla said...

That sounds like an interesting book! I will try to get it from my library.

I agree with you that Buddhism is not a religion. (Although, obviously, it can be, depending on what cultural trappings and rituals and traditional beliefs become attached to it). This is why I always have to hesitate when filling in forms that ask about religion. What do I write? I'm not entirely sure I like the term 'Buddhist', but 'follower of the dharma' sounds a bit stuffy!

brian said...

Attractive as it may seem, the idea of a compassionate, omniscient, omnipotent God is logically contradictory. You can have any two, but not all three attributes.

There is much suffering in the world. God either doesn't know, doesn't care or can't do anything about it.

To explain evil and suffering monotheists have to invent a second God - the Devil - who causes a fall from grace. This, of course contradicts both pure monotheism and God's omnipotence (why doesn't he thwart the Devil's actions).

Philosophically, monotheism is untenable.

Riverwolf, said...

Nice to hear another side to the "atheism causes social decay" argument. THanks for the thoughtful review.

Dhamma81 said...

Although I'm a religious Buddhist in the fullest sense, there seems to be some good in these secular atheist societies. Education is a good thing and as a Buddhist I don't believe in a creator God so that part doesn't clash with my beliefs at all.

As a Buddhist I believe in the Deathless and mans ability to acheieve it. That's a transcendent goal that is not really considered in purely secular societies who place all their value on the latest scientific research which at it's heart is pure materialsm/nihilism.

If people act in upright and just ways then religion or not it's a good thing. There are dangers in both religious extermism and theocracies as well as far left secular societies like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or Stalin's Russia.

I think it is good if this type of society works but it is not for everyone. It would be a sad day if a place like Thailand gave up it's deep seated faith in the Buddhasasana for the false secular utopia promised by scientific materialists and Nihilists like Richard Dawkins with their grim law of the jungle Darwinsim.

They call him James Ure said...

Excellent comments everyone.


I agree that such a society isn't always right for every culture/people.

Kamacharya said...

Dhamma81: "It would be a sad day if a place like Thailand gave up it's deep seated faith in the Buddhasasana for the false secular utopia promised by scientific materialists and Nihilists like Richard Dawkins with their grim law of the jungle Darwinsim."

Yeah. Reality can be harsh.

smellincoffee said...

You said that atheist writers often bypass Buddhism. I tend to tend to think of Buddhism as more of a philosophical religion than a standard deity + doctrine/dogma kind.

Carla said...

Hi James. I hope you don't mind if I ask for people's opinion of something I read recently. I've posted about it at my blog here:

What do you think of Jon Kabat-Zinn's ideas about not talking about meditation?

Dhamma81 said...

Buddhism without transcendence is not Buddhism, so secular athiesm and the things taught by nihilists like Dawkins mean that every religious quest is useless and meaningless. Certainly the Buddha or the great masters never bought that. Infact, the Buddha said that what the atheist nihilists believe is the "highest of wrong views." It's not my place to make you Buddhist Kamacharya. Perhaps you will practice the Dhamma and change your mind. Be well regardless.

anonyrod said...

All major religions have their value, particularly in regards to teaching basic morality and good behaviour. However, Dick the Dork is entitled to his opinions too (and when you look as smart as he does you are entitled to some slack).

While it would make criticism much easier if every Christian was like MT, every muslim like the Laden Dustbin, or every Jew like the fanatic Israeli settlers, they are not all like that, and in spite of their ignorance many are of great benefit to society.

It's like Africa, look at most of the aid agencies, Christian, but as long as people get food and medicine who cares.

The fact that the world is not black and white shows us the need for tolerance.


I think that people should also consider the dangers of meditation
to their mental health when so-called teachers (who do not live the life of a yogi) adapt it to their profession in order to make money.

Anyone who studies under such people is just as liable to go nuts as feel happy. The Buddhist formula is sine, samadhi, pannya, (discipline, samadhi, giving rise to wisdom). Basic discipline is very important, and I have known Buddhist monks who have had to disrobe because they went bananas due to not following a basic discipline.

If you don't have the correct aims then you are more or less guaranteed to go awol, and what do pyschotherapists know about the correct aims of meditation. They are simply teaching people capitalism.

Kamacharya said...

Dhamma81: "It's not my place to make you Buddhist Kamacharya. Perhaps you will practice the Dhamma and change your mind. Be well regardless."

Even though I'm not a Buddhist, I suppose I am a Buddhist sympathiser. There is much in Buddhism that I can agree with, if not everything - especially Buddhist superstition. And by superstition I mean that which can not be proven empirically, personal experiences not withstanding. And I really doubt that secular rationality together with ethics could ever be 'the highest of wrong views'. But thanks for wishing me well. Right back at ya!

smellincoffee said...

Dhamma81: Richard Dawkins is not a nihilist. He's quite passionate about life and the meaning of it. See his videos on "Growing Up in the Universe" or "Breaking the Science Barrier".

The good or ill of a religion or anything is in what it does for us. I'm not religious, but I can appreciate philosophical religions like Buddhism because I use philosophy (humanism, Stoicism) in my own life. Perhaps transcendence need not be supernatural, but natural: using the ideals and disciplines of philosophy to improve ourselves and rise above our more primitive natures.

Riverwolf, said...

I don't have anything to add--but I am certainly enjoying this discussion. It gets to the heart of our very existence, and most of the time, I think we live on such a superficial level. Thank all of you for your inspiration.

Dhamma81 said...

I guess whatever makes folks better people to themselves and others is a good thing. I come down hard on Dawkins sometimes even though I haven't really taken much of a chance to know much about him at all. That is a fault of my own and I should look further into the matter.

As for transcendence, Who says it is supernatural? Maybe Enlightenment is as natural as it gets. If modern science really works out a way to make everyone enlightened as the Buddha describes it then it can only be of great benefit to everyone in the world.

Bhikkhu Bodhi says that the view of anihilationsism "threatens to undermine ethics" and the Buddh ain the Canon goes over the point again and again that the idea that there is nothing after death is infact a wrong view. I don't know this from experience, I take it on faith so that is where I'm coming from. Certainly not every secularist, atheist or agnostic acts in unethical manners, and if I somehow imply that then my apologies. Notice that Bhikkhu Bodi says "threatens to undermine ethics" and not that those views actually do. I just look at people like Pol Pot or Mao and see that they used a lot of Darwin's teachings to justify their genocides and brutality.

If Darwin is completely true then even Buddhism is false because the idea of kamma is based on ethics and if you really look through the canon you cannot read it and come to the conclusion that all of the past and future life stuff the Buddha talked about was all just metaphorical. Without some sort of ethical dimension kamma seems like it wouldn't matter.

I will admit that I could be wrong, but I take it on faith and haven't been let down by the Buddha's teachings in my life yet. At the same time, I wish none of you folks ill at all regardless of whether you share my views or not. I guess the whole world would be a better place if we all weren't so led by views that we were willing to lash out at and denigrate others for differing. That's a problem I have had for years but meditation has been wearing away at. Take care now.

They call him James Ure said...

Just a quick comment Dhamma81. I would submit that it's not Atheism that was the problem with Pol Pot and Chairman Mao but their own issues.

Just like it wasn't Buddhism that was the problem with the Buddhist Japanese Empire during WW2 but rather the leaders and their ideology constructed.

They used Buddhism to try and fit their twisted plans just like Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin and Hitler twisted Atheist thought to try and justify their evil

They call him James Ure said...

Actually Hitler also twisted Christianity as well to further his horrific plans.

So any ideology/belief system can be manipulated and used to try and defend any number of behaviors.

That doesn't necessarily make the belief system/ideology evil.

anonyrod said...

"While one can appreciate that what the human realm regards as magic has no place in science, one should also appreciate that once the whole world leans toward modern science and mathematical analysis then we will have arrived at total insanity. The principal reasons being that science only recognizes materiality, only recognizes a piece of meat as the source of existence, and that there are no numbers in nature. Thus, while science has its benefits and creations of convenience it is just one aspect of samsara, and other than recognizing cause and effect is of no use in mind development and solving the problems of existence.

Science is founded upon sensuality; or in more detail, the five aggregates, primarily mental formations, where thinking allows a being to model the world and manipulate information according to their desires, yet another form of magic.

In most instances, these mental models are mere speculation, theories, which then become the foundation for further speculation and theories. While certain aspects of modern science may appear to be impressive and incredibly complex, we must remember the principal tool behind this science, the ignorant mind ruled by greed, anger, and delusion."

From 'Seeing the World'

brian said...

Dhamma81 said ".... Nihilists like Richard Dawkins with their grim law of the jungle Darwinsim."

I'm not sure that Dawkins is a nihilist, here's a quote from The Selfish Gene:

"We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

This view is not incompatible with Buddhism, see

Sheelagh said...

Re. G's comments. England cannot be compared to some Scandinavian countries. England to many appears to be unravelling at the seams and lacks a core. The free market revolution along with poverty, the class system and a diminishing work ethic are all factors in a worsening situation in what can only be described as a soulless and lost place.

attorney Palm Harbor said...

Things are really unique here.

ShareThis Option