Scandinavia most atheistic? One more reason to doubt Zuckerman

Note, added later: While Zuckerman indeed compiled the list I refer to in “Atheistic countries have the most healthy societies”, and also wrote on his experiences in Sweden and Denmark, some of the conclusions atheists call his may be by his atheistic fans, not his own. The purpose of this blog entry is to discuss the conclusions that his fans say is his. I never made a study of whether his fans report his views accurately. So, if this post talk of doubting Zuckerman, it may rather be a reason to doubt his fans.


“Theory without data is myth: data without theory is madness.” – Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman wrote a book about his experiences in Sweden and Denmark, painting it as probably the least religious countries in the world, yet with low crime rates, high standards of living and social equality. A previous post of mine questioned (very much) the accuracy of painting the Scandinivians as the world’s most atheistic countries, and (a bit) if their societies are really all that healthy, and sustainable. And is correlation (many people who don’t believe in God/gods/spirits, and a prosperous society) causality here?
A survey of the European commission collected these statistics of religious (un)belief in Europe. (I do not know what DK stand for.)

According to these, France (33%) has the most unbelievers (People who claim “I don’t belief there is any spirit, God, or life force”) of all European countries, with the Czech Republic (30%) second. (Would Zuckerman study the Czechs as an example of irreligious people next? Or perhaps the Cubans, who are, of course, not part of this European study?) Sweden is 6th and Denmark joint 9th.

In Iceland (11%), Finland, (16%) and Norway (17%), there are, in fact, a less than average unbeliever percentage for the countries surveyed – the European average was 18%. Even if there are a lot of unbelievers in Scandinavia, they are, by all statistics I ever read outside of Zuckerman’s work, a minority. Those who believe in God, a spirit or life force, still outnumber the unbelievers by at least 3 to 1.

And, since Prof. Zuckerman believe that statistics without theory is madness, I would follow it up by my theory: Denmark and Sweden are rather succesfull countries with more believers, albeit of very little if any commitment, than total unbelievers. It may even be that their Protestant heritage is partly responsible for their success. No country in Europe is an indicator of what a society of unbelievers will be like, since everywhere in Europe, believers in God, a spirit or life force outnumber unbelievers.

Atheistic countries have the most healthy societies?

Note, added later: While Zuckerman indeed compiled the list I refer to above, some of the conclusions atheists call his may be by his atheistic fans, not his own. The purpose of this blog entry is to discuss the conclusions that his fans say is his. I never made a study of whether his fans report his views accurately.

Thank you to my readers for pointing that out.


The atheistic propoganda brigade is claiming it all the time: 

Atheistic countries have a very high level of societal health and success. Just look at Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden, for example!

Their favorite source is Phil Zuckerman and this list (Table 1 on the web page) of his.  But let’s look closer at the list. (We don’t want to unquestioningly believe everything we hear, do we?)

If you look at the entry on top, Zuckerman claims that Sweden has 46-to 85% non-believers. If so, why put it above Vietnam, with 81% non-believers? Why not take the average and say “approximately 65,5%”  unbelievers? Why use the higher number? The same goes for Denmark, with (according to Zuckerman) between 43% and 80% unbelievers. (That in itself will change the top 5 unbelieving countries, even with Zuckerman’s numbers, to 1) Vietnam 2) Sweden 3)Japan  4)Denmark  5)Czech Republic.) It seems that Zuckerman’s statistics for Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland (each with about double as many unbelievers in Zuckerman’s high estimate than his low estimate) is very unreliable.

Okay. It seems Zuckerman has a rule of thumb: “When in doubt, use the highest estimate.” But is  this his rule of thumb? Not quite:

Several sources list the non-believers in China, North Korea, etc. higher* than those in Sweden, Denmark, etc. (For example, “Operation World’s 1993 handbook lists the non-religious in China at 59,1%, in North Korea at 68%, and in Cuba at 30,9%. They list the non-religious in Sweden as 34,9%, in Finland as 9,8%, in Denmark as 7,5%, and in Norway as 4% of the population.) (Another source, “The demand for Religion: Hard core atheism and Supply side theory” lists the amount of unbelievers –including those unbelievers who feel there “might be a God” and “might be a life after death” – in Norway as 16,9%- only a half to a quarter as many as Zuckerman suggests. In another peaceful, wealthy country, Austria, the page suggest that those “unbelievers” are only 8,3% – less than half, to less than a third, of what Zuckerman say. In Russia, however, the 30,8% of this page is well within Zuckerman estimates.)

Zuckerman may have had a reason to work that way, but readers should question his methodology before jumping to conclusions on his results. With his numbers instead of someone else’s, the results would be very much biased towards associating rich countries with atheism.

Another problem with using those numbers to devalue Christianity is that Christians do not claim: Religiosity, any religion, is better than non-religiosity. The Christian claim is: Actual commitment to Christ and his teachings (as opposed to merely following some religion, or even calling yourself a Christian) makes the world a better place.  You cannot counter Christian thought by showing how the Scandinavians are better off than the average “religious” nation. You would need to compare the least religious peoples (which are probably not the Scandinavians) with the nations who are most committed to Christ.

Some other problems include: Correlation is not causality. Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway are all countries where the Lutheran Church closely associated with the state. The statement “Unbelieving countries (like Scandinavia’s) are successful” may have no more or less cause and effect to it than “countries where even the state officially support the church (like Scandinavia’s) are successful.”

And it could be questioned whether you can really call their societies all that healthy. Is their success sustainable in the long term? Many people say no. Are their children growing up in happy, stable two-parent family environments? Very few of them are. Do their numbers on suicide, heavy drinking and depression give the impression of happy countries?

In summary, the few countries and societal indicators Zuckerman selects cannot, seriously, lead to any conclusion about societal unbelief compared to societal health in general, in all countries everywhere. To try and use it as a statement against a particular religion, for example Christianity, would be even worse. Using other statistics than Zuckerman’s, we should rather regard Vietnam, North Korea, and China as the world’s most atheistic nations. These will be better indicators of the level of societal health in non-believing countries.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Some of you may observe that, for example, the Chinese or North Korean governments would not be realistic sources for the amount of believers in those countries. True, but we do have at least some other information on the religious beliefs in those nations. Operation World specializes in collecting these statistics. Voice of the Martyrs makes it their job to speak to underground believers in countries where there is no religious freedom. Their conclusions about numbers of believers will be less than 100% accurate, but it is still a mathematical estimate, and not a totally uninformed “guesstimate.” Zuckerman may have unreliable statistics for these areas, but his statistics for places like Sweden and Norway is also obviously unreliable. Yet, he apparently treats his unreliable data in two opposite ways, seemingly using the highest possible number of unbelievers for successful Scandinavian countries, and the lowest ones for unsuccessful communist countries.