Scandinavian secularity

Next week I’ll be traveling to give a couple of talks in Norway and Sweden. As always, I expect the conversations aside from the public presentations will be interesting. I want to ask my hosts about the Scandinavian reputation for deep secularity, the way that for example a sociologist such as Phil Zuckerman portrays Nordic societies as pretty decent places in the absence of any dominant organized supernatural religion, though a kind of cultural religion remains.

One reason is that I’ve run into some skepticism expressed about such accounts, motivated by a background in current thinking about the cognitive basis of belief in supernatural agency. People such as Robert McCauley have argued for some time, and quite persuasively, that such belief comes very naturally to ordinary human brains. The corollary tends to be that we should be surprised if large groups of people (aside from almost borderline-autistic populations such as academics) go without supernatural beliefs.

What, then, of the alleged secularity of some Western European countries, especially the Scandinavians? Is it, perhaps, not quite what it is cracked up to be?

I don’t know what I can get out of individual conversations that I can’t get out of the relevant literature, but I figure it still is a good idea to get some insiders’ points of views.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Keith Parsons


    I think that there very likely is something to some of the "biological belief theories" developed by Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, David Sloan Wilson, and others. It is quite plausible that humans are "hardwired" with a propensity towards supernatural belief. Secularized modern societies are indeed an anomaly from the perspective of world history. How is it that such societies persist if there is such a universal human tendency?

    Perhaps we are seeing something very rare in history: The triumph of intelligence over instinct. Since WWII a few European countries have developed societies that are probably the most decent, tolerant, and congenial that have yet existed. An absence of sectarian strife and religious oppression has been a necessary condition of that accomplishment. As recent developments in the presidential campaign have once more shown, nothing, absolutely nothing, is as divisive as religion. Mr. Santorum's opinions about contraception and women's health, which would normally be dismissed with a snicker and a circular motion of the index finger beside the temple, have to be taken seriously since they are backed by powerful religious interests. The gaggle of old male celibates that constitutes the Catholic hierarchy still really believes that shit. The explosive effect of having a presidential candidate espouse it, can be seen in the nightly news.

    Maybe, then, these countries have learned what the U.S. still has not, i.e., that religious fervor is a sure killer of societal comity.

  • Stig K Martinsen

    When and where exactly will you be speaking in Norway, Dr. Edis? Would be nice to catch it.

    On the lack of supernatural beliefs in Scandinavia, but in line with those "biological belief" theories it should be noted that pseudoscience and belief in the paranormal is quite widespread here. Everything from acupuncture and homeopathy to poltergeists, talking to the dead, exorcism, magical healing and most recently (in Norway) getting spiritual advice from one's own personal angel.

    I haven't actually seen any stats comparing the prevalence of these "alternative" beliefs between different countries, but much of it directly contradicts the teachings of the national Protestant churches. Elsewhere condemnation from respected priests might serve as a strong push to get in line with official theology, but over here the church has much less influence over people, and it justs sounds silly and empty, like "my fairytale is truer than your fairytale, because I (or my board of bishops) say so".

    A parallel situation that is both hilarious and sad is some Christian priests even quite recently going out of their way to condemn traditional Saami religious practices, arguing that they don't come from (the Christian) God, so they must obviously involve darker forces!

  • Taner Edis

    Stig Martinsen,

    I'll be speaking at a conference at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim. It's not a public talk, though. (I will be giving a public lecture in Sweden, at the University of Lund, on March 8.)

  • LaPalida

    I am not Skandinavian but I live in Sweden and while I am by no means an expert on this sort of thing I can tell you what I observed from my experience. They are indeed secular. God doesn't enter the every day conversation very often, especially the Abrahamic god. Mostly they like to talk about politics or every day minutiae. However it seems that although they have done away with belief in god it has been largely replaced by some sort of spiritual belief. Chiropractic, homeopathy, meditation and all sorts of questionable new age beliefs abound.

  • Erik

    Being a swede myself, I can say that organized religion really doesn't have any place in daily life for most people, or our society at large.

    There's a saying that swedes visit the church two times in their life, the first time when we get baptized, the second time when we get married, and it's pretty accurate. We use the church for traditions, and we have a lot of nice old churches around, but very few is actually religious in any sense of the word. In most groups, a religious person is a religious person, and seen as someone who isn't quite normal.

    They might be good guys, and you can be friends with a religious person, but still, they aren't like "everyone else".

    To illustrate the point, our Swedish Christian political party, hardly ever even mentions the word God in public, and neither does the actually priests, not even when you speak to them in private, because they know it's a word that puts the majority of swedes off.

    Public figures like artists and entertainers that are actually prolifically religious are viewed very much as nut-cases, for example Carola and Siewert Öholm.

    With that said, most people wouldn't really classify as hard atheists. Belief in ghosts, lay-lines, crystal healing and similar is quite widespread (even if it's mostly "for fun"), and while most don't believe in a personal God answering their prayers, quite a few thinks there is "something", or are agnostic about it.

    Still, theres also a very big number of people who are actually atheists, and far from all of them are academics, on the contrary, I've never met as many religious persons as I did when I started my university studies. Even there though, they were a distinct minority.

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