Secular Scandinavia

Well, I’m back from my trip to Norway and Sweden, and when you add this to my previous trip to Denmark, I can now pretend to be an expert on all things Scandinavian.

Still, I did have a chance to ask locals (humanities and social science types, mostly) about whether the Scandinavian reputation for secularity and irrelevance of religion to much of the population is accurate. The answers I got were mostly yes. Some observed that newagey paranormal beliefs can be very popular, but it’s also true that this is no basis for an organized social presence of religion that can replace the older high-profile Christianity.

Norway is, interestingly, home to the strongest humanist organization in the world, the Human-Etisk Forbund. (The question arises: if they’re so secular, why do they have a need for a strong humanist presence?) Anyway, here’s a picture of me standing in front of their building in Oslo:

For good measure, here is a secularized church from Stockholm, Skeppsholmskyrkan.

Christianity is not completely dead, however. One Wednesday morning we walked into a church in central Stockholm that is off the standard tourist list, and ran into a Protestant congregation complete with preacher strumming an idiot guitar and the about twenty congregants producing a musically asinine hymn. (Catholics and high-church Protestants have much, much better music.)

Still, things are pretty secular overall. Here’s a funerary chapel converted to a bookstore on the Lund University campus:

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Dan

    Norway is not secular state: it has an established church. Didn't anyone mention that?

    The humanist association is relatively large, annoying but this can be attributed to a couple of usual factors.

    First of all, the humanist movement provides a relatively popular alternative to religious coming of age ceremonies – there is still a strong tradition of this, and it used to be compulsory. So a decent percentage of young people have contact with humanism that way.

    Secondly, the state funds religion.

    It used to be just the state church – I think there was a church tax. But the principle was extended to other religions and in 1981 to the humanists.

    The tax doesn't exist any more, funding comes out of general taxation, but it is paid per member (more or less), as a theoretical refund of the old church tax.

    So there is an incentive for unbelieving! Norwegians to join the humanists to make sure they are not indirectly funding religion.

    Those are ideal conditions for a fairly large humanist organisation. But it is not secularism.

  • Stig K Martinsen

    "Some observed that newagey paranormal beliefs can be very popular, but it's also true that this is no basis for an organized social presence of religion that can replace the older high-profile Christianity."

    I'm not convinced an unorganized social presence of angel schools, haunted houses and healing with "warm hands" is that much of an improvement. The rationalist is left to criticize the beliefs of individuals, who will often take it as a personal insult, rather than rebelling against a powerful institution and its arbitrary dogmas.

    It's ridiculous that Norway still maintains a state church, forcing the king (another anachronism) and a certain percentage of the government to profess not merely belief, but a particular version of Protestantism. Most people want to keep their traditional rituals (weddings, funerals, confirmations…) even if they've lost the faith, but there has to be other ways to arrange that.

    Is the Human-Etisk Forbund really the strongest humanist organization in the world? That's a bit disappointing, since it's influence doesn't seem all that great. Many Norwegians who are happy to remain culturally Christian look on the HEF as a somewhat eccentric bunch with sporadic attacks on "innocent" faith and tradition. In reality of course, the HEF besides attacking preferential treatment of any single religion is also a staunch defender of freedom of religion (and human rights more generally).

  • Keith Augustine

    Hi Stig,

    If you're still here, are skeptic organizations comparably "weak" in Scandinavia, given the prevalence of New Age beliefs there? I wonder if skeptic organizations are viewed overall–as they are within a certain echo chamber of paranormalists–as the arbitrarily powerful institutions to rebel against.

    Many paranormal proponents these days talk as if skeptics or "materialists" control academia with the kind of iron fist fundamentalists used to attribute to secular humanists in their control over the public school curriculum–despite the fact that the employees of the public school system have probably consistently reflected the views of their local general populations for decades.