Nobody can really question Björn Ulvaeus’ skill as a songwriter. In that capacity he has always pushed the envelope of what is meta for songwriters at the time (no more so, I think, than with the musical Chess, which he co-composed with fellow ABBA veteran Benny Anderson). In speaking about why Swedish composers tend to be very adventurous and innovative in their writing, Ulvaeus says the credit, in part, goes to the country’s lack of religion:
Ulvaeus, now 68 years old and far removed from his ABBA days, talked in a wide ranging interview about his view that the absence of religious culture here is a bedrock of Swedish creativity.
“Sweden is an open, liberal, secular and democratic country,” he says. “We strive towards achieving equality, we are forward-looking and refuse to be pulled back by social constructs, such as religion.”
Björn continued, hitting the nail squarely on the head when it comes to the fact that religion is not criticized nearly as much as it should be:
“Religion is the root of so much misery in the world and I’ve always thought there is lack of criticism against it.”
Ulvaeus is keen to stress that his critical views on religion aren’t directed towards individual practitioners of religion or any particular faith. But he isn’t afraid to call out what he sees to be cultural pain stemming from religion.
“Look at all the misery in the Middle East for example. All these countries have Islam in common, and far too few dare to criticize Islam as an ideology, and what it’s doing to these countries. I know I might get punched in the face for saying these things, but my conviction is that less religion in the world would be better.”
Religion has a history of hindering creativity in music. After all, there’s a reason that virtually every church hymn (and most of Christian pop) sounds exactly the same (holy shit, V -> vi -> IV…that’s deep). But it’s not just a recent phenomenon. For instance, have you ever heard the term “Gregorian chant?” It is so named after pope Gregory I. In an attempt to solidify Gregory as god’s vicar on earth, it was asserted that a bird whispered all of plain chant music to Gregory, who then wrote it, giving Gregory credit for what several other composers had done. And since all the music necessary was now written (by Gregory, of course) there was no need to write any more, and if you did so the Catholic Church was swift to punish you.
Then there was the Inquisition, which was accompanied by its less-known task of stamping out paganism. The music of many pagan religions used a dissonance known as a tritone. The Catholic Church began to refer to this dissonance as Diabolus in Musica (you can probably guess the translation) and actually made it a crime punishable by death to write music using a tritone. This is unfortunate, since the tritone became the basis for musical revolution and is at the heart of pretty much all mainstream music nowadays (it’s near impossible to compose tonal music without it). So it was kind of a big deal that the Church outlawed it.
These are just two examples out of several. The take home is that religion has always been big on placing arbitrary rules on creativity that serve the church but restrain the artist. Ulvaeus says that once those constraints are lifted, and the mind is truly free to explore in whatever direction it wants, artistic greatness is more likely to be born. And he’s right.
And to send you off, here’s Adam Pascal (another atheist) singing Pity the Child from Chess: