Christer Sturmark, above, is Sweden’s most well-known secular humanist. Since 2005, he served as chairman of Sweden’s Secular Humanist Association, the nation’s leading atheist organization. This past April, Christer stepped down as Chair. In his place, the Association elected Anna Bergstroem as the new chairperson.
Sweden is one of the world’s most secular and altruistic nations, and the Secular Humanist Association – under Christer’s leadership – deserves some of the credit. In September 2017, I asked Christer about his time as chairman.
How did you personally become an atheist?
I grew up in a secular family. Religion was not an issue: not for, not against. We didn’t talk about it. As a teenager, I was a bit of a nerd, interested in science, computers, philosophy and mathematics. When I was 15, I read the autobiography of [Nobel Laureate and agnostic] Bertrand Russell. I was fascinated by Russell. He was a philosopher, ethicist and political activist. I liked that mix, and instinctively felt “this is what I think …” However, during the 1990s, I was in IT, and didn’t get involved in the humanist movement until the early 2000’s. In 2005 I became chair of the Secular Humanist Association, and have been chair ever since.
During your chairmanship, what have been the Association’s most important accomplishments?
First, our membership has increased by 500% and we now have 6,000 members. Nowhere near as many members as the Swedish Church, but every month the church is losing members and we are gaining.
Symbolic, but still very important, is that during the opening ceremony for Parliament, we now offer an alternative to the theist service which has traditionally accompanied the ceremony. Initially, we argued that the theist service is absurd, given that Sweden is a secular country. But instead of continuing to complain, six years ago we created an alternative secular service originally attended by 7-10 members of Parliament.
In 2016 our alternative service was officially recognized and attended by several hundred members of Parliament, government ministers and other high-profile individuals. This is now an established tradition. In spring, we hope to achieve a similar change to the government’s discriminatory funding practices. SST – a Swedish government agency – gives money to support Christians, Muslims and all other officially recognized religions, but not to secular humanists. I am very hopeful this change will occur, and we will receive government funding too.
Sweden’s educational system is extraordinary insofar as students are required, at all levels, to learn about the beliefs and world views of various religions, to enroll in courses Americans might call “comparative religions.” How has the Humanist Association affected this curriculum?
I’m very proud of our accomplishment here. Religion school books have been poorly written by former priests whose take on atheism is absurd. In 2011, we initiated a change requiring all school books to have a chapter on secular humanism. While these books are being developed, we also wrote our own book and circulated it among teachers, who have liked it. Learning about secular humanism is now required at all levels.
In fact, I read a remarkable study from one researcher who, after observing classes at various secondary schools, reported that teachers were promoting atheism in their classrooms. What is your experience with Swedish educators? To what degree can we credit the educational system for Sweden’s atheism?
Well, the curriculum requires that religions be taught from a neutral perspective, and I think teachers are presenting religions in a neutral way. Many are actually scared of coming into conflict with students, especially with the many creationist Muslims who have emigrated into Sweden. Teachers are worried about how to deal with this. Swedish graduates do understand scientific cosmology and evolutionary biology; both are well taught.
But the Swedish school system still has big flaws. There is no teaching of epistemology, no teaching of critical thinking, primarily because we are still under the influence of post-modern theories of knowledge promoted since the 1970’s. Our failures are becoming a hot topic of conversation. In my view, we must start teaching the scientific method at a very early age. You don’t have to call it that: call it “how to think about reality.”
People are extremely bad at judging facts that conflict with their identity. If you start teaching epistemology at a young age, you might minimize the effects of psychological problems, such as confirmation bias, that work against people’s reasonable judgment of facts. My book on enlightenment is 500 pages, and I spend the first 250 pages explaining epistemology and the nature of critical thinking, truth and knowledge.What, then, are the most important factors that explain Swedes’ atheism?
Sweden experienced a turning point in 1949, when Ingemar Hedenius, professor of practical philosophy at Uppsala University, and a high-profile secular humanist, published Belief and Knowledge. The book challenged the truthfulness of Christianity and the power of the Swedish Church. It was discussed in Sweden for many years. During those years, the Church lost; people got upset and started to realize that Christianity is absurd. After that, theological schools at universities became more secular, more about comparative religions.
Another factor in Sweden’s atheism is the welfare state established by the Social Democrats, our dominant ruling party for many years. It has a very egalitarian philosophy. The state tries to meet all people’s needs, so they have less need for religion.
What do you hope the Humanist Association can accomplish in the next ten years?
First, it would be very good if secular humanism is a completely equal recognized life stance, especially among young people. Young people today grow up, are nonreligious, and say, “I don’t believe in God so I don’t have to care about existential questions, about ethical issues.” I say to them, “Yes, you have to care, because secular humanism demands that you take responsibility for your ethical decisions.” That’s why it’s important for secular humanism to get into schools: to create a context for these nonreligious kids, and not just let them loose in some nihilistic state of mind.
Of course, I hope in ten years we will have more members. More members means more political influence.
And I hope we can get rid of the traces of religion that are still in our constitution. Do you know that our constitution says our king must be a Christian? If the king said he is a secular humanist he would lose his job! It’s absurd. Our constitution also guarantees “freedom of religion”, but the right is misused. For example, consider the case of a Muslim who, because of his beliefs. refused to shake hands with women. Because of his beliefs, he didn’t get a job.
Under the freedom of religion clause, he received compensation from the Swedish government, and was treated like a child: “Oh, you can’t help it, we feel so sorry for you.” But, on the other hand, if a man refused to shake hands with a homosexual, and didn’t get a job, he would receive no compensation, and would be extremely criticized. It’s a double standard. So we really don’t need “freedom of religion.”
Other constitutional rights – freedoms of thought, press, and assembly – already cover religion. And people should understand that while everyone has the right to shake hands with whomever they want, they are not allowed to demand, in our egalitarian society, that their discrimination is without consequences.
Although Christer is no longer Chair, he still has a lot on his plate. His day job is publishing director at Fri Tanke Publishing House, which “publishes literature in the spirit of [the] Enlightenment”, especially the popular science books of notables like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris and Rebecca Goldstein.
Sturmark has himself written several books and publicly debated several Swedish theists. His books are in Swedish, but Douglas Hofstadter is now translating his new book, Enlightenment in the 21st Century; it will hopefully be published in the United States. Sturmark also regularly debates theists; some of these debates are available online.
• Mark Kolsen lives in Chicago and is a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.