How Sweden Became So Secular

By Tomasson, Richard F. | Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

How Sweden Became So Secular


Tomasson, Richard F., Scandinavian Studies


Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has never happened before.

T.S. Eliot, Chorus from The Rock

NORDEN IS THE MOST secular region of the Western world. Church attendance is extremely low while membership is high; religious beliefs are vague, held with low intensity, and the level of nonbelief is high; religious authorities have little influence on public opinion and policy, yet there is little anti-clericalism. None of these five countries has shown signs of any renewed religious vitality in recent decades, a phenomenon some scholars of religion claim to be world wide. (1) This article provides a description of the religious situation in Sweden at the end of the twentieth century and explanations of how it got that way.

The Nordic countries are similar and unique in having had histories of Evangelical Lutheran state churches to which virtually all their populations belonged. Since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, they have each gone their own way, though there are two parallel state configurations in this history: Denmark/Norway/Iceland and Sweden/Finland (Gustafsson 1987, 146). The history of the relationship of state to church in Denmark, however, is sharply different from that in Sweden. In Sweden the separation of church and state has been an issue since the late nineteenth century culminating in their divorce on 1 January 2000. In Denmark, by contrast, the Church has remained closely bound to the state with only slight agitation for their separation.

A thoroughgoing secular society has been imagined by Alan D. Gilbert, historian of religion and secularization in Britain, as

   one in which norms, values, and modes of interpreting reality, together
   with the symbols and rituals which express and reinforce them, have been
   emancipated entirely from assumptions of human dependence on supernatural
   agencies or influences. In it the natural world would be regarded as
   autonomous, and knowledge, values and social structures would be ordered
   upon purely mundane principles. (1980, 9)

Formal religion would be marginalized. To be non-religious would be universal. Individuals would act and think in wholly secular, cause-and-effect terms. Status or respectability would in no way be associated with religious belief or practice. This extreme formulation does not fit any modern society, but Sweden comes as close as any. David Martin (1978) in A General Theory of Secularization holds Sweden to be the most secular of Western societies. Goran Therborn presents data showing Swedes to be the lowest of western Europeans in "belief in God" (45%) and church attendance (1995, 275).

In Sweden during the 1990s, 15 percent of the population claimed belief in a personal God and 19 percent in an afterlife, two cardinal beliefs of orthodox Christianity. One would be hard-pressed to find such a low level of belief in any category of people in any Western society outside of Norden. For example, this is a level of belief well below that of the most non-believing category of Americans: physical and biological scientists. Their belief in a personal God has been a constant 40 percent over more than eight decades. Their belief in an afterlife declined from about 50 percent in 1914 to 40 percent in the 1990s. (2) According to official Church of Sweden statistics: "Somewhat less than 4 percent of the Church of Sweden membership attends public worship during the average week; about 2 percent are regular attenders." (3) In 1998 the 8.35 million members of the Church of Sweden attended morning services 7.0 million times (Alin and Sundberg 1999, 524). Disregarding children, that figure is equivalent to about one attendance per year per church member. Church attendance has continuously declined throughout the century. It is lowest in Stockholm and central Sweden and tends to vary inversely with population (Martin 1978, 65). …

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