Monday, March 02, 2009

Religion in Denmark and Sweden

A couple of days ago, the NY Times had a really great article on religion in Denmark and Sweden, which I thought I'd comment a bit on. The article is about both Denmark and Sweden, but I'll focus on the Danish perspective.

Scandinavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists

Phil Zuckerman spent 14 months in Scandinavia, talking to hundreds of Danes and Swedes about religion. It wasn’t easy.


I understand Zuckerman's problem when talking about religion. There are some very vast cultural differences between Danes and Americans relating this - the most easily apparent probably being the fact that it's considered rude to ask about peoples' religion. It's okay to talk about religion as a concept, but what peoples' personal religious views are, is not a subject which people feel comfortable asking about.

A simple example of this, is the simple fact that I have no clue about the religious views of neither my co-students nor my co-workers. I assume they are atheists, or at least agnostic, but I don't really know (my assumption is based upon the fact that all surveys show that majority of the younger generations in the area of Copenhagen are non-religious).

The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.


Many Danes are what can be called "cultural Christians", in the sense that they identify as Christian, but don't really believe in any god. Even if they don't identify as Christian, it doesn't mean that they are not members of the state church. I've been an atheist all my life, but even so, I was a member of the church for years.

The Danish atheist society (Ateistisk Selskab) try to convince people to leave the church by explaining how much they pay in church taxes, rather than arguing that they shouldn't be members when they don't believe in a god.

At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.”

Were they reticent because they considered religion, as Scandinavians generally do, a private, personal matter? Is there, perhaps, as one Lutheran bishop in Denmark has argued, a deep religiosity to be discovered if only one scratches this taciturn surface?

“I spent a year scratching,” Mr. Zuckerman writes. “I scratched and I scratched and I scratched.”

And he concluded that “religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a nonissue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it.

Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”

Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.


People don't really care about religion. If someone talks about their personal religion, or perhaps even tries to argue for a specific viewpoint, based upon religion, they are generally considered very religious, bordering on being extremist. On the other hand, people who are too vocal in their opposition of religion are also considered somewhat extremist. "Can't we all get along without pushing our religious views on others" seems to be the general view.

When Danes travel in the US, they are always taken aback by questions on religion and religious views, as these are taboo in Denmark.

As I said, it's a really great article, so if you haven't read it, go read it. Hopefully it gives people something to think about.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Lorry said...

Great post. :) I have a lot of American atheist friends who have a picture in their head that Scandinavia is the most awesome place for an atheist to live, but if they enjoy being vocal about it, it's really not. It's hard to get that across sometimes. My husband didn't even know his own parents' belief until I came along. (His mother said, "We're Christian… well, on Christmas, anyway.")

March 08, 2009 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Danish atheist and I don't mind at all to talk about religion, be it with other atheists or people who believe in a religion. I often discuss religion with friends and classmates actually - I had a single religious (baptist) classmate and he often tried to convert all the other students, of course unsuccessful, atheists are hard to convince!
It's only at the point where you reach a quarrel rather than a simple discussion that I start finding it uncomfortable.
And Lorry - It IS an awesome place to be for an atheist. Religion and politics aren't going hand in hand here, most younger people I come around are atheists, you don't get religion shoved up your ass unless you purpously seek this. That being said, I don't think it's that nice being religious here - People often question and find it hard to understand very religious people, especially the (few) younger ones.

July 12, 2012 7:54 AM  
Blogger vero said...

Sometimes I have to laugh at comments that people make. If you were all on a ship that was sinking the first name you would call is the name of Jesus! I will leave you all to ponder.

September 02, 2015 6:51 PM  

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