A 1999 New York Times survey found that 75 percent of American respondents chose "having faith in God" as among their "most
important" values."

An analogous question asked of Swedes in 1990 found 8 percent
regarded God as "very important" in their lives.

How can two developed countries be so different?

All the Scandinavian countries are following this trend, as are most of the European Union,
but Sweden leads the pack.

An excerpt from a Swedish blog;

Some may think that Scandinavians are hostile to religion. That's actually not true: we're indifferent to it. What my countrymen tend to be hostile against is passionate views on religious issues. A Swede will typically react with great discomfort if you tell him you really believe in Jesus - and equally so if you tell him you really disbelieve in Jesus. It is considered bad manners and/or a little crazy to even bring the subject up.

I can't quite understand the passionate relationship Americans have to religion, regardless of their individual beliefs. Because most Scandinavians don't care about religion.

In wondering how the Swedes have managed to become so indifferent to religion - and, in my opinion, represent the beginning of the next step in human social development - I came across the following essay I want to share with you, written by Richard Tomassen, Scandinavian Studies.

It's a bit long but if read while keeping the American experience in mind, presents a real "alternate reality" scenario.

How Sweden became so secular

"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

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 worldwide. (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 aresimilar 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 attendee’s0."
(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). In the 1997, church elections, the last before the
separation of church and state, 10.2 percent of the membership voted, the
lowest ever (Alin and Sundberg 1999, 518).

More than half a century ago, before public opinion surveys became
common, Herbert Tingsten--political scientist, Sweden's dominant public
intellectual during the middle decades of the century, critic of religion, and
chief editor of Dagens Nyheter--wrote an essay in DN (21 July 1949) entitled
"Svensk kristendom" ("Swedish Christianity"). It is more
apt now than it was then. "Der stora flertalet ar daremot," he wrote,

([The greatest number] are Christians-in-name-only (namnkristna), indeed,even the phrase Christians-in-name-only seems almost too strong when used
to designate total indifference bounded by approval of tradition and
convention. They say they believe in God, yet do not accept the doctrines
that distinguish Christianity. They want to maintain education in
Christianity [in the schools], yet do not go to church. Baptism,
confirmation, marriage, and burial--these are the contacts these people
have, not with religion (for there is no reason to have such contact!),but only with the Church. The holy sacraments provide a setting for festive
occasions. A necessity for this state of affairs is that they do not
listen, do not understand, or at least do not pay any attention to what is
said. They do not inquire into the meaning of these things any more than
they ponder electricity while traveling on the tram. This we all know, and
this we all say--but convention is so well established that it is
considered a trifle unbecoming to say so publicly.) (4)

Yet active atheism is less prevalent than active piety in
contemporary Sweden. It is no more prevalent than in America. The best
characterization of the orientation of the great majority of Swedes toward
organized religion is indifference bounded by a vague feeling that the Church
usually stands for decent values. (5) For a Swedish politician to invoke God
would be as rare as her American counterpart declaring her atheism. In recent
decades, there has been virtually no publicly expressed anti-clericalism or
hostility toward the Church and religion.

As recently as the 1960s, there was public flag-waving for atheism
and public expression of hostility toward religion. Herbert Tingsten manifested
it. Ingemar Hedenius, famous atheist professor of philosophy at Uppsala
University, insisted that a faculty of theology had no place in Swedish
universities properly devoted to scientific endeavors. Gunnar Heckscher, the
leader of the conservative party (1961-64), admitted his atheism during a
television interview in the early 1960s. (6) In 1964, Verdandi--a socialist and
radical liberal student organization devoted to free thought--published The
Atheist's Handbook, a collection of articles by major Swedish intellectuals and
professors. American and English observers in Sweden in the 1960s were
impressed by the religious debate. David Jenkins, an American journalist and
author of Sweden and the Price of Progress, wrote: "Antireligious views
are often expressed in the press, frequently with considerable vitriol"
(1968, 226). Roland Huntford in his notoriously anti-Swedish book, The New
Totalitarians, wrote: "Sweden is one of the rare countries in which men
are often anti-religious, but rarely anti-clerical" (1971, 24). This
situation prevailed because the clergy shared the high status of upper level
civil servants. (7)

During the 1990s in Sweden, nary a public word about
atheism or hostility to religion was to be heard. However, occasionally a
provocative essay appeared in DN with a title like "There is no Support in
the Bible for `The Christian Ethic'" by professor of philosophy at Uppsala
University, Torbjorn Tannsjo (DN 16 November 1999). A 1997 Christmas eve
editorial in DN noted that the paper's tradition is to regard "religious
conceptions with deep skepticism" while at the same time maintaining that
"without knowledge of Christianity, we cannot understand our

Although Sweden, followed by Denmark, is the most secular and
agnostic of the world's modern societies, if several Eastern European societies
are excluded from consideration (Therborn 1995, 275), the United States is the
most believing and inclined to practice of traditional religion. This contrast
is based on a half century of comparative data on religious belief and
practice. An area of similarity, though, between these two national cases is
the prevalence of "private religion," the individual's own conception
of moral values and the forces that control the universe. The difference is
that the private religion of Americans is enormously more God-centered and
rooted in traditional belief than is the case in Swedes. A 1999 New York Times
survey, for example, found that 75 percent of the respondents chose
"having faith in God" as among their "most important"
values." (8) An analogous question asked of Swedes in 1990 found 8 percent
regarded God as "very important" in their lives. (Petursson and
Johnson 1994, 154).

Britain, with a religious history similar to that of Sweden
as well as an established church and a nonconformist tradition, falls between
Sweden and the United States in level of secularization. In a comprehensive
1995 account of religious behavior and popular belief in Britain
authoritatively entitled, "The Truth about Religion in Britain,"
Steve Bruce shows statistically the increase of secularization from the
pre-modern past to the present. While in recent decades varying majorities of
Britons (depending on how the question is framed) claimed a "belief in
God," only 23 percent claimed to "have no doubts about it" in a
1991 survey (424). More significant is the observation from the 1987 British
social attitudes survey that 37 percent claimed belief in "a personal
God" (425). The 1989 English church census put church attendance on an
ordinary Sunday at "just under 10%" (423). While Britain falls
between the two extremes on the sacred-secular continuum, it is closer to
Sweden than to the United States.


At the end of the century, about 85 percent of Sweden's
nine million people were members of the Church of Sweden. A majority continues
to be baptized, married, and buried by the Church. The pattern of
"belonging but not believing" continues strong in Sweden. As recently
as 1960, more than 98 percent of the population were members; a time when one
could still almost say to be Swedish was to be a member of the Stare Church.
Children are born into the Church. They automatically became members if at
least one of the parents was a member and did not explicitly withdraw the
child. Only since 1951 has it been possible to resign from the Church without
joining one of the non-conformist religious congregations recognized by the
state; in Sweden, they are called the free churches (frikyrkor). Over the past
half century, few Swedes have opted to leave the State Church even though it
meant a small reduction in taxes. Even the great majority of the members of the
free churches--Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals, among others--have never
left the State Church. The reason membership in the Church has declined over
the past half century is immigration. Few immigrants were Lutheran. From the
1950s through the 1970s, they were mostly Catholic and Orthodox. The numbers of
Muslim immigrants increased greatly in the 1980s and 1990s. A little less than
2 percent of the Swedish population is presently Catholic, a similar percentage
is Muslim, and a smaller percentage Orthodox.

The Muslim ethnic groups--from Turkey, the Balkans, the Middle
East, and Africa--are least integrated into Swedish society. They are
residentially segregated, have extremely high unemployment rates, and according
to American geographer Allan Pred (2000) are subjected to pervasive
"cultural racism." (9) According to a 1993 study of ethnic Muslims in
Goteborg, some 40 percent claimed to be "very religious" and a
similar percentage not at all religious. There were, however, enormous
differences by country of origin. Among the Iranians of Muslim background,
heavily professional and well-educated, 81 percent were classified as
non-religious and 8 percent as very religious. Among the Turks of Muslim
background, by contrast, only 6 percent were classified as non-religious and 72
percent as very religious. (10)

The Jews have followed the path of secularization
(Valentin, 1964). The small number of Jews in Sweden prior to the rise of
Hitler was enhanced by emigration from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe during
the 1930s and the war years. Estimates are that there are some 18,000 in the
country. Any estimate is vague because they are secular, much intermarried, and
thoroughly Swedish in culture. Estimates are that about a third have a stable
belief in God (not otherwise defined), three-quarters believe it is important
to maintain their traditions, and the great majority make contributions to
Israel (DN 2 May 1998). Almost half live in Stockholm where there are three
synagogues. They are prominent in the professions and the universities.

In 1998, 3.4 percent of the Swedish population were members of
nonconformist or free churches (Alin and Sundberg 1999, 525), nearly all of
whom also continue to be members of the Church of Sweden. They have
traditionally placed an emphasis on evangelism, individual salvation, strict
morality, being a community of believers, and freedom of religion. They have
been closely allied with the temperance movement. They attend worship services
and are far more active in church affairs than are other Swedes.

The early growth and development of the free churches was shaped
by American and English influences from the mid-nineteenth century until the
early decades of the last century in the form of returning emigrants and
missionaries. The free churches founded during the nineteenth century--the
Baptists, the Methodists, and the Mission Covenant Church--now tend to be
theologically liberal. The free churches founded in the twentieth century--by
far of greatest importance are the Pentecostals, the most rapidly growing and
most experiential Christian movement on earth--are not fundamentalist, but are
conservative on social issues, abortion, and homosexuality. Christian
fundamentalism is virtually absent in Sweden, at least it is not publicly

The Pentecostals were the founders in 1964 of a Christian
Democratic party, which entered the Riksdag (parliament) in 1988, and in 1998
got a remarkable 11.8 percent of the vote, almost triple the vote of 4.1
percent in 1994. The party has been transformed from a confessional party into
one similar to the continental Christian democratic parties. It toned down its
religious rhetoric to appeal to the electorate (DN 27 September 1998). The 1996
party platform states that the party is based on "the Christian
ethic" and is opposed to "system-oriented ideologies such as, for
example, communism, socialism, and capitalism:" "You don't have to be
religious to be a Christian Democrat" observed a leading member of the
party when interviewed by DN in 1997.

Those who belong to the free churches typically manifest a greater
religiosity than those who belong only to the State Church. Their membership
declined from 4.8 percent of the population in 1960 to 3.4. percent at the end
of the 1990s. The Pentecostals are the only major free church that has been
able to maintain its membership over the past four decades; in 1998, they
numbered some 90,000, 1 percent of the population. "The free church
movement has imploded and exists now only as a charismatic movement in
competition with New Age and private religiosity" wrote political
scientist Stig-Bjorn Ljunggren and music producer Alexander Bard in a plea for
a new people's movement to replace the allegedly moribund free church movement
(DN 9 July 1999).

The traditional opposition between the free churches and
the Church of Sweden declined to the vanishing point over the twentieth century
in the face of the common threat of advanced secularization. In extreme
contrast to the United States, there is no support in the general culture for
religious belief or church attendance.


Thirty eight percent of the adult Swedish population (aged 16-75)
believe in God, but fewer than half of these (15%) believe in a personal God;
27 percent believe in heaven, and 19 percent in the resurrection of the dead.
These figures are from the European Values System Study of 1990 (Hamberg 1994,
179). Other findings from the Swedish sample of this cross-national study
indicate: 31 percent consider themselves to be "religious"

(Halman 1994, 67).

When presented with a list of eleven ideals in the socialization
of children, fewer than 10 percent chose "religious faith" as an
important ideal. Much more important were responsibility, tolerance, good
manners, and independence (Sundbeck 1994, 139; Petursson and Johnson 1994,

30 percent of the sample claimed to have had "a religious upbringing."

28 percent regard themselves as "a religious person."

23 percent gain "comfort, strength from religion."

44 percent believe in a "spirit or power."

17 percent believe in re-incarnation.

To the question, "How important is God in your
life?," a 10-point scale was used with 1 representing "Not important
at all" to 10 representing "Very important." The average of the
responses was 3.8 with 36 percent answering 1 and 8 percent answering 10
(Petursson and Johnson 1994, 154).

55 percent held that human beings and animals are of equal
worth, 40 percent accorded a higher worth to human beings, and 5 percent were
uncertain (Hamberg 1994, Footnote 12).

The percentages of respondents who think the church is giving
adequate answers to specific problems are these: "The moral problems and
needs of individuals," 19 percent; "The problems of family
life," 14 percent; "People's spiritual needs," 51 percent; and
"The social problems facing our country, today," 12 percent. (The
Danish responses were very similar to the Swedish; the other three Nordic
countries responded more positively to the four cases.) (Petursson and Johnson
1994, 160).

A survey of world-views and values among Swedes was done by
Uppsala University in 1986 with many questions touching on religious issues
(Hamberg, 1994). The survey, like the European Values Study,

gives a picture of Sweden as a very secularized country in the sense thattraditional, church-oriented religion plays a very minor role in their
lives. While adherence to the basic tenants of the Christian faith is low,
the decline of traditional religion is even more evident in the very low
prevalence of such religious practices as prayer, church attendance, or
Bible reading. (181)

In the Uppsala Survey, respondents were asked to chose the most
appropriate description: I am a practicing Christian; I am a Christian in my
own personal way; or, I am not a Christian. Nine percent of the respondents
described themselves as practicing Christians; almost two-thirds, 63 percent,
chose the second option, and 26 percent chose the last.

The two-thirds who described themselves Christian in their
personal way were a very heterogeneous group. They explained what they believed
or did not believe or what they were uncertain about. Some believed in God or
some transcendent power, mostly in a rather vague sort of way, some did not,
most were uncertain. The question of belief in a life after death yielded
similar results: some believed in it, some did not, most were uncertain. A
small minority believed in reincarnation. The great majority (95%) "seldom
or never" participated in public worship. The great majority, believers
and non-believers alike, saw the Church of Sweden as a symbol of moral decency.
No private religious activity, such as private prayer or meditation, was
frequent among those who were "Christian in my own personal way." For
many it simply meant "doing one's best, being honest, considerate, and
ready to help others" (187), a wholly ethical conception of Christianity.

The Uppsala Study respondents overwhelmingly gave answers relating
to this world and this life when asked what they regarded as most important in
their lives. The answer most often given was health, 45 percent. A third
mentioned family and friends, and a quarter gave answers related to their
personal economic situation.

In 1998, 340 of the 11,418 books published in Sweden (3.0%) were
classified under the category of religion (Alin and Sundberg 1999, 495); in the
United States in 1997, by contrast, 3,820 of 64,711 books published (5.9%) were
religious (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1999, Table 938).

Secularization of popular religious belief and practice has
probably increased steadily since the 1880s, though there are no survey data
prior to the 1950s. A survey of religious beliefs in 1957 indicates a much
higher level of belief in traditional religion than in those surveys done in
the last two decades of the century already described: 60 percent then claimed
belief in a personal God--one involved in their individual lives--but only 34
percent admitted to praying regularly to God. More than half (53%) believed in
a life after death, a third believed in the existence of a hell (34%), 29
percent in the Christian dogma of the resurrection of people from the dead, 43
percent in God being manifest in Jesus Christ, 38 percent in the virgin birth
of Jesus, and 4-5 percent in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Hessler
1964, 414).

Of primary importance in the decline of traditional Christian belief in Sweden are
the schools. The 1919 national teaching plan abolished Martin Luther's
catechism from the elementary schools, which had dominated education for almost
400 years. The plan also reduced the amount of instructional time devoted to
religion and emphasized the ethical aspects of Christianity. The confessional
teaching of Christianity, that is instruction in Christianity, was replaced by
teaching about Christianity by legislation passed by the Riksdag in 1950. The
teaching of Christianity, and other religions, was to be "objective."
Bias in favor of Lutheranism or Christianity was specifically proscribed. A law
guaranteeing religious freedom passed in 1951 removed the requirement that
teachers of religion belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In 1958 the
Church was deprived of its role overseeing the instruction of religion in the
secondary schools, its last vestige of involvement in the schools. During the
quarter century after the Second World War, the Social Democratic government
exhibited a self-conscious and radical opposition to encouraging Christian
belief in the schools. And it was indeed successful.

A panel study--one which interviews the same respondents at two
points in time--interviewed a cross-section of Swedes born in 1900-39 in both
1955 and 1970 and found religious beliefs and interest to have changed in a
direction opposite to what is generally regarded as the normal pattern, i.e. an
increase in religious involvement over the life cycle: "To the extent that
the members of the panel changed between 1955 and 1970, they usually seem to
have become less rather than more religious, as measured by most of the
indicators used here" (Hamberg 1991, 77). This was a period of unequalled
Social Democratic dominance in the country.

The most recent poll on the religious beliefs of Swedes dates from
October 1998 when a Temo poll found almost half of a thousand respondents, aged
15-75, to regard themselves as "absolute" or "to some
degree" believing Christians. Almost precisely the same proportion
answered "hardly" or "not at all" to the question (DN 4
November 1998).

The success of the Social Democrats in promoting secularization,
however, was limited and has not been all-encompassing. Since 1929 there has
been a Christian Social Democratic Association; it now has about 170 local
chapters throughout the country. In 1963, two million Swedes signed a petition
successfully opposing a government proposal to reduce instruction in
Christianity in the secondary schools. And in 1964 a Christian Democratic party
came into existence out of the small Pentecostal movement devoted to supporting
traditional Christian and familial values.

All the foregoing queries into religious beliefs received
conventional and stereotypical responses, are much affected by the context and
phrasing of the questions, and, when looked at carefully, are full of
incongruities and contradictions. Herbert Tingsten analyzed the findings on the
religious beliefs of Swedes made in the 1950s and 1960s and concluded:


(According to a 1957 study 53 percent believed in a heaven after death (34percent believed in a hell), but only 29 percent believed in the Christian
dogma of a resurrection after death--how these findings fit together is
difficult to understand. Surveys from 1959 and 1965 give wholly different
results, perhaps because the questions were somewhat differently
formulated; in the former study 28 percent claimed belief in a heaven, in
the latter study 41 percent claimed they believed in a life after death.
The 1967 study seemed to show that 20 percent were "convinced" that there
was a life after death and 23 percent considered it to be "probably" the
case. Perhaps the strangest result of all is that only 9 percent claimed to believe in a life after death in which they would remember their foregoing
life on earth. According to this finding belief in a life after death thus, as a rule, does not mean that one in that life remembers the foregoing--one would preserve one's life, but not one's identity. This makes nonsense of
the real meaning of words.)


A major indicator of the secularization of a modern society is the
relation between marriage and fertility. The link between them in Sweden, if
not fully cast asunder, has been greatly attenuated. By the mid-1990s, the
national marriage rate had declined to 3.8 per 1,000 population, the lowest
ever recorded in United Nations statistics. The finding that in 1996 the median
age at marriage for Swedish women was 29.3 while the median age at the birth of
their first child was 27.5 is striking. (11) In 1996, 58.0 percent of births
were out-of-wedlock to mothers who were Swedish citizens. For non-citizen,
non-Nordic mothers, the percentages of out-of-wedlock births were tiny by

All Swedish newspapers have family pages with obituaries and
notices of major birthdays (ages 40, 50, 60, 65, 70, 75, and up) and major
wedding anniversaries (50, 60 years, and up) together with announcements of
births, adoptions, birthdays, engagements, weddings, gay partnerships, and deaths.
There are relatively few announcements of engagements or weddings. And when
weddings are announced, it is commonly many weeks, even months, after the
event; sometimes no date is given. Occasionally, a child or two will appear in
the wedding picture. About two thirds of marriages take place in a church, a
third are civil marriages. Over a period of a year, 1997-98, I followed the
family pages in DN. I found that birth announcements outnumbered marriage
announcements by at least five to one. Boxed death announcements outnumbered
marriage announcements by some ten to one.

In a study of Swedish population history from 1750 to 1970, Erland
Hofsten and Hans Lundstrom show that conception generally preceded marriage
over these two centuries. When pregnancy occurred, marriage usually followed.
"It is more common for conception to be the reason for marriage than vice
versa. This has always been the tendency" (1976, 28, emphasis added; see
also Tomasson 1976).

During the 1960s, "the tendency" to marry when
pregnancy occurred began not to be "the tendency." By the late 1980s
when a majority of all births were out-of-wedlock and two-thirds of first
births in fact were out-of-wedlock, "the tendency" had clearly become
not to marry when pregnancy occurred. The explanation for Swedes having such a
high level of out-of-wedlock births is that childbearing has become
disconnected from formal marriage as it never was before the second half of the
1960s. There are now no legal distinctions between married and cohabiting couples
in Sweden except that women married before 1990 are allowed certain spousal
benefits that women married after that date are not.


Class and political party preference have been as closely related
in twentieth century Sweden as in any modern society (Therborn 1989). But
religion continues to occupy second place in importance in research on Swedish
voting behavior. According to research by Magnus Hagevi, persons of religious
faith are more likely to vote than are the non-religious. Those elected to
political office are more religious than is the general population (Flygt
2000). Party choice also differs by religious belief. Religious persons are
more likely to vote for the non-socialist or right parties, and non-religious
persons for the socialist or left parties.

Working class persons of Christian background are more
likely to vote for non-socialist or right parties than working class persons in
general. This is probably because strong Christian belief tends to emphasize
individualism, freedom, and personal responsibility. The Social Democrats, by
contrast, emphasize collective responsibility and look to structural
explanations of social life. In 2000, there were 82 members of the Riksdag
Christian group; 69 were from the right parties, 8 were Social Democrats, 2
Greens, and 3 from the Marxist Left party (Flygt 2000). These serious
Christians, who meet once a week, account for almost a quarter (24%) of the
34-9 legislators.

How important religious belief is to party preference is a subjective
judgment. Table 1 shows party preference by religious behavior for 372 Swedes.
Sixty-one percent of the atheists, defined as those who have not prayed to God
in the past year and have no affiliation with a church or religious
organization, support left parties and 39 percent right parties. The
percentages for the state church and free church adherents are just the


During the eighteenth century, two forces entered Sweden
from the continent that led to the breakdown of orthodoxy in the Church:
Pietism from Germany, a movement that stressed personal piety over religious
formality and orthodoxy; and enlightened skeptical rationalism mostly from
France. Lutheranism, particularly in its Swedish form, has always been a
low-temperature religion with strong doctrinal and intellectual concerns, and
it has shown persistent disdain for the various forms of Protestant enthusiasm
and subjectivism. Because of these characteristics and the belief in the need
for orthodoxy to maintain a strong national state, Pietism--an ancestor of the
free-church movement of the next century--was vigorously opposed, sometimes in
extreme form. Pietists quickly became the object of repressive legislation. The
most far-reaching was a government edict of 1726 forbidding all assembly for
worship, public or private, except for family prayers, without the presence of
a parish clergyman. The penalty for violation was fines, imprisonment, or
banishment from the country. However, the law was rarely enforced, and it was
repealed in 1858 in the name of religious freedom. There were even objections
to it from within the Church because it hindered religious activity.

The influences of the Enlightenment had great effects in weakening
the position of the Church and orthodox religion. By the early nineteenth
century, the Church had become rationalistic, even quite secular. These
influences were enhanced by the turn against absolutism that occurred after the
death of Charles XII in 1718 and arrival of a period of proto-parliamentarism,
known as the Age of Freedom (1718-71). With Gustav III'S coup d'etat in 1771,
Sweden had a full-fledged Enlightenment king, a Swedish counterpart to
Frederick the Great. In 1781, he gave foreign Christians the right to form
their own congregations, to build their own churches, and to have their
children trained by their own clergy. The next year similar rights were given
to Jews. But, for the remaining Swedes, the compulsions to attend church, to
take communion, and a number of prohibitions on their religious activities
remained intact.

Until well into the nineteenth century, it was still
regarded as self-evident that all who were members of the Swedish state were
also members of the Church of Sweden. One could leave the Church only by
leaving the country.

Along with its conservatism and orthodoxy, a great deal of freedom
developed within the Swedish Church. The clergy were trained at the universities
of Uppsala and Lund where great emphasis was placed on scholarship. By
Calvinist standards, there was an absence of both puritanism and narrow moral
concerns as exemplified by a tolerant attitude toward premarital sex as long as
marriage followed pregnancy. Their orthodoxy frequently seems to have been of
an official and compartmentalized sort, and there is an impression from the
eighteenth century on that the Swedish clergy was not always so pious. The
clergy functioned as teachers, doctors, and parish politicians, and they had
the duty of taking care of the population registers, acting, in effect, as
Anglo-American county clerks, a function they carried out until the 1960s. Many
of the clergy tilled their own farms, and some made contributions to agricultural
science. The more well-situated among them were learned men who led an
upper-class style of life. With all their activities, it is not surprising, as
historian Sten Carlsson has suggested, that the care of souls was often of
secondary importance (1961, 2:71).

At the highest levels, the Swedish Church had become
secularized by the first half of the nineteenth century. Becoming a bishop was
considered a natural outcome for leading cultural figures. Until mid-century,
in fact, appointments to high ecclesiastical office were determined primarily
by scholarly and cultural attainment; piety and orthodoxy were of lesser
importance. Esais Tegner (1782-1846), a professor and the most popular poet of
his time, was made bishop of Vaxjo in 1824. He was a leading figure of the
romantic school in Swedish letters who idealized pre-Christian Scandinavia. The
other dominant romantic of this time, Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783-1847), also a
professor and without any training in theology, was offered a bishopric, but refused
it. Throughout the twentieth century most bishops continued to come from the

During the 1840s, a return to greater orthodoxy and social
conservatism began in the Church, a reaction to the advanced secularism that
had arisen. This tightening-up was well advanced at the time when modern
ideologies were spreading. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, the
Church held to reactionary ideologies that rationalized and defended the
existing benevolent and hierarchical order against, at first, liberalism and
natural rights doctrines and, later, socialism.

Religion and the Church were seen as basic supports of the state.
But the religion could be only one religion, not religion in general. The
churchmen saw the state as a personality "bestaende i en enhet mellan den
nationella iden och de enskildas medvetande" (Hessler 1964, 12) [existing
in a unity between the national idea and the individual's consciousness]. He


(The individual person does not have the capacity to comprehend the divinerevelation. The power was given to the Church. It is not the case as people sometimes make it out to be that the Church is an association of individual members. The Church is an organism with Christ himself at the head.)

It was necessary for Sweden in order to actualize her national
idea to adhere to and protect the Lutheran doctrine, "the one tree and
right faith." This was the ideology, perhaps somewhat exaggerated, of the
Swedish Church when modern notions of religious freedom and tolerance,
equality, and popular democracy erupted among this literate population.

A period of two or three decades of intense conflict ensued in
which the Church provided the major support for the values of the hierarchical
agrarian society. The Social Democrats and many Liberals held hostile views
toward the Church and religion in general. "As far as is known no
clergyman of the State Church or any person involved in the activities of the
Church joined the [Social Democratic] party during this period [up to the beginning
of the twentieth century]" (Tingsten 1973, 596). How extreme the hostility
of the Social Democrats was toward religion and the Church in the years around
the turn of the century is suggested by an anti-religious and anti-clerical
"Catechism" much used as party propaganda:

What is a clergyman? He is the highest paid civil servant in a community.He preaches self denial. And how man shall work six days in the week and
rest on the seventh. He himself rests six days in the week and speaks
deliberate untruths on the seventh. A hypocrite dressed in a masquerade
costume! (592)

The theme in many contexts was that the Church's men were
"the mercenaries of capital." The conservative party in Sweden, even
more than in England, was the party of the Church's faithful.

Not until the first decade of the 1900s was there a rapprochement between the
Church and the Social Democrats and the other popular movements--the unions,
the free churches, and the temperance societies--that arose during the closing decades
of the nineteenth century. In 1914 with the appointment of Nathan Soderblom
(1866-1931), Sweden got an archbishop who repudiated the diminishing social
reaction in the Church and emphasized the need of the Church to be politically
tolerant and not to be bound to any economic or social system. That the Church
committed itself so completely to the values of the old order during the early
period of modernization is the crucial factor in the development of the
far-reaching secularization that occurred in the industrial working class and
the educated middle class in Sweden.


The bond between the state and the Church of Sweden, which had
existed for almost five centuries, came to an end on 1 January 2000. This break
took place eighty-two years after Gustav Moller, the secretary of the Social
Democratic party, called for the abolishment of the established church in the
1918 Riksdag in the name of freedom and democracy (Hessler 1964, 436). Free
church members, particularly the Baptists, had been calling for
disestablishment since the 1880s. By the 1990s, opinion in the Church and among
lay people had become overwhelmingly supportive of separation. A November 1999
SIFO poll commissioned by the Church found only 10 percent of the respondents
to be negative toward separation, a third were positive, a third thought it
would make no difference, and 17 percent had no opinion (SvD 12 December 1999).
The separation between state and church, however, is not quite complete:
certain financial and taxation arrangements between the two institutions will
be maintained, and the monarch, but only the monarch, must hold to "the
pure evangelical doctrine."

The Church has some 28,000 employees who before 2000 were civil
servants. Many maintain the churches and cemeteries. About 3,500 are priests on
active duty serving in parishes in Sweden and abroad; a few serve as
missionaries; a number serve in central Church bodies and other organizations
and institutions. About 700 of the priests (20%) are women, who have been
ordained since 1960. Two of the fourteen bishops are women. The great majority
of the Church's employees, including the priests, are members of unions. About
2,500 people are employed as full- or part-time church musicians and choir
leaders. Choirs are popular in Sweden. A remarkable 10,000 people take part in
Church of Sweden choirs. Attendance at musical services and events in the
churches of Sweden has grown as attendance at morning services has declined.

Until disestablishment, the Riksdag and the government decided on
organizational and financial matters regarding the Church of Sweden and the
appointment of bishops and deans. In practice, however, the involvement of the
state in church matters was limited. A new Church ordinance has been prepared
for the new independent Church of Sweden. In February 2000, Ragnar Persenius
was elected bishop of Uppsala, the first such election in almost five
centuries, the result of which did not require approval by the government. The
political parties continue to be active in Church elections, just as they were
prior to disestablishment.

In 1999 two legislative changes were made which enhanced "the democratization of
the Church." Bishops were denied the right to vote on matters of faith, which
are now taken up by the Church Assembly made up of priests and layman, and the
age of eligibility to vote in church elections was lowered to sixteen from
eighteen (the age for voting in political elections) with the intent being to
enhance the interest and activity of youth in church matters. Maciej Zaremba, a
Polish-Swedish investigative journalist, observed in an essay on the divorce
between state and church: "The new Swedish church is a unique contribution
to the history of religion: the world's first religious association where
bishops are denied the right to vote in matters of faith and where the meaning
of Christianity is established by political parties" (DN 28 November 1999).

The Church of Sweden describes itself as a national church, an
open people's church (folkkyrka), one that has long played the overwhelmingly
dominant role in the religious life of Sweden. "On the whole ... the
Church of Sweden can be characterized as `middle of the road; uniting
high-church concerns for liturgy and ministry with an openness to
evangelization, and a pattern of parish life typical of a national or folk
church," (12) There is little fundamentalism in the Church, no
individualistic emphasis on "saving one's soul," and little or no
opposition to modern secular thought, science, or evolution. Abortion is hardly
an issue. The Church manifests to a great degree what might be called general
Swedish humanitarianism and an international and ecumenical concern with the
problems of the Third World, with the unfortunate peoples of the world. The
Church continues to officiate at life's critical junctures though to a slowly
decreasing extent. At the end of the 1990s, about 88 percent of the population
formally belonged to the Church, more than 75 percent of their babies were baptized
by the Church (a condition for membership only since 1996), fewer than a
majority of fifteen-year olds were confirmed; almost two-thirds of the
shrinking number of marriages were carried out by the Church; but 9 out of 10
member burials were performed by the Church (Alin and Sundberg 1999, 524)

The bitterest contention of the century in the Church--one which
"aroused an unequalled controversy among the clergy" (Stendahl 1985,
3)--was the issue of the ordination of women. By the second half of the 1950s,
the media, public opinion, and the state had become almost unanimous in support
of women's ordination while the great majority of the clergy were opposed, 85
percent in 1957. By the end of the century, most of the male clergy had come to
terms with the new order. In 1960, the first women were ordained in Sweden, a
dozen years after Denmark (1948) where resistance was short-lived (Gustafsson
1987, 157-58).

Under the big umbrella of the Church, there are a number of
groupings. The Free Synod is opposed to any political party influence in church
matters. Earlier it was strongly opposed to the ordination of women as
unbiblical; some opposition continues. High church people, influenced by
Anglicanism, favor a more liturgical form of worship; they are common among the
priests. The low church people want an open people's church with an increased
influence by the laity; they are more biblically conservative than the high
church people. Then there are some groups who favor greater personal
involvement in religion, a more Bible-centered religion; some of these regard
themselves as charismatics. The Church of Sweden, in these groupings, is more
similar to the Episcopal Church in America than to the Lutheran churches, which
are, for the most part, more theologically conservative than their Swedish

The most divisive issue in the Church at the end of the century
was homosexuality, particularly after February 1997 when K.G. Hammar became
archbishop. He is liberal, highly ecumenical in orientation, and with an
openness to dialogue across traditional religious boundaries. To some, he
represents a social revolution in the Church. To others he has caused "the
greatest crisis of confidence in the office of archbishop in this century"
(Gustafsson, DN 20 September 1998). He supports the right of gay and lesbian
priests to enter into legal partnerships. But what really brought the issue of
the Church and homosexuality to the fore was a photographic exhibit, Ecce Homo
[Behold the Man], first displayed in the Uppsala Cathedral in conjunction with
the gay and lesbian international conference held in Stockholm during the
summer of 1998. One of the photographs mimics Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of
The Last Supper with Jesus in high heels and the twelve disciples portrayed as
transvestites. Another photograph portrays Jesus as suffering with AIDS. Most
of the clergy appear to be favorably disposed to the exhibition, and it has
since been hung in a number of churches throughout Sweden. Some members of
parliament want it displayed in the Riksdag. The photographer-artist is
Elizabeth Ohlson, a believing Christian and a lesbian in a long-term relation.
In her photographs, she emphasizes leather-clad gays and transvestites because
they are "the groups which have the lowest status of all" (DN 5
February 1999).

The exhibit shocked many Swedes. Some conservative and
Christian Democratic politicians have called it sensationalist, provocative,
and not serious. Many Catholics and free church people have been outraged.
Pressure from Swedish Catholics resulted in the Vatican canceling Archbishop
Hammar's planned audience with the Pope in February 1999.

In a recent book, Jesus: Guds hemlighet [Jesus: God's Mystery],
theologian Margit Sahlin, one of the first three women ordained in 1960,
expressed her opposition to the Church's openness toward homosexuality and its
pleading for gender equality: "Such concerns are not only grossly
non-historical [in terms of the New Testament and the oldest traditions of the
Church], but often directly blasphemous" (Carlsson, SvD 15 February 2000).

In October 1998, the Swedish polling firm, Temo, did a survey of
what Swedes thought about how well Archbishop Hammar was dealing with issues of
homosexuality. Almost half (47%) of those who were believing Christians were of
the opinion that the Archbishop "handled his job `very' well or `quite'
well in dealing with homosexuality"; among non-believers 37 percent were
of that opinion (Mortensen, DN 4 November 1998). The believers are more liberal
here. At the other extreme, almost every fourth Swede, believer or not, held
that the Archbishop dealt "quite" badly or "very" badly
with homosexual issues. A third (34%) ventured no opinion. The DN headline to
the article dealing with this survey was decidedly biased; it read "KG
Hammar's views have great support." Fewer than half of all respondents
offering support and a third utterly indifferent is hardly "great"
support. Those aged forty-five and over were more supportive of the
Archbishop's handling of homosexual issues than were younger respondents. Higher
income and education were both positively associated with support.

The state will continue to levy a tax for the support of religious
organizations but grants will be made not only to the Swedish Evangelical
Lutheran Church, but also to the free churches, the Catholic Church, Orthodox
bodies, and Muslim congregations. All religious bodies in the country meeting
certain criteria of membership and commitment to democratic values are to be
eligible for state grants. One condition for eligibility is that the religious
organizations work for gender equality between women and men. (13) One
consequence of this new system is that the free churches are encouraging their
members to resign from the Church of Sweden to build up their numbers for
larger state grants.


At least six historical and structural factors have contributed to
the high level of secularization that prevails in Sweden.

1. In the near millennium of the existence of the Swedish nation,
it has never been oppressed or been subservient to another nation of different
religion. In fact Swedes have been pretty much a fully autonomous people over
their entire history. Religion has never been associated with repressed
nationalism. The opposite situation is found in the most historically religious
countries in Europe: Ireland, Poland, and the Balkan countries. In Norden the
three countries with long colonial pasts--Finland, Iceland, and Norway-- are
less secular than the two with long independent histories, Denmark and Sweden.

2. A long-term religious homogeneity has prevented religion
from becoming a focal point of social differentiation. This situation is
contrary to the religious situation in the United States or the Netherlands or
even England with their more historically important nonconformist population
and sizable Catholic minority. Religious diversity tends to increase the
saliency of religion. Still, as in the homogeneously Catholic countries,
differences between the religious and the nonreligious sectors of the
population in politics and on moral issues are apparent.

3. During the crucial period of early modernization, from 1880 to
1910, the Church aligned itself solidly with the old order and its traditional
values thereby alienating those segments of the society oriented toward modern
values, at first liberalism, then socialism. Modern ideologies came to poor but
literate Sweden with extraordinary force and speed in the latter decades of the
nineteenth century. What took a century in England (Wilson, 1999) occurred in a
generation in Sweden. Very few persons from the nobility or the middle classes
took up the cause of the farmers (not usually called peasants) and the workers
as in England--or even in Russia. Related to this fact is the observation that
the State Church, with its emphasis on absolutist doctrinal authoritarianism
and its medieval view of society, was inherently less amenable to acceptance of
modern values of egalitarianism and tolerance than were Calvinist and the more
individualistic forms of Protestantism.

4. Lutheranism, particularly in its Swedish form, has had a
highly educated clergy with a highly intellectualized and rational theology.
With the triumph of modern values in the society and in a relatively short
period of time, this educated clergy gave up their reactionary positions on
social issues and came to accept participatory democracy in the Church and in
society, the welfare state, and a pervasive humanitarianism dressed in liberal
Christian garb. In a sense, the Church itself had become more secular. The
opposition of the clergy to the ordination of women in the 1950s, '60s, and
'70s was a reversal of this secular trend which enhanced alienation from the
Church and religion. And Sweden is the Nordic country where the struggle for
gender equality has been most intense.

2. From the end of the First World War through the 1960s, logical
positivism, called value nihilism in Sweden, came to dominate formal philosophy
and intellectual life. Its dominant figure was a professor of practical philosophy
at Uppsala, Axel Hagerstrom (1868-1939), perhaps the most influential figure in
the intellectual life of Sweden in the twentieth century. Essentially this
position holds that all value judgments are not judgments at all: they are
beyond the reach of objective knowledge. They are neither right nor wrong
according to the strictures of logic and empirical validation (Hagerstrom,
1911). This positivism gave support to agnosticism and non-belief in
traditional religion and to pragmatism in terms of conventional morality. (This
Swedish positivism was so pervasive that it even became an integral part of
much theological methodology [Ferre 1967, 31-32]). Herbert Tingsten, in the
concluding volume of his autobiography, observed that "de fiesta av mina
vanner och yrkeskamrater inom vetenskap och journalistik kan kallas
nihilster" (1964b, 356) [most of my friends and colleagues in scholarship
and journalism could be called nihilists]. Lars Gustafsson, a leading Swedish
novelist and poet, asserted in the mid-1960s that in the whole contemporary
discussion of issues in Sweden "nihilism of values is a leitmotif' (1964-,
11). Like active atheism, value nihilism has passed from the scene, but it made
a significant contribution to the secularization of Swedish thought.

4. The Social Democrats were the dominant party in Sweden
from 1933 to 1977 the longest period of dominance of any western European
political party. The quarter century after the Second World War, 1945-70, was a
unique period of intense, rapid, and extraordinarily successful economic
development combined with enormous societal optimism. It was also the time of
the greatest hegemony of the secularizing and legislating Social Democrats.
Their shaping of the teaching of religion in the schools is of particular significance.
This last factor may be the single most important one in explaining the high
level of secularism that prevails in Sweden.

Table 1. Party Preference of 372 Swedes, by Religious Behavior.
                               Atheists            Religious
                                            State Church Free Church
THE FOUR RIGHT PARTIES         (N = 153)      (N = 163)   (N = 56)
  M (Conservatives)               24%            24%         5%
  Fp (Liberals)                    5%             7%         7%
  Kd (Christian Democrats)         7%            20%        45%
  C (Center Party)                 3%            12%         4%
  Total                            39%           63%        61%
  S (Social Democrats)             38%            26%        23%
  Mp (Milieu Parry, Greens)         5%             4%        14%
  V (Left Parry)                   18%             7%         2%
  Total                            61%            37%        39%
Definitions: Atheists have no membership in any religious congregationor organization and claim not to have prayed to God during the
previous year. The religious are those who regularly pray to God at
least once a month and are members of the Church of Sweden or some free
church. Intermediate categories are excluded from this table.
Source: Adapted from data collected by Magnus Hagevi and presented in
Cecilia Flygt (2000) "Tro och politik: religion paverker fortfarande."
Fran Riksdag & Departement. Number 40, 22 December: 10-11.

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Comment by Gecko, Seth...brother of Richie! on April 20, 2010 at 5:17pm
Bill O'Rielly talking about universal health care once sarcastically asked.."Do we really want to be like Sweden??"
Of course I was screaming at the TV..."YEEEEESSSS"!!



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