Take Sweden

Although I have never been there myself, I hear that Sweden is a great place to live. I hear it a lot. People rave about the country’s cradle-to-the-grave social welfare system.

Apparently, big government is good for Swedes, and Swedes are good for each other. More than 80% believe it is safe to walk alone at night. A majority donates to charity, and a majority is very trusting toward others.[1] They sound like good people. We might even say that they sound like good Christians, except that Sweden is supposed to be one of the most secular nations in the world.

By some estimates, only 2-4% of Swedes attend worship services every week.[2] Only 23% say they believe in God.[3]

Swedish church

Atheists look at these numbers and conclude that it is indeed possible for good people to do good things without believing in God. Listen to biologist and militant atheist, Jerry Coyne,

Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done—in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.[4]

But is Sweden largely filled with non-believers and atheists?

In addition to those who believe in God, another 53% believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Only 23% say there is no God, spirit or life force. These results come from a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2005. Like a lot of surveys on religion, the wording of these questions leaves a lot to be desired. Are more than half of Swedes now pagans and New Agers, because they confidently assert a belief in spirit beings and occult forces? Or did they choose this option because they are not really sure what to believe, but are willing to admit that there is more to this world than meets the eye?[5] No matter how you read the results, this is a long way from non-belief and atheism.

As usual, the picture gets more complicated as we dig deeper. For instance, around 74% of Swedes are registered members of the Church of Sweden. A significant proportion of the population continues to rely on the national church for christenings, confirmation, marriage, and funerals.[6] In one very detailed study of Enköping—a small city west of Stockholm—64.8% describe themselves as either “Strong Christian” or “Mildly Christian,” and another 19.7% identify with “Non-Confessional” churches. In other words, almost 85% of the city’s residents consider themselves to be Christian in some sense or another. Only 10.9% consider themselves to be “Atheists.”[7]

None of this is really surprising. The Swedish state and the Lutheran church were bound together for over four centuries. Being a member of the Church of Sweden was compulsory until 1952. It was not officially divorced from the state until the year 2000.[8]

So, when someone like Coyne visits Sweden, he is going to feel safe, and he is going to enjoy the fact that people are not packing the pews on Sunday. It may be secular, but it is hardly an atheist’s paradise.

Modern Sweden is secular because its people never really had to fight for their faith. To be a citizen of Sweden was to be part of the faith community. It had little to do with right beliefs, right worship, and righteous living. Next, Sweden is secular because the state gradually took over the responsibilities of the church. This is easy to do when church and state are so closely connected. And Sweden is secular because the official church grew increasingly out of step with its own people. An irrelevant monopoly is still a monopoly. The viable and legal alternatives were few and far between.[9]

But the underlying morality of Swedish society was baked into the country a long time ago. It had a lot to do with the church. It also had a lot to do with Sweden’s tremendous sense of national unity. It is easier to be nice to people who share your language, culture, and heritage. It is easier to pay your fair share of taxes when you know all your neighbors are paying, and using, their fair share of taxes, too.

If you want to highlight a country for its secular morality, and want to live there, you are going to have to look elsewhere. May I suggest Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, for starters?

Atheists like Coyne benefit tremendously from living in a diverse, multicultural society with a strong Christian heritage. E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” But how can we be one if we do not share a common morality? Without God, there is no way to decide what that morality should be.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, February 2013, p. 24]

 


[1] “The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index.” The Legatum Institute. http://www.prosperity.com/CountryProfile.aspx?id=752

[2] Byron J. Nordstrom, Culture and Customs of Sweden (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), p. 41.

[3] Eurobarometer 225: Social Values, Science and Technology. European Commission publication, 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

[4] Jerry A. Coyne, “As atheists know, you can be good without God.” USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-07-31-atheism-morality-evolution-religion_n.htm

[5] See also Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 126.

[6] Nordstrom, pp. 32,41.

[7] Nordstrom, pp. 41-42. Again, the devil’s in the details. Identifying oneself as belonging to a church, especially the Church of Sweden, is not the same as believing in what the church teaches.

[8] Nordstrom, p. 31.

[9] Richard F. Tomasson, “Religion is irrelevant in Sweden,” in Jeffrey K. Hadden, editor, Religion in Radical Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1970), pp. 111-127.

© 2013 – 2016, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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