In the past few years, such countries as Denmark and Sweden have been viewed as laboratories demonstrating not only that secularism is alive and well, but that such societies are more prosperous and healthier than religious ones.
But such a claim ignores both the changing religious situations in Sweden and Denmark and the Christian influences that have strongly shaped these countries’ social ethos and economic practices, write Kjell Lejon and Marcus Agnafors in the Lutheran journal Dialog (Fall).
Lejon and Agnafors (both of Linkoping University in Sweden) engage American sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book Society without God, which argues that secularity, particularly as it is found in such societies as Denmark and Sweden, is strongly correlated with (if not a cause for) impressively high levels of societal health and well-being. The authors argue that Sweden and Denmark are not so much secular as different in the level and kinds of religious belief from such countries as the U.S. The 149 Swedes and Danes Zuckerman studied did not measure up to his criteria for religious belief because they were not concerned with sin and did not hold to a “literal, punishing or forgiving God of the Bible.”
But for the average Scandinavian, “sin is simply seen as secondary to the idea of a loving God,” nor do they hold to the same idea of God as Americans; the same rhetoric is common in Scandinavian churches. Lejon and Agnafors cite a recent focus group study (by Ina Rosen) of Danes showing that while they did not respond to traditional, “routinized” religious language, once the religious concepts were “un-packed” for them, an unexpected three-quarters of them claimed to be believers.Zuckerman’s and others’ portrayal of these Scandinavian societies as “secular heavens” downplays the way they are becoming “post-secular,” with both atheism and religion returning to the stage, especially in Sweden.
The authors write that there is a growing interest in Christianity, with some well-known figures in the Swedish cultural establishment (Elisabeth Sandlund and Goran Skytte) writing of their conversion experiences. In comparing 1994 to 2007, one study finds a new openness to discussions of question of faith and Christianity. Lejon and Agnafors conclude that the idea that Danish and Swedish individual secular values are writ large on the political level where secular policies are then enacted to promote prosperity, social well-being and democracy ignores the strong religious (Lutheran) that have shaped the welfare state, literacy and equality in these countries.
(Dialog, 61 Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg, PA 17325)