Scandinatheists? Maybe not so much

April 1, 2009 | By | 120 Replies More

Ah, those blessed Scandinavians. Reputedly cool, calm, collected, rather good race drivers and, it would seem, not really that concerned about gods one way or the other. During my time observing and participating in discussions about religion and its public role over the last few years, Scandinavia has often been held up as a bastion of faithless virtue, a shining beacon of godless goodness, a prime example of what can be accomplished on a transnational scale without referring to scripture but merely concentrating on what works for the populace.

Atheist/secularist/humanist commentators often to point to Scandinavian social successes (for example low unemployment, high standards of living, functioning democracies, effective public health care & education) as evidence against the claims of many religious people that if we in the West abandoned our “Judeo-Christian” values or kept our church & state separate, our nations would all fall, unrestricted by fears of celestial surveillance, into a grimy, black crevass of murder, pillage and hedonism (one could argue that the US in the last eight years has fallen into an economic & diplomatic hole of a similar depth, led by a very religious man who was happy to pander to very religious people for his entire reign, but that’s a whole other article).

According to a recent New York Times article by Peter Steinfel on a study by Californian sociologist Phil Zuckerman (here), it seems that far from there being only two sides to the god coin, the Scandinavians, almost characteristically, have ended up on a third side. And here it is:

They don’t care.

Zuckerman, after 14 months of talking to Danes & Swedes about religion, discovered that far from being a nation of atheists in the Dawkins/Hitchens mould of actively promoting freethinking and condemning inappropriate religious behaviour, Scandinavians seem to be completely unconcerned by religion. He was perplexed, as I’m sure a lot of people would be. I think this quote sums up his experience:

The many nonbelievers [Zuckerman] 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.

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.”

Zuckerman asked himself:

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.

Not even a private, personal issue, as I’m sure many of my US friends – religious and otherwise – would prefer it; an actual non-issue. Doesn’t come up in conversation, public policy, education. It’s something not even worth considering. Something so unimportant it barely even gets discussed. Something so insignificant in day-to-day life that you don’t get Swedish evangelists trying to sneak Genesis into biology classes; multimillionaire Danish preachers with their own TV stations & Lear jets blaming natural disasters on godlessness and depravity (then being caught with their hands in the till or down someone’s pants); Viking priests demanding to have their mythology written into national constitutions or religious monarchs sowing murder and disease with misguided rhetoric (no hyperlinks necessary, this religious madness is unfortunately so commonplace I’m sure every reader could go and google up a dozen individual stories on each topic). And certainly no Ragnarokians going around telling everyone to repent because the Fenris wolf is off his leash so they’d all better bloody well repent!

However, it seems many Scandinavians are happy to identify as Christians despite their obvious non-religiousness.

At one point, [Zuckerman] queries Jens, a 68-year-old nonbeliever, about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture. Jens replies: “We are Lutherans in our souls — I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.”

Naturally I’d take issue with any assertion that kindness & charity are uniquely Lutheran traits but I admire the general attitude described in this article. “God or not – meh, I don’t worry about that. I get on with my life and try to be good.” It’s an attitude I’ve held for a long time – until somehow, a few years ago, I got interested in spirituality & the reasons behind it and eventually got myself drawn into religious discussions online, chiefly with Americans, first through Off-Topic sections at a few gaming forums I visited, then in comment threads at blogs like this one. As I got drawn into rant after rant and argument after argument with strong religious types, I think I completely lost sight of where I actually stood on the issue of gods and was just having fun swinging my sword around.

Here it is: I don’t believe, but I really don’t think about it that much. The claims of religious people don’t stand up to scrutiny, but it doesn’t bother me (that is, until I read something about some fundie getting too big for his sandals). The problems caused by religious people in Australia simply aren’t of the magnitude that reasonable people face in the US. We don’t have Phelpses or Robertsons publicly condemning gays to hell or dentists inserting creationism into biology textbooks or anti-gay pastors being caught with their pants down & noses full of meth. Most religious people in Australia do indeed keep it private (I still don’t really know what my parents think on the subject – because it doesn’t come up) and people who overstep the un-drawn line of decency are ridiculed as bible-thumpers or simple pains-in-the-arse. Hell, our most successful creationist, the inimitably thick-as-shit Ken Ham, had to move to Kentucky to build his “Fred Flintstone & The Vegan Dinosaurs” Creation Museum. I can’t imagine the ridicule he would’ve copped had he tried to build it here (maybe he could though, which is maybe why he left – plus I’m sure he would’ve known there’d be no cash in it for him down here. Maybe he’s not as thick as he seems – maybe he just knows there’s a particular kind of person born every minute).

To close, I have decided Scandinavians (and myself, for that matter) should be called “Apatheists” – they don’t believe and furthermore don’t even care if there’s a god. The universe functions as it does with or without one. They get on with their lives, try to be ethical and don’t even think about whether they’re on Pan-Dimensional Big Brother. There’s an elegant simplicity in that attitude – a refreshing shift of focus onto things that are important, like here, now, you, me and everybody.


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Category: Culture, Religion

About the Author ()

Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he’s a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator – but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

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  1. The Norway Advantage | Dangerous Intersection | June 17, 2010
  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:



    "Faith" is not synonymous with religion, although many Americans seem to think so.

    Faith is an acknowledgement of trust.

    When one says they have faith in the legal system. they don't pray to the legal system. If I have faith in my physician's diagnostic skills, I don't worship Dr Jones.

    When used as a noun, it usually refers to a particular set of religious beliefs.

  2. Karl says:

    I've stated before, and most reasonable people will accept the fact that natural philosophy is a religion that has trumped all other forms of philosophy because it claims to only deal with a material world.

    This effectively removes any attempt to discuss its values and presuppositions from the table and allows the presuppositions of materialistic naturalists to label themselves entirely stoic and devoid of influence from their own values.

    Study the extent to which any meaningful philiosophy has its roots in the value of its presuppositions.

    You value your presuppositions highly – that is a religion as far as I'm concerned.

    Your presuppositions are chosen as apriori dogma that will shade your entire perspective upon reality.

    You can try to claim that science convinced you of the validity of your way of thinking, but that is just your excuse to enable you to stop examining the philiosphical nature of your premises.

    You say subsets A and B are not connected. In your mind I'm sure that is reasonable. However, A and B are least related in that they are subsets of something else.

    When a subset is no longer related to something else it is not a part of the rest of knowledge and has trumped its relationships to everything else.

    That's how its premises get removed from the table as being beyond questionabity.

    You recognize that I'm transparent and open in disclosing of my thought process.

    I'm transparent and perfectly comfortable with it.

    You're right Eric, I'm through with this thread.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl – thanks for letting us agree to disagree. I suspecting that if one has "presuppositions," then one is religious. I disagree with that equation, though I do agree that we all have presuppositions, many of them ineffable. I think that Hank and Mark have it about right regarding religion. I would think that the focus of your argument that scientists are per se religious, that they presuppose that natural laws apply uniformly and everywhere, is not considered to be a basis for claiming that scientists are "religious." Again, let us agree to bring this topic to a close, unless one of us is willing to carefully take a meaningful poll asking this question:

      Q: Bob is a scientist who, as a result of his work has come to believe that natural laws (such as the principles of chemistry and physics) apply uniformly throughout the universe throughout time. In other words, Bob assumes that if he travels, at any random time, to any random planet, even one that is billions light years away from earth, he could apply the scientific principles and theories he already knows if he decided to scientifically study that planet.

      Based the foregoing information, is it possible to determine whether Bob is religious?

      Answer (pick one)

      A. I don't know. There is not enough information on which to base an answer to this question.
      B. No.
      C. Yes.

    • Karl says:

      Yes, if he/she only choses to consider that the evidence can only support one perspective, based upon his interpretations of the applicability of those natural laws.

      (You don't need to let this through, that fine with me.)

    • Hanna Sayce says:

      So, let's face it! TRUTH vs. truth – what is actually vs. what is perceived has come to a head in the classic "does God exist?" debate. In it let us not be guilty of filtering everything we hear through our own small Brita-life experience and claim, because of it, to grasp the eternal. Until we know everything, we should hesitate towards our choice version of certainty, because the object unknown could possibly alter the reality of what is perceived. If that object is a Creator, divine and transcendent, what then? — Our nonsense in speculation becomes an exercise in futility. Until we attain omniscience, we should be careful to deny the existence of an omniscient God.

      Erick, most of your comments on this post presuppose that the scientific prerequisite for evidence in practice makes 'faith as evidence' reasoning, the crux of my position, impossible for the materialist to accept. If this is the case, we have come to an impasse and must politely agree to disagree.

      I thought you were being typically obstinate, but changed my mind about you after reading the article on your experience with The Journey Church. I think you to be a decent person, rather, and despite our differences, likewise wish that we could all work together to make the world better place.

      Yes, I will continue to share my beliefs. No self-respecting Christian mandated by their faith to "Go into all the world preaching the Gospel…" should do otherwise. I will do it out of love, though, and would willingly work with anyone, A-theist to Z-oroastrian, if it meant helping someone in need.

      Peacefully, Hanna

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    When he was living, the late Isaac Asimov wrote many editorials about Christian Science and what he called "Judo Arguments". Much of this thread reminds me of those editorials.

    Some of it reminds me of a scene from the movie "DarkStar" where acting Commander Doolittle gives bomb number 20 a quick lesson in phenomenology in order to stop it from blowing up itself and the ship.

    In the end it doesn't help.

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