In his article, called “The Secular Soul of the North”, Zuckerman takes the temperature on people’s religiosity in Sweden and Denmark and comes to the conclusion that the two countries represent the “least religious industrialized democracies” on earth. Nordstjernan decided to take Zuckerman’s argument to Pastor Ib Pihlblad at the Church of Sweden in New York City. Not surprisingly, he had a whole other take on the issue. For other comments on the subject, please visit our blog area.
The Swedish Church in New York celebrated its 30th anniversary not long ago, and now its personnel is busy preparing for the upcoming Christmas bazaar, an annual tradition of great importance.
It’s 10 a.m. and the church just opened. Already there are a lot of visitors and quite a bustle. Pastor Ib Pihlblad says he feels a bit under the weather but he still wants to sit down and talk about the Zuckerman article, which I have put on the table in front of us.
“I think,” he carefully begins, “that you get answers according to how you phrase your questions. And I think what is happening here, with this article, is a culture crash, a religious culture crash between the U.S. and the Nordic countries, Sweden and Denmark. Religion or faith, in Sweden, is something utterly private, something nobody will ever ask you about, and chances are you will not talk about it either. It has probably always been like that. It’s also a part of who we are as a people, our temperament.”
The Swedish Church, he explains, is an open Church for the people. It exists long before a person is born into it. This has been the point of departure for the Swedish Church since its very conception, this thought of prevenient grace.
“And this might be difficult for an American to grasp,” says Pihlblad, “even if he’s a professor in sociology. Zuckerman makes the point that Americans think religion is needed as the only answer to societal problems, and then he holds up Sweden and Denmark as societies where we have excellent education, low crime, where we’re humane and peaceful and safe and so forth, yet we’re secular. But our social system is strongly connected to our Lutheran belief, our belief is deeply embedded in our society. And that is something extremely Lutheran, that God carries on His mission through society’s functions – and our society is permeated with this thought.”
Zuckerman’s article reveals some quite depressing figures, depressing especially if you’re a man of the cloth. For instance, Zuckerman reports that while 95% of all Americans claim to believe in God, only 26% of all Swedes do. When asked “How important is God in your life?” (with 10 meaning “very important” and 1 meaning “not at all”) only 23% of Swedes chose 7-10. Only 3% of Swedes believe that the Bible is the literal word of God – compared to 33% of Americans. It’s important to note that Zuckerman’s investigation is on the smaller scale; after all, he spoke to only 150 people in Sweden and Denmark together. And Pihlblad counters with statistics that tell a different story.
“In 2007 the Swedish Church had 7 million members, members who pay to be members, one should note. I don’t think that’s bad, considering the fact that we have a population of 9 million, and one million of those are immigrants. In 2007, 62% of all Swedes were christened in the Swedish Church and 46% of all weddings took place there. Here at the Swedish Church in New York, we conduct around 100 weddings yearly, and the people getting married are always particular about the blessings and what version of "Our Father" (the older or the newer) they want. It might look only like a tradition but it’s much more than that, it's much deeper than that. Last year in Sweden more people attended mass than any other sport event. That speaks volumes.”
It sure does, and I’m bound to think Pihlblad is absolutely right when he talks about the privacy of Swedish people’s faith. In America, proclaiming your faith, especially if you’re a Christian, is sometimes as important as faith itself. Presidential candidates, for instance, need to reassure the American people that they are indeed Christian and they go to great lengths in doing so, as we have seen these past months. And for many Americans being a member of a parish or congregation is a social necessity. In Sweden, you need not broadcast your religious colors, in fact the religious climate there is of a completely different kind. This is something Zuckerman fails to recognize in his article. Case in point: Not too long ago, a new headmaster, Per Eriksson, was appointed at Sweden’s Lund University. This caused quite a stir, since Mr. Eriksson calls himself a Christian and is a former member of a Pentecostal congregation. Teachers at Lund University questioned Eriksson’s credibility, and while doing so, also accused Christians in general of oppressing women and homosexuals. Jan Björklund, a member of the Swedish parliament, said this about the case: “This form of intolerance towards people of Christian belief in a climate of another religion or in a largely secular society, could be called ‘Christianophobia.’” In a climate like that, who would want to profess a religious belief?
Yet, Pihlblad says he sees a new kind of spirituality on the rise in Sweden. He sees more people, many of them young, come to church to light a candle and sit down quietly for a few minutes. It’s still something private, he stresses, something a person might not even tell his wife about, but that doesn’t diminish it or make it any less. After tragedies like the murders of Olof Palme and Anna Lindh, 9/11, and the tsunami, people filled churches all over Sweden. And one would ask, like Pihlblad does, “if they have no faith, then why do they come to church?”
“And people write prayer lists: ‘Pray to God for my father who is dying in cancer.’ ‘Pray for Gösta.’ And so on. I think it is also important to remember that we have a different educational system in Sweden. We are taught to question authority, to question everything. So of course we also question religion. We differ from Americans in that respect.”
Does Pihlblad feel any kind of worry about the status of the Swedish Church in Sweden today?
“Worry, no. Of course I would like to see more people get engaged in the Church, and that is difficult, because for many, many years the Swedish Church and the Swedish State were one, and now the Church has to learn how to be a church, not an authority, and that is difficult.”

The Swedish Church in figures*
• 74.3% of all Swedes were members of the Swedish Church.
• 62% of all Swedes were baptized.
• 35% of all 15-year olds were confirmed.
• 46% of all weddings in Sweden took place in the Swedish Church.
• 83% of all funerals in Sweden took place in the Swedish Church.
• There were 19.2 million visits to masses held at the Swedish Church.


*from 2007

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