The extent to which Sweden among other countries in Europe has become secular comes as a surprise, even shock to many Americans. Dr. Zuckerman’s findings put things in a somewhat new light and explains how a society can be ‘good’ without resting on religion and its members be both good and moral.

On a sunny, slightly windy afternoon in June 2005, I sat down at an old wooden table with two retired Danish farmers — a husband and wife — to talk about religion. It was one of the first interviews I conducted while doing research for a book on religion (and its absence) in Denmark and Sweden. We sat in their well-groomed garden, drinking the local beer, with swaths of undulating wheat fields all around us, and the deep blue Kattegat Sea several hundred yards away. Arne and Agnethe are both in their early 70’s, and they both come from the same small town on the east coast of Jutland, where they have lived all their lives. Their English isn’t as good as that of most Danes, and they were a bit nervous about doing the interview with me. And when I got to the subject of religion, they grew even more reticent. But through the course of our conversation I tried to ease their reluctance, doing my best to get them to open up a bit. Here’s what I found concerning their religiosity: They attend church about once a month, and they consider themselves Christian. However, when it comes to actual religious beliefs, they are about as secular as one can be: no belief in life after death, no belief in God (the question itself evoked a miffed raising of the shoulders and the shaking of the head), and no strong belief in the holiness of the Bible or the miracles of Jesus. Indeed, my specific questions about the virgin birth and the resurrection evoked hearty laughter, as though such things are simply not to be taken seriously. Arne and Agnethe are fairly typical Danes when it comes to religion (except for their regular church attendance, which is quite atypical in Scandinavia these days). The truth is, Danes and Swedes are among the least religious people in the world today – in both belief and church attendance.

Let me back up
About five years ago I was asked by Cambridge University Press to write an article on how many atheists — or non-believers — there are in the world today, country by country. So I began combing through as many surveys as I could find. I discovered that, by most standard measures, Denmark and Sweden are quite irreligious, at least when compared to other countries – particularly the United States. Let me just share a few statistics: while 96% of Americans claim to believe in God, only 51% of Danes and 26% of Swedes claim to believe in a God. When asked “How important is God in your life” (with 10 meaning “very important” and 1 meaning “not at all”), only 23% of Swedes and 21% of Danes chose 7-10 – compared to 83% of Americans. And belief in life after death is as low as 30% and 33% among Danes and Swedes respectively – compared to 81% of Americans. Only 7% of Danes and 3% of Swedes believe that the Bible is the actual/literal word of God – compared to 33% of Americans. Over 80% of Danes and Swedes accept the evidence of human evolution, whereas less than 40% of Americans do. Only 3% of Danes and 7% of Swedes attend church at least once a week – the lowest rates of church attendance in the world. When asked whether people with strong beliefs should hold public office, 88% of Danes and 70% of Swedes answered in the negative, compared to only 25% of Americans.
I was struck by these percentages. First off, I found it interesting and noteworthy that even though religion is very weak in Denmark and Sweden, they are still among the most humane, peaceful, and safe societies on earth. This is important information, because many Americans think that religion is the only answer to societal problems. Denmark and Sweden prove this false; it is clearly possible for relatively secular nations to be moral and successful. But beyond that issue, I wanted to dig beneath the statistics and percentages, and really try to understand religion in Denmark and Sweden – or more accurately, the lack of religion. So I spent my sabbatical year (2005-2006) living in Århus with my family, working as a guest professor at the university, doing research on the religious/secular worldviews of Danes and Swedes. I ended up conducting nearly 150 in-depth interviews with people from all walks of life, of different ages, occupations, educational levels, etc.

It was an illuminating and fascinating endeavor. I interviewed a hospice nurse who told me that in her experience, non-believers actually have an easier time dying, while it is the strongly-believing Christians who are the ones wracked with anxiety, worry, and guilt as they near the end. A prosecutor told me that his best friend of many years got drunk one night and felt compelled to make a startling personal confession, one which he was deeply concerned about and fearful to reveal: that he actually believes in God. An antique dealer told me about his one, brief spiritual experience: While walking his dog on a winter night, he looked up at the full moon and felt a deep peacefulness and transcendent tranquility. I interviewed a woman who was a confirmed atheist but still had her daughter baptized because, well, it’s a beautiful ceremony and an important cultural experience. There was a teenager who had just been through confirmation, and yet couldn’t recount a single story from the Bible. I interviewed a woman who said that in her entire life she had never met a single person who actually believed in the existence of Adam and Eve. I interviewed a 90 year old man in Aalborg who succinctly described his take on religion: “It’s bullshit.” And then there was a woman who devoted her life to Jesus after he appeared to her in a dream, drawing her out of a long spate of depression.

While there were certainly notable variations and many colorful stories (as mentioned above), a general pattern definitely emerged from all of my interviews: The typical Dane or Swede identifies as culturally Christian, doesn’t mind supporting the national church, enjoys the ceremonies of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and funerals, and thinks religion is generally a benign thing. Simultaneously, the typical Dane or Swede almost never goes to church, understands being “Christian” as essentially “being kind to others” (not “saved” or “born again” as in the typical American sense of being Christian), perhaps prayed as a child but seldom or never prays as an adult, seldom or never reads the Bible, definitely doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, thinks Jesus was probably a nice fellow (but not that he performed any miracles or rose from the dead), and while perhaps believing that there is “something” out there, the typical Dane or Swede doesn’t put all that much faith in God, and isn’t even too concerned with whether or not God exists.

I was so struck by how many times – at the end of an interview – people would say to me that they had never had such a conversation, that they had never talked about these topics much, even with spouses or close friends. There were even many times when people told me that they had never even thought much about these matters before. Through countless conversations with so many Scandinavians, I thus discovered a remarkable secularity — a pervasive cultural orientation in which the meaning of life is nothing more than what one chooses to make of it, this life is all there is and we must make the most of it, and morality and ethical imperatives are possible without any reference to the supernatural.
Things are certainly quite different in the USA, where people are very strong in their religious beliefs, they broadcast their faith on their bumper stickers, and tend to not only talk about their faith openly and often, but expect their politicians to do the same. Indeed, Americans and Scandinavians exist on polar opposites when it comes to religion.
The USA is perhaps the most religious industrialized democracy on earth, while Denmark and Sweden represent the least religious industrialized democracies. How do we account for this difference? There is no one clear answer, but we can at least consider some possibilities. First, the matter of social welfare and societal well-being. The USA has very high poverty and violent crime rates; Denmark and Sweden have remarkably low rates of both. The USA has no national health coverage, while Danes and Swedes enjoy strong universal health care, as well as excellent elder care and very well-subsidized childcare. It may simply be that the strong welfare states in Denmark and Sweden have eliminated some major societal problems, hence the emotional need for — or supportive role of — religion; whereas in the USA, the comfort and security that religion provides is still necessary for many.
Second, it may have to do with the dynamics of religion itself: In Scandinavia, the Lutheran Church has a virtual monopoly, with little competition from other faiths, and since the Lutheran Church has for a long time been state-subsidized, it has perhaps grown a bit stale and lazy, not needing to “attract customers,” per se. In the USA, churches and denominations find themselves in a somewhat “competitive religious marketplace” with no state subsidies and more of a sink or swim dynamic. Therefore American churches and denominations tend to aggressively market themselves to a high degree, using innovative techniques to get more “customers.” All this dynamic “selling” of religion seems to net results.
Third, it may just be a matter of culture – Americans tend to be more overt, public, and even boastful about themselves, their feelings, their accomplishments — and their God. Scandinavians tend to be more private, humble, and less overt about their personal opinions or values, their activities, and also their religiosity.
Whatever the reason, Scandinavia today stands out as an exceptional case: In a world bubbling over with religious passion, fundamentalism, and an increased mingling of religion and politics, Denmark and Sweden exist as small, content, durable pockets of secular life. If there is an earthly heaven for secular folk, contemporary Denmark and Sweden may very well be it: quaint towns, inviting cities, beautiful forests, lonely beaches, healthy democracies, among the lowest violent crime rates in the world, the lowest levels of corruption in the world, excellent educational systems, innovative architecture, strong economies, well-supported arts, innovative entrepreneurship, clean hospitals, delicious beer, free health care, maverick film-making, egalitarian social policies, sleek design, comfortable bike paths – and all within a culture that successfully institutionalizes the social ethics of Christianity, even if not expressing much faith in the God or savior thereof.

Written by Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California. He was a guest professor at the University of Aarhus in 2005-2006. He is the author most recently of Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations can tell us About Contentment (ISBN 978-0-8147-9714-3 New York University Press, 2008).