Sweden has a long history of a strange and troubled relationship with religion. The norse mythology was in large parts imported from the south of Germany and then combined with local older religions (bronze age fertility and sun-religions that can be seen today in petroglyphs, but more about that another time). Already there a “lets take the best from both worlds”-mentality was shown.
Petroglyphs in Tanum, Sweden
Then came christianity, which took its time coming here for real. The conversion to christianity took a long time. The conversion of the people happened from the first monks arriving in the 800s to sometime in the late medieval period. People where still practising small scale “blot” in the 1400s, and up to the 1900s (and really even today in some areas) people believe in all sorts of folklore based in norse mythology when it comes to what lives around us. Norse folklore entities like the tomte, the trolls, goblins, huldra and näcken (neck).
Many people argue that christianity never really completly converted the Swedes even to this date. That the strong grip of folklore on us was evidence of this. People kind of created a mashup of both norse folklore and christianity where they explained and controlled different aspects of life.
And perhaps this is one of the reasons Sweden became one of the least christian nations of all christian nations in the 1900s and the secularization of the western world. Officially webpages like adherants and CIA fact book describes Sweden as having around 75% lutheran christians (so basically we almost sound just as christian as USA).
But this is really a misunderstanding and simplification of the facts. All Swedes, including yours truly, were born into membership of the old state church and this custom went on up to jan. first 2000. After that the state and church has (well… almost) separated. But it still means that millions of Swedes are members of a church that they most never visit because of real religious belief. Mostly its just funerals and weddings that attract us there.
This is most likely because you have to leave it by active choice (write a letter, send it to the local priest and so on), and many people don’t bother doing this. It can be because they are lazy like I was (I didn’t do it until some years ago despite being convinced of atheism for much longer than that). It can also be because they think that if they leave there might be troubles with their burial and so on. And many stay on because of the feeling that its some sort of good tradition to stay on in church. Some of course stay on because of religious beliefs – but thats a minority for sure since it doesn’t match what people say or do about religion or what statistical surveys says in other circumstances.
One trustworthy survey (from SIFO, sorry no active links on the net were found) says that around 5-15% of the Swedes visit church and say that they believe in the bible as it is written. Around 10% more says that they identify them selfs as christians, but that they have a more moderate symbollical view on the bible. So that gives us a maximum of roughly 25% that can be considered christians.
Are really the rest of the Swedes atheists (minority religions like islam and judaism aside, they only make up less than 5%)? Well I wish, but I don’t think its the case since other studies shows that a huge number of Swedes says that they do not believe in “any religion, but think that there might be a higher power or force in the universe” and similar international surveys that take this in to consideration also shows this more diffuse type of belief that fills the gaps between atheism and theism. A sort of deistic view on can say among some 20-60% of the population. The number of deists vary since all surveys are voluntary and has their problems with bias numbers and they don’t really ask the right questions. Swedes definitly have a hostile view on classical organized religion and this most likely will make a lot of deists rather call them selfs atheists than christians if these are the only choices.
International studies typically give Sweden high points on atheism. But they miss out on important aspects on the definition of beliefs and religion that are very typical for Swedes.
The low count on atheists in the world put swedes that are atheists at around 15%. The high count at 85%. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle making many Swedes deist in their view rather than atheist.
So why is deism popular here? The reason is most likely the same as why christianity had problems establishing control here. Most likely because of strong Swedish folklore beliefs which make nature a “spiritual” thing in our modern version. Very few still believe in the huldra and näcken, but they claim to believe in the possibilities that there’s something “more” in nature than what meets the eye.
Swedes and their beloved nature.
Many swedes give nature a modern spiritual property and combines this with folklore myths, new age and secular beliefs. Swedes are perhaps the most atheistic people in the world when it comes to classical organized religion, but not when it comes to diffuse hard-to-define spiritual beliefs.
/The Godless Swede