How early were the Nordic countries secular?

Statistical data on levels of church attendance before the 1960s is fragmentary, but what there is suggests that the low levels of religious participation recorded later in the century were not so new.  Clergy returns for Denmark, even excluding the metropolis of Copenhagen, where levels of church attendance were known to be exceptionally low, recorded that only about 8 percent of Danes attended Lutheran services on “an average Sunday” in the 1930s, falling to 6 percent in the 1940s, 5 percent in the 1950s, and 4 percent in the 1960s…In Sweden in 1927 it is estimated that only 5.6 percent attended a Lutheran church on a normal Sunday; by the 1950s it was under three percent.

A Norwegian estimate is of 3.8 percent in 1938, and Finland seems to have been below 3 percent by the 1950s.  For purposes of perspective, in most other European countries the collapse of church attendance came in the 1960s.

That is all from the new and interesting Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History, published by Princeton University Press.


Historically, \some countries are more religious than others. Recall the "Great Awakening" in the USA and the consequent birth of a new religion, Mormonism.

Counterpoint: While Mormonism has its roots in New England Protestantism, the early Mormon missionary efforts had far more success in Europe than at home in America. Of the Mormons settling Utah, the vast majority were immigrant converts from Europe, especially Britain and DENMARK.

'most other European countries' are Catholic or significantly non-Protestant excluding the above (Germany is more of a north/south in this regard), and Catholicism places a higher religious value on regular attendance at church services, not to mention confession as an obligation.

That's a fair point. Also I think Calvinism believes in predestination, and, if you're part of the elect, you can sin all you want, not go to church, and still get into heaven. Rayward is the religious authority here, Rayward what you say?

That is a misunderstanding of Calvinism, but it is probably true that it had some influence on popular thought and practice in Calvinist areas.

Independent evangelical Protestant churches are by far the fastest growing (the only growing?) in America. Why? I'm from a Catholic (though not Roman Catholic tradition), so the liturgy, and the ritual that goes with it, is what keeps me coming back. These new evangelical churches don't even have a liturgy; indeed, they consider the liturgy and ritual as a form of idolatry. Criticizing these churches is like shooting fish in a barrel: I mean, the prosperity gospel, really? As a cultural phenomenon, I view them as part of the alienation so many feel. They offer something for nothing: profess faith in Jesus, and wealth and health will come your way. Confession, repentance, those are very much part of the Catholic tradition, a tradition with little appeal to the Christian believers today. [I've commented before about the history of division in Christianity: East and West, Protestantism, the various denominations among Protestants, the independent "community" churches. This eventually leads to the "Church of I" with one member, I. We are a self-absorbed species.]

Where the hell do you get this trash?

Prosperity gospel, top three religions expressing adherence to in the US from GSS , latest data available:

1. Judaism
2. Black Pentecostalism
3. “Other religion”

And now in pursuit of truth I’ve said something in defense of evangelicals. Ugh.

Yeah shockingly Jon Oliver didn’t do his prosperity gospel piece in blackface or wearing a yalmulke. That wasn’t his target. Maybe not use Last Week Tonight as a news source.

Holy shit rayward for your own good take a break from this site.

Very interesting, and it sounds about right. Adopting a much larger time perspective, Paldam and Paldam in "The political economy of churches in Denmark, 1300–2015" (published in Public Choice last year) track the development of church building in Denmark. They find evidence suggesting that the decline in religiosity started in the mid-18th century, i.e. well before the industrial revolution in Denmark.

That sounds late - the Pietism movement, which was supposed to re-awaken a common sense of spirituality in the face of the stifling pharisean state church, arrived in the early 18th century.

Honestly, if I were to guess (And it *is* a guess, I have no statistics), I would guess the decline began in October of 1536, when Lutheran Protestantism became the state church. Not because Protestantism is less pious, but because "State Church" does exactly the same to religion as "State Telephone Company" does to telephony - without competition and with no profit motive, you have no way to measure success or failure, so you cannot see what initiatives work and which ones fail.

Very cool, an economic explanation why Danes and Norwegians are not very religious.

Again, keeping in mind that I'm just guessing.

An interesting control would be Germany, where Protestantism and Catholicism are in direct competition - and where the Protestants are in Northern Germany, in the parts bordering the Baltic and the North Sea, areas that are, culturally, fairly similar to Scandinavia. Did Protestantism suffer the same decline there? What if we exclude east-Germany where Communism deliberately tried to stamp it out?

If Protestantism in the north of Germany declined at the same rate as found in Scandinavia, that's a hard rebuttal of my guess.

(Separately, how did north-German Protestantism fare compared to south-German Catholicism? If Protestantism is falling at a faster rate than Catholicism, it might be a northern phenomenon, rather than a state-church phenomenon. If Protestantism and Catholicism are seeing similar results, not so much. If Protestantism in Germany is falling, I'd like to see a comparison with north/south Poland - is it a Baltic phenomenon? etc./)

The UK is another example of religiosity dying off under a calcified state church. Look too at the modern US, where the mainline Protestant churches, the ones that strive to match most closely to secular society's values, are shrinking, while the evangelical and non-denominational churches that position themselves as a challenge to authority are thriving.

That won't do. Of the four home nations two have (different) established churches and two don't. As far as I know religion has declined just as quickly in Wales as in Scotland and England.

"without competition and with no profit motive": the preceding Roman Catholicism had no competition either. I suppose the difference is that it had a huge profit motive.

They did have competition though - the kings.

As a separate and independent hierarchy, there was a lot of jockeying for influence. Popular support could be translated directly into power. The Lutheran Protestant church, being directly subservient to the king but also supported by the king, had fewer needs in that direction.

This is some threadbare logic which is appropriate since we are discussing Denmark.

Articulate how the king was anything like a competitor with the church for relgious adherents.

Oh that's simple - he wasn't.

Given that Europeans had no experience with state telephone companies, and thousands of years experience with state religions, really?

For that matter, taking an economic view before economics is invented?

Are you joking?

Looking back at the year 1300, and saying "religion is like a telephone monopoly," to own the libs.

It's usually noted that Scandinavia was thinly Christianized, often by royalty forcing superficial conversion for political reasons rather than by monks working among the population. Looking back across history you just don't find the sort of intense popular Christianity that shows up in other countries. And even in the 18th century Sweden especially was noted for the survival of paganistic sorcery and superstition.

And where is the paganism now? (Asking for a friend.)

"That is all from the new and interesting Brian Stanley"

Why did Cowen slam him like this? Everyone else he praises is "the excellent..."

Brian, if you are reading this, and I feel your pain.

Taxes, tithe?

In Denmark there's an specific tax for the member of the Lutheran church. In Norway churches get money from tax revenue, even though there's no specific church tax. Who says taxation does not make things less appealing?

Or is it the history of separation of church and modern states? Religious belief seem to be stronger in countries where the separation occurred. Religious leaders take the moral high ground and play a good cop/bad cop role with the state. In countries where church and state remained in bed together during the 20th century, churches lost most of credibility.

Doesn't explain why we still love public school so much, though.

This is just saying that religion is stronger outside of the west. In which western country were religion and the state no intwined. What’s even funnier is that religion and the state are intertwined outside the west too, but the kind of people that think this argument is insightful are completely ignorant of history so they don’t know that.

Also doesn’t explain why NFL teams that soak up tax subsidies don’t seem to suffer.

In other countries there have been regional variations like France or Spain. The fall of church attendance started in the mid-1700s in some regions in France (Greater Paris, around Bordeaux, around the Mediterranean Sea), while staying very high in Alsace, West, Auvergne until the 20th century. Dechristianisation may lead to civil war.

"It seems that Catholicism is much more inwardly bound up with the Latin races than all of Christianity is in general for us northerners and that, as a result, in Catholic countries unbelief means something entirely different from what it means in Protestant countries - namely, a form of rebellion against the spirit of the race; whereas, among us it means rather a turning back to the spirit (or non spirit) of the race. We northerners undoubtedly stem from races of barbarians, and this also holds with respect to our talent for religion. We are badly equipped for it." (Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, 48)

I think N has missed the point. Roman Catholicism is imbued with Mediterranean paganism/superstition but precious little of the Northern varieties. Thus the result he seeks to explain.

Against this I point out that Orthodoxy is also imbued with Hellenism and late Roman imperialism-- but it remains a force to be reckoned with among some nearby northerners, the Russians.

I blame Putin.

These numbers also include the free churches or only the state church?

I doubt those figures but, if correct, then they would show that church attendance has not that much to do with religious participation. Just as an example, when young and working four months on a Swedish merchant ship around Europe and down to South America, in many of the ports the Swedish Church had a real and tangible presence. And for a nation that as I saw it reached its development much based on risk taking, it sent clear messages.
But yes, lately it has, sort of strange, seemingly willingly given up much of its importance. Perhaps counting funerals, weddings, baptisms, confirmations and participation during special masses, New Year, Christmas and alike would be better in order to compare countries. I’ve seen the attendance in small Swedish churches (here and there) fluctuate from for instance 6 to 60 parishioners.
PS. Though I was confirmed some 50 years ago in the Swedish Church, my wife and daughters are catholic, and I often go to mass with them. How should that be counted?

Perhaps the Nordics were never fully christianized, anyway? Conversions from paganism/norse religions were ongoing up there in the 1500s, iirc. That's actually why the Teutonic Order went to Livland in the first place. And the Fjords are way harder to access than the Livonian lowlands!

Pre-christian Scandinavian tended to "believe" in cruel gods and harsh outcomes. That might have something to do with it.

There is an American preconception that religiosity came first and skepticism came second - perhaps because religious creation stories tell it that way.

Based on my experience of human nature, I think it much more likely that there have always been skeptics. They are just papered over in Sunday School.

I went to Sunday school and enjoyed it - a pleasant social institution with sweets, jokes, and general bonhomie. I never believed a word of it, though, from as early as I can remember.

Every Sunday I threw a tantrum of greater or lesser degree: "I don't want to GOOOO!" Then, invariably, I would enjoy it very much: the company of the other children, basking in the approval of the old lady as I raised my hand to answer all the questions/ recite all the verses, the vanilla sandwich cookies that really did seem like manna from heaven after sitting through the 11 o'clock service.

But unlike you I believed. I think I dimly sensed what an unlovable child I was, so it was with great fervor that I sang the class-ending "Jesus loves me, this I know."

An Archbishop of Canterbury was once asked to sum up Christianity in a sentence. He reckoned that your Sunday School had it right: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.

I thought it a brilliant answer.

Yes, churchgoing among Christian Danes may be low, and only about 20% of Danes consider religion important, but can you really consider a country with a constitution like Denmark's secular? "§ 4 The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and as such shall be supported by the State." And "§ 6 The King shall be a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church."

It is secular in that the Church of Denmark is controlled by the government rather than vice versa. It even has its own cabinet minister, as if it were a health service or an army.

A lot of those Churches were pretty strict. Probably turned people off.

Actually, falling from 8% to 3% is exceedingly large for overall religiosity.

On any average Sunday near 100% of weekly churchgoers will be present, 50% of biweekly churchgoers, about 25% of monthly church goers, 12.5% of bimonthlies,~ 4% of biyearlies, and ~2% of yearlies.

If we have a flat distribution of adherence levels that means that should expect that 4% were weekly attenders, 4% bikweekly, etc. If we interpret it strictly, that means that we would expect there to be 12% attending at least monthly and around 26% to be attending yearly or better.

Running the same numbers at 4% means that we are looking at around only around 13% attending yearly or better.

This is going to be worse because typically there are far more infrequent participants in any activity than there are regulars. If we have twice as many biweekly attenders as weeklies and that pattern continues then moving from 8% on a Sunday we find that about 1.3% attends every week ... but >80% of the population attend at least yearly. Moving down to 4% average weekly attendance means that we have about 0.7% attending weekly and only about 40% ever attending.

Moving from a society where only 20% of the population have absolutely no interest in church to one where the majority does not is indeed a major change in social expectation.

And this could be far worse. If we have a strong bimodal population (e.g. a small amount of committed weekly attenders, few intermediates and a bunch of vague couple of times a year folks) the drop off is even steeper.

As always small changes in average are pretty meaningless compared to what happens in the tail. The smallest amount of average church attendance is determined by the infrequent attenders, but changes there will much more dramatically change society.

Secularization has certainly been going on centuries in the Nordic countries, but I would still expect to have accelerated when we look at the frequency of attendance and their contribution to the average weekly numbers.

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