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Secularity in Sweden is ambiguous. Even though it may be considered as a particularly secular context, the religious and the secular in Sweden can be described as intertwined. This could explain some of the contradictions and paradoxes in the Swedish religious landscape. Sweden is often thought of as a secularized country, sometimes as the most secularized in the world. Indeed, if believing in God and going to church are central features of religiosity, Sweden may be described as an exceptionally secular context. For example, when compared to other countries, church attendance in Sweden is extremely low. In the large quantitative study known as ‘World Value Survey’ (2010-2014), in which scholars have measured what people have consider to have been important values over the past decades, only 3 % of Swedes answered that they attend church every week.

Furthermore, in the 2010 European Value Survey (EVS), only 15 % agreed with the statement ‘I believe in a personal God’. In this context, sociologist of religion Thorleif Petterson has shown that from a comparative European perspective, only Czechs pray less, identify themselves as religious to a lesser degree, and attend religious services less frequently. In terms of these measures of religiosity, Sweden is therefore exceptional.

However, if one chooses to measure the religiosity of Swedes on the basis of other aspects of religiosity, a different image arises. For example, membership in religious denominations reveals that as of 2014, 66 % of the population are members of the Church of Sweden, whereas 8 % are members of one of the free Churches, the Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, or a Muslim or Jewish congregation. Hence, in this sense Sweden does not appear to be the highly secularized country other indicators of religiosity used in sociology might suggest. Even though the Church of Sweden is seeing a rapid decrease in membership numbers — in 2012-2013, approximately 1 % of its members have left the Church — the majority of Swedes are still members, and pay approximately one per cent of their income in Church taxes.

In addition, in terms of participation in religious rites, reference is sometimes made to a ‘Swedish paradox’ reflecting a situation whereby the majority of the population has weak Church-associated beliefs (such as in God or resurrection), but still continues to turn to Church rites in defining moments in life. Even though numbers are steadily declining, according to statistics provided by the Church of Sweden, more than 34 % of all marriages celebrated in Sweden in 2013 were still solemnized within the Church of Sweden, and 48.5 % of all children born in 2013 were baptized. Furthermore, 78 % of burial services were performed according to the rites of the Church of Sweden. Hence, these figures suggest that even though Swedish people do not regularly participate in organized religious practice or rites, in key events of life many do connect to the Church of Sweden.

Another factor contesting the thoroughly secular image of Sweden is belief-related. Even though few Swedes participating in quantitative surveys believe that there is a God, other belief statements are nonetheless endorsed. In 2005 for example, 53 % of the Swedes believed in ‘some sort of spirit or life force’. In the 2010 EVS, 46 % of respondents agreed with such a statement, while 19 % were unsure as to what they believed in.

Hence, what the results from quantitative surveys actually tell us about religious change is a conundrum sociologists of religion in particular are trying to make sense of. Two main lines of interpretation can be discerned: on the one hand, scholars interpret statistical data as indicative of an increasing marginalization of religion; on the other hand, they see signs of an increase in New-Age inspired holistic spirituality with strong connections to contemporary values.

Sociologist Erika Willander argues that neither interpretation fully explains the high level of membership in religious organizations in combination with the frequency of affirmation of the belief in ‘something’ or in ‘some sort of spirit or life force’. She also shows that the pattern of affiliation, belief and practice has been surprisingly stable among what she calls ‘the [Swedish] religious mainstream’ over the last 130 years, despite quite dramatic societal changes, for example in terms of legislation on religion, religious education in compulsory schools, or opinions on religion expressed by the cultural mainstream. To suggest that there has been a significant change in behavior among the religious Swedish mainstream during this period is therefore misleading. What can be confirmed concerning developments in Sweden during the last hundred years is that the ways in which the majority of people are and are not religious defy understandings of religion that rely on specific connections between affiliation, practice and embracing Church dogma. In this sense, the Swedish case challenges prevailing theories on secularization and conceptions of what it means to be secular.

In Sweden modernization involved a challenge to the Church of Sweden. Part of this process entailed the gradual separation between the Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the State. This notwithstanding, theologians Girmalm and Rosenius argue that it is more correct to talk about a changed relationship rather than a disestablishment of the Church of Sweden, since legislation regulating the Church of Sweden both in terms of belief contents and organizational structure still exists. In fact, one effect of the 2000 disestablishment is increasing cooperation between the Church of Sweden and public authorities. Thus, paradoxically because a result of the Church-State separation process, the Church’s influence on the public sphere can be said to be on the rise. Despite the declaration of separation between State and Church, the juridical bond between the political ‘Sweden project’ and the Church of Sweden offers this particular denomination an exceptional status when compared to the country’s other religious denominations.

Van der Breemer, Casanova and Wyller (2014) argue that the distinctive Lutheran brand of Protestantism, which can be individuated in Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden, poses a challenge to prevailing theories about secularization and conceptions of secularity. They suggest that in terms of law, Scandinavian secularization is characterized by ambiguity and an ‘intertwinement’ between the religious and secular spheres. What we see in Sweden, sociologist José Casanova (2014) suggests, is part of a particularly Nordic, Protestant pattern of secularization, distinct from the Southern, Catholic pattern, as well as from the American Protestant one. The Nordic pattern of secularization is marked by a high degree of integration between Church and State, as well as by a comparatively low presence of explicitly religious ideas in public discourse. Therefore, the question as to whether or not the perception of Sweden as secularized in terms of functional differentiation is accurate, as well as how deeply rooted this secularization is, is subject to debate.

The symbolism of the separation between the Church of Sweden as a denomination and Sweden as a nation should nevertheless not be underestimated. It betokens a collective and public self-understanding with regard to religion and religious diversity. The separation signals that Sweden is a country where religious concerns and what are perceived as secular institutions (such as the judicial or educational systems) are separated.

In Sweden there is strong support for the idea that individuals should be able to appreciate and appropriate religious aspects from a variety of religious contexts. In addition, many Swedes consider more than one religion to be a bearer of truth. This attitude represents what I call a perspectival approach, characterized by openness towards different perspectives and reluctance to articulate a definitive strong stance. For example, in the 2010-2014 World Value Survey, every second Swedish respondent to the survey said that he/she was ‘not religious’ (an arguably vague statement), whereas only 18 % of respondents chose the stronger, more definitive ‘atheist’ position.

The perhaps most obvious structural concretization of such a perspectival approach is Swedish religious education (RE) in compulsory schools. Swedish RE is unique in the sense that it is compulsory, integrative, with no opt-out possibility. It includes teaching about different religions and ‘non-religious worldviews’, and it is officially non-denominational. In this type of religious education, the idea that learning about different ideas about life is positive for the formation of an individual’s own perspective is fundamental.

Furthermore, there is evidence of what has been observed in other parts of the world, i.e. that people seem to be crossing borders between denominations with apparent ease, that ideology is being downplayed in favor of inner experiences, that secular and religious activities are being staged side by side, and that to many people today, defining practices, ideas or people as either religious or secular seems irrelevant. Hence, not only is the blurring of distinctions between the religious and the secular an important part of the Scandinavian pattern of secularity with regard to the public sphere, but blurring, or perhaps I should say disregard for, boundaries is arguably also characteristic of how today at least some people live religion in Sweden.

In conclusion, how can the pulse of people’s religiosity in contemporary Sweden be measured? Arguably, quantifying Church-oriented religious expressions such as going to church or believing in God is not the best way, as research has shown that many Europeans today are ‘neither religious nor completely unreligious’ according to standard quantitative measures of religiosity. In Sweden, on the basis of a denomination-centered way of studying religion and analysis of survey questions aiming to categorize people as either religious or not religious, the majority of respondents in large-scale surveys do not fit the conceptual extremes. Instead they end up in a ‘fuzzy’ borderland, somewhere ‘in-between’. In order to appreciate the complexity of Swedish secularity, an alternative understanding of ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ is needed, an understanding that appreciates diversity and fluidity in the religious landscape, as well as complexity and contradiction.

Ann af Burén (Södertörn University).

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