Scandinavians Believe In God, Just Not Quite As Much

Few peoples conjure up images of aloof non-believers quite like the Scandinavians. But it turns out these blonde-haired, blue-eyed skeptics aren't as non-believing as you think.


During Easter Week it's important to note that these godless detractors are not really atheists and not really agnostics. In fact, they hold on to their Christianity, albeit a diluted version, in more ways than religious Americans would think.

Like so much that is important in the U.S.--overzealous litigation, an indomitable work ethic, big cars--religion is just not immensely relevant to day-to-day life in Scandinavia. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College spent 14 months in Sweden and Denmark mining residents' religious fervor and was able to map out some of the gray area between non-theological belief and atheism.

Not surprisingly, he found that in two countries with some of the lowest rates of church attendance in the world, most people do not spend a lot of time contemplating God. Of the Danes, Zuckerman said "they were agnostics, they just didn't self-describe that way" noting the unfamiliarity with the word "agnostic" in Danish.

"For the vast majority of Scandinavians," he explained, "their Christianity was based on family and lifestyle rituals but not theological beliefs." This "cultural religion" might only include a handful of church visits over the course of someone's life.

Zuckerman found only 2-5% of Scandinavians he polled held deep Christian convictions like evangelicals in the U.S. Still only about 10% said they were avowedly atheist. Most fell somewhere in the middle where religion was a "non-issue."

The sociologist attributed the low incidence of atheism to the fundamentally weak role of Christianity in the first place. "When religion is quite weak in society, you don't find many people opposing it." Scandinavian atheists were far less vocal than atheists in the U.S., for example.

Zuckerman noted American Jews--and Christians as well--have long subscribed to Scandinavia's version of a cultural religion, in which "believers" are more passive practitioners who go through the motions of church and synagogue without a deeper connection to the underlying precepts.

"Million and millions of people may be religiously involved but are not holding on to firm beliefs about God," Zuckerman said.

The Scandinavian approach researched by Zuckerman would likely find a friend in Sam Harris who when, visiting Big Think, said "I just see continually our attention bound up in these competing ideas about God. At best this is often just a waste of time but at worse it is manufacturing violence and unnecessary conflict and misuses of our resources."

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