March towards the post-religious society – the case of Norway Even Gran, Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA)

Development of secularism in Norway From monoculturalism to diversity.  A historical overview.

 
Norway has its base in a traditional, monocultural society with nearly only one ethnic group, one religion, and an economy reliant on fisheries and subsistence farming. Christianity has up to the present time been the single dominant community-buliding force. And that force hasn’t always been inclusive and tolerant. 

 
An example: In 1569 the Norwegian/Danish king ruled that all foreigners who wanted to visit the country had to be Lutheran christians. If not, they would be expelled. This strain of thought has sadly lingered up to our times. The ideas from the French revolution about freedom, equality and brotherhood did not reach Norway in time to prevent the Norwegian constitution of 1814 to ban catholic monk-orders, jesuites and jews from the country. This constitution is still celebrated every year on May 17, our national day, but of course the constitution has been amended later on. Catholic monks, jesuites and jews are now welcome.
 
This constitution of 1814 also laid down the legal framework for Norway’s Lutheran, evangelical state church, that I will talk a bit more about later on. 
 
However, Norwegians were not completely cut off from the rest of the world. The age of enlightenment had its impact also up north, and during the 19th century and further on in the 20th century, things started to diversify. In 1845, a law came along that allowed other Christian denominations than the evangelical Lutheran one, to practice their faith. That was obviously a step in the right direction, though no other religions than Christianity, not to mention atheism, were considered. 
 
Slowly, things continued to move in the right direction. In the latter part of the 19th century, the Norwegian free thinking movement made an impact. People started to, and were to an increasing degree expected to, think for themselves. Slowly the mentality shifted. Whether to go along with tradition or not, became a choice of the individual. As things progressed, whether to believe in the Christian faith, and what denomination to adhere to, was more and more something you were expected to decide for yourself. This was unthinkable in earlier times. Nobody pondered on whether to be a Christian or not before this great shift. That was just something you were as a result of the society you were born into. 
 
Of course, this is connected to the general trend of individualization that the entire western world went through during the 19th and the 20th century. Another important factor was the rise of modern science, and the general emphasis on rationality that luckily prevailed especially in Northern Europe. (which again can be linked to Lutheran work ethics, that deeply affected northern European mentality). 
 
Sometimes a comparison between different countries can be enlightening, to see where different countries and cultures place themselves across the two axes Survival values vs. Emancipatory values and Traditional values vs. Secular/rational values.
 
A post-religious, secular nation – what does it look like? The Norwegian case
 
Today, Norway, is among the most “post-religious” secular countries in the world. Only Sweden beat us. What are the core tenets of such a society?
 
1.First, in the public sphere, purely religious reasoning has no relevance. You will not be taken seriously in such a society, if you base your opinion on what it says in the Bible or the Quran. You have to find valid secular and rational arguments. 
 
Here, the Christian democratic party of Norway may serve as an example. They are against same sex marriages (which, by the way, is granted as a right in a new Norwegian law, strongly applauded by the NHA). But do they say that the reason for this is that the Bible says homosexuality is sinful? No. They argue that children who grow up without a father will suffer from it. They say that society will suffer when a lot of children grow up without a father figure. In a secular society, Christians have to argue against homosexual marriages in this way. They have to do it by highlighting the rights and wellbeing of the child. 
 
This is a secular argument. Not a religious one. If they had said that they opposed the bill because “homosexuality is a sin”, or something like that, nobody would have taken them seriously. And they know that. 
 
2. That brings us to another important trait of a secular society: Religion and religious leaders no longer have the political power they previously had. It is religion that has to play according to the secular standards of the society, and not the other way around. The priests have lost their power to define the core values of the society. Humanist, secular values define and change what is portrayed as religious values. I will say some more about this later.
 
3. Thirdly, religion is seen as something belonging to the private sphere. The state and the public sector, in reality if not formally, remains neutral to religion and lifestance.   
 
4. However, as a fourth point, an important part of the process of secularization is also that the people living in such a society actually becomes less religious. That is obviously the case in Norway. In national surveys, around 40-45 % will say they believe in the existence of “some sort of God” (very loosely defined). That means that a majority of Norwegians are de-facto atheist, and that the believers, believe very loosely. If you narrow the questioning down to the basic Christian dogmas (Jesus died on a cross and freed us from sin etc.), you’re down to around 10-15% believers. 
 
It’s also important to note that most of the Norwegian de facto atheists will not identify as such if you asked them. Only perhaps 10-15% would declare themselves as atheists. Gora’s struggle to change how the term is percieved, sadly didn’t reach Norway. The term atheism is perceived to being actively anti-religious. And most people, though they don’t believe themselves, don’t want to be seen as actively anti-religious, precisely because in a secular, modern society, religion is purely a private matter that others shouldn’t interfere with. 
 
5.Another important trait of the secularization process, is the secularization of the religions themselves. They tend to be less and less based on traditional dogma, and more and more inclined to adopt a modern and liberal value system. The Norwegian State Church is a perfect example of this. In the last 50-100 years it has moved from an authoritarian, traditionalist position, to value positions that are for the large part shared by the NHA and the big majority of the Norwegian population. They have female bishops and homosexuals are allowed to be priests. They still have a way to go, though. We still haven’t seen a Norwegian homosexual bishop, and homosexuals are still not allowed to be married in church. But they’re coming along. In Sweden, the dominant Lutheran church already have both homosexual bishops and marriages, and in Denmark they have even had a priest that openly confessed that he doesn’t believe in God. 
 
What he actually said was this: “God belongs to the past. He is actually so old-fashioned that I wonder why modern people can believe that he exists. I am thoroughly tired of empty talk about miracles and eternal life”. There was a big row, but the Danish priest was allowed to continue with his priesthood. 
 
Current affairs – some examples
 
Now, I will go through some of the central changes that we have seen in the relationship between state and religion in Norway in recent years.
 
The transformation of the state church 
 
I have said that only 10-15% of the Norwegian population believe in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, nearly 80% of the population are members of the Norwegian state church. Yes, a state church. Despite the fact that Norway has become a largely secular state, we have one big exception to that fact, and that is the state church. The foundation for the state church was laid down in the constitution of 1814 that I metioned earlier. Here it simply said that “the evangelical Lutheran faith remains the official religion of the state”. 
 
The explanation for this apparent contradiction between a non-believing population in a largely secular state, and a state chuch, is largely explained by the fact that most people regard the state chuch not as being a religious entity, but as a cultural institution. The church is a place where you baptise your children, get married and get buried in the end. Most state church members in Norway never go to church on other occasions. The day with the highest church attendance is Christmas eve, and I will dare to say that the large part of that attendance comes from a wish to “get into the Christmas mood”, and pay homage to tradition, rather than being a sign of genuine worship. 
 
However, this year is a historical one when it comes to the state church arrangement in Norway. Yes, on May 12. 2012 a long process of amending the constitution when it comes to the state church finally came to a conclusion. On that day, only some two months ago, our National assembly voted to remove “the evangelical Lutheran faith remains the official religion of the state” from the constitution and insert the following phrase: “The basis of our values remain our Christian and humanist inheritance. This constitution shall preserve democracy, rule of law and human rights”.  
 
Of course, this was a big step in the right direction, despite the needless mentioning of “Christian and humanist inheritance”. Some other amendments were also done. The obligation for Christian parents to give their children a Christian upbringing was also luckily removed. 
 
Nevertheless, the state church still remains a state church as the NHA views it. The only real practical change is that the church now can appoint their own bishops. This will no longer be done exclusively by the Government. Apart from this, the king is still obliged to be a Lutheran Christian, and the state church is the only religious community that is governed through a special designated law. 
 
The NHA have of course always fought against the Norwegian state church arrangement, and we are still not pleased with the legislation. But, of course, the recent amendments to the constitution are important steps in the right direction, and are also a sign of the overall process of secularization still going on
 
Compulsory religious 
teaching in schools 
 
Another area where we have moved in the right direction, but where the NHA are still not satisfied, is when it comes to the compulsory religion/lifestance teaching in public schools. 
 
The Norwegian public school system is based on the religiously based education system of the 18th and 19th century, and that heritage has proved to be hard to get rid of. Up till 1974 public schools had a designated subject on Christianity that was based on the state religion. It was possible to opt out of the religious education, but pupils that were exempted did not get alternative education. The aim of the subject was to give pupils a “Christian and moral upbringing”. 
 
This was one of the formal aims with the Norwegian schools system until it was changed in 2008. The NHA have of course protested against this state funded compulsory religious education ever since its inception. In 1974 we won through. Pupils got to choose between, on the one side, the purely Christian subject, and, on the other, an intendedly neutral lifestance subject, where the aim was to teach children about the world religions and lifestances without choosing sides. 
 
The situation with the two eligible subjects lasted until 1997. Then, the government decided that they wanted to unite the two subjects to a unified and compulsory subject. This was called “Christianity, religion and ethics”. 
 
The NHA protested heavily and claimed that this subject was not neutral at all. We supported a group of parents that sued the Norwegian state for a violation of human rights for imposing such a Christian-biased subject without offering an alternative. 
 
The NHA and the parents lost in all three instances of the Norwegian legal system, and then the case went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Here, the Norwegian state lost, the parents won, and Norway had to change the subject to a more neutral one in 2008. 
 
Like in the case of the state church, this is a step in the right direction, but the NHA is still not satisfied. But nevertheless: One can surely say that secularism won yet another battle. 
 
The old and the new mission statements of Norwegian public schools. 
 
Another case I want to mention briefly, is that the mission statements of Norwegian public schools and kindergarten have been changed. As I mentioned, before 2008 Norwegian public schools were obliged by law to give children a “Christian and moral upbringing”. This has now been changed for the better.
 
 
Even Gran - The Norwegian State Church is a perfect example of this. In the last 50-100 years it has moved from an authoritarian, traditionalist position, to value positions that are for the large part shared by the NHA and the big majority of the Norwegian population.
 
Now, the wording says that public schools and kindergartens “shall build on basic values in Christian and humanist inheritance and tradition”. 
 
The NHA has of course been an active participant in the political processes concerning this, but are naturally not satisfied with the “Christian and humanist inheritance and tradition” wording. Though again, a step in the right direction.
 
The return of religion in a post-religious society?
 
Among scholars, there is a big debate on whether secularization is still really progressing, or if we experience a backlash. Some claim that religion is coming back, and especially point to the USA where conservative religion seems to be regaining some of its power.  
 
I will not go into a big discussion of it here, but statistics clearly show that secularization still is happening in Europe. To take a very much debated issue, research shows that the vast majority of muslim immigrants in Europe, who carry a traditional value system, seem to adopt more modern, secular, and less religious, values, the longer they live in Europe. 
 
Traditional, community-based religions are especially weakened by the current secularization. They are losing their power. However, we see a growth on another front. New age is on the rise. This is the vague idea that there is a “spiritual world” and that there are several ways of making contact with this ethereal, supernatural world. New age lends freely from different world religions, especially from hinduism. Every individual within the “new age” line of thought, mix his or her own belief system from ingredients found in the world religions, different cults and personal experience. There are no right or wrongs in this movement. Everything is allowed and regarded at “your truth”, as opposed to “my truth”. The movement is highly anti-science. Mistrust and conspiracy theories around scientists and scientifically acquired knowledge almost take the form of a religious confession. 
 
New age is on the rise in Norway, and in a lot of other western countries too. In a society where individualism is stronger than ever, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the extremely individualized approach of new age, and the corresponding demise of community-based traditional religion. It’s a religion tailored for individualism. You make your own. There are no authorities or rules. Just you. And may be some Indian gurus and other cynical people who take advantage of people’s gullibility. 
 
New age also comes with the unpleasant side effect of commercialism. Alternative treatments with no scientific documentation whatsoever are sold to “believers” who in the worst cases suffer from deadly diseases. In the worst cases, this is cynical exploitation of highly vulnerable dying people. They are just desperate, and want to try everything for a chance to live on. We have seen some ugly examples of this in Norway, as I’m sure you’ve seen in India as well. 
 
The wealth of the Nordic nations is based on it being relatively unified nations that have embraced rationality and science as the leading light. Now this is being threatened by the irrationality and anti-science propaganda of the new age-movement. 
 
We in the NHA try to fight this the best we can. Since march 2011, I have been the leader of a NHA-campaign we call “Nobody likes to be fooled”, where we try to warn against the irrationality of new age and “alternative medicine”, and try to make people more aware of the explanatory power of the scientific principles. Though scientific temper and rationality to a large extent is interwoven in the Norwegian mentality, we experience that the public awareness around this crucial way of thinking, is too low. We have become unaware of the very basis of our own prosperity. So we at the NHA try to do something about this. In March last year we had the famous American skeptic James Randi visiting three Norwegian cities, and got a lot of media attention.
 Indian vs. Norwegian secularism
 
Religion obviously has more power in India than in Norway, as we also saw in the chart I showed earlier. But in my view, Indians seem to have a better and more profound understanding of the secular principles. Norway’s tradition is monoculturalism. For most of Norway’s history, there has only been one religion and one people. 
 
India, on the other hand, has always had to deal with ethnic and religious plurality. You have had to learn to live peacefully with each other and adopt rules that allow differences, while retaining some sort of social cohesion across the ethnic and religious groups. One key element here is tolerance. While traditionalist, christian Norway still is still having a hard time coping with the shock of having muslim immigrants, it seems to me that India has come much further in the process of living together despite the differences. 
 
Indian tolerance was demonstrated to me the first time I visited the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada. While Norway and other European countries discuss banning the face-covering niqab and burka on muslim women, I suddenly saw one of the girls here at Vasavya Mahila Mandali wearing a niqab. She didn’t have to take it off, though this is an atheist facility. She was welcome. And when I looked at her, I could see in her eyes that she was smiling. Hopefully, in time, she could herself get the courage she needs to take off this suppressive piece of clothing. 
 
The second time I was here, I saw two catholic nuns waiting at the hospital of the Atheist Centre. I was told that they are good neighbours that came to use the hospital of the Atheist Centre.
 
Tolerance goes the other way also. In Chennai, they have several statues of the great Periyar in public places. These are statues of a man who is famously quoted to say “There is no god. There is no god. There is no god at all. He who invented god is a fool. He who propogates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian”. 
 
No less, ladies and gentlemen. These are very harsh words, and the words are even printed in the base of some of these statues. 
 
I can guarantee you – a statue like that could never have been raised in Oslo or any other Norwegian or European city. That shows that also the atheists enjoy a far greater tolerance here than in many western countries.
 
Excerpts of Speech delivered by Even Gran in a Special Meeting organized by The Rationalists’ Forum 
at Periyar   Thidal, Chennai – 29th July 2012
 

 

Comments are closed.