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God is Not Dead, etc., Part 2 March 16, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Getting back to the issue of non-religion in Scandinavia (sorry it took so long—I’ve been swamped with work): I appreciate the comments, but I’m afraid I’ll have to burst some bubbles. It may seem as if Scandinavians have found a way to live beyond religion, in a meta-spiritual cultural stage, hitherto only achieved by Zen-masters. But the real story is a bit more complex. Strange to say, in the land of Kierkegaard issues of faith, God and the afterlife are simply no longer conversation topics—not because these issues don’t exist, but because they are considered embarrassing. The original NY Times article by Peter Steinfels reported that people only reluctantly confess to believing in God. Here I should mention that in Denmark (contrary to in Sweden) there is no separation between church and state, and (at least when I was a kid) religion, i.e., Protestantism, was taught in elementary school. You’d think that this would create a climate for an open and passionate discussion about religion. Not so; what has happened is a separation of ritual from the supernatural. As the article points out, there is much emphasis on celebrating religious holidays (Christmas, Easter and Whitsun), but truthfully, very few Scandinavians are completely aware of the religious connotation of the latter two—and the Christian underpinnings of Christmas have blended together with remnants of the ancient pagan Yule celebration (which never really went away). But this doesn’t mean that the rituals have lost importance, on the contrary.

Here we need to take a detour around the concept of secular religion. On occasion, Americans celebrate cultural rituals (usual historic anniversaries) with a passion that is typical of religious rituals. If you have ever participated in such rituals, you can probably relate to the rituals that in Scandinavia have all but replaced religion: They have little to do with national history, but everything to do with family traditions. The American celebration of Thanksgiving comes closest to this phenomenon. Celebrating Christmas, Easter and Whitsun is not only an occasion for family to get together, but the celebrations offer solace, “comfort and joy”—not because of the promise of religious transcendence, but because of a familiarity stretching back generations, involving foods, hymns and songs, traditional gifts, dinner toasts and speeches, all performed according to a rigorously observed pattern. These traditions used to be centered around the observance of the religious holidays, of course, but sometime during the 20th century a subtle shift happened: Instead of the family traditions being secondary to the religious meaning, the religious subtext has now become secondary to the family traditions. (And, as an aside, this strong commitment to the greater concept of “family” provides an unquestionable underpinning for the value system that the Steinfels article identifies as Christian values.) Criticism of/disregard for these traditions (as has been happening lately due to the influx of immigrant groups) is considered a cultural and personal affront, frequently resulting in anger that almost reaches the level of the anger displayed by other cultures taking offense at what they consider blasphemy.

So where did religion go? For all intents and purposes, religion has become the external occasion for this celebration of deep, internal family connections (real or wished-for); the holy texts are being read in church, but for many, maybe most of the congregation, it isn’t the message of the text that is all-important, but the comfort in the childhood memories of having heard the same text with loved ones. That being said, this is not equivalent to saying that Danes and Swedes have no true religion—many have. Aside from small communities which are traditionally Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, many others consider themselves deeply spiritual, but it is a spirituality of a (for American standards) strangely amorphous kind, a vague notion of meeting loved ones in the hereafter, and of departed loved ones watching over you, with God and Jesus as friendly overseers. In my view, the author of the study, Phil Zuckerman, is mistaken if he thinks that Danes have no interest in religious issues, or in some kind of reassurance of life after death—they just don’t have any interest in talking about it. This is not in itself a departure from Lutheranism which regards one’s faith as an ultimately personal matter. But perhaps one of the contributing reasons for this reluctance to air one’s personal religious views is that throughout the 20th century intellectuals, chiefly the so-called culture radicalist—a highly successful and influential mid-century Danish cultural movement with Marxist sympathies without being outright Marxist—have taught the Danish public that religion is for dummies, and nobody wants to be considered a dummy. So the lack of interest in religion is a façade, covering a spectrum of attitudes from an outright rejection of religion, to a lukewarm oblivious traditionalism and/or a celebration of family cohesion, to a deeply personal faith that one just doesn’t talk about. My impression is that similar attitudes can be found in intellectual, “Blue” communities in the United States as well. Whether this is a peek into the future of religion in America, and whether the Danish/Swedish form of non-religion ought to be considered a desirable alternative to American present-day religious disagreements and politics infused with religion, is something that you have to decide for yourself. I personally can’t help but think that it is not the ultimate answer, being to a certain extent founded in group-pressure in a small culture where it has made sense to seek homogeneity over individual expression for generations. Besides, the youth in Sweden and Denmark are rebelling against their parents, as usual. Guess what? They’re becoming religious…