07 September 2023

Private faith and public worship in Norway (with Susanne Kromberg)

Commemorative bell (serial number 114)
from Bakkehaugen Church, Oslo, where I was
There might be something odd about Norway ...

... specifically, about the gap between personal faith and public religious behavior.

I'm referring to a study by political scientist and American Baptist pastor Ryan Burge, well known for his statistical analyses of religion in the USA. On this occasion, he was comparing religious behavior in Europe and the USA, asking "How secular is Europe compared to the United States?"

One chart in particular caught my interest, the one labeled "Comparing Europe to the United States on two measures of religion." The horizontal axis is "Share Attending Services Weekly" and the vertical axis is "Share Saying Religion is Very Important."

The countries of Europe and the states of the USA find their places on the graph according to those two indicators, with the size of their markers proportionate to their populations. As Ryan Burge summarizes,

It should come as no surprise that a lot of European countries are on the bottom left of the graph, which represents low attendance and low importance, while American states are in the top right with high attendance and high importance.

Burge goes on to draw our attention to the outliers—those states and countries where there's a big divergence between church attendance and the individual's sense of the importance of religion. In Poland, for example, the gap between attendance and personal importance is large, in favor of attendance, whereas the opposite seems to be true in Serbia and Croatia.

Sweden, Denmark, and Finland cluster together at the bottom left of the graph, seemingly indicating both low attendance (around 4%) and low importance of religion, around 10%. Norway's church attendance is about the same as Sweden's and Finland's, but the level of "religion is very important" is way up near 20%, practically equaling New Hampshire's.

I turned to Norwegian Quaker theologian, counselor, and chaplain Susanne Kromberg for some thoughts on Norway as an outlier in these statistics, particularly in comparison with the other Scandinavian countries. Judy and I have known Susanne for almost thirty years, and she's particularly sensitive to cultural contexts, having lived for at least ten years on each of three continents—Africa, Europe, and North America. Here's her reply, which she's given me permission to quote:

After trying out some different thoughts tied to the differences between the countries, I think it has to do with the self-image of the nations, which is tied to the particulars of our location and history and the great equaliser, the plague of 1349 called the Black Death. I’ll make some sweeping generalisations in the following, though I’m usually a big fan of nuance. In sum, I think the history of organised religion in Norway is closely tied to resistance to our colonisers, first Denmark and then Sweden, whereas neither Denmark nor Sweden have that recent history of domestic oppression that would drive them to seek the help of a higher power.

All three countries have a shared history of polytheism, traveling trade, and the kind of local autonomy/democracy associated with the Viking era. Though there was some fighting, pillaging, plundering, and raping, which is what the Vikings are known for, overall, their venture was more about trading, settling and integrating into the communities they encountered. Or Leif Ericsson, who ‘discovered’ North America, but found it wasn’t worth the effort and left again.

With regard to religion, the Scandinavian countries accepted Christianity with relatively little drama, as is often the case with polytheistic societies - ‘another God to add to the mix? Thor and Odin won’t mind having yet another deity, so why not believe in Jesus, too?’ It took another several hundred years before Scandinavians became monotheistic, in a gradual process.

The Danish self-image is of sophistication, of being close to the continent, close to French ideals, cuisine, appreciation of art, and the joys of living. But unlike the French, they think of themselves as unflappable and unlikely to get excited and emotional, they are above it all. These are not qualities that lend themselves to religious fervour or belief in the supernatural! Denmark had a brief stint as a colonial power, both abroad (Danish Virgin Islands, forts off West Africa and a merchant navy that was active in the African slave trade). Alliance with Napoleon and part of that vision of expansion and Empire. And occupation of Norway for 400 years, of course.

Swedes… a long era of Empire. I find it hard to say much about Swedish self-image, because identity is often forged in resistance to occupation, and that’s not Sweden's history. They don’t have an independence year/date. They were a European superpower and their territory expanded far into Norway, Denmark, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, and Germany. They had colonies in the Caribbean and West Africa, too. And of course ruled Norway for 91 years, following Denmark’s occupation of Norway. An often-expressed ideal is ‘lagom’ which doesn’t really translate into English, but is something like ‘just right’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘good enough'. As with peoples with a long history of power, they don’t pursue excellence, superiority, domination, assertion, expression of self, etc. Not qualities that lend themselves to religious fervour or belief in the supernatural, either!

Norway has a very different history, having been a colony for 500 years after a Norwegian. Following the pandemic of 1349, Norway’s elite and leadership were dead, and a royal marriage brought Norway into a “union” with Denmark. Norwegians had the usual experience of being colonised. Wealth was extracted to the coloniser, so Norwegians were heavily taxed on their farming or had terrible working conditions in mines. Starvation, disease and alcohol… The early wave of missionaries that were an extension of colonialism had little success. Turns out that threatening freezing Arctic people with eternal Hellfire doesn’t work - being warm sounded so lovely!

It was only when Danish pastors took pity on the starving, impoverished Norwegians that Christianity started to grow. Norwegians were not allowed to grow potatoes, lest they become independent of importing expensive Danish wheat - but pastors smuggled potatoes into Norway and subversively spread them to their impoverished parishioners, saving countless lives. The Pietistic versions of Christianity were powerfully subversive: Alcohol was banned, promiscuity outlawed, and the mindset of betterment was established. Without addiction and sexually transmitted diseases, people were empowered to read and write and take charge of their lives! The Lay movement of the 1800s, (led by Norwegian Hans Nielsen Hauge) was equally powerfully subversive because it placed religious authority in the individual, and the Danish pastor Grundtvig (also 1800s) led a revival based on Enlightenment ideas of universal Light and education, not just for children but also for adults. Nobility was Danish, the educated and wealthy class were Danish, so there was little inequality or stratification among Norwegians - the Norwegian movement was united.

Resistance to occupation grew and these religious movements mutually fed each other. Norway gained independence from Denmark in 1814, but was forced into a union with Sweden, and this was during the National Romantic era. Norwegian poets and painters rhapsodised about Norway’s nature, the fjords, mountains, valleys, rivers, water nymphs, forest elves, mountain trolls, and more. Norwegians gained their independence in 1905 through struggle, self reliance, national romanticism and religious revival - all the components of religious fervour and belief in the supernatural.

And therein lie the roots of current religiosity without religious participation: struggle for survival, national identity, national romanticism, and a Lay religious revival that coincided with each other and mutually reinforced each other. The Norwegian self-image, though pragmatic, is more down-to-earth, passionate, and nature-loving.

In this increasingly secular time, I think that original religious fervour has softened into a love of nature, romanticising nature, and belief in the healing quality of being outdoors. Which, as we know, is linked with awe, gratitude, well-being, and a sense of the transcendent. Makes me think of Psalm 8.

It was striking to me that Queen Sonja, in her recent memoir, said “We believe in something greater than ourselves, that wishes us well”. I don’t think she would have said that unless she believed that what she was saying was broadly reflective of Norwegians’ beliefs.

As for Norway’s missionary zeal, I think it has to do with the sense of solidarity that developed because of the entwined movements I’ve described. The struggle for survival, the religious Lay revival, and the relative lack of stratification in Norwegian society, all lend themselves to strong sense of solidarity. Marcus Thrane was Norway’s great Socialist and Labor organiser, and the movement he led coincided with the Lay Revival - the focus on bringing people out of poverty, educating people, and empowering the Laity also mutually reinforced each other. My understanding of the Norwegian missionary movement was that it was more closely tied to helping those in need than in converting. It's strongest base, if I’m not mistaken, is historically in the Lay movement, so that women sat in their Lay meetings and knitted socks.

These are just my reflections. Now I’ll go off and see what researchers and scientists have to say. I’ll report back on what I find....

Your friend in Christ,


In her further researches, she found much description but little analysis. "Not sure why, but it may be hard to pinpoint causal relationships. So many uncontrolled variables and confounding factors." She added:

Publicly, Norwegians don’t say much about our time as a colony, so as to avoid embarrassment. For instance, Norway mostly ignored the 100 year anniversary of independence from Sweden back in 2005, no official celebrations or events. It’s a bit puzzling to me.

I went back to Robert Ferguson's Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (see this post: "Shame is what turns societies around") to see if he could help. He thinks a lot about Scandinavia's humane rectitude and melancholic tendencies, but doesn't especially differentiate Norway. He doesn't, for example, mention Hans Nielsen Hauge (though he does mention another pietist rebel, Gustav Adolph Lammers, in passing), and doesn't touch on the Pentecostal movement in Norway—possibly the oldest in Europe.

Many thanks to Susanne for her insights into what started out as a reflection on a statistical puzzle.

Bakkehaugen Church, Oslo. Oddbjørn Sørmoen, source.

Former Mossad chief dares to use the word....

Olaf Scholz, a "quiet, unexcited" role model? (Compare with my post on Angela Merkel.)

An interview with the founder of Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties. "There isn't a rational explanation for torture."

And a reminder that our weekly online prayer meeting for Ukraine under the care of Friends World Committee for Consultation, European and Middle East Section, continues. More details here.

After visiting a dear friend in hospice care yesterday, I particularly appreciated this post from Nancy Thomas on the positive power of negative thinking.

Olivia Chalkley believes that young adults want what early Friends had. "... [L]iving with integrity meant I had to choose to go deeper or go elsewhere." I may have more to say later in support of this powerful essay, but I didn't want to delay linking to it.

More from Sue Foley. "Say It's Not So."


Erik said...

Hi Johan,

As a Quaker political scientist I read this post with interest. Susanne points to a lot of interesting factors that might explain the difference between Norway and the rest of the Nordic region. I want to offer a couple of other thoughts. First, with regard to the importance of religion, what was the actual survey question that was asked and how was the question translated into the respective Nordic languages? The question "How important is religion to you?" might mean something slightly different to a respondent than the question "How important is faith to you?" Norwegians often use the terms "tro og livssyn" which means something like "faith and life view" to incorporate not just theistic belief, but ethical humanist (atheist) beliefs. If the phrasing of the question is understood to include that in Norway, and maybe not in the other countries, then question wording might account for the differences. A few years ago people were reacting to results from the World Values Survey indicating that young people in various countries did not value democracy. It turned out to be connected to the varying translation of the question wording.

I would also be curious to see how the survey was sampled, how respondents were contacted, and whether this was done the same across countries. I also wonder what the margin of error is for each country. The difference might actually be less than the numbers on the graph indicate. It would have been interesting to see the line on the graph (which I assume is a regression line) with a 95% confidence interval.

Religion is an area I am not sure political scientists understand very well. So this certainly raises some intriguing questions that are worth pondering.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Erik! I should have thought of you in connection with my questions—so I'm very glad you saw this post.

The European source Ryan Burge uses includes links to their questionnaires, so I hope they ask the same questions of all their European respondents, but I don't know how he lines up those questions with the ones asked in the USA, nor how the translations might be quality-controlled. Your questions are very valid. I'm also aware that, given my background, I'm tempted to look for all the various ways Norway can be seen as special! :-)))

Erik said...

It looks like the question is the same for Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and is not actually "How important is religion to you?" but rather "How religious would you say that you are?" So that is interesting. I don't know enough about Sweden and Denmark, but this might be picking up the lasting influence of Haugeanism and evangelicalism in the Norwegian Bible belt. Not sure to what extent Sweden and Denmark have anything comparable, though there is a free church movement in Sweden and the strong influence of Grundtvig in Denmark. Definitely something to think more about!

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for digging deeper, Erik!

If you have time, I'd love your comment on this blog post: "William Barr, Max Boot, and 'the vapor trails of Christianity'."