10 fundamentals of religion in Sweden

Sweden is relatively secular and has a high population of atheists, but it is far from an irreligious country. Religion still plays a ritual and cultural role, and with immigration, the religious landscape becomes more diverse and complex. Here are ten takes on religion in Sweden.

Start reading

Church weddings account for roughly two-thirds of all marriage ceremonies in Sweden.

Photo: Adam Haglund/Folio

10 fundamentals of religion in Sweden

Sweden is relatively secular and has a high population of atheists, but it is far from an irreligious country. Religion still plays a ritual and cultural role, and with immigration, the religious landscape becomes more diverse and complex. Here are ten takes on religion in Sweden.

#1 Separation of church and state

The Church of Sweden (Svenska kyrkan) is Evangelical Lutheran and has its secretariat in Uppsala, a city that has been the centre of the Swedish church since the Middle Ages. The Church of Sweden has been separated from the state since 2000, which means that Sweden no longer has an official state church. While most countries in the world have no official religion, Sweden is in fact the only Nordic country without a state church, as Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland have all retained theirs.

Sixty-four per cent of the Swedish population are members of the Church of Sweden. It is only since 2000 that Swedes don’t automatically become a member at birth and record numbers of Swedes have left the church in recent years. A continued decline in membership is predicted as young Swedes fail to take the place of older members. Surveys also indicate that only eight per cent of Swedes attend any religious services regularly.

#2 The ritual role of religion

The presence of religion and the church in many Swedes’ lives is most visible when traditional rituals or ceremonies are performed. Chief among these are christenings, marriages and funerals. The celebration of powerful Swedish cultural traditions such as Lucia can also include a church service and hymn singing.

The presence of religious heritage in Sweden can also be seen in the several Christian holidays that still pepper the Swedish calendar. Though they are seldom celebrated by church attendance, Twelfth Night (6 January), Ascension, Pentecost and All Saints’ Day are each official holidays in Sweden, as is the common collection of Easter days. Like elsewhere in the West, Christmas in Sweden follows the Christian tradition and Advent is central to the Swedish festive period and the countdown to Christmas Eve. However secular modern-day Sweden may be, these holidays are certainly welcomed by religious and non-religious Swedes alike.

The Swedish tradition of Lucia is celebrated on 13 December, one of the non-religious highlights before Christmas.

Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

#3 Secular Swedes

Rituals aside, Sweden is a highly secular nation and Swedes appear to see little connection between religiosity and happiness. According to The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism (2012), only 29 per cent of Swedes claim to be religious, compared with 59 per cent globally. These figures rank Sweden as one of the least religious countries in the world.

Not all Swedes are comfortable with the at times prominent cultural role of the church either, and many people pursue alternative forms of ritual. With marriages on the rise in Sweden, civil weddings now account for nearly a third of all marriage ceremonies. In addition, secular ‘name-giving’ ceremonies (namngivningsceremonier) for infants also exist, with the aim of celebrating the arrival of a new child without the religious overtones of a christening.

#4 Other big religions in Sweden

While membership of the Church of Sweden is declining, recent years have seen the membership of other churches and religions increase. It should be noted, however, that reported numbers on religious affiliations in Sweden are estimates only, since Swedish law forbids the registration of people on the basis of their religion.

Next to the Church of Sweden, the most prominent Christian churches are the Free Churches (frikyrkor). Although also Protestant, the Free Churches are independent of the Church of Sweden and are characterised by Evangelical, Pentecostal, Methodist and Baptist elements. The area around the city of Jönköping in Småland is sometimes even referred to as the ‘Swedish Bible Belt’ because of its traditionally high Free Church activity.

In addition, increased immigration has contributed to greater religious diversity. Islam is a growing religion and five mosques have so far been built in Sweden. The Catholic Church in Sweden also reports increased membership and cites immigrants as a primary source. Meanwhile, many country-specific Eastern Orthodox churches also exist, of which the Syrian Orthodox Church is the largest.

Sweden also has a Jewish community of around 20,000 people, with over 8,000 of them practising. Yiddish is one of Sweden’s five officially recognised minority languages.

#5 From Nordic gods to Catholic converts…

The beginning of the religious experience in Sweden is often traced back to pre-Christian Norse religion. Norse beliefs formed the basis not for an organised religion, but rather for an overarching cultural system. Central to the practice of Norse beliefs were ‘rites’, among them the ritual sacrifice of animals, and sometimes even humans! At these gatherings, food and drink were shared in communion with the gods and omens for greater prosperity were sought. Odin and Thor, probably the most well-known Norse deities, were the gods responsible for the likes of war and the sky, respectively.

Norse beliefs persisted until the 12th century, and Sweden was the last Scandinavian country to be Christianised by Catholic missionaries. In 1164, it became a so-called ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church and Catholicism became firmly established. Sweden contributed its fair share of saints, with Saint Bridget of Sweden being the most famous. Swedes even participated in their own versions of the famed Catholic Crusades by embarking on various expeditions to Christianise Finland and the Baltic states.

#6 … and from Protestant pre-eminence to religious freedom

While Swedes may have become conscientious Catholics by the Late Middle Ages, the country would later become known as a bastion of Protestantism. Sweden completed its transformation from Catholic to Protestant by the end of the 1500s. During the subsequent period, the state identified itself closely with the new Lutheran religion and punished deviation from state-sanctioned beliefs. Until 1858, conversion to Catholicism could be punished by exile. In the 1600s, Swedish King Gustav II Adolf even led Sweden to war in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, ostensibly to defend the Protestant faith.

Despite this draconian past, Sweden has become a country that today favours religious freedom. Since 1951, freedom of religion has been enshrined in Swedish law and studies have shown that in today’s Sweden a strong majority answer positively when asked if everyone should have the right to practise their religion freely. Sweden also scores well in measures of religious freedom, with few restrictions present, and levels of social hostility towards religion are below average (see pewforum.org).

#7 Tolerance and cultural clashes

Although Sweden continues to rank as one of the most tolerant countries in the world (see related Tolerance indicator chart, or oecd-ilibrary.org), it also faces challenges from intolerance in terms of xenophobia and cultural clashes, just like many other countries.

In 2013, for example, in response to cases of harassment of Muslim women in Sweden wearing the hijab veil, Swedish human rights and anti-racism activists donned veils of their own in a show of solidarity. But the activists themselves became the subject of criticism from, among others, feminists for stereotyping Muslim women or even supporting a symbol sometimes associated with the oppression of women.

And when Swedish artist Lars Vilks’ drawings of Mohammed on ‘roundabout dogs’ (rondellhund) were published by a newspaper in 2007, it caused quite a stir – both nationally and internationally – as the drawings were perceived by some to be blasphemous. This sparked debate on freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the independence of art – and Vilks himself even received death threats.

According to ‘Mångfaldsbarometern 2014‘ (only in Swedish), an annual ‘Diversity Barometer’ published by the University of Gävle, Swedes themselves are most sceptical towards particular aspects of religious diversity, such as religious schools. The same study shows a clear majority of Swedes, 74 per cent, have a positive attitude towards ethnic and cultural diversity, while 7 per cent have an extremely negative attitude.

The Stockholm Mosque, inaugurated in 2000, is just a stone’s throw away from the Katarina Church, originally from 1695 but twice burnt down, twice built up. 

Photo: Poxnar/Wikimedia Commons

#8 Church finances and faith support

To help finance its international and domestic activities, the Church of Sweden levies a tax (kyrkoavgift) on its members. The tax currently averages 1 per cent of members’ income. The church’s spending priorities include maintaining and renovating the 3,600 church buildings belonging to it throughout Sweden

The Church of Sweden has assets of around SEK 40 billion, and its total annual costs mount to about SEK 2.7 billion. In keeping with the Swedish practice of transparency and openness in public organisations and institutions, the public can scrutinise the activities and finances of the Church of Sweden in its Annual Report.

Other faith communities can receive state support to help with their finances. The Swedish Commission for Government Support to Faith Communities (Nämnden för statligt stöd till trossamfund) is a government authority that provides financial help to faith communities other than the Church of Sweden. The aim of this support is to help faith groups ensure the sustainability of their activities and services.

#9 The Church of Sweden and women

In 2014, Antje Jackelén became the first woman to hold the post of the Archbishop of Uppsala, who is the chief representative of the Church of Sweden both nationally and internationally. The archbishop is also responsible for anointing new Swedish bishops.

In 1960, the first women priests were inaugurated in the Church of Sweden. Today 45 per cent of priests are women, and women make up the majority of those studying to become priests.

#10 Liberal values

Christianity and the church may have maintained ritual and cultural importance in Sweden, but this has not prevented the country from becoming one of the world’s most liberal societies. In some areas where religious and social conservatism often prevail, such as the right to abortion, no serious debate exists in Sweden. Living together and having children without being married is also socially acceptable, and recent statistics suggest that more than 40 per cent of first-time parents in Sweden have children before getting married.

The Church of Sweden has often accompanied liberal social change rather than obstructing it. For example, in 2009 the church decided to begin performing same-sex marriage ceremonies as Sweden legalised same-sex marriage in the same year. At the end of 2014, 5,356 women and 4,212 men had married a person of the same sex.

Traditional yet new-thinking, secular yet religious, tolerant yet challenging – it all holds true for Sweden. Religion is always a complicated matter, in Sweden as well as elsewhere.

Last updated: 21 June 2016

Scott Sutherland

Scott Sutherland

Scott Sutherland is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is currently studying Economics at Lund University in Sweden.