Mistakes about Denmark: Religiosity edition

One of the features of Danish society that often sits most uncomfortably with Americans of either political conviction is this: Denmark is known as a publicly virtuous society in most ways – high trust levels, little crime, strong civil society etc. – but it is also one of the least religious societies in the world. Our tolerant views of sex before marriage, homosexuality, divorce and other lifestyles is not a ‘problem’ because those are considered highly secular views. But a majority of Americans believe that moral behaviour and public virtue is associated with religion – that it is belief that the threat of divine retribution is what keeps people from committing crimes and harming other people. For those people, secular virtue cannot exist.

The feature that creates cognitive dissonance among Americans who are sufficiently informed is that Denmark is both a ‘virtuous’ society and an extremely secular one. Some people are clearly religious, of course, but Danes in general frown upon very public displays of religiosity. Religion and religiosity is private and not something you impose on other people. Put another way: You can’t be elected President of the United States if you don’t declare publicly that you’re religious, and you can’t be Prime Minister of Denmark if you do.

Nominally, Danes perhaps don’t seem less religious than most other Europeans. 62 % of the respondents in the 2012 European Social Survey stated that they belonged to “a particular religion or denomination” whereas the same number in Denmark was only slightly lower at 56 %. Yet, when asked how religious they actually are, 22 % of Europeans stated that they are very religious (8, 9 or 10 on a 0-10 scale) while it was only 11 % of Danes (and Estonians) who claimed to be very religious. Likewise, while 15 % of Europeans go to church or other religious service at least once a week, only 2.4 % do so in Denmark (and 3.4 % in Estonia) and 93 % (92 % in Estonia) only come there on special holidays, if at all. If one instead uses Gallup’s question if religion is important in people’s daily life, the picture is very much the same. Less than one in five in Denmark, Sweden and Estonia claim that religion is important whereas the corresponding percentage among Americans is a whopping 65 %.

The problem for many Americans – and people from the Middle East, India and parts of Africa – is therefore that when secular virtue is considered a contradiction in terms, Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries must be insecure, crime-ridden and potentially violent societies where people are dishonest and have little trust in each other. What they expect from a religious-ideological point of view is thus an Anti-Scandinavia – the exact opposite of the Nordic countries. When there is no moral or virtue without a god, the Nordic countries cannot exist.

But they do. Trust levels approach 70 % in the Scandinavian monarchies, corruption levels are among the lowest in the world – Transparency International places the Nordics at places 1 (Denmark), 3-5 (Finland, Sweden and Norway), 12 (Iceland) and 26 (Estonia, the post-communist Nordic) – and homicide rates are a fourth of the US level and about half of those in even Maine and Minnesota. People are rich, happy, extremely virtuous – and pretty indifferent to the church. The Nordic countries do not defy logic. It’s the assumption that virtue derives from religion that is illogical.


  1. I am not sure whether secularism is definitely a contributing factor to the level of trust in a country, or not, but I think there is room for some scepticism:

    The claim seems highly dependent on the way you conceptualize secularism. There seems to be something to it when considering the factors you mention here, but these all pertain to the level of secular values or direct participation in religious activities. If we turn to the more institutional conception of secularism, i.e. the role of religion within the state, I think the pattern seems almost reversed: The Nordic countries are still not very secular when it comes to the role of religion within the state. All countries still provide financial support for religious organizations (contrary to the US or France), and Denmark still retains its State Church (and the total separation of church and state I Norway is not complete yet).

    A number of countries with high trust levels are considerably more religious than the Nordics. Israel almost had the same level of trust as Estonia in 2011 (71 vs. 72), but 29,5 pct. of Israeli respondents in the ESS survey claimed to be very religious by your definition, and 10, 5 pct. attended religious service once a week. In the Netherlands, the trust level is also pretty high (80 vs. 84 in Sweden), and 18,9 pct. indicated to be very religious, with 7,1 pct. attending religious service.

    So I would tend to be sceptical towards the notion that secularism has substantial bearing on e.g. trust, but maybe that was your point from the beginning? That trust, corruption and crime rates are not affected by either secularism or religiousness?

    I did see a paper from the World Values Study (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSPublicationsPapers.jsp), which seems to test some of the possible effects of secularism, but I haven’t read it fully.

    • Christian Bjørnskov

      12. januar 2016 at 07:22

      It’s easy to find pairs of countries with about the same trust level but where one is more religious than the other. However, the Estonia-Israel comparison is a poor choice because Estonia has a communist past.
      For the general association between trust and religiosity – however it’s conceptualized – take a look at my 2011 paper with Niclas Berggren: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167268111001223

  2. Historien skal vel også med. Danskerne er kulturkristne. Vores tillid, lave korruption etc. Det har vel sine rødder langt tilbage i tiden. Det kan sagtens stadigt være religionens indflydelse, vi har blot brændt broen tilbage dertil.

    • Christian Bjørnskov

      30. januar 2016 at 13:50

      Det kunne man da godt forestille sig. Men det er ganske svært, da den evidens vi har, peger på at religiøsitet af enhver observans er skadelig for f.eks. tillid på tværs af både rige og fattige lande, og på tværs af de 50 amerikanske stater. Og ser man på andre forhold som f.eks. hvor relativt fredelig, politik er i Danmark, er det en status der strækker sig tilbage til et godt stykke før reformationen. Hvis man skal argumentere for, at religionen har været en positiv påvirkning på Danmark, må man argumentere for nogle forhold, der ikke gælder i dag, og ikke har virket i andre lande.

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