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.