Religion in Scandinavia: Norse, Christianity, Islam


Scandinavian countries, such as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, while part of Northern Europe, maintain a distinct culture and identity. Furthermore, each country has a unique national identity and sub culture of its own. There is no exception when it comes to religion. 

In Scandinavia, Evangelical Lutheran is the most prominent religious group. Yet other expressions of Christianity, the ever-expanding Muslim population, and the revitalization of traditional Norse religion, has created a diverse array spiritual communities in the region.

Christianity is a prominent influence in Scandinavian life, especially regarding cultural holidays and traditions. However, countries like Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, have also experienced an increase in the percentage the people who are religiously unaffiliated.

Catholic Church Scandinavia
A Christian church in Scandinavia

The Vikings, who inhabited Scandinavia before the spread of Christianity, had their own religious practices as well called Norse paganism also known as Norse mythology. The religious influence of these pre-Christian ancestors can still be seen in parts of Scandinavia. 

While the role religion plays in the lives of Scandinavians is changing, belief systems—institutionally embedded or otherwise—remain a common means for experiencing community, as well as for developing personal values.

Many people are interested in Norse Mythology. But is it a belief system that people still practiced? See the article, Is Norse Religion Still Practiced Today? to find out more.

Religious Influences in Scandinavia 

Scandinavian countries have a rich history of Viking ancestry, which includes their religious beliefs. The Vikings, also called Norsemen, were seafaring warriors who raided, and sometimes settled, in areas in Europe and beyond, from the 9th to 11th centuries. 

Most Vikings resided in present-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Many Vikings had religious beliefs, which is often referred to as Norse paganism. The Vikings were polytheistic, meaning they believed in, and worshiped, multiple gods.

However, Norse “gods” were not equivalent to the monotheistic gods of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Norse “gods” were super-human, but not necessarily all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-present.

There is little written evidence of Viking pagan religion. Their beliefs and practices were not based on sacred texts.

The Vikings’ religious convictions and customs were rooted in rituals and oral traditions that were integrated into everyday life.

Despite their commitment to Norse paganism, Christianity began to make inroads in the Scandinavian region. When obstacles arose, missionaries preserved and the faith founded upon Jesus Christ grew. 

What are the differences between Norse Mythology and Christianity? Please see Norse Mythology vs Christianity, which includes multiple comparison charts, for more.

Two factors helped influence Vikings with regard to Christianity:

  • Christians traveling to Scandinavia: Christian missionaries from central and southern in Europe worked to convert Norsemen to Christianity and sometimes succeeded, with many resisting their message. Despite setbacks, the Christian church continue to fund evangelistic efforts in countries like Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.
  • Encountering Christians on raids: In raiding the United Kingdom, the Vikings began making regular contact with Christian populations. While some Scandinavians maintained their Norse religious beliefs and practices, others were intrigued and converted. Some conversions appear to have been politically motivated, while others seem to have been genuinely rooted in changed beliefs and way of life.

The willingness of many of the Vikings to accept Christianity, played an important role in the region’s religious transition. In a relatively short period of time, Christianity would swept across Scandinavian countries.

However, each Scandinavian country converted to Christianity through its own process of historical events and influences. [1] So while each nation was undergoing a change, expressions of the faith could vary depending on factors such as the openness of the political leadership in the country.

Religion in Denmark

The influence of Christianity is deeply rooted in Denmark’s culture, exemplified by the ornately decorated churches found across the country.

Today, 75% of Denmark’s citizens are registered members of the state church. That doesn’t mean, however, that 75% of Danes full subscribe to the denomination’s teachings. [2]

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark

DoctrineTeaching
Creation“The world was created by God and the world was created good.”
Trinity“There is only one God. But God is three in one: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”
The two-nature doctrine of Christ“Jesus is at the same time God and man.”
Sin“Without God, man is an unforgiven sinner.”
Resurrection“Christianity bases the belief in the resurrection on what the New Testament teaches about the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.”
Baptism“Being baptised is being connected with the death and resurrection of Christ and being invited into God’s grace.”
The Eucharist“In the Eucharist Christ is present in the form of bread and wine and his body and blood are given to the communicants.”
The doctrine of justification“Man is justified by faith, not by works.”
The priesthood of all believers“No one Christian is closer to God than others.”
The Church“The church frames the meeting between individual human beings and Christ.”

The state church of Denmark is Evangelical Lutheran, which is a Protestant expression of Christianity.

The church is also referred to as the “Evangelical Church in Denmark” or “Church of Denmark.”

While Evangelical Lutheran is the faith most citizens choose to align with, most cities have other Christian churches as well, such as Catholic and Pentecostal congregations. 

Despite the presences of a variety of churches, just 42 percent of the citizens of Denmark identify as “a religious person,” and few go to church regularly [3]

The Vikings played a significant role in the history of Denmark. See the Vikings in Denmark for more.

Many church members attend only once or twice annually, for Christmas Eve and Easter. Yet some will go multiple times a year, especially for major life events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. 

Denmark guarantees citizens the right to freedom of religion, and some citizens choose to practice other faiths.

  • Islam: The largest non-Christian religion practiced in Denmark is Islam, with approximately 270,000 practitioners who worship at one of the 100+ mosques throughout the country. [4]
  • Judaism: Jewish synagogues have been present in Denmark for over 400 years. Copenhagen is home to The Great Synagogue, the main worship center of the Jewish Community. 
  • Unaffiliated: Denmark also has a significant number of citizens who are unaffiliated with regard to religion. Those who are unaffiliated make up the second-largest group of individuals, after Christians, according to a global analysis of faith groups by Pew Research Center. [5]

Additionally, the Pew Research Center predicts that over the next 30 years, citizens who identify as Christian or who are unaffiliated will decrease, while the Muslim population increases. [6]

Mosque Copenhagen Denmark
Islamic Mosque in Copenhagen Denmark

Religion in Norway

Norway’s citizens have the religious freedom to practice any faith, and many religions have considerable representation in the country.

Christianity is the largest religion in Norway with over four million members, making up 84.7 percent of the country’s population. [7]

The majority of Christians are members of the Church of Norway, which is an Evangelical Lutheran Church. Accordingly, the state church adheres to five historic Christian confessions of the faith:

  • The Apostles’ creed: pre-Reformation
  • The Nicene creed: pre-Reformation
  • The Athanasian Creed: pre-Reformation
  • The Augsburg Confession of 1530: Reformation
  • Martin Luther’s Small Catechism: Reformation

There are active non-Christian religions in Norway as well, including:

  • Islam: Islam is the second-largest religion in Norway, with over 180,000 adherents, which makes up 3.7 percent of the country’s population. [8] Islam has a far-reaching history in Norway dating back to the 1260’s. 
  • Buddhism: About 0.6 percent of Norway’s population are Buddhist. [9] Buddhism is new to the country, relative to other religions, having arrived in significant numbers in the early 1970s.
  • Hinduism: Hinduism is practiced by about 0.5 percent of Norway’s population. Many Norwegians who identify with Hinduism are of South Asian descent. [10]
  • Unaffiliated: Around 10% of Norwegians are not affiliated with any religion, making the unaffiliated the second largest population after Christians. [11]

Religious Habits of Norwegians

In 2016, an annual survey was sent to four thousand Norwegian citizens asking, “Do you believe in God?” For the first time in the survey’s 30 years, the citizens who answered “no” were the majority.

  • 39% of the citizens answered “no”
  • 37% of the citizens answered “yes”
  • 23% of the citizens answered that they did not know [12]

These numbers may not match what some would expect given the high number of citizens who choose to affiliate with a religious group, but it is important to remember that church membership doesn’t necessary reflect active participation or adherence to all of a church’s teachings.

Research from 2004 found that about 12 percent of Norway’s citizens attended church services on a monthly basis. [13]

Religion in Sweden

Many Swedish citizens do partake in some kind of religious activity and are members—formally and informally—informally of religious communities. However, Swedish law forbids the registration of people based on their religious affiliation, so all statistics are an estimation.

The majority of citizens, 58 percent, are members of The Church of Sweden, which is Evangelical Lutheran. [17]

The next most popular churches are other denominations of Christianity. Sweden has Free Churches, Pentecostal, Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic Christian churches as well.

Since 2000 The Church of Sweden has been separate from the state, making Sweden the only Nordic country without a state church. This separation means citizens do not automatically become members of The Church of Sweden, which has slowed the rate of membership.

Furthermore, a record number of Sweden’s citizen have left the church in recent years and the decline is predicted to continue as the nation’s youth fail to replace older members. [15]

Other religious activity

The presence of Islam in Sweden is increasing, and the country now has nine purpose-built mosques.

The Jewish community is also prominent with around 20,000 members in Sweden. [18]

In recent years, studies have shown that the citizens of Sweden have gravitated towards becoming more secular than ever before.

A survey by Gallup International reported that Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world. The survey stated only 19% of Swedish citizens claim to be religious. [14]

Religion is still rooted in the Swedish culture and influences things like rituals and holidays. Because of freedom of religion, no Swedish citizen must partake in any holiday, ritual, or religious practice of any kind.

Some secular citizens choose to pursue alternative forms of rituals that have religious overtones, such as civil weddings. Today, only one in three weddings is performed by the Church of Sweden. [16]

Christian church Sweden
Christian church in Sweden

Religion in Finland 

Today, the vast majority of citizens remain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, but there is some variance among citizens. Religious diversity is growing, particularly due to an increase in the Muslim community. 

Nearly three quarters of Finland’s citizens are members of The Lutheran Church of Finland. [19] The second-largest religious group is the Finnish Orthodox Church, whose members makeup about one percent of the country’s population. [20]

While Church and State are separated by Finland’s constitution, these two churches have a privileged statute. The Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church are “public corporations under law,” while other religious groups are considered “registered associations.” 

This privileged statute gives the Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church the right to tax their members. This collection of taxes from members is organized by the state on the behalf of the Churches.

There is ongoing debate about the privileged status of these churches and if they should be changed, but no legal actions are planned or expected by the country.

Finland is another country in which the statistics showing membership to the church do not necessarily represent religious practice.

According to Gallup Ecclesiastica 2011, approximately 60 percent of Finland’s citizens identify themselves as Lutheran or Christian, much less than church membership would imply. [21]

There is some variance in data, but surveys have found monthly church attendance to vary from 4 to 14 percent; 10 to 24 percent do not attend church; and 21 to 36 percent participate in church events less than once a year. [22]

While members of the Lutheran Church of Finland remain the majority, membership has decreased more than ever in recent years, which is thought to be significantly related to the church’s conservative beliefs on same-sex marriage. 

The state church continues to hold an important role in Finnish society, and its status is protected by the state, but growing religious diversity is influencing the country. An increase in both religious diversity and secularly identifying citizens has influenced public debate and norms surrounding the presence of religion in public space. 

Other Religions in Finland

Other religious groups make up approximately 3 percent of the population, but since the 1990s, religious diversity has been increasing. [23]

Islam is the largest non-Christian religious group. Not all Muslims are registered, but it is estimated that Islam makes up about 1 percent of the country’s population. [24]

This leaves more than 20% of Finnish citizen unaffiliated with any religious group. The unaffiliated have risen sharply among Finland’s population. [25]

The most common identity among unaffiliates in Finland is atheist. The same Gallup survey found in just four years, from 2007 to 2011, the atheists in Finland’s population rose from 5 to 13 percent. [26] Additionally, 22 percent of youth, age 15 to 29, identify as atheist.

The rise of atheist beliefs in Finland is predicted to continue into the future. [27]

Religion in the North Atlantic Islands 

The Scandinavian peninsula is the largest peninsula in Northern Europe, reaching from the Arctic Circle to the North and Baltic seas. The Scandinavian peninsula consists of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

The Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands are often associated with the countries on the Scandinavian Peninsula, but there is some debate about if the North Atlantic Islands constitute as ‘Scandinavian.’ 

The controversy largely comes from the geographic classification of Scandinavian countries being those on the Scandinavian peninsula.

Culturally and historically, this distinction is blurred a bit. Similar, language, culture, and religion group the countries together.

While labeling them Scandinavian may not sit right with some citizens, the term “Nordic country” acknowledges their cultural similarities and the historic ties, which is crucial to understanding the modern development of religion in each country. 

Religion in Greenland 

The majority of Greenland’s citizens belong to the Church of Greenland, which is semi-independent from the Church of Denmark.

The Church of Greenland is considered a diocese of the Church of Denmark. As a diocese, the Church of Greenland is an Evangelical Lutheran Church. 

Evangelical Lutheranism is the official religion of Greenland, but citizens are free to practice any religion they desire. The Pew Research Center found that 96 percent of Greenland’s citizens are affiliated with Christianity. [29]

While the population is overwhelming made up of members of the Church of Greenland, there is a small Roman Catholic presence in Greenland. The capital city of Nuuk is home to the sole Catholic parish in Greenland.

Traditional beliefs including those originating from Inuit roots, are still practiced by a small minority of Greenland’s citizens. 

Greenland stands out among other Scandinavian countries for maintaining a strong religious identity among citizens with only 2 percent identified as religiously unaffiliated. [30]

Religion in Iceland 

Religion in Iceland has been consistent ever since the Protestant Reformation. That is until recently, when religious affiliation among citizens has started to shift at a considerable rate for some groups. 

The national Church of Iceland, also called the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Iceland, is recognized by law and in Iceland’s constitution as the state church. 65 percent of the country’s population are members of the state church. [31]

The number of citizens who are members of the Church of Iceland has dropped significantly. In 2000, 89 percent of the population belonged to the church of Iceland. This marks a 24 percent drop in church membership in the last twenty years. [32] The decrease can be attributed to growing secularization, growing multiculturalism, and other social factors. 

As a whole, Christians make up 77 percent of Iceland’s population. [33] Christian citizens who do not choose to be members of the Church of Iceland are likely to be part of the 5 percent who join other Lutheran churches, or part of the nearly 4 percent that make up the country’s second-largest form of Christianity, Roman Catholicism. [34]

Other denominations of Christianity are present in Iceland as well, each made up of members that are less than one percent of the population. [35]

The Recent Rise of Ásatrú

As membership of the state church decreases, other belief systems have experienced increases. Those who are unaffiliated with any religion is a growing group, currently making up 12 percent of the population. [36]

Ásatrú, a Nordic Pagan religion brought to Iceland by the original Viking settlers, is resurfacing at a fast rate. 

In the year 1000, Christianity was decided by parliament of the Viking commonwealth to be the only religion so it replaced Ásatrú in the lives of many Icelanders. 

In 1973 Ásatrú was re-organized as a state religion. At the time it was re-organized, Ásatrú had 12 members. Research by Statistics Iceland shows that currently, Ásatrú is Iceland’s fastest-growing religion. Today the religious group has over 4,000 members and makes up over 1 percent of the population. [37]

Religion in the Faroe Islands 

The state church of the Faroe Islands, also called Church of the Faroe Islands, is one of the smallest churches in the world, but is a prominent part of life for the majority of islanders.

The Church of the Faroe Islands, like other Scandinavian countries, is an Evangelical Lutheran church. It has membership from 85% of the Faroe Islands’ population. [38]

While the state church and Christianity have long been an integral part of culture, the Church of the Faroe Islands underwent significant changes as an entity in the last few decades.

Historically the Church of the Faroe Islands was a diocese under the Church of Denmark, but in 2007 the Church of the Faroe Islands became independent.  

Outside of the state church, the second largest religion is another denomination of Christianity, Plymouth Brethren, which is a Protestant expression.

Other churches present on the Faroe Islands include the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, Pentecostalism, and Seventh Day Adventists. Christians as a whole makes up 89 percent of the population on the Faroe Islands. [39]

Nearly 4 percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religion, a low amount compared to other Scandinavian countries. [40]

Other religions that are present in small groups on the Faroe Islands are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Bahá’Faith. 

Comparing Scandinavia to Global Religion Demographics

The Pew Research Center analyzed 2,500 censuses, surveys, and population registers to compile “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.” [41]

Published in 2015, the research highlights major trends in the growth and shrinkage of religions worldwide and by regions. 

Pew Research Center uses different types of data to make projections starting with the current size and geography distribution of the world’s major religions. From there, age difference, fertility rates, mortality rates, international migration, and patterns in conversion are factored in as well. 

Among the Scandinavian countries and North Atlantic Islands that were part of the study, many are experiencing a rise in the proportion of those who are unaffiliated with a religion, an increase in religious diversity especially due to a growing Muslim population, and a slight decrease in Christianity, though it remains the majority in all. 

Europe is the only region where the Pew Research Center predicts a decline in population, which creates some unique circumstances for religion.

Christianity is predicted to remain the largest religious group in Europe, but to decrease from about three-quarters to less than two-thirds of the population.

By 2050, Pew Research Center predicts that Muslims will make up approximately 10 percent of Europe’s population, an increase from being 5.9 percent of the European population in 2010.

The unaffiliated population in Europe is expected to reach 23 percent. The projections made by Pew Research Center for Europe match what many Scandinavian countries and North Atlantic Islands are experiencing. 

Global projections predict that while the number of those unaffiliated with any religion will increase, it will become a smaller proportion of the global population than it currently is.

Islam is expected to grow faster than any other religions worldwide. The global Muslim population is predicted to nearly equal the global Christian population for the first time in history. 

Christianity is predicted to increase as well, but at a much slower rate that is close to the increase in population overall. Christianity is expected to experience the largest net loss from members converting out to another religion.

Globally, Pew Research Center predicts 40 million people to convert to Christianity and 106 million to convert away from Christianity. Among those who leave Christianity the majority are predicted to become unaffiliated with a religion. 

The Pew Research Center predicts folk religions, Judaism, and “other religions” (an umbrella category) will increase in numbers but make up a smaller percent of the world’s population by 2050. This grouping of folk religions, Judaism, and “other” religions apply to Bahá’Faith and Ásatrú seen in the North Atlantic Islands.

Conclusion 

Historically, the history of religion in Scandinavia is a rich and unique one but led to homogeneous religious practice. The Vikings practiced a form of paganism, which may have had some variance between different groups, but was rooted in the same beliefs.

The Reformation and lead of those in power lead the countries to become quite homogeneous for some time, with a large majority of the population devoted to the Evangelical Lutheran religion and their state church. 

Due in part to immigration, conversion, and modern social influences, the profile of the Scandinavian religion is changing.

Today, Scandinavia is gradually becoming more religiously diverse than ever before in the region’s history.

References

[1] https://www.lifeinnorway.net/viking-religion/

[2] https://denmark.dk/people-and-culture/religion

[3] https://www.thelocal.dk/20150623/denmarks-second-largest-religion-may-surprise-you

[4] https://denmark.dk/people-and-culture/religion

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-religious-composition-of-norway.html

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.thelocal.no/20160318/majority-of-norwegians-dont-believe-in-god

[13] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-religious-composition-of-norway.html

[14] https://sweden.se/society/10-fundamentals-of-religion-in-sweden/

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] http://www.o-re-la.org/index.php/analyses/item/1424-finland-recent-trends-and-patterns-in-religion-secularism-and-atheism

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] http://www.o-re-la.org/index.php/analyses/item/1424-finland-recent-trends-and-patterns-in-religion-secularism-and-atheism

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/religious-beliefs-in-greenland.html

[30] Ibid.

[31] https://icelandmag.is/article/ask-expert-what-largest-religion-iceland

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] https://www.om.org/en/country-profile/faroe-islands

[39] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_fo.html

[40] Ibid.

[41] https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

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