How Secular is Denmark?
I thought that it was time to write a post again and I found something to write about that I hope will be interesting for other secular people out there.
I live in the small Scandinavian country called Denmark.
When people overseas talk about atheism, they often bring up Scandinavia, which gave me the idea to write a post that has to do with religion in a Scandinavian country, and why not do it at the time of the year when Denmark has its annual Christmas shitstorm, which a recent event has escalated. That is something I will return to later in this post. First, I want to give some background information about religion and the political landscape in Denmark.
According a Danish poll from October 2017, 48% of the people interviewed stated that they have no religion, which is an increase compared to a similar 2011 poll, when the number was 31 percent.
Another poll from this year looked at people’s political affiliation and how often they go to church. Only 4,3% of the population go to church 1-3 times a month, according to this poll.
Religion usually doesn’t play a big role in people’s life.
But despite that, Denmark is not a secular country at all. The fourth paragraph in the Danish constitution states that the Lutheran-evangelic church is the church of the Danish people and that it is supported by the state.
About 76% of the Danish population is a member of the state church, for various reasons. Some are Christians or cultural Christians, while others like to support the maintenance of churches as historic buildings or they just don’t know that they can leave the church.
When you are baptised, which people usually do because of tradition, you become a member of the church and if you want to leave, you can only do so with acceptance from both your parents if you are underaged or you can do it on your own from the day you turn 18 years of age.
The day I turned 18, I went down to the church office to leave the church. Back then, leavers had to speak to a priest, who asked if they were really sure about their decision to leave the church. I found it uncomfortable, although it was kind of fun sitting in the front of a priest with my “Master of Puppets” t-shirt (I was and still am a huge heavy metal fan) and telling him that I didn’t believe in his horseshit. Today you can leave the church on the Internet, which is definitely more comfortable and less invasive, and it is actually very easy according to people who have done it.
As a church member, you pay 1% more in income tax, which goes directly to the church. If you leave, you save that money. But you can’t avoid that some of your tax money goes to the church. Things like wages to the priests and their houses (sometimes small mansions) are paid by the state. Besides paying for employees and maintenance, the church also spends money on things like designer furniture, which occasionally gets stolen.
In recent years religion has begun to play a huge role in politics. The 2015 parliament election gave a majority to the political parties that are traditionally on the right side of the political spectrum, giving them the means to form a government. The election also gave a rise to “Dansk Folkeparti”, which translates to “The Danish Peoples Party” (DPP), a right-wing populistic party, which has a smidgeon of Christian Dominionism.
DPP has for many years had a narrative about “Danishness”, which as far as I know is a term they coined, to define who is a “genuine Dane” and has permission to live in Denmark. “Danishness” is based on the delusion that back in the good old days when the Danish population was homogenous (in other words, ethnically clean) there were fewer problems in society and everything was hunky-dory and the problems we have today arrived with immigrants. In reality, that delusion isn’t different from the one the Third Reich had about the “German people” and how everything was better in the good old days, before the Jews came along.
Besides ethnicity, religion also plays a huge role in a person’s “Danishness”. Being Muslim is of course incompatible with being “Danish”, and because Denmark according to the constitution is a Christian country and has been Christian for about a thousand years, it is important for a “Dane” to be Christian. At least, that is what DPP wants us to believe. It is therefore ironic that only 2,5% of DPP’s voters attend church regularly, especially when you consider that the average is 4,3% for the population as a whole.
Immigrants from non-western countries (that’s a broad term) and their descendants make out 8,5% of the Danish population, and about 4,7% of the Danish population are Muslims. It is important to remember those numbers when talking about immigrants and/or Muslims, because they put things into perspective.
According to DPP and other politicians, “Danishness” is seriously threatened by the 47% of Danish Muslims, and so is the Lutheran-evangelic state religion and all the Danish traditions. One of the big traditions in Denmark is Christmas, which usually slowly sticks its head out as early as September or even as early as late August, if the summer has been wet and cold.
And with Christmas comes the (by now) annual shitstorm about Muslims and Christmas.
The idea some people have is that, because Muslims are non-Christians, they can’t be celebrating Christmas. Makes sense, right?
So, if Muslims were to claim that they celebrate Christmas, they would of course be lying. And everybody knows that Muslims are liars, because the Quran allows them to be liars.
So why would Muslims lie about celebrating Christmas? They lie so they can get their greedy hands on Christmas charity (usually a box of food or a trip to the supermarket, supervised by a charity employee) or prevent Danes from getting it, of course!
Or so the prejudice and conspiracy theories claim.
This year the amount of applications for Christmas charity has exploded. According to the Danish Blue Cross, they received 2,400 applications for Christmas charity in 2016, and in 2017 they have received 6,100 applications.
Some of those applications of course come from immigrants, which always creates a shitstorm in the media, because “Christmas is for Christians, so Muslims can´t celebrate it” and immigrants are of course always Muslims, according to the uninformed.
People seem to forget how many non-Christians there are in Denmark and that the vast majority of Danes, including Danish Muslims, celebrate Christmas. It is in fact irrelevant what religion a person who wants to celebrate Christmas has.
As sure as night follows day, the shitstorm hit again this year, creating heated discussions in the media and creating dumpster fires in the online comment sections, with furious comments about how Muslims should get the f*** out of the country and leave the Christmas charity for Danes. The suggested solution to the problem is often to discriminate people with Muslim-sounding names. Luckily, the charities don’t give in to peer pressure, but for bad reasons, like “what would Jesus do”. It is a way better reason not to give in to the pressure because it is WRONG to discriminate and because the logic behind the discrimination is seriously flawed.
This year the shitstorm has escalated, as I mentioned at the beginning.
The trigger for the escalation was a public school that dropped their annual Christmas mass. The Danish state isn’t secular, but there is a law that forbids public schools to evangelize. That however hasn’t stopped public schools from sending their students to mass, where the priest evangelizes, before they go on Christmas break. Not all public schools do it, but it is a widespread phenomenon. As many as 84% of public schools send their children to Christmas mass, according to a 2015 survey.
Luckily you can avoid the requirement for your child to go to church, but that requires that you contact the school and tell them that you don’t want your child to go to church. In other words, if you don’t take action, the school automatically sends your child to church.
Imagine how it would be if some phone company automatically registered you as a customer and you had to contact them in order to stop being their costumer. Wouldn’t you be angry about that?
Another problem is that you risk putting a spotlight on your child if you don’t want him/her to go to church. The other children would notice right away that your child stays behind.
That’s why religion should be kept out of school, except when it is for educational purposes. People who want their children to attend church should do it outside school so that the public school can be – as the intention with the public school is – a place for everybody to learn, despite their religious affiliation.
Secularisation was the reason why the school made the decision to stop sending their students to church, because not every student is Lutheran-evangelic. But secularisation is sadly not an option and totally out of the question, if you look at how people reacted to the school’s decision. It was very depressing to listen to and read the reactions.
The most depressing thing was that the school’s decision has gone straight to the top of Danish politics, making the prime minister condemn the school’s decision. Other politicians, both local and MPs, also condemned the school’s decision. Some of them are even urging the school to change its mind and send the students to church. The local mayor and a DPP city council member are going even further, trying to get the city council to force the school to send the students to church.
The strongest condemnation, of course, comes from DPP, who has shamed the school for not following Danish/Christian traditions. They are also accusing the school of abolishing Danish culture.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that it is NOT a tradition that schools send students to church, and even if it was a tradition, it wouldn’t make it right to do it. If it was a tradition, it would clearly have to change for the good of everybody. Arguing to keep a tradition because it’s a tradition is just plain stupid, especially if it does harm in some way.
If you disagree, think of a fictitious scenario in which we had a tradition to sacrifice a person once in a while, just because it is tradition. Would you be cool with that, or would the tradition have to change?
Something that seems to have gone under the radar of many people and politicians in the current debate is that the school made its decision based on secularisation and not to please Muslims, as many people believe. If people wouldn’t have that belief, the whole thing could have turned out differently, because people get infuriated every time something has to do with Muslims.
It quickly becomes “Danes vs immigrants” or a religious conflict in which people, as stupid as it sounds, suddenly become very Christian as a defense against Muslims and Islam.
The same appears to have happened in this case. Some parents are so outraged that they have organized a trip to the local church for their children after they come home from school (poor children).
The narrative that Muslims are to blame for a lot of stuff is popular, especially when it comes to Christmas. Last year, there was a conflict about a Danish street that didn’t put up Christmas lights on the lampposts. Muslims got blamed for it and the debate became heated. In reality, the missing Christmas lights was a result of the local commerce society not wanting to spend the insane amount of money that it costs to put Christmas lights up.
The story got spread by a Danish far-right blog called “Den Korte Avis”, or “The Short Newspaper” in English. The blog is known for taking news stories and twisting them to fit the narrative that Muslims or immigrants are to blame for all sorts of wrongdoings.
Things would probably have been very different if the school had sent its students to participate in Friday prayers at a mosque, because other rules apply when it comes to Muslims or Islam.
Many politicians, especially from DPP, have in the past argued that public employees shouldn’t be allowed to wear headscarves, because it is a religious symbol and people in public jobs should appear neutral. They even went so far as to suggest that doctors shouldn’t be allowed to grow beards, because a big beard is an Islamic symbol, and Islamic symbols don’t belong in Danish hospitals. The suggestion was retracted shortly after, due to ridicule from the public.
Prayer rooms in universities and public schools have also been a target in the effort to protect “Danishness”, since DPP and other politicians thought that the rooms were mostly used by Muslims to radicalize other Muslims.
When a survey showed that only 27 out of 1,261 schools had a prayer room and that the rooms were mainly used by Christians or as a safe-space, DPP went the Donald Trump route. Instead of changing their minds, they said that “there is something wrong with facts”.
Add to that, that there also has been a lot of attention on Muslim private schools to be sure that they don’t evangelize or in some way radicalize their students.
Secularisation is apparently a good thing for DPP and other politicians, if they can use it against other religions. But as soon as it comes to their own religion, things are different.
I would argue that their fight for “Danishness” and “Christian values” is a very good argument for secularisation, since it is very clear that there are people who try to use the lack of secularisation to further their own agenda and create conflicts in Danish society.
Luckily the school hasn’t (yet) given in to the pressure, so up until now the whole affair is a victory for secularisation.
In the end, I want to say that it isn’t up to politicians to tell us who Christmas is for. Christmas is for everybody and if you feel like celebrating it, just go ahead. And if you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, that’s also fine. It’s all up to you.