Role of Religion

Finland Table of Contents

Religion was a part of public life in a variety of ways. The celebration of the gaining of Finnish independence on December 6 had a religious component, as did the annual opening of the Eduskunta. There were three religious holidays when public entertainments were not permitted. The state churches kept the official records of their members' civil status, and the vast majority of marriages were performed in the state churches and had the same legal status as a civil ceremony. Church members paid a church tax that was collected and paid to the churches by state authorities. Persons wishing to leave one of the state churches had to do so formally, and records of this decision were maintained. Religious instruction was a regular part of the schools' curricula, and children wishing to be excused from it had to request the right to take a substitute course. The armed forces had chaplains, the highest of whom was a bishop, and their services were, in practice, usually obligatory for recruits. Chaplains' salaries were paid by the state, as were those of the higher clergy of the two state churches. The oath generally used in court had a religious content, though nonbelievers had the right to one that made no reference to a deity and instead was only a solemn affirmation of the truth of their testimony. Although it was rarely invoked, there was a Finnish law against blasphemy. Numerous religious programs and services were broadcast on the country's state radio and television networks.

Much of this religious influence was based in Finland's past, however, and did not correspond with attitudes of most Finns, because by the 1980s the country had become a highly secularized society. Polls revealed, for example, that about 70 percent of the population believed in God, a good deal fewer than the 90 percent who belonged to the state churches. About 40 percent of the population believed that the best place to find God was in the Bible, but only about 10 percent read it at least once a week, striking figures for a Protestant country. Frequent church attendance was unusual. Surveys conducted during the 1980s found that perhaps as few as 4 percent went to church every Sunday, about 12 percent went once a month, and 43 percent went at least once during the course of a year.

These figures did not give a complete picture of Finnish religious life, however. Finland's pietist traditions meant that there was much private prayer as opposed to public worship; about one-third of Finns under the age of thirty-five and more than half of those above this age reportedly prayed every week. In addition, the Lutheran Church touched the lives of many Finns through its considerable social work and counseling, although these activities were often not strictly religious in nature.

The role the state churches played in life's key moments made them, for reasons of tradition, important to most Finns, even to those who were not religious. More Finns were baptized, married, and buried with church rites than were members of the churches. A very important rite of passage for adolescents was confirmation, which signified a coming of age even for those from freethinking families. For this reason, more than 90 percent of 15-year-olds were confirmed, despite the several weeks of lessons this entailed. Although church membership was a routine affair for many, polls conducted in the 1970s and the 1980s consistently found that only about 10 percent of those interviewed had given any serious thought to leaving a state church, even though freedom from the church tax would mean a small financial gain. For many Finns, leaving their church would be too great a break with family and community traditions. In addition, some of the values that churches had traditionally stood for had been internalized. Observers noted, for example, that although Finland had undoubtedly become more secularized since World War II, particularly in the urban areas, the traditional Lutheran virtues of hard work and self-discipline, inculcated over the centuries, were still evident in the lives of most Finns.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress