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Where's the 'God' in God Jul?

Less than half of Danes believe in God, yet 75 percent are registered members of the Church of Denmark. Columnist Sarah Redohl thinks that's not as paradoxical as it seems.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Sarah Redohl

Christmas time is here again! That means many Danes will soon be attending church for the first time this year, on Christmas Eve.

Although 75 percent of Danes are registered members of the state-supported church of Denmark, only 3 percent regularly attend church. In fact, according to the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, less than half of the members of the National church even believe in God.

How can so many Danes identify as members of the National church without belief in God? Perhaps it's not as paradoxical as it seems.

Christianity comes to Denmark

Today, Danish Christians generally see religion as a matter of national identity rather than religious identity, said Brian Arly Jacobsen, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and an expert on the sociology of religion.

At Denmark's birth as a nation-state, religion and state were already deeply intertwined. The inscription on the Jelling Stone, often referred to as Denmark's birth certificate, declared that the Viking king Harald Bluetooth had not only "won for himself all of Denmark" but also "made the Danes Christian."

In 1536, the church was officially integrated into the Danish state. But by the 1800s, the Danish Lutheran church had become too formal and ritualistic, too separate from Danes' daily lives. N.F.S. Grundtvig and his followers began the revitalisation movement that intertwined Christian belief with Danish identity.

According to historian Uffe Østergaard, this merging of Lutheranism, social democracy, and nationalism over the course of centuries has resulted in a particular form of Christianity in Denmark that "has become so deeply embedded in society that we no longer notice it at all."

"Religion is what everyone else has."

Many Danes, writes Kristeligt Dagblad, don't equate their faith with religion: "Religion is what everyone else has." This might explain why half of all Danes have a negative perception of religion, while so many remain members of the National church; it isn't seen as a religion in the same way others are.

Even religious practices and rituals in Denmark have become somewhat detached from the larger concept of religion. When sociologist Phil Zuckerman interviewed Danes for his book Society Without God, he noticed that formerly religious rituals still mark important moments in life but have little to do with the religious meaning behind those rituals.

One example is the prevalence of confirmation, a ritual to affirm one's faith in God that now marks the transition to adulthood. Seventy percent of Danish teens get confirmed; even those who opt out often have a 'nonfirmation' party. This 'cultural Christianity' is particularly evident around Christmas, the celebration of which is today considered largely secular.

When religion is enmeshed with national identity, and the vast majority of a population share the same faith, it's easy for religion to become synonymous with culture. When the nation becomes secular, this culture - despite its religious origins - is also considered secular. Religion indeed becomes "what everyone else has."

"When religion is enmeshed with national identity, and the vast majority of a population share the same faith, it's easy for religion to become synonymous with culture."

Secular nation, state church

As the United Nations' Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt writes, the Danish constitution protects religious freedom, but it does not guarantee religious equality. After all, the National church receives state funding alongside its constitutionally privileged position.

According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, recent legislation "has placed pressure particularly on religious minorities to limit certain religious manifestations." For example, bans on face coverings or the requirement to shake hands during one's citizenship ceremony. How do such policies conform to Denmark's constitutional right to freedom of religion? Perhaps, when one's own religion has become synonymous with culture, restrictions on the religious freedom of minorities might be perceived instead as cultural integration.

Even so, two thirds of people living in Denmark who were born elsewhere say they experience more religious freedom here than in their country of origin, according to a poll by Statistics Denmark. And nine out of 10 believe their lives are better in Denmark than back home. The latter is a belief I share with many of my fellow internationals in Denmark.

Nearly 200 years ago, Grundtvig wrote that one must be a good human before one can be a good Christian. Today, that poem (Menneske først og kristen så) has been reinterpreted by many Danes to mean that being a good human is more important than the religion to which one ascribes. The latter is a belief I share with my Danish neighbours.

Whether Lutheran, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic or Atheist, we are first and foremost human beings. "This," Grundtvig wrote, "is the order of life."

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