An interesting debate article in the Swedish evening newspaper, Aftonbladet, today, was entitled, “Our Swedish view of faith is uniquely aggressive.” (Read the article in Swedish here). It referred to questions raised as to the suitability of a certain Elisabeth Svantesson for her appointment as Minister for Employment because she at one time was a member of a large church in Sweden called Livets Ord – Word of Life. Similar doubts about suitability and competence for a particular appointment were raised in 2008 over a man named Per Eriksson who had been suggested as Dean (Rektor) of Lund University. A number of teachers at the university opposed his appointment because they believed that his Christian beliefs would compromise a truly scientific worldview.
Such views are not unique to Sweden, of course, though the writer of this article seems to feel that in Sweden such views tend to be particularly aggressive, perhaps more so than in other countries. Such a view of religion grew out of the Enlightenment of the mid-1700s, when reason and education came to challenge religion as the only reliable foundations for society. In the 1800s the writings of Karl Marx, who believed that a society which allowed religion to exist was sick, and Sigmund Freud, who believed that religious persons were mentally unstable, added fuel to the fire of unbelief. Pointing to the monumental failures of the church through the centuries a growing number of voices called for separation of church and state and maintained that religion was obsolete. Religion came to be seen as, at best a problem, and at worst a threat, to civilization. So was born the secular state, which has largely triumphed in Sweden, as in many other Western countries. Anyone confessing allegiance to a faith is seen as suspect, unreliable, unstable, ignorant, harboring hidden agendas which threaten the fabric of society as we know it.
However, according to the article, contemporary research into religion does not support such a view of either religious people or the practice of religion. It reveals that contemporary religion has been “decentralized,” and is no longer controlled by a religious authority. People read and interpret religious texts themselves and practice religion differently according to their understanding. The practice of faith does not imply the control of an individual by a centralized authority like a church, and what people believe about God does not necessarily reflect their ability or inability to function in modern society.
Furthermore, the writer of the article points out that secular society has no basis for connecting religion with the uneducated or weak-minded. To try to obstruct a person’s personal or career development because they have religious convictions, he suggests, is to betray a central democratic ideal, in which every person has the right to be heard and to pursue their life goals based on their personal ideas and values. It is unreasonable to portray religious people as an homogenous group. People should be judged on their merits and their performance, and not on their religious convictions. Whether they pray, and to whom they pray in their joy or sorrow, should be up up to them.
I remember a colleague who some years ago discovered, by accident, after having known me for some time, that I was a Christian. She was shocked. Until then she had apparently perceived me as a sensible, reasonable, perhaps even intelligent human being. She asked me bluntly if I was a Christian, not just a nominal Christian but a practicing believer, and her face fell when I confirmed her fears, and that I read the Bible and went to church, and even tried to live my life according to the teaching I had received from such sources. I could see her rapidly revising her whole perception of me. For her I was no longer normal, but had become suddenly strange, irrational, and probably psychologically and emotionally suspect.
The ironic thing is that we live in a society founded on values and ideals with their roots in the teachings of Jesus and a worldview based on a Biblical understanding of humanity. Yet at the same time that very society rejects belief in Jesus, and the practice of such a belief is seen as ignorant and irrational. Society seems to have always sought scapegoats, someone, or some group, to blame for the problems that exist. Nazi Germany blamed the Jews and had a particularly brutal solution to the problem. So called “Christian” Europe of the Middle Ages blamed devil worshippers and Jews amongst others. Modern secular society blames religion of all kinds, but particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Christians have been subject to persecution and ridicule down through the ages. It is not new. The current feelings in society simply revive ancient prejudices and hatreds. The real challenge for us Christians at times like these is not to try to return society to some remembered golden age of Christendom, but to love those who ridicule us, to pray for those who persecute us, and to reach out with love and compassion to those in need around us. Just as Jesus did.