There’s Watered-Down Christianity in Finland, Too November 28, 2009

There’s Watered-Down Christianity in Finland, Too

After reading about Patrik‘s experience with Christianity in Sweden, Tom sent me an email describing life in Finland:

I live in the neighbouring country of Finland and we have the same kind of cultural Christianity traditions going on over here. Basically a person visits church four times in his/her life: When baptized, when confirmed, when married, when dead.

What really amazes me — it really does — is why people pay “church tax” throughout their lives, only for these four occasions. It’s truly remarkable. In Finland, you pay about 150 euro (about $225 USD) a year. It all adds up if you live to an old age. It is the easiest thing in the world to resign from church; in Finland, it’s just a few clicks away on a web site. I wonder if it’s a case of “just to be on the safe side” kind of thing?

Seriously, why don’t all you non-religious Finns resign from the church already and encourage your like-minded friends and family to do the same?


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  • Jonas

    Ok two dumb question —
    1. Are there non-religious alternatives
    to Church rituals? (at least mosques,
    or synagoges) — And I mean something meaningful, and institutionalized, like humanist chaplains.

    2. Is the Tax implemented by the government, or voluntary. (rather than tithe, pay a fixed amount).

  • Jonas – Naming Ceremonies are the alternatives to baptism and are gaining popularity amongst non-believers. They’re actually quite beautiful.

    See IHS for secular celebrations and ceremonies.

  • Riksa

    The tax is implemented by the tax bureau with all other taxes. That’s why very few people really think about it or notice it at all. The tax is 1 percent in Turku, where I live, but I think it varies within the country. Not much though.

    The freethinkers’ association in Tampere created the website http://www.eroakirkosta.fi (“resignfromthechurch”) a few years back, when it was no longer necessary to personally visit the church officials to resign. On that page they have a nice little calculator you can use to see how much you pay the church in one year and how much that money would be in ten years if you invested it at a certain profit percentage. It’s a really clever idea. And after calculating, you can resign via the page, of course.

  • Miykael Poly

    Prometheus Society can arrange naming seremonies in Finland.

    If I remember right, the tax is implemented by the gov, but I am not sure of the mechanics. I can tell you this though, I never paid the church separately.

    When it comes to leaving the church, it is simple but since so few people actually go to church regularly, and they don’t have to pay the tax separately.

    I think best reason to why people don’t leave the church in huge numbers, is a matter of out of sight out of mind, the church demands so little direct involvement that people probably barely even remember they are part of the church.

  • Jonathan

    Ditto this for Ireland. At least with my experience, with most people under 50, you visit the church only around 4 times, although people above 50 can be quite religious. And now we’ve got this blasphemy law! Bah

    (Actually a few people will go to christmas mass, which to be fair, is pretty well done, it’s at night with lots of candles and singing. Basically a lot more effort than normal. But the basic four times still stand)

  • Markus

    According to polls, here in Finland about 25% of people actually believes the stuff church is “teaching” ,yet about 80 % of population belong to church. Its very weird, but the local freethinkers -including myself- are planning lots of projects aimed at people “on the fence”.
    The possibility to resign from church via internet has been a huge success story- more than 170 000 people have done it so far.

    @Jonas:
    1. No, not really. At least I dont find the alternatives very meaningful (getting married in a government office, for example).
    edit: I was thinking of marriage only, naming ceremonies are increasing in popularity and are very meaningful I hear.
    2. The tax is approximately 1.33% and is not voluntary.

  • Erp

    I suspect the church tax also pays for the grave or is that separate?

    In addition unless you have no friends/family I suspect people are going to church for other people’s baptisms, marriages, funerals (but you don’t need to belong for that).

  • Similar setup in Iceland; if you are registered as belonging to the state church (or another religious organization), a part of your taxes goes to them. You still have to pay extra for any ceremonies they may perform, i.e. baptisms, funerals. If you are registered as ‘non-afiliated’ your taxes go straight to the government, but until recently they went to the University of Iceland.

    The sad part is that though over 70% of them belong to the state church, most Icelanders aren’t religious. It’s pretty much the same as in Sweden. They go in for baptisms (because grandma wants to), confirmation (for the presents), occasionally weddings, and funerals (because that’s “what’s done” when someone dies). Ask people if they are religious, and they’re more likely to answer no. The majority of those who do say yes, usually mean it in a vague “spiritual” way. They don’t believe in the virgin birth, or a physical resurrection, let alone hell.

    There is some pressure to separate church and state, but for some reason a lot of people think it already has been. To change your registration, you have to fill out a form and fax it or turn it in in person. Occasionally, someone’s registration will “accidentally revert” without them knowing – this seems especially common with foreigners. For a long time Polish immigrants were automatically registered as belonging to the Catholic Church, and some have to change their registration every time they move house.

  • little my

    I think that’s fun. I live in Estonia (it’s next to Finland, over the Baltic Sea). Here we have even less so called true christians. About 15% of all population. Even better place for an atheist. We dont have to pay church tax too. Though all sorts of astrology and other pseudo stuff is quite common… so next article about Estonia, please 😀

  • victory unintentional

    I live in Finland and I have to say that disagree that there is a watered-down christianity in every part of Finland. It depends very much on where you live. Christianity in southern cities is very much as described watered down version of christianity and people living in cities don’t generally want to be labelled neither as believer or atheist. Situation in countryside especially in northern and middle part of country can be quite different .There is a conservative revivalist christian movement called laestadianism active in coutryside. For example laestadianist believe that birth control is sinful and as a result average laestadianist woman has 6 to 7 children.
    Furthermore if you are openly atheist , depending on where you live, you may be automatically associated with communism which can be social stigma as there was bloody civil war between nationalists and communists in 1918 and Finland fought two wars with Soviet Union in 1939-1940 and 1941-1944.

    About the church tax everyone who belongs to one of the national churches pay between 1 and 2 percent of their earnings to church depending on where they live.
    Also all companies whether or not they are christian pay 2.5 percent of their profits to churches and therefore everybody who buys anything in finland is indirectly financing churches. Much of the finnish foreign aid goes throught the churches too.

  • Arctic Ape

    More and more Finns are leaving the church, but it’s a slow process. I personally resigned years ago, after careful consideration. Church membership is still some kind of a norm, even if faith isn’t. I suspect that most adult church members actually want to be members, for the sake of tradition at least. Granted, there are also quite many genuinely non-religious people who just don’t get themselves to opt out.

    Finland is a relatively rational country, but also very much of a consensus culture. On one hand, the few prominently religious people are considered pretty crazy, but on the other hand, outspoken atheism is deemed somewhat inappropriate. Generally we just avoid discussing religion: “Don’t ask about my faith and I don’t tell about my atheism”. In the privacy of their minds, people are supposed to be simultaneously rational and still somehow Christian. It’s like “Schrödinger’s Ceiling Cat” that can both exist and not exist, as long as you don’t look at it. 🙂

    I have tried to discuss religion a few times with my family, but it just doesn’t feel natural in this culture. My mother and sister don’t believe, but they apparently want to stay in the church. My father seems to be utterly non-religious, but I don’t really know what he thinks of church membership. Maybe I’ll try to ask, but it really feels awkward.

    Finnish people can be very wary of Christian fundamentalism, but they don’t often like someone critizising “soft” Christianity or other religions. At least we don’t currently have problems with wannabe-theocrates. Life here is easy for atheists who just mind their own business.

  • jemand

    is this state church usually catholicism? the one that uses the money to hide sexual abuse? to spread misinformation about condoms in the third world? I cannot understand why anyone would give any of their money to such an agency *especially* if they don’t believe in it. If it’s just a local national church that’s about as laid back as the people in it, who cares, the money will pay for pretty buildings.

    But… I actually think the money goes to promoting death sentences on gays in Uganda instead. It’s not like international churches are actually going to keep that money in that country, and it’s not like the “tame” version doesn’t mean the money won’t go to crazies somewhere else.

  • Erp

    The Finnish State Church is Lutheran and a member of the Porvoo Communion which means it is relatively liberal. It allows women priests. It hasn’t gone as far as its Swedish equivalent which has just ordained a female bishop in a civil union with another woman.

  • geru

    Yup, as Eroakirkosta.fi was mentioned already, believe it, we’re doing the best we can in getting people out of the church. 🙂

    BTW, I mentioned that my brother is having a child on an other post, I’m glad to say that last Wednesday she was finally born, healthy and fine. We’ll be celebrating her naming ceremony sometime in January, which will probably be the first non-Christian family ceremony we’ve had in our family. So she’ll be the first pagan child of our kin. 🙂

  • Anonymous Cow

    In Finland, you pay about 150 euro (about $225 USD) a year.

    Average church tax (1.32%) for an employee with average income sums up to 400 euros per year. In capital area, even when the tax percent is as “low” as 1%, the tax income sums up way higher.
    That’s easily a months rent and you don’t get anything in exchange – unless of course you give some value to gay-bashing, (illegal) discrimination of female ministers or trying to fight modern things like freedom to keep your shop open whenever you want to.

    Somewhat outdated, but still very interesting Status of the Finnish State Church in 2007 .

  • geru

    I have to say that we’re living interesting times on this whole church issue. The church is already between a rock and a hard place as it tries to look modern and progressive in the eyes of the youths and the more liberals, but they also have to be careful not to alienate the more religious masses that form the backbone of the whole organization.

    Now the church is loosing it’s most important ally, the state, as several courts have already ruled that male priests cannot refuse to work with female priests on grounds of their religious beliefs. Which I believe shows that the state is taking the stance that secular law outweighs the right of believers to discriminate on the base of their religious beliefs.

    The issue of women priests is still a cause of controversy in the church, even though the first female priests were ordained back in 1988, so it’s clear that the current hot topic, gay marriage, will cause a lot of trouble for the church in the decades to come. And in the near future the church will be facing an even more difficult and awkward topic: openly gay priests.

    As I’ve said before, pretty soon the church won’t have to worry about people leaving the church, as they will have a much more bigger problem of not getting new members as Christenings will start to decrease more rapidly, as even less of the parents of these future generations will be members of the church, and secular naming ceremonies will start to gain popularity and acceptance as a tradition.

  • geru

    Oh, and a slight correction. The 150 euros mentioned in the original post is the average for all the population.

    The average church tax for the working population (calculated from the average pay) is closer to 430 euros per year, which would make about $640 USD.

    Just imagine if every member of the church were sent a bill each year which they had to pay personally from their accounts. It’d be interesting to see what would happen to the church’s member count in the first year this method was in practice. 🙂

  • Ellen

    I’m an American living in Norway, which has a similar set up to the other Nordic countries. My husband recently dis-enrolled from the Norwegian state church, after years of just not caring enough about the issue to fill out the form. He finally got fed up enough to do it. He’s never been a believer, though both baptized and confirmed.

    Here in Norway the Humanist Society is a very vibrant alternative for non-religious rituals: http://www.human.no/templates/Page____2067.aspx

    Our nephew had a humanist confirmation when he turned 14. He got all the benefits of traditional confirmation (i.e. big party and lots of presents) without any of the mumbo jumbo.

  • Very interesting post and comments.

    I am a fan of the “lack of being convinced that there is a God” definition of atheism. This seems to be most inclusive. Specific people are free to have stronger beliefs (perhaps most do) but it is important to have an inclusive definition of atheism that can include all of us. If not, we need some additional terms.

    I do agree with the weaker part of the statement by Jesse, though, that a conscious belief is different than an “accident of birth” like what race you are of or your sexual preference. But it is clear from the comments that Jesse’s rationale applies more to a subset of atheists rather than the whole population.

  • mai

    Which I believe shows that the state is taking the stance that secular law outweighs the right of believers to discriminate on the base of their religious beliefs.

    Another case of this is the trans minister who took a leave of absence and came back as a woman. It seems that the church would get in trouble if they tried to fire her, since it’s illegal to discriminate based on gender.

  • Tom Sidback

    I just read some great news. Via the web site eroakirkosta.fi, more than 30 000 people have left church this year and it’s expected that about 40 000 will leave this year alltogether. About 20% don’t belong to church at the moment. Another stat. is that of those who leave church 75% are under 40 and 41% are women.

  • Sam

    soon all humanity will be force fed Christ and it will be the best feeding of our lives..     forever!   for some it will be painless – not so painless for others..   Do you non belivers think God won’t win. Don’t use your brains, find your scarred souls…  find your purpose…  find your Will…   Hoot