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Finns’ beliefs: recent changes

Religious identities

The Church Research Institute in Finland has conducted surveys for multiple years inquiring how Finnish people religiously define themselves. The early versions of those surveys included only six options from which the respondents could choose: Christian, Lutheran, believing, believer, born-again Christian, and atheist. More recent versions have aimed on reaching other ways of identification too. Figure 1 demonstrates the distributions of altogether five surveys between 2004 and 2019. When comparing the first and the last surveys available, the share of those considering themselves a Christian and Lutheran has decreased by approximately 12-13 percentage points. Respectively, the amount of those considering themselves atheists or non-religious has increased by approximately five percentage points. Tendencies with other identities are not as clearly traced through these surveys.

Figure 1. The religious identities of Finns 2004-2019 (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica 2011, 2015, 2019, and Kirkkomonitor 2004 and 2007 surveys, N=1 624-4 929.

Gallup Ecclesiastica 2019 survey found out that three in five (60%) Finns still identify as Christians and half of Finns as Lutherans (51%). It is noteworthy that at the same time only 29% of all the respondents and 43% of those identifying as Christians considered themselves also “believers”. In the same way 29% of all respondents and 44% of Christians considered to be a “religious person”. The same trend continues with those considering being a “spiritual person” - 31% of all the respondents and 44% of Christians identify with that. Furthermore, a smaller group is formed of those who identify as “religiously conservative” (13% of all, 19% of Christians) or “born-again Christian” (8% of all, 10% of Christians).

An opposite group to the previous is formed by those considering themselves as “atheist” or “non-religious”. Only a very few of these considered themselves to belong to any of the aforementioned groups. Roughly one in four (24%, 2019) Finns consider themselves as non-religious and one in six (17%, 2019) as atheists.

Yet there was a significant group of respondents who considered themselves both Christians and humanists (29% of Christians, 2019) or both Christian and agnostics (24% of Christians, 2019). These observations indicate that Christianity is to a considerable extent a cultural category, where Christian identity can include various convictions from humanism and agnosticism to more distinctively religious and spiritual convictions.

Moreover, the overlap of various identities was with those who identified as a “spiritual person”, “religiously liberal”, and “seeker”. Two in five (40%) of all Finns considered themselves as spiritual people and the percentages were around the same among the Christians (44%) and non-religious (38%). Religiously liberal were one in four Finns (26%), third of Christians (31%) and more than fifth of non-religious (22%). Again, seekers were found from over one in five Finns (22%), one in four Christians (24%) and one in six non-religious (16%). Seekers do not, then, reflect countercultural positioning, but can be seen as part of the mainstream culture.

Through these findings, the research group identified four main groups indicating the religious identities of Finnish people: believers, cultural Christians, non-religious, and seekers. Figure 2 illustrates how Finns are divided into these groups according to different generations. All the groups are about the same size, but it is noteworthy that the group of seekers comprises an even number of people from the other groups. The amount of those born in the 1980s is exceptionally low in the groups of cultural Christians and believers, while their presence in the groups of seekers and non-religious is strikingly high. It can be seen, then, that among the 30-39 years seekers and non-religious form the largest groups.

Figure 2. The main groups of convictions of Finns in different generations (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica 2019, N=4 065.

Belief in God

Finns’ belief in God has been examined with a similar kind of question for almost half a century. Figure 3 indicates that the number of those believing in God as taught in Christianity has decreased significantly. In the 2000s the number has halved; in 1999 47% of Finns reported believing in God as taught in Christianity, while in 2019 only 25% reported believing so. Also, the amount of those believing in God in other ways has decreased from 27% to 18%. The number of those who are not quite sure whether they believe in God or not, has, by contrast, slightly grown. It is now the first time during the measured period that less than half of the Finns reported believing in God either the way taught in Christianity or in some other way.

Figure 3. Belief in God of Finns 1976-2019 (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica and Kirkkomonitor, N=992-4 930.

As figure 4 points out, one in four (25%) of all Finns report believing in god as taught by Christianity. Almost the same proportion (24%) reported not believing in God’s existence. The other half of the population is somewhere in the middle, claiming that they either doubt the existence of God (9%); do not know if they believe in God or not (19%); believe in God in some ways differently than the church teaches (18%); or don’t know/do not want to say (6%). This figure also indicates that there are generational differences in Finns’ belief in God. While 43% of the oldest age cohort (70-79 years) report believing in god as taught by Christianity, only 15% of the youngest (15-29 years) generation report believing so. Along with this the proportion of those not believing in the existence of God has increased when moving from older generations to younger ones. The proportion of those believing differently than the church teaches has slightly reduced, while there has been a moderate increasing tendency for doubting the existence of God and not knowing if they believe in God or not.

Figure 4. Finns’ belief in God by the age cohort (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica 2019, N=4 065.

Belief in Other Christian and Neo-Spiritual Ideas

There are more people believing in general religious ideas than in theologically orthodox views. For example, the claim that “the good and evil will ultimately receive their reward”, was believed by almost half (49%) of the respondents, whereas the claim “Jesus rose from the dead”, was believed by one in three (33%) of all respondents.

Figure 5. Belief in some of the Christian teachings (beliefs firmly or believe it to be probable) (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica 2019, N=4 065.

Figure 6 presents some claims that are considered common in alternative spirituality or neo-spirituality. A majority of Finns (60%) fully or partly agree with the claim that “every human being should find their own way, trusting their innermost being, even if this is rejected by society”. More than one in four believe in invisible worlds or beings influencing our world (39%), but only one in ten (11%) Finns believe in that future can be predicted by supernatural forces. Almost one in five (18%) believe that spirit mediums or channelers can convey information to us about the invisible world.

Figure 6. Belief of Finns in certain neo-spiritual views (agree fully or partly) (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica 2019, N=4 065.

Opinions of Religions and Convictions

The majority of Finns are rather open to the truth value of different convictions, as figure 7 points out. The biggest groups in the whole population are secular inclusivists (29%) believing that religions represent important values despite the fact that being based on untrue beliefs. Religious pluralists (25%) form the second-biggest group, considering all religions equally true and seeing them teaching the same eternal truth in essence. The next biggest group is of religious inclusivists (15%) according to whom the truth can most completely be found from one religion. Altogether over two thirds (69%) of Finns are ready to acknowledge the value of other convictions in a way or another. Then again, one tenth (12%) in the population are secular exclusivists, who consider religions untrue and harmful. The smallest group is that of religious exclusivists (5%), according to whom the truth is found from one religion only, other resting on the error. In other words, one sixth (17%) of Finns oppose sharply other people’s convictions. Also, one sixth (14%) did not take a stand on this question. These findings reflect the breaking of the Lutheran hegemony and the growing importance of the diversity of convictions and religions in Finland.

Figure 7. Views on claims of the theology of religion among Finns (%). Gallup Ecclesiastica 2019, N=4 064.

Ketola, Kimmo (2020) Uskonnolliset identiteetit ja uskomusmaailma moninaistuvat, in Salomäki, Hanna, Hytönen, Maarit, Ketola, Kimmo, Salminen, Veli-Matti & Sohlberg, Jussi (eds.) (2020) Uskonto arjessa ja juhlassa. Suomen evankelis-luterilainen kirkko vuosina 2016-2019. Tampere: Church Research Institute. (Will be published in English shortly: Religion in Daily Life and in Celebration. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 2016-2019).

D 29 June 2021    AAnita Sipilä

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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