Sweden's `secular society' shows signs of inner life

The 250-year-old Seglora Church stands on a wooded hill at Skansen, the spacious open-air museum of Swedish history perched on one of this city's many islands. Around its red-shingled exterior, the rough-hewn log farmhouses from the same period testify to the rigors of Swedish country life. Inside the church, sunlight slanting through clear-paned windows glows on well-worn wooden pews and a towering baroque pulpit. But in today's modern and design-conscious Sweden, pews and pulpits are little used. Although 95 percent of the population still belongs to the Lutheran denomination known as the Church of Sweden, only 5 percent of them regularly attend church. It's tempting to observe that what 10 centuries of hardship could not destroy -- the yearning for a sense of existence transcending the material -- has all but been erased by 40 years of material ease. It's tempting, too, to agree with David Popenoe, an American sociologist studying Swedish families, who in a recent conversation here voiced his considered opinion that ``Sweden is the most secular society in the world.''

Tempting, but not entirely accurate. For in the last several years, according to a number of Swedes interviewed here, something has begun to change in the inner life of this diplomatically neutral nation. The change has little to do with the economy, which is hinged to the wider world. It has little to do with Sweden's famous welfare state -- the cradle-to-grave support system that covers everything from day care to pensions by extracting massive income taxes and a 23 percent value-added tax. It may not

even be related to the nation's razor-edged political balance, which in September returned Prime Minister Olof Palme and his Social Democratic Party to power for another three-year term.

The change today has to do with values, and it shows up in numerous ways:

In the last two years, says conservative parliamentarian Ann-Cathrine Haglund, ``It's allowed to say you should behave, you should work hard, you should save. You can even talk about morals today.'' This shift, she thinks, has been pronounced and sudden.

High school teachers are sensing changes in student attitudes toward sex -- away from the ``free love'' so widely identified with contemporary Swedish society and toward a greater respect for chastity. It is apparently no longer quite so fashionable for teen-agers to be sexually experienced.

``When the kids were young,'' says Stockholm architect Jan Skuncke over dessert at his comfortable suburban home, ``we were scared what would become of them'' in a society he once characterized as ``buy, wear, and throw away.'' Now he and his wife agree that the younger generation talks less of consumerism and more of quality.

Those who track religious affairs here note a growing interest in spiritual issues -- and a newfound willingness in the press to cover it. Until recently, says one observer, most newspapers had no religious affairs editor. Now many do. A series last summer in the respected Svenska Dagbladet documented a steadily growing interest in what it described as ``private religion,'' based on inner searching rather than adherence to church teachings.

Such trends, not unique to Sweden, are popping up in other European countries as well. But the Swedish example deserves particular attention, coming from a nation that has consciously transformed itself into the greenhouse of Western welfare-state experimentation. The trends, in fact, suggest a thought-provoking conclusion: that there are human needs deeper than state-organized structures can supply, and that even the manifestly high level of physical well-being achieved here leaves something lack ing.

The recognition of that lack can be profoundly disturbing. ``There's something strange going on,'' says Lena Nilsson Sch"onnesson, a psychologist with the Swedish Commission for Research on Equality between Women and Men. In a report published earlier this month -- based on exhaustive interviews with 28 ``normal'' Swedish married couples, each with two children -- she recorded high levels of fatigue among the parents, isolation from friends, and serious worries about finances. Most frightening, she says , is the extent to which the couples are ``putting aside their own relationships'' and focusing almost entirely on their children. She blames, in part, what she calls the ``Big Brother'' presence of state family policies -- especially those which have emphasized children while, paradoxically, playing down the family.

In fact, it may be just this paradox that is driving the new stirring of attitudes. ``The family is not important anymore,'' says Mrs. Haglund, ``and I think people are slowly reacting to this. They want to be able to choose their lives.''

That, of course, remains the great conservative argument against Sweden's social welfare policies -- that they reduce or eliminate the individual's freedom to choose how to educate children, how to order the family, how to deploy resources. Few argue for an entire overthrow of these policies, which have wiped out deep poverty and greatly promoted social equality. Instead, the search today is for something more -- not so much physically and economically as mentally and spiritually. The effect of this sea rch on Sweden's future -- and, by extension, on the future of welfare statism everywhere -- will be well worth watching.

A Monday column

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.