Conflict Between Universities and Former State Church of Sweden

Sweden's secularisation process has been going on for about a century, usually pretty quietly, with the anti-Christian polemics of philosopher Ingemar Hedenius marking a brief period of open conflict in the 1950s.

As is the case in most European countries, Sweden's university system was born in the Middle Ages with the main aim to educate priests. Some of the older ones still have a Faculty of Theology. The other day another one of the National Agency for Higher Education's evaluations was published. They recently checked out the country's archaeology departments. Now they've done religion studies and theology, which has caused a kerfuffle.

One of the evaluation's main findings is that the Church of Sweden has too much influence over the universities, and that this influence has grown in recent years. Much of the practical courses in the education of priests used to be organised by the Church. For some reason, this Lutheran Christian body, which was a state church until 1999, then ceded these courses to certain universities.

The Centre for Theology and Religious Studies in Lund is openly divided over the recent report. Its Dean, its Vice Dean and Lund University's President have protested it in an open letter, while at least three of the faculty have written in to announce their displeasure with the letter of protest. One of the report's authors has lost her job at the Faculty of Theology in Uppsala.

Meanwhile, KÃ¥re Bremer, the President of the University of Stockholm (a relatively young university where I did my BA and PhD), writes on his blog (and I translate):

The National Agency for Higher Education has performed a far-reaching evaluation of religion studies, history of religion and theology at the country's colleges and universities. It contains much criticism and questions many things. It appears that the University of Stockholm is the only one of the universities that get's a clean bill of health. We have the subject of religion studies at the Faculty of Humanities, but no theology. This was actually one of the main points when the university was founded [in 1878], that it would not have any faculty of theology linked to the Church of Sweden. Such a relationship apparently survives at several universities which offer, i.a., so-called "pastoral theology" courses. These, according to the National Agency, are comprised of Bible interpretion, liturgics (divine service) and catechetics (the teaching of religious beliefs) with some training located in the workplace among congregations of the Church of Sweden. I am horrified. [Jag är förfärad.] Needless to say, the universities should study religion and teach courses about it as an important aspect of society but remain completely separate from the practice of religion and from religious organisations. State-organised higher education must rest upon a scientific basis, and the authority of science and good research practice must be protected (Sweden's University Law, ch. 1). This means that it is impossible to cooperate with the Church of Sweden or other religious organisations in education and research.

This comes hot on the heels of a report commissioned to evaluate a suggestion by the Minister for Higher Education and Research, that Sweden should offer public training for Muslim imams. An important rationale for the Minister's suggestion was that home-grown imams would very likely be more liberal and less likely to preach Jihad than the ones Sweden currently imports. Also, they would be better equipped to help integrate Muslim immigrants into Swedish society. The report, however, finds that it wouldn't be a good idea.


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i think it would be an excellent idea, just as i think it was a strategic mistake to disassociate the church from the state. having that association between the state and religion in place, i think, acts as a moderating influence on religion; churches --- and, i would presume, mosques --- can only get so extremist when in the final analysis they are answerable to the whole of the people.

i grew up in Finland when it, too, had a state church. worked very well to make an atheist out of me, it did.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 03 Jun 2009 #permalink

But even in Finland, the universities are formally independent of the church. You can go all the way to Doctor of Theology as an atheist. The focus of the Dept of Theology is in research (exegetics, comparative, history, etc.). Evangelizing is left for the church.

If you want priesthood, you need both a Master's in Theology from a university, and a separate church ceremony where you take the oath of a priest. The church takes over from there.

That's the official story. I'm not familiar with the inner workings.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 03 Jun 2009 #permalink

@Lassi it works the same way in Sweden, the priests do their teol. kand. at the university (which is something like Master of Theology, I'm not to familiar with how the Bologna process works here or how the education has changed in recent years) but besides that they have to do 1,5 years of community college which is education from the church on how to baptise, wed people and stuff like that.

My wife is a priest and her education at Uppsala seemed quite secular with studies in history of religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, philosophy and exegetics (basicaly linguistic studies of the bible). I my self is an atheist and I studied history of religion in Uppsala at the same time (that is where we met) and most of the students went on to become teatchers, not priests, I think. I don't know which kind of criticism Uppsala got how ever, beside the fact that there were not enough doctoral students, so may be they did not have the same problems despite the fact that Uppsala is the oldest University in Sweden ;).

By Micke Nordin (not verified) on 03 Jun 2009 #permalink

Having lived in what's called the Bible Belt of the U.S., where it's very popular to combine church and state, even though it's unconstitutional, I would advise against combining church and state. It gets rather nasty. People draw lines in the sand. "We're the chosen ones and deserve funding by the state because God loves us. You're damned and God hates you and so there ought to be laws against your kind." That's the way people think and that's the way they want to legislate. It tends not to stand up in court. But it takes a long time and a lot of money to get these kinds of mean-spirited laws corrected through the courts. Meanwhile, lots of people go to jail and prison because they "sinned" in the eyes of the local church.

By DianaGainer (not verified) on 04 Jun 2009 #permalink

By the way, in case you don't know what sins are or were illegal in Texas, here is a short list: teaching evolution in science class instead of the creation story from the Bible, selling anything on Sunday (it's the Lord's Day, don't you know?), selling or buying liquor any time at all or drinking it (you know the Lord really didn't turn water into wine -- that was Kool-Aid), loving someone of the same sex (so horrid a sin we mustn't even speak its name), trying to end a pregnancy at any stage for any reason whatsoever. On the other hand, if you want to carry a gun any

By DianaGainer (not verified) on 04 Jun 2009 #permalink

Generally speaking there is no problem I have heard of, reading theology and History of Religion in Uppsala as an atheist. That said, I personally chose to study HoR in Stockholm athough I lived in Uppsala at the time. My interest lies mostly with religion as a global phenomenon, and prehistoric religions. I felt the curriculum in Stockholm was more geared towards that than Uppsala, which at that time at least tended to focus a lot on the three monotheistic religions.

It is slightly weird to me that the Universities should devote so much time to educating priests, as I believe the church itself should be in charge of that. Atheist that I am, I am still prepared to see the State support this to a small degree financially, but the same courtesy should be directed to the other large faiths as well (judaism and islam).

Since christianity has played such a tremendous political, social and philosophical role in European history I still see the need of a lot of University courses directed at that. But I feel that it should be done as critically and devoid of superstition as we demand of any other higher education. There should never be any question about whether critical approaches are allowed or not, and as little "special treatment" of christianity in general as possible. For those who wish to study liturgy and biblical texts without having to apologize for their faith, there should be church sponsored schools.

It's really strange that Church influence at these universities is growing after the severance of the ties with the State.

I share ArchAsa's perspective. There are many things I don't like about America's civic institutions, but the role of religion in higher education is not one of them. Most of the top universities have divinity schools, which are combinations of religious studies programs (including faculty across social sciences) and pastoral training done in collaboration with local seminaries.

The students who choose paths in ordained ministry are much more pluralistic in their theology than other clergy who went to seminaries affiliated with one religion. The divinity students spend three years taking class with peers from all the world's major religions. I think it is a very positive form of religious education.

I completely disagree with Bremer's take on all education needing a "scientific basis." A well-rounded education includes exploration of many questions beyond the reach of science. A science education is worthless if you know nothing of the epistemological assumptions on which your science is built or if you know nothing about the value systems and historic context in which scientific knowledge will be used.

You may agree more with Bremer than you think. The word I translated with "scientific" is vetenskaplig, which has slightly different connotations. It means, roughly, "having to do with a systematic and source-critical study of anything that exists". Cf. German Wissenschaft.