Secular power in Swedish schools

By Joseph Ballan
18 Mar 2011

Sweden, by some standards one of the world’s most secular countries, has passed a new education law stipulating that public schools must teach their subjects in a “non-confessional” and “objective” manner. The law applies to all schools, including independent Christian and Muslim schools, because they, too, receive funding from the state.

Taking a cue from this reiteration of the “non-confessional” character of all Swedish schools, one district disallowed its preschool students from seeing a nativity play in a church before reversing this decision in the wake of controversy. Responding to the incident, the local bishop called the ideal of non-confessional education a “chimera.”

He noted that, while the question of students’ attendance at a Christmas play had become a matter for debate, the teaching of “knowledge for life” in the schools expanded unchallenged, thereby shoving a confession that has been tried and tested over the centuries “out the front door” and letting a modish but dubious one in the back.

According to the bishop’s argument, denying Sweden’s students access to Christian narratives impoverishes their cultural competence. For example, students’ ability to understand major Swedish artistic works would be compromised. Ingmar Bergman’s films, especially The Seventh Seal and Winter Light (whose Swedish title, significantly, is Nattvardsgästerna, that is, The Communicants), are saturated with Christian imagery. The same can be said of Ohlson Wallin’s provocative photography exhibitions.

The cultural valence of Christmas was also at issue in an October debate between education minister Jan Björklund, of the centre-right Liberal Party, and Rosanna Dinamarca, a Left Party member of Parliament, over this autumn’s release of a new school curriculum. Björklund’s government defied the explicit recommendations of the Education Authority by allotting more space and time to Christianity than to other faiths in public school curricula. Given the high influx of non-Christian immigrants into Swedish society, Dinamarca deems the pedagogical privileging of Christianity to be inappropriate in a Sweden that no longer has an official state church, and whose confessional makeup is rapidly changing along with its demographics.

In the name of preserving - or perhaps of achieving - the 'secular' character of Swedish society, Dinamarca would like to see 'religious studies' absorbed into the social studies curriculum. Björklund, on the other hand, points to the importance of Christmas in Swedish culture as justification for the continuing centrality of Christianity in 'non-confessional' education. For the sake of integration, “new Swedes” need to learn enough about Christianity to at least understand the significance of this and other holiday seasons in cultural life.

The bishop and the education minister do not seek to carve out a privileged position in the schools for Christianity in the name of its truth, but in the name of the intelligibility of European culture. While disagreeing about the possibility of non-confessional education, they concur that one cannot properly understand what it means to be Swedish without knowledge about Christianity.

But this appeal to the cultural as distinct from the religious implies a certain story about how Europe, once Christian, is now secular. On the other hand, the Leftists speak on behalf of a secularism that would guarantee institutional equality for adherents of all creeds, without raising the question of their comparative merits as ways of life. In their view, being secular today does not require an understanding of secular Europe’s Christian past. In this way, their vision of the secular differs from that of the older-style humanism of the late Ingemar Hedenius and his disciples, who demand the banishment of religious studies from schools because of religion’s inherent irrationality.

The variety of positions in these discussions highlights the fact that secularity is not simply a neutral space from which religion is absent but, in its remarkably varied historical and social iterations, stands for different values for different social and political actors, and in different places and times. At stake in these debates about what it means to be secular is the definition and constitution of a common space to which citizens could belong. More specifically, these debates concern the role of state power in shaping that space, in this case as exercised through the schools.

The primary confrontation is not between the religious and the secular, but between different ways of conceptualising the secular. The conflict relates to a broader paradox about what is often called “belonging [to the church] without believing,” which did not disappear when the former state church detached itself from the government in 2000. The debate is about what it means to belong—to Sweden, and to Europe.

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© Joseph Ballan is a doctoral candidate in philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, USA.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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