In some respects, the NOREL program builds upon another Nordic research program, directed by Göran Gustafsson (1985, 1987, 1994). However, we will also see that the NOREL program differs from the Gustafsson program in several ways.


The CNRP/Gustafsson study

The Cooperative Nordic Research Program (CNRP) directed by Gustafsson took place in the early 1980s. The aim of this research program was, «to cover a broad array of religious conditions and to study these conditions at different points in time» (Gustafsson 1994: 13). More specifically, the aim was «To study extensively different phenomena in each of the countries at three points of time in order to determine changes in the relevance of religion for society and culture, and also to consider changes in how, and to what degree, the individual encounters religion» (1994: 14). Three years were selected for study, 1938, 1958, and 1978. The years served more as markers than absolute points, and they included relevant information of events after 1978 in the cases where important changes had occurred later. In addition to the time aspect, the program focused on different levels, the national level, the local level (a moderately large town), and the individual level.

The program selected five groups of indicators as indirect measures of religious change. Altogether, the group of 6 researchers studied more than 75 indicators. They were organized in the following five groups:


  • 1. The official position of religion in society
  • 2. Organizational change within religious institutions
  • 3. Popular attitudes to, and participation in, religious activities
  • 4. Folk-religious conceptions and behaviors
  • 5. The relationship between religion and the cultural system in society (1994: 14).


In many ways, this comparative research program was ahead of its time. In the early 1980s, this was one of the few (or perhaps the only) research programs that systematically studied religion across national borders in five countries. It was unique in the sense that the program collected the same type of data in all the countries, so that comparative studies could be conducted. Also, this program focused on the legal aspects of religion, which was relatively unusual at the time. More specifically, the program studied «the legal protection given religious symbols and actions», such as the legal regulations of holidays and laws against blasphemy. Finally, the program focused on the role of religion in the media, which at that time meant radio, TV, the news press, and popular magazines, an area of study that was in its infancy at this time.

The Cooperative Nordic Research program took place in societies characterized by high degree of homogeneity, ethnically and religiously. Indeed, the first group of indicators, «the official position of religion in society», was interpreted to mean «the position of the folk-church as preserver and participant in a «civil religion» system» (1994: 15). For these scholars, «religion» was equivalent with the majority churches, which they called «folk-churches» or «state churches,» in spite of the fact that most of these countries had a long presence of churches outside the majority churches and world religions, such as Judaism and Islam (Finland), albeit relatively small in size. Indeed, the religious diversity was more evident in the local community studies (Gustafsson 1987) than in the national studies (Gustafsson 1985).

To a large degree, this comparative study described the different ways in which the largely homogeneous religious culture in this part of the world slowly was slowly disappearing. The conclusions from the national study showed that the relations between the majority churches and the state were becoming more diverse. The traditional model had been Denmark/Norway/Iceland, on the one hand, and Sweden/Finland, on the other. During the period of study, a greater amount of autonomy between church and state took place in Sweden and Finland, with little or few changes in these relations in Norway and Denmark, whereas the case of Iceland began to resemble Sweden/Finland (1994: 44-45).

In the mid-1980s, the evidence of multi-religious societies was only slightly noticeable. The authors concluded that the official positions of Christianity and the majority churches were constitutionally much the same during the period studied. However, the official status of these religious traditions was diminishing in importance over time in all five countries so that they were «only marginally present in the official arena of society» (1994: 45). These trends were even more evident in Denmark/Sweden than in Norway/Finland/Iceland.

A contrasting trend was found in the so-called «mass media,» where the study showed that the presence of religion had increased during the period studied. Indeed, «religion occupied a larger place in these media at the end of the period of study than at the beginning» (1994: 45). The mass media also seems to be the public sphere that demonstrated more religious diversity than the other public spheres. In all five countries, the findings were that the media no longer dealt «primarily with the Christian message, but also provide general information concerning church and religion as well as material on world religions, private religiosity, and folk and transcendental beliefs» (1994: 45). Yet, the overall attention given to religion in the media was more limited in Denmark, and more generous in Norway and Finland, than in the other countries.


The NOREL program

The NOREL program builds upon the Cooperative Nordic Research Program and the aim of NOREL is to continue the comparative study of religion in the five Nordic countries. The research design is similar with the focus on three selected years, although these years are only one decade apart. The approach of selecting similar indicators of study for all the five countries is also the same.

Nevertheless, the NOREL program is very different than the Gustafsson study in several ways. The NOREL program focuses on the public sphere and does not deal with the role of religion in the local community or in the lives of individuals. The notions of the «public» and the «private» spheres refer here to the traditional dichotomous model of social relations that states a separation between the domestic sphere of the individual, the family, and leisure and that of dominant institutions, such as economic, legal, and political institutions. In the NOREL program, the public sphere includes collectives that operate at different levels, such as the state, the political sphere, the media, and civil society.

Why the focus on the public sphere? There are two major reasons, one empirical and one theoretical. The empirical reason has to do with the premise of the NOREL program, which is that religious and worldview diversity, including the growth of secularity and non-affiliation, are facts that are growing in importance in the Nordic countries. These changes are in particular visible in the public sphere, in the relations between state and religions, in political decision making having to do with multiculturalism and regulating religious diversity, in the expressions of and debates on religion in the media, and the religious diversity at the civil society level with new awareness of or perhaps new forms of interactions between various leaders of faith and worldview communities. The overall empirical question within NOREL is how the religious and worldview diversity is affecting the role of religion in the public sphere in the Nordic countries. Does the diversity challenge the traditional ways in which religion and worldviews are being addressed and regulated? Or have few changes taken place in the period 1988-2008, so that the overall feature is continuity with the patterns found in the Gustafsson study?  The aim of NOREL is to study how religion in these four public spheres are addressed, regulated, contested, and negotiated.

The second reason for the focus on the public sphere in NOREL has to do with the relatively new theoretical (and empirical) claims in the sociology of religion of the return of religion in the public sphere.


 Theoretical developments

The second The Cooperative Nordic Research Program took place at a time when secularization theory was the dominating paradigm. The strong position of secularization theory is evident in Gustafsson’s description of the program: «As in almost all research in the sociology of religion, the discussion focused on the concept of secularization» (Gustafsson 1994: 13). Nevertheless, the program decided not to focus entirely on secularization, as this concept implied «a decline in religious belief and practice and a weakening of religious institutions» (1994: 13-14). Instead, the group of scholars opted for the term «religious change», as this was considered to be «more neutral than secularization and does not presuppose a given direction for all religious change, i.e. that religion and religious institutions are weakened» (1994: 14).

The Cooperative Nordic Research Program was almost devoid of theoretical reflections. There are few, if any, references to theory in the two books and one article written by Gustafsson (1985, 1987, 1995). In spite of the lack of theoretical reflections, these scholars were largely inspired by the «diminishing role of religion» approach that was dominating the sociology of religion until the 1980s, especially the early Peter L. Berger (1967) who emphasized the functions of religion in providing legitimization and integration. For example, Gustafsson focused on the role that Christianity possibly had in providing «a real or rhetorical legitimization of the functions of other social institutions» and «the integration between church/religion and society» (1994: 15). He was also inspired by structural functionalism, as he analyzed the role of religion in public institutions, such as judicial institutions, military institutions and educational institutions in terms of «functional specialization» (1994: 15).

The theoretical tradition that inspired the first Nordic study stems from Max Weber (1968/1925, I), and was continued by the early Peter L. Berger (1967), Bryan R. Wilson (1982), and the early Jürgen Habermas (1982, 1984). Contemporary sociologist of religion Steve Bruce (2002, 2003) is one of the defenders of this tradition today. In Politics and Religion he (2003) argues, for example, that the modern, industrialized countries in the West are largely secular, although religion continues to be an autonomous force in contemporary politics in other parts of the world and in other religious traditions than modern, Western Christianity.

The «resurgence of public religion» approach actually began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Robert N. Bellah’s claim that in order for society to survive all societies must have a civil religion (Bellah 1967, 1975; Bellah and Hammond 1980). This new approach was continued by Philip E. Hammond (1985) in the mid 1980s who used studies of new religious movements to question the secularization thesis, and later carried on by José Casanova (1994), Peter L. Berger (1999), Jürgen Habermas (2002, 2006, 2008), and others, who claimed that we were witnessing «a return» of religion in the public sphere. It is within this context that the NOREL program takes place.


Contemporary debates on the role of religion in the public sphere

Contemporary debates on the role of religion in the public sphere take place within a number of disciplines, philosophy, history, law, political science, theology, and sociology. On the one hand are the debates within philosophy, theology, law, and to a degree within political science, which discusses the role that religion in the public sphere has in contemporary societies, and more importantly, the role that religion normatively ought to have in the public sphere. On the other hand are the debates among historians, some political scientists, and sociologists on the role that religion historically has had in the public sphere, and the role that it has in the public spheres of contemporary societies. The NOREL program studies empirically the role of religion in the public sphere, and our aim is that the results of our study will have an important say in this theoretical debate. Yet, our major concern is not the normative question of which role religion should have in the public sphere. The boundary between empirical and normative aims is not clear cut, of course, which means that findings from our studies will perhaps lead to normative questions having to do with the legal and practical regulation of religion, the public policies on managing religious diversity, and so forth. Nevertheless, due to the empirical focus of NOREL, the debates within the sociology of religion are most relevant for our program. Here, we will focus on some of the participants in this debate.

Casanova’s influential book Public Religions in the Modern World (1994) is sometimes seen as a major work that spurred the emergence of a new trend in the sociology of religion, which declared the death of the secularization thesis and the idea of the resurgence of religion in politics and public affairs. Casanova has in more recent publications clarified his thinking about public religion in different parts of the world (Casanova 2002, 2003, 2006, 2008). However, his book from 1994 was important in drawing focus to the growing presence of religion in the public sphere, so I will discuss it here. Here, Casanova agrees with the notion that an irreversible historical process of religious differentiation has taken place in the West, but he questions whether institutional differentiation necessarily must result in the marginalization and privatization of religion. Instead, he argues that only empirical studies will demonstrate if this is so. On the basis of historical sociological studies of public religion in Spain, Poland, Brazil, and the United States, he argues that since the 1980s a widespread process of «deprivatization» of modern religion has taken place throughout the world. In this book, Casanova sees the fusion of the religious and the political as incompatible with the modern principle of citizenship. For him, established churches are also incompatible with modern differentiated states. He concludes that only public religions at the level of civil society are consistent with modern universalistic principles and with modern differentiated structures (Casanova 1994: 219).

By taking a look at another important voice in this debate, namely Jürgen Habermas, we see that he largely followed Weber’s theory of rationalization and secularization in his early work. Indeed, the study of the public sphere was pioneered by Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which appeared in German in 1962, in Norwegian in 1971, and in English as late as 1989. In many ways, contemporary debates on the «public» are closely linked to this work (Mendieta and Anantwerpen 2011: 2). In this book, Habermas paid little attention to religion, and did not see that religion played any role in the development of the bourgeois public sphere (Calhoun 1992). Later, in Theory of Communicative Action (1984-87/1981), he argued that discourses can include talk about the truth and rightfulness of religion, but religion would not serve emancipated communicative action in any fundamental way (1982: 251). Several scholars objected to his view of religion as anathema to rational critical discourse. American professor of sociology Michele Dillon (1999: 290-291) points out, for example, that Habermas interpreted religion as «a monolithic and reified phenomenon» and ignored the various philosophical influences upon it. Thereby, he overlooked the fact that contemporary religion and theology «bring the critical principles of the Enlightenment into religion itself and into theological reflection» (Fiorenza 1992: 74). Habermas’ polarization of reason and religion prevented an understanding of reasoned debates within various religious traditions of doctrine, interpretations, and scripture.

Indeed, during the last years Habermas has turned increasingly to questions of religion and opened up for discussion of the idea that religion can contribute to social development. Although he still thinks that religious statements made in the public sphere must be transformed into a general language, he emphasizes that secular actors must also be willing to understand religion (Habermas 2006; Habermas and Ratzinger 2007; Habermas 2011). Religion has a role in the public sphere in the West and Western societies are now what he calls «post-secular», in the sense that «religion maintains a public influence and relevance, while the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernization is losing ground» (Habermas 2008: 4).  Habermas has become a spokesperson for post-metaphysical thought. He continues to build on a sharp division between faith and knowledge, but he argues against the use of «a scientifically limited conception of reason» and the idea that religious doctrines must be excluded from «the genealogy of rationality» (Habermas 2006: 16). Habermas concludes that «post-metaphysical thought is prepared to learn from religion, but remains agnostic in the process» (2006: 17). Habermas’ focus on religion reflects the increased visibility of Islam in Europe and the public awareness among Europeans of the presence of Muslims.

Nevertheless, Habermas’ idea of «the totalizing trait of a mode of believing that infuses the very pores of daily life» (2006: 8) shows that he sees religion as a phenomenon severed from practical reason, social context, and everyday experiences. He also fails to see that religious identity can be one of multiple identities (along with gender, sexuality and ethnicity) that in some instances are in contradictions to each other, as for example the identity of being lesbian or gay and evangelical Christian (Thumma and Gray 2005; Wilcox 2003). Michele Dillon (2010) applauds Habermas’ recognition of the cultural relevance of religion. However, she points to several tensions and repercussions in appropriating religion as a cultural resource for post-secular society because religion is complicated and has limits. Religion is not entirely rational, as it emphasizes non-rational sources of meaning and authority. Religion is not just about ideas, but about rituals, routines, and emotions. Religious doctrines also change over time, and are continually contested. She also labels Habermas’ distinction between religious citizens from secular citizens as artificial. Finally, there is a limit to religious tolerance, and «the ideal of a civil society in which tolerance of religious and cultural differences is realized in practice, is burdened by substantial empirical evidence of intolerance» (2010: 149). The reason is that tolerance does not come easy, whether you are religious or not. Empirical studies of public debates in our countries support Dillon’s idea that tolerance of religious minorities, especially Muslims, is not always high. Finally, Dillon is pessimistic about Habermas’ notion that the constitutional state should «act considerately toward all those cultural sources – including religion – out of which civil solidarity and norm consciousness are nourished» (Habermas 2006: 27). Instead, it is more likely that the state is tied to the prevailing religion in that country, a fact also Habermas admits (2006: 6). This underscores what the state considers to be normal and normative religion, meaning that the state favors the religion it knows best. This does not mean that Dillon argues that religion does not have a place in the public sphere, rather that it is a complicated phenomenon that often is contested among its adherents, so religion is not an easy bedfellow in the public sphere, so to speak.

The issues at hand

The Nordic countries, like most European countries, attempt to adjust to a growing religious diversity and find out which implications this diversity will have for the role of religion in the public sphere (Byrnes and Katzenstein 2006; Cesari and McLoughlin 2005). In analyzing, the role of religion in contemporary society, several sociologists of religion have noted that religion has gained a new presence and vitality in public contexts (Koenig 2008: Kettle 2009).

  Nevertheless, these studies and debates raise a number of issues that are relevant for the NOREL program. The first issue has to do with the categories of religion and the public sphere, or religion and the secular. Whereas religion previously was considered to be a private phenomenon characterized by irrationality, the public sphere has been understood as a sphere of rationality. These perceptions are being challenged, as religion is not just private or purely irrational, and the public sphere is not only characterized by «straight-forward rational deliberations nor a smooth space of unforced assent», as stated by Mendieta and Vanantwerpen (2011: 1) in their introduction to their edited book, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.

Furthermore, the «resurgence of religion in the public sphere» approach raises questions of perceptions of the present and the past. For example, is this approach based on a myth of past secularity? The idea of «post-secular society» suggests that the past was a secular society, which is now replaced by a society where religion has a more prominent role. Terms like descecularization and deprivatization of religion are also based on the idea of past secularity and privatization of religion. Findings from the Gustafsson study seem to suggest that the Nordic countries were never totally «secular».

This approach also tends to assume that religion at one point disappeared from the public sphere, only to reappear in contemporary society. Did religion actually disappear from the public sphere, as implied by José Casanova’s book from 1994?  If so, did this take place in the Nordic countries? James A. Beckford (2010: 122) expresses doubt that the British public ever assigned religion to a place in the private sphere. He also contests Casanova’s sharp distinction between the state, political society and civil society as conditions of modernity and modern liberal democracies. His argument is that Britain lacks these clear distinctions and that there is a blurring boundary between state and civil society. In this way, the resurgence of religion in the British public sphere has to be understood in the context of government policies for partnership between religions and the state, and resistance to these politics. Likewise, we may ask: has religion disappeared in constitutions only to reappear, or in public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, and the military? In the Nordic welfare states, how are the state, the political sphere, the media, and civil society linked and interrelated? Finally, rather than interpreting a «return of religion to the public sphere», are we witnessing a situation where religion has become a contested issue by politicians and that politicians use it for their own purposes, which Beckford described in Britain?

            The final question is if this approach exaggerates the presence and impact of religion in the public sphere? Is it so that the privatization of religion has come to a halt? Perhaps it overlooks contrasting trends that religion continues to be privatized and subjective, and at the same time visible and public?

The aims of the seminar

These are some of the issues we will address at the NOREL seminar at Metochi 2011. This week we will focus on preliminary empirical findings on the role of religion in the state, the political sphere, the media, and civil society in our five Nordic countries, but these empirical findings must be discussed with these and related theoretical debates in mind.



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