Record Numbers Abandon Sweden Church Because 'They Do Not Believe in God'

The Swedish flag in this undated file photo.
The Swedish flag in this undated file photo. | (Photo: REUTERS)

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden says people are continuing to abandon the faith in record numbers. More than 90,000 left the church in 2016 and the main reason cited was "they do not believe in God."

The Local reported on Tuesday that the 90,000 who left the church last year is almost double the number of those who quit in 2015. The steep drop saw as many as 1.5 percent of the entire membership abandon the church.

The Swedish Church, which used pollsters Norstat to conduct the survey, found that 40 percent of respondents left because they "no longer believe in God," which was the most popular reason given.

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Another 18 percent said that they no longer found the churchgoing experience meaningful, while 17 percent said that it was "too expensive."

Pernilla Jonsson, head of analysis at the Swedish Church's department for research, suggested that revelations last year that church officials made expensive trips abroad did not help with the public image.

"The survey confirms what we previously thought which is that the decision to withdraw is for most people a long process. They have a weak relationship (with the church), or have not reflected on their membership, and when the church is then in the public spotlight you are reminded of your membership and review it," Jonsson said.

The Swedish Church claims that it has 6.1 million members, though many of those were automatically enrolled at birth — a practice that ended in 1996. Statistics Sweden furthermore shows that just five percent of Swedish people are regular churchgoers.

A WIN/Gallup International poll conducted in 2014 revealed that nearly eight out of 10 Swedes are either "not religious" or "convinced atheists," making the country one of the least religious nations in the Western world.

"It's a little bit surprising because we have a lot of members," Gunnar Sjöberg, head of communication for the Swedish Church, told The Local.

"But then to be a member is not just to do with your personal beliefs. Many Swedes are supporting the social work we are doing, so that is one reason we have a lot of members. People know we need the church in Sweden even if they are not believers," he added.

The decline in belief and church membership has manifested itself in different ways in Sweden. The first-ever atheist graveyard opening was held in Borlänge in October 2016, devoid of any and all religious symbols.

Local teacher Josef Erdem, who inspired the idea, said at the time: "There's a place on this earth for everybody and we shouldn't be limited in how we choose to live or how we choose to be buried."

Erdem added, "People can decide for themselves what their graves should look like, but the cemetery will be free of all religious and nationalist symbols."

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