By Antti Vari and Jori Mäntysalo, Vice-President and President of the local Freethinkers Union in Tampere, Finland.
In early 2020, the Union of Freethinkers of Finland sent a letter to every Member of the Parliament of Finland asking whether it is not time now to separate the church(-es) and the state. The main arguments were:
- The flow of people out of the state churches is steady, and is likely to remain this way.
- Those leaving the church are generally the younger generations.
- The percentages of baptisms, marriages in church etc. are dropping.
- The same trends are observed in all Nordic countries.
All of the above-mentioned points are reflected in the numbers. For example, the percentage of couples married in the Church each year has dropped from 56.9% to 41.9% between 2008 and 2018.
For the Union of Freethinkers of Finland, the state has an obligation to start thinking what to do to with the State-Church relationship.
Two main religious denominations
Finland is a country of about 5.5 million people located so far north that parts of it lie above the polar circle.
About two out of every three Finns are members of the Evangelic-Lutheran Church, which is also a state church having e.g. the right to taxation and to administer public cemeteries. One percent of the population is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, another state church. This situation stems from the 19th century, when Finland was an autonomic Grand Duchy inside the Russian Empire.
There are also smaller denominations, such as Pentecostal and Muslim minorities, which all-together account for around two percent of the population.
Numbers and practice: a contradiction
In reality, most members of the state churches are rather secular. It is true: a large proportion of babies born are still baptized, and about 90% of all burials are done through Christian rites – and yet, only about one or two percent of church members attend church services regularly.
Maybe half of the population believes in some kind of god, but most of these people are likely to have only a vague notion of the actual content of Christian teachings.
For the past decade, the membership rate of the total population in the Finnish Evangelic-Lutheran Church has been dropping by about 1 point each year. 66.6% will be likely reached in 2021, while back in the year 2000, still 85% of the population were members of the Evangelic-Lutheran Church. Almost none of those outside the state church convert to another religion.
Therefore, the overall situation in Finland seems rather illogical.
Making it possible to leave Church
Since 2003, it is possible to leave a state church or other formally registered religious groups via a written letter, and later by electronic mail, sent to the national authorities without having to do it person at the offices of the respective church or religious group.
Finnish Freethinkers opened a web site called eroakirkosta.fi (roughly translated as “leavechurch.fi”), which can be used to leave a state church. Currently about 90 % of all persons leaving a state church use this website.
Photo: Cha già José (CC BY-SA 2.0)