For First Time in History, Atheism Overtakes Religious Faith in Norway

People attend on July 24, 2011 at the Domkirken cathedral in Oslo, a sombre mass for the victims of a bomb explosion which ripped through government buildings and the shooting spree at the youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party, two days ago.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty

For the first time in its recorded history, the number of Norwegians who say they do not believe in God has topped the number of those who do believe, with atheism reaching a national record well up in the double digits.

But a new annual survey carried out by Ipsos MORI for Norwegian Monitor, an annual social-cultural study, revealed that those replying “no” or “don’t know” to the question “Do you believe in God?” now comfortably outnumber those who say “yes.”

The poll, answered by 4,000 Norwegians, showed that outright atheists—who simply do not believe in God—now number 39 percent said of the population, compared to 37 percent of believers, and a remaining 23 percent saying they do not know.

The annual survey was first conducted in 1985, and at the time half of respondents said they believed, while only some 20 percent said they did not.

You’d never know it today, but Norway was once a remarkably religious country. The Danish-Norwegian Nobel laureate, Sigrid Undset, won a Nobel prize for literature in 1928 for her extraordinary trilogy of historical novels, titled Kristin Lavransdatter. According to the Nobel committee, the award was conferred on her “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages” and what strikes modern readers most is the pervasive religious component in the day-to-day life of pre-Reformation Scandinavia.

That was then, this is now.

Salon Magazine has called Norway one of the “eight best countries to be an atheist,” along with Sweden, Denmark, Japan and the Czech Republic, suggesting that Norway’s “socially just government” has effectively taken the place of God for many Norwegians.

In 2012, Norway eliminated Lutheranism as the official state church. “The Evangelical Lutheran religion will no longer be the state’s official religion,” parliament wrote in a statement, which meant that the church would receive public financing “on par with other religious and belief-based societies.”

Norway’s decline in religiosity has been constant. A year ago the number of Norwegian atheists equaled the number of believers for the first time, setting a new record for atheism in the country. Now they have attained clear numerical superiority.

The poll showed that men are less likely to believe in God than women and that older people are more likely to believe than younger generations, which suggests that faith will continue to fall. The country’s capital Oslo had the smallest portion of believers with just 29 percent.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter   

.