Sunday, December 5, 2010


Last Sunday, my family celebrated Thanksgiving, which we do every year to give our children, growing up here in Finland, some familiarity with American holiday traditions.  The actual holiday was three days earlier on Thursday, but since it’s just us — one of the few families in Finland observing it — I feel we can take some liberties and move this feast to suit our schedule. 

Our version of the holiday is, in any case, a kind of “slimmed down” Thanksgiving, though “slim” and “Thanksgiving” aren’t two words that naturally go together.  Since there are only five of us - and since it’s me who is doing the cooking — it’s not an extravagant spread that we sit down to.  Instead of a boulder-sized bird, we make do with a one-kilo turkey roll, normally served with corn (what could be more American than corn?), and substituting cranberry sauce with the lingonberry jelly typically found in the far north and in IKEA stores around the world. 

While slicing up our turkey roll, I’ve made the point over the years of telling the kids the story of the first Thanksgiving.  I explain how the holiday celebrates the bountiful harvest that the agriculturally challenged Pilgrims — with not a green thumb among them — were able to enjoy after the local Indians saved them from certain starvation by showing how to grow native crops like corn and beans. 

As I hope every schoolchild in the US still learns, the Pilgrims were religious dissidents from England who fled to the shores of America in 1620 to find the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit.  They were a Protestant separatist congregation that had long suffered persecution in England for their Puritan beliefs that the Church of England was not protestant enough, smacking too much as it did of Catholicism.  Only by starting a new life in faraway America, the Pilgrims felt, could they truly separate from the English church. 

I spent some time this summer in New England, not far from Plymouth, Massachusetts, the site of the first Thanksgiving.  Because I was going to be a week in Rhode Island, I read up on the history of that tiny state, which I, and I bet most Americans, know precious little about. 

What struck me was how the first English immigrants to the future Rhode Island like the original Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts itself were religious refugees  who were being persecuted in, wait for it, Massachusetts.  By 1636, the colony founded by Puritans separatists looking for religious freedom had essentially become a theocracy, in which religious dissent was not tolerated.

Now, as anyone familiar with the bloody saga of European history knows, this isn’t surprising at all.  It seems to be the nature of all religions to eventually splinter into different groups, which then become fierce enemies of one another.  A scene in the movie “The Life of Brian” illustrates this hilariously.  As a crowd of “followers” who have mistaken Brian as the messiah chase after him, he accidently loses a sandal and drops the gourd he was carrying.  The crowd instantly splits into two, one group venerating the gourd, the other the sandal.  As both groups begin to argue they completely lose track of their “messiah” Brian.

But back to Rhode Island.  A man named Roger Williams felt that his fellows Puritans of Massachusetts had not separated sufficiently from the Church of England, and he wouldn’t shut up about it.  He was ultimately forced to flee to what would become Rhode Island, where he founded a new community where, unlike in Massachusetts, the roles of church and state were kept separate.  Rhode Island became a haven for religious mavericks, like Quakers, and as early as 1658 was also giving sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts authorities would only loosen their control over religion gradually, and not before hanging Quakers for the crime of, well, being Quakers, and independent women for the crime of being “witches”. 

The separation of church and state, conceived in Rhode Island, went on to become the model for all America, and is something that makes the US exceptional.  Naturally, religion has evolved differently in many countries like Finland, where it has been traditionally tied closely to the political establishment.  The most noticeable thing about religious life here is that, out of custom, almost everyone belongs to a church, but almost no one takes it seriously enough to step inside one more than once a year. 

That’s not to say that no one here believes in a deity.  Many, maybe most, probably do, at least in a casual way.  Nor does it mean that some Finns don’t have heartfelt religious beliefs – they just keep it to themselves for the most part.  It’s rare to hear Finns voluntarily express their religious feelings in the way that many Americans do.  This is an extremely secular society which, as someone who’s not religious at all, suits me fine. 

An old colleague of mine, a devout Catholic from the Boston area, had a theory about this lack of religiosity in Finland:  he wondered whether it was because there’s no separation of church and state here. 

There are two national churches here, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox, both of which are part of the national government.  In practice, this mainly means that church members study religion in public school as a compulsory subject (not unlike algebra) and that the Finnish government collects a “church tax” of about 1% from all church members to fund church operations.  (There are also smaller, more-charismatic denominations that are not state-supported.) 

The church tax alone has been reason enough for many people who have no real religious feelings and belong to the church only because their parents had them baptized at the age of two months to leave the church altogether.  Nowadays you can do it on-line.  This year alone, tens of thousands of Finns have decided to separate from the Lutheran church for an entirely different reason.  The church’s position against gay marriage, which seems a bit out of step with this generally tolerant society, has prompted many of the younger parishioners to vote with their feet. 

It seems my friend from Boston might have been on to something.  While the US has a “free market” of churches that encourages a vibrant religious life, the “official” status of churches in Finland which can make faith just another part of citizenship, like voting, and easily taken for granted seems to encourage the opposite.  At least, it doesn’t seem to help. 

But maybe that’s only true in secular Europe.  There are many countries where state involvement in religion and strong religiosity do go hand in hand.  Iran comes to mind.  In any case, I think the “hands off” approach of government to religion in America is something that both believers and non-believers should be thankful for.  I know I am.


  1. I wish the USA was secular. Alas, it is not. (By the way, damned fine essay you've written here.)

    I've been an adamant bone-hard atheist since I was eight years old. That was how old I was when I found out that God's so-called "love" had strings attached. That was enough to inform me that it was manipulative bullshit. I've wanted nothing to do with religion from that day forward except to avoid it. I also found out very early (that same age of eight) that I'd best keep this information to myself because Christians are (as an entire group) a bunch of intolerant, hate-mongering assholes.

    I laughed at your "only five of us" bit. My own family is three--my wife, my son, myself. And often Andy is not here since he moved out on his own. So more than likely it's "only the two of us" here in me own house. Five seems like a very crowded place, indeed.

    I think in the European nations where there is an official state religion it's all tongue-in-cheek. Very few there really believe in that shite. My own take on religion is that it's for ritual-starved morons who need that kind of thing to keep themselves on an even keel. I don't, and can stand apart and laugh at the very dark and dangerous comedy of it.

  2. Thanks for the compliment! What I find interesting is that while the US is an extremely religious country (by the standards of most advanced nations), it seems that many church groups feel like they're under siege. They get all worked up over Micky Mouse issues like the "War on Christmas". Can they really be that insecure?

  3. The Finnish arrangement has the advantage of promoting moderate (and secular) religious interpretation and discouraging extremism. Chuch being officially endorsed by the government also to some extent brings it under the secular (human rights) regulations the government has to abide to. Also, religion can't be "under siege" as it is officially recognized.

    As for the more theocratic societies, the problem is usually the lack of human rights. The government actually pursuing them would also tame the religiosity.

    Of course, while the pilgrims were religious dissidents and while they no doubt were persecuted to some extent (CoE probably wasn't very supportive of minority religions), it's good to remember that they were probably also strict, somewhat extreme and cultish outfit with all the distrust, paranoia and everything else that comes with it.