Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Strange Affair of Homo Night

Ghost of the Cathedral
Ghost of the Cathedral, Helsinki, 2005

Something a bit unusual is going on in Finland.

We have a state church. Two, actually—the Evangelical Lutheran one and the Orthodox one. About 80% of the population are members of the Lutheran one. That makes it something of a Ministry of Ritual rather than your typical religious organization. The main practical implication of that status is taxation—the church's income comes from the church tax, which is deducted automatically from the paychecks of all members, along with income tax. Companies also pay the church tax, even if no Christians are involved with them.

Finnish society is rather secularized. Most Finns have pretty vague ideas about God, probably falling pretty near the apatheist position, if they ever really bother to think about it. They're only church members out of habit and tradition; getting baptized, confirmed, married in church, and buried with Christian ritual is the default option. Finland is also fairly liberal socially; about 20 years behind Sweden, for sure, but the general ethos is pretty permissive.

Now, the church is a good deal more conservative than most of its members. The reason for this is that most nominally Christian Finns just don't care. In particular, they don't care enough to vote in parish elections. Those who do care, are practicing Christians—people who have thought about their beliefs; for whom being Lutheran is something that really matters. Only about half of them are socially liberal. That means that about half the Finnish clergy is socially conservative, with the most conservative ones being positively Paleolithic. The church as an institution is split just about exactly down the middle about issues like gay rights or ordination for women.

Recently, there was a panel discussion on TV. It was called Homo Night. It was a debate ostensibly about gay marriage, which is currently sitting in parliament as proposed legislation. The conservative Christians stole the show. One Päivi Räsänen, the chairperson of the Christian Democrat political party—it's a fringe party, nothing like the German juggernaut with the same name—made it known that homosexuality is un-Biblical, gays can be healed to become heterosexual, and Jesus wants to forgive their sins as long as they stop doing that abominable thing they like to do. Naturally, she added that some of her best friends are gay, and she doesn't have anything against gays at all (as long as they stay celibate and don't shack up together or try to raise any children or stuff).

The upshot was that in the following few days, about 30,000 people have quit the church—about a year's worth in the usual course of things—via a website that makes it easy as one-two-three. That's going to cost the church more than six million euros a year in lost taxes. Small potatoes, perhaps, considering that total revenue last year was about 850 million euros, and they're really flush with cash and have enormous assets in land and buildings. But still.

I've been a bit surprised at that wave of people quitting the church, because there was really nothing new with that Homo Night—everybody knew what the conservatives think, and that Päivi Räsänen has gays on the brain. It'll probably peter out soon enough. However, I think it is indicative of a deeper shift in attitudes, and one that could signal the beginning of the end for the Finnish state church.

Until now, membership has been assumed by default; not being a member is something of a statement. Given the large numbers of very lukewarm members, this position could easily flip. If you're paying a few hundred euros a year to a church that you don't identify with much, and that represents values opposed to those you do identify with, why the hell would you even want to stay a member? That would mean that instead of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions could leave. If I had to take a wild guess, I'd estimate that only maybe 20% of Finns are actual practicing, strongly identifying Lutherans. Now church membership is about 4,000,000. That could easily drop to 1,000,000. That's no longer all that representative.

As a state institution, the church is obliged to follow the general mores of society. It can't stake out a position that's much more conservative (or liberal, either) than public opinion. On the other hand, it can't not take a stand on things like gay rights either. The divide can't be papered over for ever.

I'm not particularly bothered about having a state church as such, if it represents the general social mores. A million-strong but staunchly reactionary church could be a far more problematic element in society than our Ministry of Ritual. I am not a member of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran church. However, as long as it retains its status as a state church, its doings are my business too, and I do not approve of the church's kowtowing to its most reactionary elements on gay rights. It is a matter of justice, not some obscure point of theology that can be swept under the rug. Hell, it's far more important than the matter of ordination for women, which is also still a contentious issue.

It will be interesting to see how this will play out. I do have the feeling that some kind of Rubicon has been crossed, and there won't be any going back to the times before Homo Night.

Odd coincidence. I just finished this post yesterday and scheduled it for this morning, and noticed that there's a Twitter meme going on today: "End anti-LGBT bullying: make your profile pic purple and wear purple for #SpiritDay." I don't have anything purple to wear, but I did change my pic. I'm getting really tired of this particular bullshit. Get over it already, homophobes. I did, and it didn't turn me gay.


  1. "A million-strong but staunchly reactionary church could be a far more problematic element in society than our Ministry of Ritual."

    That's a very interesting point! That would most likely make the distinction between believers and non-believers much more obvious than it is today - and that kind of duality perhaps wouldn't be that good a thing for the society in general. I don't see that happening though, not in the near future any way - and then it might be that the church wouldn't be or even become particularly reactionary any way.

    Of course I suppose one possible cause for a fast decline in church membership could be a vicious circle of trying to compensate the lost income by raising the church tax. Taxes are after all, a very motivating reason for the apatheist church members to take the action and actually leave the church.

    It would by the way be interesting to read some stats and/or studies about the correlation between church tax level and church membership in different municipalities: eg. how Iniö with 2,25 % church tax compares to Helsinki and the likes with 1%, and what kind of influence changing the tax rate has had on memberships.

  2. That is pretty amazing, and I hope it's a trend. Obviously it's always a big stupid political issue here in America, and especially big and stupid right now because of the can of Just Plain Crazy that the tea-jahdists have unleashed on us. I agree--get over it, and especially get over it if you purport to be following a prophet that commands you to love your neighbor as yourself, (which shouldn't have much to do with who your neighbor is loving.)

    Coincidentally, caught Bill Maher talking about it last night on MSNBC and he kind of echoes your last remark.Here's a rough quote from memory "They(the catholic church) talk about gay as if it's all around us, and it's not a sin so much as a temptation that we can't resist--when the gay is allowed to be around you it's like dessert and you can't turn it down. I've just never had that problem..." I'll put the link up on twitter--it's sometimes good to get some comic relief from the people who make this whole issue so starkly life and death/good & evil.

  3. Lucky Finns!

    Writing from Spain, the fact that you can choose whether or not to pay taxes to the Church sounds like an unreachable utopia.

    The Catholic Church here is not the state religion (we don't have one, it is nowhere to be seen in our Constitution) but they have lots of privileges, they don't pay property taxes and every year they get a big lump of money from the State, in addition to education payments.
    It is extremely difficult to get out of 'Mother Church' (apostasy); but nevertheless, most Spaniards are only notionally Christians, going only to church in special occassions like weddings or so.

    And of course, the Church is doing whatever it can to avoid having to finance itself by members' contributions.

  4. Very interesting, as I knew nothing about this relationship between church and state in Finland.

  5. Fascinating.
    Sounds like your country could use a few more outspoken Atheists instead of Patheists.

  6. What caused you to jump to that particular conclusion, Sabio?

  7. I had the impression from your post that you felt your country would be better off without mandatory taxes supporting a church and her properties. That you saw how if the church decided to take a moral stance that you disagreed with, they would have the state on their side.
    Or was your post just against those who are anti-gay and not against the misuse of the state?

  8. Yeah, this post was just about the homophobes speaking with the voice of the church and how I feel about that.

    The church/state separation thing is a different issue. I think on the whole our system works OK, although I'd like to see the corporate church tax abolished. It's a very small burden, though, so this has little practical importance. In any case, our Gnu Atheists, or lack thereof, don't have much to do with it at all.

  9. I like the expression "Gnu Atheists" -- you got them, eh? Finnish authors and activists and websites?

    Yeah, it is hard for me, probably due to my typical American baggage, to get why a society would placidly accept a State Church. I guess you guys need some more Muslim guest-workers to test how wonderful a state religion really is. ;-) Maybe your society is much more homogeneous.

    I see people here blithely and perfunctorily going to church for the occasions and ceremonies you mention too. But they are dying out, as you know.

    Again, I guess as long as you agree with your government's policies in general, you wouldn't mind the power of their state-religion back it. I get that complacency. As you know, our sanctioned religion (albeit not a state religion-though they try), influences our government way too much.

  10. Yes, I can see that you have a hard time getting a whole bunch of stuff.

  11. Yep, I just have a huge truck-load of ignorance, delusion and suffering!

  12. Ooops, sorry officer, they must have accidentally fallen off my overloaded truck. I will go back and pick them up and be sure they stay secured! ;-)

  13. That Homo Night discussion was quite interesting. Päivi Räsänen, the Bishop of Tampere and a few others who took strong positions that might be called closed-minded or rejecting were basing their comments on theory, conjecture about the future and/or a literal interpretation of selected passages from the bible. Most who took a position that might be called open-minded or accepting were speaking either from their living experience or from close observation of the living experience of someone gay or lesbian.