Humanisterna’s Challenges: Nones, 160,000 Refugees, and Its Own Image

Mark Kolsen

Sweden’s largest secular organization—Humanisterna (“the Humanists”)—is facing new challenges. Membership growth has stalled (at around 5,000 members), partly because the public perceives it as only an “anti-religion” organization. Within Humanisterna, members wonder how to integrate secular-humanist values into the lives of many Swedish secularists, especially young Nones. More pressing is the question of how to assimilate the many—mostly Muslim—refugees whom Sweden accepted five years ago. Increasing violence in Sweden has polarized the public, many of whom see immigrants as “the problem.” Humanisterna Chair Anna Bergstroem believes secular humanists must assume responsibility for alleviating the tension and charting a new course for Sweden by defining the values of a secular humanist lifestyle.

In 2017, I spoke in Stockholm with Christer Sturmark, Humanisterna’s retiring chairman. He told me that most young Swedes are raised in atheist families. They attend an educational system that requires all Swedes—at all levels, university included—to take “world religions” courses. In these courses, students study the beliefs and lifestyles of many world religions as well as secular humanism. They learn, Sturmark said, that there is no reason to believe one religion is superior to another. This education helps students shed any earlier religious beliefs, and they emerge as nonbelievers (in Phil Zuckerman’s words about Sweden) almost “as a rite of passage.” Sweden’s required religion courses offer food for thought to atheists in the United States, where we insist on keeping religion out of the classroom yet have the most religious population in the Western world.

However, Sturmark said, “nonbelief”—which is to say, the “atheism” acquired by Swedish students—too often becomes “belief in nothing.” Atheist students know little about how to live their lives and what kind of society they should advocate. They must, he argued, study the beliefs and values of “secular humanism,” which can guide them on these questions. To facilitate this task, Sturmark wrote Faith and Knowledge, a book that explains the difference between a faith-based and a reason-based lifestyle. Sturmark told me he hoped Humanisterna could increase the number of Swedish youth who understand secular-humanist values and can incorporate those values into their lives.

In January 2019, I talked via Skype with Anna Bergstroem, who in 2018 succeeded Sturmark as Humanisterna’s chair. A member of the group since 1997, Bergstroem was born in Mozambique and grew up in a religious society with a religious mother. But by the time she was four years old, her father “had left Christianity.” “As a kid, I was trying to understand, and I wanted to be religious because it seemed to provide comfort,” she said. However, her experience with Africa’s tragedies led her to question God’s existence. At age ten, she moved to Norway, where she was enrolled in a “Lifestyles” course comparable to Sweden’s required “world religions” courses. That course—and her move to Sweden at age fourteen, where she attended a humanist summer camp—completed her conversion to secular humanism. Now a mother with two adolescent boys, Bergstroem works as a researcher in Uppsala University’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health. She has published papers on the health systems of Uganda, Nepal, and Vietnam.

Like Sturmark, Bergstroem thinks that merely not believing in God “doesn’t say anything. That’s just a loss.” She strongly believes that Swedes must assume responsibility for defining the beliefs and values of their secular society, a debate now raging in Sweden because of the “crisis” created by Sweden’s admission of 160,000 mostly Muslim refugees in 2015. Since then, crime—including homicides—has increased. According to the BBC, after experiencing 162 explosions in 2018, Sweden had more than 100 explosions last year. “Most attacks have taken place in low-income, vulnerable suburbs in the biggest cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo.” Police point to rival gangs, but Swedes clearly believe unchecked immigration is to blame. As James Traub documented four years ago (“The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth,” foreignpolicy.com, February 10, 2016), this increase in crime, as well as the financial strains created by these refugees, has divided friends and families against one another. Given Sweden’s long and admirable history of accepting refugees, “It is very hard to find a middle ground between ‘we must’ and ‘we can’t.’”

Bergstroem admits that the tension and violence terrify her. But she thinks the crisis also offers an opportunity for secular humanists—“the majority”—to help refugees assimilate Swedish values. She recalls the “amazing, enormous solidarity” Swedes exhibited when the refugees first arrived. She agrees with Traub’s assessment of that time:

Everyone seemed calm, cheerful, organized. When I worried out loud that the country was racing off a cliff, I would be reassured that Sweden has done this before and somehow or other it would do it again. It was a given that Sweden had benefited from its commitment to providing shelter to those in need.

Bergstroem believes that Swedes cannot look to their government for a solution to the crisis. They must understand that Denmark’s new laws—which, among others, require refugees to enroll in classes teaching Danish values—are insufficient. She stressed that Swedes must take responsibility themselves by reaching out to Muslims. “I can’t integrate into a society if no one will talk with me, if no one will invite me to have coffee.” “Or if I go to work, I can’t integrate if people turn their backs to me.” When Bergstroem posted information about Ramadan for her many Muslim friends on Facebook, critics demanded she also recognize that fasting Muslims were being forced to experience hunger during Ramadan in Egypt and Tunisia. She chafes at the criticism: “Nobody is going to starve from fasting in Sweden!”

Well-read in the behavioral sciences, Bergstroem thinks secular humanists must understand what types of conversations can change human behavior. As an example, she points to Humanisterna’s successful 2017 campaign to ban religious schools in Sweden. She says that religious parents had been sending their children to schools aligned with their religious faiths. They include seventy-one primary and secondary schools, constituting 5 percent of all free schools in Sweden: fifty-nine were Christian; eleven were Muslim; one was Jewish. Although all schools must teach the national curriculum, students in these religious schools have been permitted to say prayers. The prayers are non-compulsory, but of course peer pressure is put on reluctant students to pray.

To a ban into effect, Humanisterna invested heavily in a professional ad campaign that emphasized Sweden’s need to protect the rights of children. The ads also stressed that segregating students by faith inhibited the development of a national identity. Because Humanisterna had developed a public image as simply “anti-religious,” the group took its name out of the campaign and made the conversation solely about children’s rights to choose, an issue on which most Swedes concurred. Coupled with lobbying of legislators, Humanisterna’s ad campaign succeeded in persuading the government to propose a ban on all religious schools, the one Jewish school excepted. Bergstroem says legislators justify the proposed ban in terms of protecting children’s rights, not eliminating religion. “It’s great.”

Bergstroem believes the group needs a similar approach to the banning of male circumcision, which Humanisterna has advocated for at least eight years. In 2012, Emilia Ericson, project manager for the organization’s Children’s Rights Project, wrote that 3,000 children—mostly Muslim—were being circumcised in Sweden each year. She argued that “No child should be permanently marked by their parents’ religious or cultural views. … This practice [greatly violates] the child’s religious freedom, not to mention his bodily integrity and right to form his own identity.” Today, Bergstroem told me, the organization needs to go beyond stating its position. She says, “The majority of Swedes are not fundamentalists, and we cannot talk as if the majority are fundamentalists.” Instead, she says, the organization needs to create a professional campaign that raises questions, such as “Where do the rights of parents end and the rights of children begin?” People will not change their minds if secularists state “We’re right, and you’re wrong.” Instead, discussion needs to be opened.

Or consider the problem of Muslim families engaged in harmful practices such as female genital mutilation on their children. Bergstroem says that too many Swedes shout “Report the parents for committing sexual assault.” Such an approach, she says, only terrifies the children, who will do anything to protect their parents. Moreover, Muslim female genital mutilation is mostly encouraged by mothers, who think that the cutting protects their daughters. Fear will not prevent these mothers from doing what they think is best for their children.

Instead, according to Bergstroem, secular humanists must consider how they can effectively persuade Muslims to give up female genital mutilation or any other harmful religious practice. She points out that most Swedish schoolchildren are taught extensively about their rights. (Bergstroem’s own children once threatened to call Swedish social services when she refused to serve different food for dinner one night!) But while “majority children’s” rights are taught in school, the rights of Muslim children are ignored. She believes Swedish schools need to teach Muslim children about their rights and help them understand they will be supported when they assert those rights. I imagine her words would elicit a big nod and smile from Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Bergstroem thinks Humanisterna also needs to reach out to the Nones. Although young Swedes supposedly learn in school about secular humanist lifestyles, schools are permitted to choose their own textbooks, which are not peer reviewed and, more problematically, are usually written by priests. She said the books typically associate Christians with smiling White children, Muslims with terrorists, and secular humanists with Satanists. Teachers themselves often do not understand what it means to be a secular humanist, partly because the organization itself has cultivated an “anti-religion” image and partly because textbooks are written so poorly. As a start, I think these books should include the Nordic Humanist Manifesto of 2016, written collectively by humanist organizations in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.

Bergstroem’s analysis reflects the conclusions of researcher David Westerberg. In his paper titled “The Discourse of Religion in Swedish Secular Humanism: A Discursive Study of Religion and the Secular in the Swedish Humanist Association,” Westerberg concluded that “it is not the vision of a fully secular society” that maintains the identity of Sweden’s atheists and secular humanists. “But rather culture wars [real and imagined], as well as the shaping of a subcultural identity” sustain Sweden’s secular humanist movement.

As she approaches her third year as Humanisterna’s chair, Anna Bergstroem is firmly committed to changing its image as only an “anti-religion” organization. She thinks Humanisterna has become too closely identified with Christer Sturmark, whose intellectual prowess and public debates with clerics made him a celebrity—Sweden’s equivalent to Christopher Hitchens. She says that Sturmark—chairman for twelve years—taught Humanisterna a lot, and that Humanisterna will surely maintain his critical, often confrontative, approach to religion. But too many members have grown tired of just “disliking religion.” And although some of Sturmark’s fans have left Humanisterna because Bergstroem herself has been unwilling to “trash priests,” she firmly believes that the organization must now focus on existential questions, on the nature of secular values, and what Swedes must do to construct a secular society.

On the bright side, the organization has no theistic opposition. Bergstroem says Sweden’s national church is “cute” and “sweet”: “I’m not even sure they’re Christians,” she says with a laugh. Rather, the challenge lies in not only helping Muslims to assimilate but also offering direction to the many Nones who are “standing around, doing nothing,” assured that Sweden’s welfare system will take care of their basic needs.

I want us to reconsider why we exist,” Bergstroem says. “We have a lot of responsibility. It’s up to us. You can complain, but we need a plan”—a plan for the future of secular Sweden.

Mark Kolsen

Mark Kolsen lives in Chicago and has been a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.


Sweden’s largest secular organization—Humanisterna (“the Humanists”)—is facing new challenges. Membership growth has stalled (at around 5,000 members), partly because the public perceives it as only an “anti-religion” organization. Within Humanisterna, members wonder how to integrate secular-humanist values into the lives of many Swedish secularists, especially young Nones. More pressing is the question of how to …

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