The Need for Humanists in Secular Sweden

By Emilia Ericson

Sweden is, apart from being known as the founder of IKEA, known to many as a very secular country where atheism is more common than theism. But few people outside of Sweden are probably aware of the fact that the Humanist Association in Sweden participates and initiates many battles for rights to religious freedom and the universality of human rights.

One issue that the Humanist Association is asked to comment on every single year is whether or not it should be allowed to hold summer commencement ceremonies for the students (in their initial six to nine years of school) in the local churches, led by the priest. This is an old tradition that in recent years has become debatable as an increasing number of immigrants with various cultural and religious backgrounds now live in Sweden. The Humanist stance is that if the church is the only agreeable and capacious venue available, as is the case in some more rural parts of Sweden, then that should be allowed, as long as the priest is given the day off. He or she should, of course, not lead the ceremony. To the Humanists in Sweden it is tedious to always be associated with this rather trivial issue, although it might be an important issue of principle. We do so much more advocacy and awareness raising on issues concerning quite fundamental human rights violations. The examples bellow will give you some idea of what I mean.

About a year ago we sparked an intense debate in the media concerning male circumcision. It is, as oppose to the U.S., only done in Sweden for religious and cultural reasons (apart from when it is motivated by various medical reasons). Approximately 3,000 boys are circumcised on a yearly basis; the majority of these 3,000 boys come from Muslim families and only about 40 come from Jewish families. Circumcision is legal in Sweden as long as it is done by a certified person or a physician.

This is what we wanted to change. No child should be permanently marked by their parents’ religious  or cultural views. We argued that by allowing this practice the child’s religious freedom, not to mention his bodily integrity and right to form his own identity, was greatly violated; this practice is only done to accommodate his parents’ beliefs. Our position was that a person should have a reasonable chance to form his or her own opinion and to accept or reject inclusion in a religious or any other group. This position of ours was deafeningly opposed and accused of being both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic. The loudest voices in this debate were both the religious and the cultural relativistic people. We were, however, backed by some physicians and one chief physician at a children’s hospital, who later was awarded the Swedish Humanist Award (Hedenius priset) for his advocacy against male circumcision last year. We do not expect this issue to be resolved to our satisfaction any time soon, but we did get the issue into the political spotlight, and since last year we now hear more and more voices being raised in defense of defenseless boys.

Another issue that just recently became a Humanist cause in Sweden is a ruling concerning home-schooling that opened up for all sorts of religion-based arguments to home-school and isolate children from society. The case concerned an ultra-conservative Jewish orthodox family in Gothenburg who sought the right to home-school their children, despite the fact that home-schooling in Sweden is only allowed in very extreme cases. In this historic case that has the potential of changing the educational system of Sweden, the administrative court of appeal ruled that the demands within the children’s religion could not be met if they were sent to a Swedish public or private school. Of course, the mere fact that it was seen as the children’s religion and not the parents’ is in itself absurd. Sweden is marketing itself as a modern society that embraces human rights and who often congratulate itself on being a great nation for children to grow up in. Being forced to pray 30 times a day, as these children are, and to wear special clothing that marks their involuntary belonging to a group and to be raised to be ambassadors for their parent’s faith sort of makes that false marketing. As with the issue of circumcision, the issue of home-schooling is far from settled yet, and Humanists will continue to do advocacy work on behalf of the children so unfairly affected by the lottery of birth.

Honor-related violence surfaced as a new “concept of violence” approximately ten years ago. This issue has unfortunately been met by a seemingly non-declining ignorance from the Swedish media, the politicians and the general public. Few dare to admit the real mechanisms behind this type of violence. Instead many people categorize it as part of the general violence against women and refuse to label it as honor-related. In doing so, children, and especially girls, are denied proper help when they are in danger. Although there is no agreed upon definition, those working in the field and those subjected to this form of violence do say that honor-related violence needs to be addressed differently than violence against women.

This is where the Humanists come in. Sweden is plagued by cultural relativists who refuse to point to a specific culture or group, although it is blatantly obvious that  some culture’s ideas of men’s and women’s roles in the family combined with a clan-like structure of some groups show the (by far!) highest tendencies for honor-related violence. To adequately help those subjected to this violence, governmental authorities, especially social services, need to recognize that the entire clan possesses a potential threat to the child. A painful example of this not being the case is the actions taken, or rather lack thereof, by social services in a county in western Sweden to help two sisters begging for protection from their father and cousin who had threaten to kill them. The girls ran away and contacted social services for help to move into secure housing far away from their family but they were denied help and told to come back to the small town and reconcile with their father. After hearing about this the Humanist Association called the police to have the chief of the social service office investigated for malpractice. The reluctance to even touch on issues strongly related to some immigrant minority groups is something that Humanists battle constantly. Cultural relativistic views, the notion that only those within a culture can critique it, are paralyzing the work to get human rights to encompass all people in Sweden.

Emilia Ericson pursued her bachelor degree at Lund University and at UC-Santa Barbara, to later graduate from Stockholm University in 2012 with a master’s degree in human rights, majoring in children’s rights. For several years, she has worked with human rights in the non-profit field, primarily with trafficking issues, refugee children and violence against children. Emilia now focuses on children’s rights pertaining to religious freedom, freedom of expression and right to health in reference to traditional practices. She works with press communication, advocacy and as project manager of a children’s rights project at the Humanist Association in Sweden. Emilia lives in Stockholm.