Hearing on Secularization Held in the Danish Parliament

"How Afraid are We of Religion?"

The Danish Institute for Human Rights has called Freedom of Religion one of the human rights brought into question in Denmark in their 2016 Status Report. A hearing was held at the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen on May 10, 2017 in order to discuss whether or not a Danish model for secularization (separation of the state and church) could be found. Considering the current atmosphere towards disregarding the freedoms of certain religious groups in Europe, Soteria International finds this topic to be of particular relevance to the safeguarding of one of our fundamental human rights, the Freedom of Conscience, Thought, and Belief. Representatives of Soteria International attended the event and our organization feels optimistic that conversations such as this one will help create a more understanding and open society, which can embrace diversity and find solutions which respect the human rights of all individuals involved.

The event, titled “How afraid are we of religion?”, was organized by Grundtvigsk Forum and hosted by Daniel Toft Jakobsen, a Member of Parliament with the Social Democrats. Three questions/issues were suggested prior to the event, including: 1) Should public funding be provided to religious organizations? 2) Should priests/imams/other religious leaders have the right to be judges? And 3) Should there be more or less room for religion in asylum centers? Among other issues, these questions were addressed by a wide panel of experts, including academics, politicians, and professionals.


Daniel Toft Jakobsen opened the hearing by discussion the word ‘religion’ and our modern conceptualization of it. He stated that although it is often associated with “terror, war, and fear” in the media, it can indeed add a very positive aspect to our society. He stated that undemocratic religious opinions must be brought to light rather than being hid away and must not be afraid of the publics ability to discern between peaceful religion and fanaticism. We must therefore continue to uphold the freedom of spirituality.

Ingrid Ank, the President of Grundtvig Academy, spoke about the close relationship between Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Conscience, Thought, and Religion. Freedom of Conscience is fundamental to the Freedom of Speech, and the latter allows us to gather and speak with regards to our beliefs. She also dared to question the Danish model of ‘religion as a private matter,’ articulating that without a doubt, we should be allowed to meet and discuss what we believe in. She expressed that her organization, Grundtvigsk Forum, would like to explore how religion can contribute to society by lifting the level of conversation and engaging educated people in an enlightened debate in which they do not underestimate one another. She questioned whether it was logical to limit the rights which radicalism, itself, is trying to limit? A leading question with a thought provoking angle.

The author, journalist, and theologian, Kristian Ditlev Jensen, began by questioning whether religion should be prohibited from public spaces. But, what is ‘religion?’ What is a ‘prohibition?’ And what is considered a ‘public space?’ He delved into a discussion of what religion looks like in Denmark, where 90% of Danes are baptized. Yet if so many Danes are religious, why do they hate religion so much? He discussed how the protestant view of what religion should entail affects Danish society’s paradigm in which ‘religion is a private matter.’ Mr. Jensen referred to Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), arguably the first existential philosopher, who argued that the Church was superfluous—that people shouldn’t attend church because spirituality is something that takes place within an individual. This depicts the modern opinion of the majority in Denmark, which Mr. Jensen claims to be so bizarre because Protestantism includes removing religion from the public space, which then paradoxically means that Danes argue for protestant values without being aware that they are protestant. He maintained that in a secular model, people are indifferent to religion, however most Danes are not indifferent. They may be unaware of their own beliefs, but, are the Danes against religion? No. They’re extremely religious in their own protestant way of believing that ‘religion is a private matter.’ However, he also claimed that the Danes have never accepted other religions, and it is only becoming apparent now due to the rising number of minority beliefs present in the country. To conclude, he stated that if Denmark was to adopt a model of laicity by removing all signs of religion, then it is in fact just magnifying protestant values….and this will really please the Danes.

Jan E. Jørgensen a Danish Member of Parliament with the Liberal Party mentioned that it is difficult for the protestant Danes to understand that other religions feel the need to express their beliefs in public and that there are so many rules. On the basis that as long as daily life isn’t affected, then others may do as they wish, he produced some controversial Danish examples of seemingly juxtaposed freedoms. For example, he said that it is perceived as rude and strange to refuse to shake hands, and in this case is seen as discrimination against women, and that the choice to wear a burka excludes oneself from certain jobs.

President of the Danish Youth Council (DUF), Kasper Sand Kjær, emphasized the important role that youth groups play in the personal development of children, whether the groups have a religious affiliation or not. This came in response to the debate on whether religious organizations providing programs for youth should be limited. Kjær maintained that when society ceases to discuss values, freedoms, and beliefs, this is in fact when fundamentalists win. So he argued that children must be included in religious and political discussions and uphold our human right to believe in whatever we choose. He concluded with the statement that he “would rather that someone believes much more than [himself] than nothing at all.”

A special case in which religion and belief exclude an individual from participation was presented by Judge Søren Holm Seerup, who referred to paragraph 70 of the Code of Civil Procedure. This paragraph states that: “Excluded from being jurors and lay judges are: Ministers, lawyers, solicitors, central administration, members of the court, prosecutors, government, police, and prison service officials and other staff, as well as, the parish executive officer and national church, and the recognized religious communities clergy.” Mr. Seerup explained that historically, the original reason for which individuals who were officially affiliated with the church could not participate as a judge due to their level of power in the community. It was not due to the fear of religion, but rather due to the fear of God himself.

Maja Rettrup Mørch, Communications, Advocacy, and Volunteer Leader for the Red Cross presented the challenges of addressing various religious beliefs in asylum centers in Denmark. She stated that, practically speaking, there is no model upon which the centers can be based, because they are unique situations, both private and public space simultaneously, so unique guidelines must be formulated with respect to living conditions. She emphasized the need to normalize the religious life that asylum seekers lead, while also building bridges to the local society. Therefore, the asylum centers do not have specific rooms for each religion, but encourage an understanding for one another. She also discussed the process of integration for the asylum seekers and the educational program provided for them in which multiple questions are discussed, namely: How do Danes, priests, and imams see society and religion? And how do they expect that religious leaders will act? She also said that field trips are organized so that asylum seekers can see what churches and mosques actually look like.

A Senior Researcher with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Eva Maria Lassen, addressed the topic systematically and to the point. With regards to whether public funding should be provided to religious organizations, she stated that historically, such organizations have been seen as a necessary aspect of the development of Danish youth, being the reason for which funding is provided. The value is understood. As to whether or not there should be more or less space for religion in asylum centers, she expressed that it’s a special case in which the boundary between public space and a person’s home is blurred, which pose many practical problems. The Danish case is very different from the French model which does not have a State Church, therefore, Denmark has the responsibility to make other minority religions feel included as well. Here she mentioned the example that the state cannot ban attire if it only affects one specific religion, in this case, the hijab.

Another Member of Parliament, Josephine Fock with the Alternative Party, stated that “all churches should be a part of our society.” She specified that, yes, funding should be provided to religious youth organizations as they are a part of the society and should be supported in their efforts in the personal development of youth in Denmark. She also expressed her opinion that of course a religious leader should be permitted to be a judge, because no matter who the judge is, they are bringing their own personal beliefs to their job. She also stated that we need to remember that the people in asylum centers are extremely vulnerable and of course there should be room to practice their religion. Therefore, we need to involve the local population and meet one another as human beings and speak together, and especially, we must allow them to practice their belief in centers.

Peter Lodberg, Head of the Theology Department at the Institute of Culture and Society initially took a very philosophical stance on the day’s subject. He stated that religion has moved from the academic and political spheres to the church itself. He questioned what truth was for a Christian or a Muslim; that truth isn't absolute, nor relative, but relational, growing from the question of what is truth for me? Therefore, if we don’t make the space to question what the truth is, it becomes forced and we must have as little force as possible. Lodberg suggested that freedom of belief is a barometer for the rights in a society, and indeed, belief is a human need and a right which must be fought for. From this, he said that the Danish parliament must discuss a new belief community law. Denmark is not a secular country, but a country with secularization….because if the country itself were secular, this forum would likely not be taking place. He argued that religion is not disappearing in Denmark, but rather transforming, and that it can get the worst or best out in people depending on how an individual interprets it. He concluded that there needs to be space for religion so we can search for the truth together, becoming whole people and a whole society.

Member of Parliament with the Social Democrats, Yildiz Akdogan, stated that we are an enlightened society that asks critical questions, yet just because we are enlightened does not mean that we don’t need religion. She argued that religion is dynamic, unlike the beliefs of fundamentalists who see issues as black and white and individuals as right and wrong. Therefore, she questioned whether we should regulate religion? Whether we have the right to regulate religion? And suggested that it’s very difficult to speak about this without judgement, and in imposing regulations, we politicize religion.

During the subsequent debate, Kristian Ditlev Jensen, suggested that if we were more curious about one another then we might understand one another, and that when we speak about economy and politics it's scientific, but when we speak about religion it's always personal and anything goes. For this reason, the discussion gets de-prioritized and this leads us to a lower level of intellectual enrichment. To the question of whether we have lost religion or have a more inward religion, he asserted that the churches are just as full as they were 100 years ago and 90% of the Danish population is still part of the State Church, even though it is in fact very simple to unsubscribe. However, he did suggest that the Danish liberal form of Protestantism can lead to forgetting who you are.

To the question of whether there is a fear of religion, it was advised to keep in mind the importance to discern between extreme religion and normal religion, and that radicalization should be addressed while also remaining democratic and allowing non-radicals to practice. It was also suggested that in order to uphold the freedom of speech, actions should be criminalized rather than opinions.

The President of the Grundtvigsk Forum, Kirsten M. Andersen, concluded the hearing by stating that freedom of religion is the mother of all freedoms, that if we cannot handle this discussion of political and ideological ways in a more profound way in the public sphere, then soon we can expect that many political ideologies will be banned as well. She stated the necessity of avoiding to live in a rigid state of emergency and that it is not solely a discussion of Islamophobia, but a discussion of a fear of all religions. She re-emphasized Grundtvigsk Forum’s devotion to the subject and finding a solution.

If you’re interested in this topic, or attending similar events in the Copenhagen area in the future, you can like us on Facebook.