My Kid’s School Takes All Pupils On Festive Procession To Church

The former Swedish state church has been reasonably independent for twelve years. Now Juniorette’s school plans to send the kids walking in festive procession with flaming torches to the Swedish church’s local branch for an “Advent gathering”. Good fun no doubt, and Juniorette would probably be most displeased if I made her stay in school with the more orthodox among the Muslim kids and a temp teacher.

I don’t enjoy being pushed to make this call. So I’ve drafted a letter of protest to the headmistress where I point out that such non-educational favouritism for one of the country’s many religious organisations is inappropriate and illegal. The event will give the Swedish church free brand recognition and goodwill. I emailed the file to the other parents and offered them to make improvements and co-sign the letter with me.

One of the parents replied as follows.

There is something called an ecumenical meeting that you should read up on, Martin. Of course the children should take part in the torch procession. It is both fun and then being in the church is both beneficial and educational for most of them regardless of religious background. Secondly it is not illegal! Where in the school law of 1 July does it say so?

I find this to have some wider interest and I don’t want to spam all the other parents with this discussion. And so I’ve decided to reply here on my blog.

1. Ecumenical meetings by definition take place between people of different religious faiths. Not between religious organisations and the secular municipal school system. Secular schools should offer children an unbiased outsider’s view of all major religions, not offer one of them them free support under fun and festive circumstances.

I’m all for religious groups making ecumenical contact among themselves if it can reduce hate between them. But I would much prefer it if people would instead just leave those groups.

2. The school law of 1 July states (as have previous versions going back many decades) that Swedish schools must follow the state curriculum. The 2011 state school curriculum states in its second paragraph (p. 7) that Undervisningen i skolan ska vara icke-konfessionell, “Teaching in school must be non-denominational”. Whether an activity in school should be seen as teaching or not is usually judged simply on the basis of whether it takes place during scheduled school hours, as the Advent gathering does.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

26 thoughts on “My Kid’s School Takes All Pupils On Festive Procession To Church”

  1. Hmmm…it could be educational if you remind the kids that this is part of the Roman Saturnalia festivities, given a new direction under a hellenistic mystery religion (with elements of the Osiris cult of a reborn god).
    If they want a truly ecumenical element I can go there and run over the kids with an Indian “juggernaut” procession wagon (I would make the rig of lightweight frigolit, so no one gets hurt).
    As for the bland and harmless Swedish Curch, it serves a good cause by providing one-stop-shopping to the religiously inclined, keeping them away from unsafe neighbourhoods where cults hunt for converts.


    1. How large must the country’s second-largest religious group become before they are a viable alternative? And what if atheism becomes larger than any religious denomination?


  2. Ylva, while it may be ok to visit and learn about advent, taking part in the festivites is something altogheter different. This is why prayers, blessings and similar is not allowed at the “end of the school year “- ceremonies.


  3. Your daughter’s school practices “all children’s right to religion”, which isn’t a job for the elementary school.


  4. Ylva, if I may just quote a few phrases from the document you linked to:

    1) “Det är möjligt att inom ramen för religionsundervisningen besöka en kyrka, moské, synagoga eller annan religiös lokal. Det ska dock ske som ett inslag i undervisningen som för- och efterarbetas av läraren.”

    I.e. it is allowed to visit places of worship, but this must be accompanied by a pre- and de-briefing by the teacher to put things in context.

    2) Being non-denominational means “det inte kan förekomma religiösa inslag som bön, välsignelse, trosbekännelse, predikan eller annan form av förkunnelse”

    i.e. that there must not be any prayer, blessing, avowal, preaching or any other form of religious proclamation.

    3) It is allowed to learn about specific religions in detail “under förutsättning att undervisningen vilar på vetenskaplig grund och är allsidig och saklig. I undervisningen får dock inte förekomma några som helst inslag av utövande bekännelsekaraktär.”

    i.e. given that this is done in a scientific and detached manner without any form of *practicing* the rituals.

    TL;DR: Religious rituals can be presented and studied, but must be properly framed and must not be *practiced* in a school context.


  5. AS long as no praying is involved, it seems that it is a purely cultural tradition. I certainly was not interested in religious things when we went to church at xmas time, it was just a tradition.
    And if the church has rounded arches, you can point out that this is a derivative of the Roman pagan basilica. Any references to a struggle between a lord of light and a lord of darkness goes back to the Zoroastrian Persians. The wine and cracker thingie -symbolically eating the body of a god- is a straightforward rip-off from the Mithras worship. Educational, but not in the way the parishoners intended 🙂


  6. The same debate pops up in Norway every Christmas. I suspect the dynamics is pretty much the same over in Sweden.

    In my experience, part of the problem is that many have trouble with an important nuance: There’s a difference between learing /about/ religious beliefs and learning /to believe/. I am sure the other parent is right that the event will be both fun and educational. But the way Martin describes this event, it’s designed to teach Christian dogma as the truth, and not to teach the kids “this is what Christians believe”.

    As for the fun part: Yes, the kids may have fun. But that can not excuse the bad /content/. If anything, the fun makes it worse because it, in many ways, makes the questionable lesson easier to swallow, and makes it harder for parents who don’t want to subject their kids to this propaganda to opt out.

    Note that it seems the school recognizes the problem: Martin indicates the event is technically voluntary. (Apart from the point that opting out is boooring.) That removes the worst freedom of religion-issues, but instead raises another: Whether the school ought to arrange something that creates division between Christian and non-Christian pupils.


  7. Birger, I think you’re off on the Mithras worship, at least in regards to the influence on Christianity. It was a rather late addition to the Roman empire, and the ritual supper was probably long set by the time it could have been “copied”.
    On a lighter note, the whole problem with religious ed in school was nicely summarized in this little joke.
    The school inspector is sitting in on annual exams, today in religious ed. One student truly excels, but the teacher nevertheless puts him down for a D. Outraged, the school inspector demands an explanation. “Very simple” the teacher replies, “he knows it all, but he doesn’t believe it”.


    1. To me the whole issue is resolved by the fact that my daughter’s school would never take their celebrations to the local chapter of the Church of Scientology.


  8. So has your objection to do with (i) the focus on cultural heritage, i.e. the fact that Lutheran culture and confession is of historical importance in Sweden, or (ii) the focus on Sv.K. being the largest confessional institution in Sweden?

    I can see the problem with both these, but a field trip to Sv.K. is more likely than one to a Scientology Center on account of of (i) and a trip to any Abrahamitic denomination more likely on account of (ii).


    1. My objection has to do with the fact that a secular school is interpreting its collaboration with the Swedish Church as a harmless cultural thing (cf. Saint Lucy pageant) when in fact it is an act of denominational propaganda (cf. Church of Scientology). I want the school system to wake up to the fact that we no longer have a state church, and Sv.K. is now formally speaking the same kind of organisation as C.o.Scient.


  9. A visit to a public Scientology meeting (if they have such things) would also be a “harmless cultural thing” if the idea is to see the roles of religion in society. I interpret your reply as primarily an objection to (i) below.

    I understand perfectly, I think, your argument from matters of principle (and most teachers and principals arranging these visits probbaly agree with us there), what I can not understand is the “risk assessment” involved. What is at stake here: the innocent secular souls of children, the favourisation of one religious institution, or something else? As I said, I see the point of your argument from principles, but your assessment of “harmfullness” here is, may I say it, less clear.


    1. I don’t think it harms my kid to visit the Sv.K. But I do think it is harmful for secular society to support religion, particularly when one denomination is favoured over others institutionally. I wish to speed the process of separation between church and state. And it angers me that my insisting on a secular alternative would rob my kid of the school’s festive event.


  10. The separation between Sv.K. and the State of Sweden is complete since more than a decade back (the only exception is begravningsväsendet, where the State is hanging on, for reasons which we have discussed before).

    This does not mean that religious beliefs have no affects on society. Football, archeological scholarship and opera are all separated from the state, but citizens still has to take a stand to these things on a personal level, and they exist in society.

    What does it mean for a “secular state to support religion” beyond this? The distinction between confession, politics, ideology, ethnicity and all other factors of identity frankly does not hold water.

    Remember that Sv.K. has a much longer relationship with swedish schools than to the state. This fact is as relevant to the discussion as the notion that society belongs more to the State than to the Church.


    1. Come now, my friend. Unlike football and opera, religious denominationalism is explicitly forbidden by the state school curriculum.

      As for the length of the relationship between the school system and the church, I can’t see what this argument from age is meant to support. In Sweden, once only barbarism was patriotic. Would you like to join me on a head-taking raid to Enköping or Södertälje this weekend?


  11. Religious denominationalism is certainly not forbidden (Deo gratias), but the undue favourisation of religious institutions probably would turn out to be (there are some possible prejudicate cases going on, I believe), much like advertising by public money is informally forbidden. My point is that the distinction between, say sports and religion, is highly problematic and very idiosyncratic for our temporal and local context.

    The argument from age was meant as a joke, but since you caught on to it, may I inquire which type of school system presently in use is a prolongation of head-taking raids? 😉

    Of course barbarism is a universal history (as is bacteria), but now we were discussing particulars which do not originate in Sweden but which has happened in Swedish society.


  12. Being a bookish kind of person and near-sighted in one eye, I have always viewed organised sports with the greatest suspicion. And to the extent that sports coaches teach blind obedience and belief in the supernatural, I think sports should not enjoy public-money support either.


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