Danish debate: Are religious people happier?

A new report claims “highly-religious” people in Nordic countries are happier than “non-religious” and “moderately-religious” groups. However, the topic of religion in Denmark is becoming increasingly complex.

By Annie McCann and Tereza Dornakova

MINORITY TALKS: Candid discussions in Copenhagen’s main library at Mino Denmark’s recent public event. From left: Tarek Ziad Hussein, Ibis Osmani, Fatima Osborne, Sara Aisha Von Magius. (Photo: Tereza Dornakova)

Denmark’s religious tensions are a popular talking point around the world. With recent national legislation labelled as “Islamophobic,” along with ongoing issues between religious and ethnic minorities, new claims that religious Danes are happier might come as a surprise.

A report titled In the Shadow of Happiness published in May by the Nordic Council of Ministers stated “those who score highly on the scale of religiousness tend to be significantly happier than the non-religious segment of the population.” But the Happiness Research Institute (HRI) in Copenhagen did not distinguish between religious groups, which may impact the clarity of the research. This begs the question; are all religious groups happy in Denmark?

Lutheran dominance in the Danish community

Today, approximately 80% of Danes identify as religious. Of this population, 76% fall under Denmark’s official religion; the Evangelical Lutheran church. However, critics argue that the majority are members by default and are not deeply religious.

The Dean of Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen Kirsten Busch Nielsen argues that the happiness of highly religious Lutherans could result from the religion’s enduring connection with the country’s social-political framework.

“The Lutheran Church is, as it says in our constitution, supported by the state,” Nielsen said. “It’s important to stress religious freedom in a country where the majority of the people belong to one church, as it is in Denmark.”

Nielsen adds that the progressive social policy in Denmark may have positively impacted the climate in which religious groups can operate.

“Denmark is a very modern and liberal society and, on the other hand, still has a quite high membership rate in the Lutheran Church. Apparently, those things are not opposed to each other.”

Denmark’s religious spectrum is diversifying

Nielsen says the Lutheran Church is “very deeply embedded in culture,” yet research suggests minority religions that are less entertwined with Danish society are gaining popularity.

Religions such as Roman Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Judaism and Buddhism each comprise less than 1% of Denmark’s religious groups. Islam remains the largest religious minority at 4%. Pew-Templeton expects this figure to increase by 4.4% before 2050, yet Islam remains a symbol of division and otherness in Denmark.


Is Denmark a “happy environment” for Islam?

Danish-born Muslim debater and author Tarek Ziad Hussein feels ambiguous about being a Muslim in Denmark, referring to “different kinds of happiness”.

“When it comes to the inner part, when I sit at home and I ask myself how happy I am, that’s one kind of happiness,” Hussein said. “The other is how I am pursued from the point of view of society.”

Society, however, has threatened Hussein’s own quest for happiness.

“No matter if you are a Jew, Christian or Muslim, it’s very difficult to be religious in Denmark; especially socially,” Hussein continued. “Denmark is hostile towards all kinds of religions. Religious people are viewed as some kind of crazy people.”

SEE ALSO: Fatima Osbourne reflects on her Minority Talks appearance and experiences of prejudice.

Religion not the sole happiness indicator

The study suggests happiness is also contingent on factors such as employment status, income, age and mental health. With research showing that religiosity is higher in the world’s poorest countries, the assertion that religious people are happier could be at odds with the claim that poorer people are less happy.

Danish Atheist Society leader Simon Nielsen Ørregaard thinks some religious people might feel happier, however, it is “not a rule” in society. He believes Danes welcome other religions, despite 20% of the country being atheists, non-believers and agnostics.

HRI analyst recommends further research

Muslims such as Hussein maintain that high-religiosity can provide “peace and silence that is otherwise difficult to find”.

“For people who are religious, the rituals help to find peace,” Hussein said. “In the West in the last 10 years, it’s become very popular to have mindfulness. That has been a part of Islam for thousands of years. That’s the purpose of praying 5 times a day – to stop and evaluate yourself.”

Michael Birkjær, a research contributor and analyst from the HRI, says more research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of Denmark’s current religious climate.

“We have not tested whether people feel their life is meaningful,” Birkjær said. “If we could do that, we may [find] that some of the effect from religion is explained by meaning.”

VIDEO: The relationship between religion and societal happiness is not easily defined.

This article was written for a British audience, and could be published on https://www.theguardian.com/world/europe-news.