ONE of Sweden’s best-known cultural figures is a member of the Swedish Humanist Association (an IHEU member organisation).
Björn Ulvaeus is universally recognisable as one of the four members of the pop supergroup ABBA. But with the dawning of the 21st century Ulvaeus began attracting attention for his outspoken views about religion. In 2006, in an interview with the Chairman of the Swedish Humanist Association, Christer Sturmark, for the magazine Humanisten, Ulvaeus said:
“I have noticed how religion is becoming a power in politics, and is also competing with the scientific way of thinking. That worries me. I have always been a huge friend of ‘the Enlightenment’ and of science. When I saw irrational, religious conservative values and hostility against science influencing society, I searched for an organisation dealing with these questions.
“I miss those days when people believed in science and common sense, as they did in the fifties and sixties. Now fundamentalism and contempt for science seem to be spreading. I believe that religion should be totally separated from the state. That’s not the way it is today, not even in Sweden.
“For hundreds of years we have struggled to achieve a secular society, and now we seem to be going backwards. I find it quite astonishing that more women don’t stand up to these questions.
“I believe that religious faith schools are highly dubious. I also think that it’s absurd that organisations that have secular aims, for example the Swedish Humanist Association, don’t get the same government grants as organisations that hold services. Perhaps we should start holding gatherings where we pay our respect to Voltaire!”
Ulvaeus, who joined the Swedish Humanist Association in 2005, added: “Contempt for science may have arisen because science hasn’t been able to solve many of our basic problemsI also believe that the atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction show that science can be used in evil ways.”
Addressing the issue of religious fundamentalism, this he said might be due to globalisation, and the fact that many people feel insecure in a rapidly changing world. “In crises of identity people often turn to their religious origins.”
Ulvaeus described himself as “an agnostic, leaning towards atheism. I don’t have, and I think I cannot have, a clear view of God’s existence. I do not believe in the god that is described in the Middle East religions or in any other religions for that matter.”
Asked where he thought the dividing line was between freedom of religion and freedom of speech and human rights, Ulvaeus replied: “I am so incredibly tired of giving respect to a lot of delusions and crazy ideas just because they are regarded as religious. Private faith should, of course, be respected, but it can’t be allowed to influence society or other people. Where do you draw the line between superstition and religion? If you bear in mind that we are living on a small planet in a solar system at the edge of a small galaxy at the edge of the universe, it might be a slight exaggeration to state: ‘We have the answer!’
“All religions claim to be the correct and genuine one. It’s just too much for me. I think it’s important that you should be able to criticise and analyse religions, the same way that you can criticise opinions and values. Religious people must learn to cope with that.”
He added: “The UN declaration on human rights must always take precedence over religious beliefs or cultural differences. It seems to me that this isn’t explicitly stated by our politicians today. Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being. I believe that politicians in Sweden are too cautious in emphasising this, probably out of fear of being regarded as discriminating against non-democratic cultures.
Ulvaeus explained why he decided to take a stand against religious extremism. “This is our time’s absolute most important issue, a pure issue of survival. The increase of religious extremism is highly dangerous, yet so few dare to question the basis for these ideas – faith. I’ve felt for a long time that I ought to do something, but I’ve held back because of fear of what reactions it would raise if I came out and said something. My family or I could be a target for some madman, but then … I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.”
He continued: “I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of religion. It includes so many people, the majority on the globe. Religions have such great influence on politics and social progress that they naturally must endure the same criticism, the same scrutiny, the same discussion as all other ideologies or outlooks on life – it goes without saying. I’m extremely tired of how you should feel respect towards a mass of delusions just because they’re called religion!”
What does he think the worst thing is about religion?
“That with religion’s help you can indoctrinate people to believe that they will go to paradise if they carry out suicide attacks against the innocent. And what we’ve seen up to now is presumably nothing compared with what could come.”
Describing his own path to humanism, Ulvaeus (above, left, in ABBA's heyday) revealed that he had “a short flirtation with religion in my youth, when I studied the Bible. When I was about 15 I read Dan Andersson’s novel David Ramm’s Heritage, about a young man, David, who was pondering over existential and religious questions. When I read that novel, I thought I would also like to be a brooder and severe. But it was merely a pose. The school and the music started to take over my life and I didn’t have time trying to be severe and pondering.”
In the ABBA song “Thank you for the Music”, originally featured on the group’s fifth studio album ABBA: The Album (1977), one can see a blossoming of Ulvaeus’ humanism. “…Thanks for all the songs, words and tunes, who needs religion?”
Explaining the thinking behind that lyric, Ulvaeus said “I thought we could do what John Lennon did in ‘Imagine’ and sneak in a statement. Lennon wrote ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too.’ It is sung in churches and nobody objects to the wish for a ‘world without religion’.
“I wrote the Swedish version of ‘Thank you for the Music’ with Niklas Strömstedt, and we were both prepared for the fact that it would cause reactions. But not one single complaint has been made! Not one single letter of complaint!”
In a later interview published in Dagens Nyheter Ulvaeus said “Jesus is just a myth to me and Jesus himself is just a mythical figure.”
“I am interested in the role of religion in a secular society and marvel at how people can have faith in something that no-one has ever been able to prove exists. I just cannot indulge in a belief in ‘something’ or ‘someone’.”
Ulvaeus has not always questioned religion in quite the same way as he does now.
But the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a wake-up call. “It was then, that I realised, that people with subjective experiences and revelations that had no basis in reality wanted to assume power over others in the name of religion.
“We see that religious forces are now penetrating the political arena. Religion should not control people’s lives, whether they be Christians or Muslims.”
Despite his harsh criticism of organised religion Ulvaeus thinks that ceremonies with a religious background have their place.
“Many people cling to religious traditions – even when they do not believe in God.”