Comparative analysis of social science and empirical theology

By Jonas Adelin Jørgensen

Based on various national introductions and the individual entries, this comparative analysis of social science and empirical theology contributions asks about the social, cultural, and theological processes encouraging or discouraging baptism in the Nordic context. The aim is to offer some initial ideas, not a thorough and complete analysis.


Positive factors

First, a number of positive factors is identified in the social scientific and empirical studies. Cultural and family traditions – and to a lesser degree religious tradition – seem to be positive factors: The reasons for infant baptism identified among members of the churches who have their children baptized relates to cultural and family traditions as well as the aesthetics of the ceremony itself and the religious tradition. Tradition and custom was earlier a main motivation for baptism. Even if this motivation is not as strong as earlier and baptism to a higher degree is seen as an active choice, the role of tradition and choice of traditional ritual seems to be a positive factor in baptism. The pattern is confirmed in reports from all Nordic countries.


Also theology of baptism is a positive factor: Baptism as mediating God’s blessing or making the child a child of God remains a factor but is not as strong a motivation as family tradition and cultural tradition.   The role of godparents should not be overlooked: In the Finnish material, it is noted that the wish for godparents is a positive factor, whereas this remains more uncertain in the other countries. Finally, there seems to be a gender factor: Swedish research indicates that baptism occurs to a higher degree in families where a female relative influence the choice (mother, grandmother). The same pattern might be expected in other Nordic countries.


Negative factors

Secondly, in a number of discussions, pluralization, secularization, and liberal individual rights is pointed out as a key negative factor: Reasons against baptism include postponing the baptism in respect of the (future) free decision of the individual, pressure against baptism from spouse, and poor quality of relation to church. Pluralization in terms of religion has to do with parents considering baptism is presented with a broader variety of options when it comes to organized forms of religious life. The pluralization itself relativizes the individual religious tradition because any religious tradition becomes the choice of the individual. This is common for all Nordic countries.

If we take secularization to mean a weakening of the given character of a religious outlook, religious competence, and relation to religious institutions, secularization is certainly a factor in declining baptismal numbers. If we take secularization to mean emphasizing individual liberal rights, the Nordic countries are also highly secularized, as reflected in e.g. views on the individuals’ role in choosing for himself or herself. Both meanings of the term might go some way towards explaining why frequency of baptisms is falling. In the Finnish material, the idea that the child should decide for itself is the second most important negative factor in deciding not to baptize whereas the most important factor is that parents do not identify with the church.


However, in accounting for secularization as a factor and following classical secularization theories, one would anticipate the largest effect among the younger, more educated, and wealthier citizens, and baptism should have the lowest frequency among this part of the population. Similarly, one would expect a correlation between older age, higher levels of religiosity and more baptisms. However, at least in Denmark this is not really the case, statistically speaking: there seems to be correlation between low age and low level of religiosity; but not between level of education, high income, and degree of secularization – here we see the opposite correlation: The more educated and therefore wealthier people are, the more they have their children baptized. Therefore, secularization alone – either as weakening of religion or as growing individual liberal rights – does not explain the falling numbers of children being baptized. We need to look for more factors.


Ambivalent factors

Thirdly, there are several ambivalent factors where more research is needed. These factors include socioeconomic factors, age of parents, urbanization, and migration. These factors remain ambivalent as their effect is not easily determined: High income as a possible positive factor - socioeconomic factors: Research from Sweden indicates that one end of the spectrum – and most likely to baptize their children – are families with two parents with a completed secondary education. The other end of the spectrum – and least likely to have children baptized – is a single mother in urban centers. Possibly the same picture would be seen in other Nordic countries.  Age is also a possible positive factor: Age of parents seems to have a significance although we are also here on a more hypothetical level: Statistically, we know that the older the parents are, the more they are inclined to have their children baptized. However, the reasons are not clear. Some commentators have speculated that this might be because decision to baptize children depends on higher education; the older a woman is when giving birth, the higher education she has, and the more religious she is.


Urbanization is seen as an ambivalent but mainly negative factor: the percentage of children baptized is lower in large urban areas compared to rural and peripheral areas. We know that people tend to do what others around them also do: that is, more children are baptized if it is normal and vice versa. Some commentators point to consequences of urbanization in terms of individualization and up rootedness, while others point to the larger contingent of migrant communities in urban areas as explanation to lower number of baptisms.


Migration presents itself as ambivalent but possible positive factor: Majority of migrants originate in countries not identifying themselves as culturally or religiously Christian. These groups remain largely outside the national churches as non-members, without any intention of becoming members of the churches through baptism. The effect of migrant communities could be tested if data on number of migrants, countries of origin, and membership of churches were analyzed in the region; however, no such analysis is not yet available. Numerically, increased migration of course lowers the absolute number of membership but is this also the case relatively speaking? On a hypothetic level, increased migration might have a positive effect, causing more awareness about majority cultural and Christian roots of religious identity and put emphasis on baptism among this group. This would mean that the more migrant presence, the more baptisms among the ethnic majority group. As migrant communities are mainly found in urban centers, the negative effect of urbanization on baptism might outweigh the indirect positive effect of migration.