Norway is a constitutional parliamentary monarchy of about five million inhabitants, bordering its Nordic neighbours Sweden and Finland, as well as Russia. Norway is rated as having the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the world (according to the most recent report published in 2014, and including 11 of the past 13 annual reports).

Rating: Mostly Satisfactory
This country is found to be declining due to recent reforms which extend and exaggerate privileges to Christianity in public education, to the point that the religious education curriculum can likely no longer be considered “non-confessional”.

Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are protected by the Norwegian Constitution (Articles 16 and 100, respectively). Article 16 of the Constitution prominently refers to Christianity, but affirms freedom of religion for all:

“All inhabitants of the realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion. The Church of Norway, an Evangelical-Lutheran church, will remain the Established Church of Norway and will as such be supported by the State. Detailed provisions as to its system will be laid down by law. All religious and belief communities should be supported on equal terms.”

While the Norwegian state supports the Evangelical-Lutheran Church financially, other groups (religious or secular) may also register with the government to receive financial support from the state. The degree of financial support is provided to all groups in proportion to their formally registered membership. In practice, however, some of the government financial support for the state church is exclusive for the Church of Norway.

Church of Norway

In 2012, the ties between the Church of Norway and the state were partly dissolved. However, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church (Den norske kirke) is still described as “the Established Church of Norway” (Norges Folkekirke) and remains the de facto state church, with bishops and priests still “state officials”.

Article 2 of the Constitution had previously stated that “The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same.” The article was changed in 2012 to a somewhat more inclusive wording: “Our values will remain our Christian and humanist heritage.” A requirement that at least half of the government had to be church members was also removed in 2012.

Since 2012 the monarch is no longer the head of the Church of Norway. The monarch is however still required to profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion (hence the monarch’s own ‘religious freedom’ is compromised) and the monarch must invoke “God, the Almighty and Omniscient” in the oath of accession (Art. 4 and Art. 9, Constitution).

Education and children’s rights

Many state schools take the students to church services before Easter or Christmas. Even though students are not formally required to take part, peer pressure and inadequate information on exemption rules results in some students participating in the school church services against their will.

Changes to religious education in 2015 have raised serious concerns of undue bias toward Christianity in the classroom.

Under the centre-right coalition government formed in 2013, there have been more heated debates around various social topics including immigration, as well as education and religion. Though the government itself formally consists of the Conservative party and Progress party, a secondary agreement with the Liberal party and the Christian Democratic Party ensures significant influence on policy from these parties.

The Christian Democrats are widely regarded to have based their support for the coalition on an education reform, which as of the 2015 school year, re-emphasises Christianity in religious education. The previous equivalent school subject “Religion, Lifestance and Ethics” (Religion, livssyn og etikk, RLE) was mandatory for Norwegian students, covering world religions on a roughly comparative basis (though there were already some concerns about the prominence or bias toward Christianity under RLE).

However, as of 2015 the subject is now KRLE, to emphasise “Kristendom”, under which teachers are encouraged to make “about half” of the classes cover Christianity exclusively.

Some pedagogists had quickly objected that this change would represent a retrograde “setback”, resurrecting old problems:

“…it is clear from this proposal that the main concern seems to be to secure an extended focus on Christianity. However, from the perspective of Study of Religions, this represents a real setback for the development of RE in Norway, as it re-introduces the old Christianity + others model, in which most of the teaching should revolve around Christianity.”
— Bengt-Ove Andreassen, Associate Professor

Likewise, the Norwegian Humanist Association campaigned against the change, arguing: that under KRLE, more students were likely to apply for exemption, which “will help to segregate students by religion or belief”; that the realignment of the subject “sends a signal that Christianity is more important and more accurate than other religions and beliefs”, constituting a public privilege for Christianity; that by comparison other “religions, beliefs, ethics and philosophy” would get less time and so teaching would be of a lower quality; that most Christian groups also seemed to dispute the need for or wisdom of the change; and that the change was “not evidence-based, but ideologically and religiously rooted”. In summary:

“We believe that the introduction of a symbolic K for Christianity [Kristendom] will seem divisive, and that the stipulation “about half” for Christianity represents a distinct bias in the direction of a specific religion. In addition, we are not confident that the KRLE subject is in line with human rights… We believe that school should be a place where all students meet on an equal basis regardless of religion or belief. A society with several religions needs cohesion rather than disunity…”

The objections were in fact voiced widely: KRLE was protested by a huge popular petition, education experts were overwhelmingly against it, concerns were raised by the Christian Educational Forum, and it was even criticised by bishops of the Church of Norway.

Despite significant dissent, KRLE came into force for the 2015-16 academic year. There are concerns that while opting out is permitted from specific activities, in practice the change may seriously alter the tone of delivery, especially under individual teachers that are inclined to be more prescriptive about religion. While the subject may still be considered broadly comparative (in that it does still contain other beliefs, including Humanist and secular positions, though as a necessarily reduced proportion of the overall subject) the newly exaggerated emphasis on Christianity “casts doubt on whether the subject remains non-confessional”, according to Lars-Petter Helgestad, of the Norwegian Humanist Association.

Family, community and society

While the majority of the population remain nominally affiliated with the Church of Norway (74,3 % as of January 1st 2015), the most recent figures from Statistics Norway describe a “Steady decline in number of church baptisms”.

In reality, polls over recent years have consistently shown Norway to be among the least religious countries in the world, as measured by a relatively small percentage of the population believing in a personal god, a low percentage describing themselves as religious, and very low rates for regular church attendance. For a large percentage of church members, church affiliation is of a nominal (“cultural”) rather than of a religious nature.
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Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution and generally upheld in practice.

The largest non-religious organization is the Norwegian Humanist Association, Human-Etisk Forbund (HEF) with over 85,000 members. (HEF is a Member of the IHEU.) In principle non-religious groups, including Humanist organizations, are treated on equal footing with religious groups.

“Blasphemy” abolished

In 2015, Norway formally abolished its remaining “blasphemy” law (formerly under section 142 of the Penal Code, banning public expression of “contempt” for religions recognised by the state). There had been no successful prosecutions under the law for some decades, though threats had been in relation to republication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as recently as 2006.

A parliamentary vote had already indicated political consensus to abolish the law, but the decision had not come into effect due to delays in implementing a revised Penal Code. In direct response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January 2015, two Norwegian MPs brought a motion in February arguing that the blasphemy prohibition “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection… This is very unfortunate signal to send, and it is time that society clearly stands up for freedom of speech.” The motion passed with broad political and public support.