In communion with the trees: how nature is taking over from church

Image credit: Pikist

Comment by Andrew Brown

Sweden appears to be one of the most irreligious countries in the world. Hardly anyone goes to church and only 25 per cent of the population even claims to believe in God — yet two-thirds still pay their church tax and so are members of the Church of Sweden, even though the state church was disestablished in 1990 and the tax is now entirely voluntary.

The great majority of these Christian taxpayers — nearly half the population — do not believe in Christianity, follow Christian teaching, or think of themselves as Christians.

But in the absence of God, Swedes do believe in some ill-defined spiritual force. Even while church attendance remains low, and “religion” is widely distrusted, the number of explicit atheists, who will say that they don’t believe in any kind of god or supernatural power, dropped from 17 per cent to 11 per cent in the final years of the 20th century. Only about 15 per cent of the population are neither personally religious nor members of any kind of religious organisation.

These figures are all from Professor David Thurfjell’s book on Swedish secularisation, The Godless People, published in 2015. Now he has produced another book on the beliefs and practices which have to a large extent replaced Christianity among middle-class Swedes: People of the Forest.

This book is a study of the way in which the woods, the lakes, and the mountains of Sweden have come to replace churches as the source of spiritual refreshment. Roughly 50 times as many Swedes have wandered through the forests or the countryside every year as go to church; and walking in the forests is for them a kind of spiritual experience.

Thurfjell writes that the people he has interviewed have described in the forest “the feeling of standing at a threshold, the feeling that they have a personal relationship with the world around them; the experience of being comforted, moved, and healed. And here is the knowledge that consciousness and bodily existence is present in all this, ‘like the breeze that strokes my cheek’ . . . these are the kind of experiences which language can only approach with poetic adumbrations and open questions,” Thurfjell writes of his subjects’ experiences.

This corresponds almost exactly to the way that some charismatic Christians talk about their experience of God. It’s just that the post-Christian Swedes feel that way about trees instead.

He writes: “Again and again people would say to me — often with a smile to show that they knew it would sound strange — that they have enjoyed friendships with trees: how they have talked to them, hugged them, and felt that the trees have recognised them. Even the people who wouldn’t go that far can often say that they have special feelings in the presence of trees and how they can seek out their company.”

This feeling for nature seems different in two important respects from the Anglo-Saxon new age industry. The first is that it is rather less commercialised. That’s a matter of degree, of course. The opening of the book has Thurfjell walking through the chic shopping centre of Stockholm and seeing that nearly every single window display is selling some version of the wilderness. Rucksacks, hiking boots, and Gore-Tex clothes were all prominently displayed.

The cosmetics shops, such as Lush, all boasted of how near to nature their creations were. Even the coffee chains had forests on their wallpaper and boasted of the ecological virtues of their cups and drinks. None the less, he says, you need none of this equipment to enjoy the forests. For purists, in fact, the more you spend on gear the less you get of the experience you’re notionally after.

Also, the new age/spirituality business in most of the West is, like religion, largely the domain of women. The forests are not like that. They appeal to an idealised masculinity, but also to a real one. To walk in them is to encounter family groups almost as often as solitary wanderers.

Could the same turn to nature happen in Britain? It seems unlikely. The Scandinavian forests feel wild and strange even when they are not. England, to Scandinavians, feels much too gardened and enclosed to supply the thrill of contact with the alien that one feels inside a pine forest. Yet the longing for a deeper and more authentic experience of life which Thurfjell’s Swedish subjects feel must also be present in the English soul. If we no longer find it in our churches, where will we look for it today?

Professor Thurfjell will be in conversation with Andrew Brown in a Religion Media Centre webinar at 1pm on Thursday 10 September. To join the conversation, email info@religionmediacentre.org.uk