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FINLAND, UNBELIEF IN. Finland is not a part of Scandinavia; it lies between Scandinavia and Russia. It was a colony of Sweden (1200-1809) and a part of Russia (1809-1917).
Since 1917 Finland has been independent. The first Finnish association to discuss the philosophy of the Enlightenment (see ENLIGHTENMENT, THE, AND UNBELIEF) was the Valhalla Association (1781-86). At that time, with Finland a part of Sweden, there was no freedom of belief. Foreign books on related topics were held at two locations. The Monrepo estate
had books of Julien Offray de LA METTRIE, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d'HOLBACH and
Claude Adrien HELVETIUS. The Fagervik estate held books of Denis DIDEROT. The best
known atheist in Finland at this time was Johan Kellgren (1751-1795). He was a clear atheist
and he supported a hedonistic moral code.
In 1809 Finland became a part of Russia. The situation regarding religious freedom changed
little. The official religion was Lutheran Christianity, but the Eastern Orthodox Church became the other accepted church. Anders Chydenius and Robert Lagerborg wrote on freedom
of religion in 1863.
Shortly afterward, DARWINISM reached Finland (see also EVOLUTION AND
UNBELIEF), and Nils Nordenskiöld discussed the new theories in the Literary Magazine.
The first attempt to acquaint the masses with Darwin's ideas occurred in 1889 in the city of
Jyväskylä, where the Keski-Suomi newspaper published popular articles on Darwinism written by well-known individuals such as Juhani Aho and Minna Canth. The editor of KeskiSuomi was Eero Erkko, whose grandson Aatos Erkko would become the richest man in Finland.
The Association for Freedom of Religion and Tolerance (Föreningen för religionsfrihet och
tolerans in Finland) was founded by Viktor Heikel and Mathilda Asp in 1887-88 but quickly
suppressed by the economic department of the Senate. Some of the members of this association was religious. The first issue of its journal Free Thoughts (Wapaita Aatteita) was published in 1889 but tsarist censorship put an end to it as it did almost everything else. Also notable was the Raketen Club (1896-1900), a forum where the ideas of Georg Morris Cohen
BRANDES and Friedrich NIETZSCHE had notable influence. One member of this club was
Rolf Lagerborg, a philosopher and author who fought the church on questions concerning morality and equality between the sexes. The most rebellious of Edvard Westermarck's disciples,
Lagerborg’s academic career was turbulent. His two dissertations on moral philosophy were
rejected in Finland, but French versions were subsequently approved at the Sorbonne.
Lagerborg studied moral philosophy, epistemology, and psychology, and was the first exponent of behaviorism in Finland. Theologians vehemently opposed his professional advance-
ment because of his opinions, and because of his participation in the Prometheus Student Association (Ylioppilasyhdistys Prometheus, 1905-1914); Lagerborg never attained a professorship. He was a contributor to the literary and art magazine Euterpe (1902-05), which promoted secularist ideals.
The Prometheus Student Association was established in 1905. Its chairman was Edvard
Westermarck (1862-1939), professor at the universities of London and Helsinki and the
founder of Finnish sociology. His most important work is the gigantic The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, considered by Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright the
most important philosophical work ever written by a Finn. Westermarck was Finnish social
anthropologist and scholar whose area of specialization was the history of marriage, morality,
and religious institutions. Westermarck gained international fame with his doctoral thesis, The
History of Human Marriage, which was inspired by the ideas of Darwin. It argued that contrary to then-widely held ideas, there was no matriarchal stage of human development and
that early humans were not universally promiscuous. The study appeared first in 1891 and later in three volumes in 1922.
The school of social anthropology Westermarck created was the best known in the world in
the early twentieth century. Westermarck's life was devoted to science and enlightened
FREETHOUGHT. His naturalistic criticism of religion became a guiding influence, especially among academic youth. Westermarck headed the Prometheus Association during the entire
period of its activity (1905-14).
Another member of the Prometheus Association was Rafael Karsten, who held the post of
professor of practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki, 1922-48. Karsten wrote several books on anthropology and the science of religion, as well as many reports on his extensive
The journal Free Thought (Vapaa Ajatus) was published by S. E. Kristiansson from 1909 until his disappearance during or after Finland's civil war (1917-8). Alfred Bernhard Sarlin
wrote many books under the pseudonym "Asa Jalas". Both Kristiansson and Sarlin spent time
in jail for BLASPHEMY.
Finland’s civil war, in the wake of the collapse of Tsarist Russia because of the Bolshevik
Revolution, was a catastrophe for atheists in Finland. Most freethought leaders were murdered
by the anti-Bolshevik White Guard, including perhaps Kristiansson, whose fate was never
Finland’s first law providing for freedom of religion was enacted in 1922, but it was no more
than a compromise between the church and political parties. The first freethinkers' association
after the civil war was organized in 1927; the oldest freethinkers' organization still existing
was established in the city of Kotka in 1929. The Union of Freethinkers' Assocations of Finland (original name: Union of Civil Register Associations, Suomen Siviilirekisteriyhdistysten
keskusliitto) was founded in 1937. The latter was sharply attacked by the church, and Interior
Minister Urho Kekkonen (later Prime Minister and President of Finland) tried to stop it. At
his order, the city court of Tampere suppressed the local Union of Freethinkers association in
1937. But the Union survived and became a member of the World Union of Freethinkers in
About twenty-five Union associations still exist with about 1,500 dues-paying members. Other organizations include the Union of Freethinkers of Finland, Union which publishes a magazine, Free Thinker (Vapaa Ajattelija) and maintains seven cemeteries where secular burials
take place. It receives financial support from the government of Finland. Independent freethought, humanist, and atheist organizations also exist.
In spite of a new Constitution, adopted in 2000, which formally guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience, there is no real freedom from religion in Finland. The human rights of
atheists are violated in the schools, and in some areas of the country the situation is becoming
Erkki Hartikainen