OSLO (ChurchMilitant.com) - For the first time in history, the majority of Norwegians are now atheist.
A new study shows 39 percent of Norway's population identifies as atheist — an increase of almost 20 percent from 1985, while 23 percent declare they "don't know." That makes a stunning 62 percent of Norwegians who do not identify as Christian.
The number of people identifying as Christian is 37 percent, but that represents a drop from 50 percent since 1985. Two years ago the number of believers versus non-believers was the same.
Norway embraced Catholicism in the 10th century and held on to the Faith until the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century, when Lutheranism took hold. Afterwards, Catholicism was made illegal, and the number of Catholics steadily decreased to make up only a small minority of Norwegians.
Lutheranism was the state religion until 2012, when the government took away its status. Catholicism was legalized in the mid-1800s, with the final legal restriction removed in 1956, allowing the Jesuit order back into the country. The vast majority of Norway's 200,000 Catholics today are immigrants. Those 200,000 Catholics represent a meager four percent of the total population of 5 million.
The Norwegian government gives funding to religious organizations based on their membership numbers. In March 2015, Bp. Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo was formally charged with defrauding the government of $6 million by exaggerating the number of Catholics in his diocese. A local newspaper discovered Church officials had registered people without their knowledge or consent. In one case, a group of Buddhists were registered Catholic. Bishop Eidsvig admitted the diocesan accounting practices are "not satisfactory" and will be "cleaned up," but has denied any wrongdoing.
But the increased number of people declaring themselves atheist or "unaffiliated" isn't a phenomenon peculiar to Norway.
In countries across Europe the numbers of those embracing atheism or identifying as "unaffiliated" has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. The number of those identifying as Christian is dropping, especially in Great Britain, where only two in five people identify as Christian. In 2012, a researcher in Eastern Germany tried to find a person below 28 years old who believed in God, but was unable to find anyone.