Religious diversity has increased in Finland at an increasing pace during the past five decades. Now there are several hundred distinct religions and religious movements operating in Finland. The number of congregations and other local or satellite organisations is steadily growing. Besides new movements coming to Finland, there are also many changes and fissions taking place in the older communities. All the evidence indicates that religious diversity will continue to grow soon.
The main purpose of the project is to maintain permanent and continuously updated digital database and information service for researching religious communities and studying religious change in Finland.
The Religions in Finland Project will provide a completely new type of infrastructure for the purpose of researching the changing religious situation in Finland. Mapping the Finnish religious milieu is, however, not important for solely academic reasons. The diversification of the religious situation has broader societal consequences through the increased multiculturalism and value pluralism it brings along. The need for correct information for local and national authorities should not be underestimated in fields such as education and health care. Accurate knowledge of other people’s religions and ways of life can, for instance, ameliorate problems stemming from various stereotypes and other preconceptions that religious minorities face.
The dialogue of religions can also be furthered through detailed and accurate knowledge of religious movements. For this purpose some parts of the database have been made public through the Internet. The Religions in Finland database is thus also meant to serve as an information resource for church workers, government officials, the media, and ordinary citizens.
Principles and guidelines
The Religion in Finland Project aims to collect a systematically structured database of all religious organisations currently operating in Finland. The project was launched in 2006 and it is maintained by Church Research Institute (The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland).
The principle goal is to provide systematically organised and comparable sets of information from as many communities as possible. To achieve these aims the project is founded on a set of principles and guidelines.
The definition of religion and other conceptual distinctions are based upon academic usage. From the point of view of scientific study, religion consists of explanations which are based on supernatural assumptions and which provide answers to the basic existential questions stemming from the human condition. The term” supernatural” denotes powers, beings and modes of existence that are beyond human comprehension or perception and which can suspend or alter the regularities observed in nature. The basic existential questions involve such questions as “what is the purpose of life?”, “why do we exist?”, “why is there suffering?”, and “what happens at death?”
Both personal beings and impersonal powers, essences and modes of existence can be conceived as supernatural. On the one hand, there are religions that are based on the concept of personal supernatural beings such as gods. On the other hand, there are religions that are based on the concept of supernatural essences, forms of existence and modes of being, such as philosophical Taoism and Buddhism. Indeed, not all religions involve supernatural agents as their conceptual foundation.
This definition will have the consequence that groups and organisations shall be included in the database that either (a) are not religions according to the self-understanding of the organisations themselves, and (b) are not regarded as religions under the current Finnish law. Furthermore, (c) the database includes some groups that do not fulfil the above definition but are included for the reason that they derive a part of their concepts and practices from some of the great religious traditions of the world. Many contemporary forms of health-related exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi have their origin in Eastern religious traditions, but which are presently practiced mostly for their immediate health or other secular benefits rather than for some esoteric or existential reasons. The reason for including these groups is that they provide important data for the historical and comparative studies of such traditions.
The inclusion of the groups into the database involves no theological or normative evaluative stance on the part of project team. The categorisation is based solely on historical and conceptual grounds. The self-understanding of the group is clearly spelled out, especially in the borderline cases, to avoid any misunderstandings in this regard.
In addition to defining religion, all descriptive and analytical terminology used in the database is derived from scholarly works in the scientific study of religion (on descriptive categories, see section 5 below). This is to ensure that comparisons could be made between different religious traditions using their own cultural concepts and terminologies.
The descriptions aim at objectivity, reliability, and neutrality. ‘Objectivity’ means simply that it should be possible for anyone to check the correctness of the information against observation and reasoning. While it is difficult if not impossible to examine theological statements of the form “God is such-and-such” in those terms, it is quite possible to verify statements of the form “group X believes that God is such-and-such.” Thus in the database all theological statements are to be understood in the latter form.
Finally, the religious communities and groups will be described in as neutral fashion as possible. All moral and evaluative assessments will be avoided. This does not, however, mean that accurate but potentially damaging information would be censored in the name of neutrality. The purpose is not to provide “polished” pictures of the movements. The neutrality means, in such cases, that all groups will be treated on an equal basis.
The project provides channels of feedback and opportunities of cooperation with the communities described. The Religion in Finland Project will attempt to gather its data in cooperation with the communities in question and in respect of the convictions of all the communities involved. For this reason all the communities included into the database will be informed when they have been described in the project database and what kind of information concerning them has been published. They will be given an opportunity to correct any mistakes and biased descriptions of the movements that have been published in the Internet by the project. The Internet site of the project also includes a form by which anyone visiting the site will be able to give feedback on the data available in the pages.
Principles of cataloguing
The first guiding principle of cataloguing is that the organisations to be included have been registered under national legal instruments. Most of the religious communities in Finland have been officially registered either as registered voluntary associations under the Associations Act or as registered religious communities under the law of the freedom of religion (1922/2003). The two national (“folk”) churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and the Finnish Orthodox Church, have their own special legislation. There are, however, also many groups with religious background that operate either as unregistered associations or as various types of commercial enterprises and firms. The most conspicuous of these have also been listed into the database. The listing has been done under the official names of each organisation.
The second principle of cataloguing is that the religious communities are listed according to the highest central administrative organisations of each community. The local branches (such as congregations) and various other satellite organisations have thus been listed under the heading of the main organisation. Many religious communities have national umbrella organisations and administrative bodies. There are, nevertheless, many religious movements that do not have a centralised organisation at all. In such cases all the local branches are organisationally autonomous and they have been listed separately.
There are substantial numbers of registered associations that have connection to religious communities. The third principle is that only those have been included that function as central organisations for some religious community or a movement. Organisations designed for the more specific purposes of established communities, such as missionary or publishing societies, have generally not been included into the database. However, many movements operating as subgroups under more established communities are often rather loosely organised. Revival movements in mainstream churches are a typical example of movements that may not have central administrative organisation at all. These have been listed under the more specialised types of organisations that they may have.
The classification does not necessarily mean that each organisation would represent these traditions in theological terms. Some movements may have branched off from their parent traditions quite noticeably and others may represent completely secularised interpretations of the parent traditions. In most cases the teachings and practices of such movements can yet be more easily understood if they are placed in the context of the appropriate religious and cultural tradition.
Experiences and future expectations
The Religions in Finland Project is one of many similar efforts to map and analyse current religious changes on the community level. As usual, the initial interest has been to find out more about the existing local and national religious diversity, but in course the project took a more theory-based approach. Originally inspired by the increase of alternative forms of religious and spiritual expression as well as religious groups of immigrant origin, it has so far become evident that among the Christian free churches as well as in the established churches are proceeding both parallel and distinct developments. This further underlines the importance of mapping projects in creating a balanced picture of group-level developments, as even the academic eye often misses shifts in the more traditional religious sphere.