More deaths caused by non-religious people: millions in Sweden

In response to @Patrick’s post about “religious groups” causing COVID-19 deaths, here’s a generous dose of reality:

Isn’t Sweden the favorite “non-religious” country so often praised by atheist websites?


Their situation is quite dangerous:

Any country where hockey and harness racing are major sports is solid in my book.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit in relation to Taiwan, where I live. There was a holiday weekend here last weekend, and the government tried to discourage travel and various gatherings, but definitely didn’t prohibit it. There has been some criticism of that stance. I’ve been wondering, when (if any) is the optimal point for a lockdown approach? Cases have been relatively few here. Assuming a lockdown can’t be maintained forever, would locking down now only be putting off the inevitable? When the lockdown ends as it must, will a more wide-ranging spread be unavoidable at some point? Or is it a case of the later the better for some reason? Maybe Sweden is approaching the point where the lockdown decision has to be made.

No. That’d be Norway.

Though in this context Iceland might be a better choice, since Iceland and the Faroe Islands are so far the most effective at testing their populations for Covid-19.

A non-religious country doing X doesn’t mean non-religion caused X. The same applies to religious people doing X and religion causing X. However, when it’s specifically religion that causes a religious person to do X, then it’s fair to say religion causes X, don’t you think?

In the article Patrick linked to the front-and-center example was a woman who said she wasn’t social distancing because she believed Jesus would protect her. There’s a direct connection between her religious beliefs and her lack of social distancing.

Can you find a similar link between Sweden’s irreligiousness and not mandating isolation measures?


No. That would be a logic fallacy, aka cherry-picking. There are millions of Christian “religious people” who just as adamantly insist that the Bible commands them to “obey the laws of land” and thereby respect social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19. (Pastor Rick Warren was one of countless pastors who made that very statement. I could name many others.)

In fact, based on both media reports and reports from denominations, fellowships of churches, and individual churches, those groups of “religious people” who observe social distancing FAR OUTNUMBER those who reject social distancing. Remember: News reports tend to focus on the outrageous exceptions—not those people who reflect the less interesting norm. That’s why the defiant pastor in the Fox News report @Patrick cited is getting so much attention. The thousands of pastors who are advocating the closing of their churches as well as consistent social distancing—as well as Libertarians and Swedes—just aren’t as newsworthy for most Americans.

So, no, you can’t cherry-pick and blame “religion” for those minority cases where you are outraged by what a “religious person” does and then ignore what the far more numerous religious persons do as prompted by their religious beliefs. In any scientific investigation, that kind of cherry-picking would be strongly condemned.

You could just as easily create the headline: “More lives saved by religious people: Millions obey the Bible by observing social distancing regulations.” (Which gets better ratings: “Dog bites man.” or “Man bites dog.”?)


I think people may not be getting the full picture here. As a Swede, I’m pretty used to my country being used as a positive or negative example on all kinds of issues and Covid-19 is clearly not an exception. I see the Swedish response to the pandemic being described as laxe or laissez-faire but very little in the way of analysis of the reasoning behind the policies or any insight into the workings of Swedish society. The Swedish Covid-19 policies are different that in most comparable countries, to be sure - but they are considered policies based on science and knowledge of Swedish culture.

Every country is unique in its own way. Sweden is a special case in that we are (perhaps sadly) rather good at social distancing even under normal circumstances. We have a higher percentage of single-person households than almost any other country (almost half of our households consist of one person). We are also very age-segregated, partly due to the fact that our youngsters leave home earlier than in most European countries. We are famously (infamously?) socially distant at the best of times - personal independence and respect for the personal space of others are typical Swedish traits. Much of this is normally held up as negatives but is now working to our advantage. Add to this that most Swedes have access to a fast internet connection and many of us (myself included) have the possibility of working from home and we have a situation where recommendations rather than direct orders may just be enough to achieve a high dgree of social distancing. There’s also a clear reluctance to impose rules that may be very difficult to enforce.

Another Swedish quirk is our unusually high confidence in our authorities. We tend to generally trust our elected officials and the experts that are advising them. This works both ways - the Swedish government proposes measures for social distancing that are very similar to other countries but they do it in the form of recommendations rather than decrees, placing a high degree of trust in the Swedish people to behave responsibly. There is also a centuries-old tradition in Sweden of fiercly independent government agencies. Any attempt by a cabinet member to override or in any way interfere with the workings of an agency is immediately branded as “ministerial rule” which is a potentially career-ending no-no. I think it’s safe to say that our counterpart to the CDC is basically running this show.

Easter will be a big test of this mutual trust between the people and the government. We may not be very religious but we appreciate having a few days off from work and visit family. Easter is traditionally the biggest travelling holiday in Sweden after Christmas and Midsummer. The government’s recommendation is clear: don’t travel unless you have to. Even our king made a rare address to his people with the same recommendation: there will be other Easters - stay home for this one.

I believe the Swedish Covid-19 approach should be seen as a balancing act between on the one hand keeping the number of hospitalized patients at a level that is manageable for our healthcare system and protecting high-risk groups (mainly the elderly) and on the other hand trying to come as close as possible to reaching herd immunity in time for the second wave of infections that is likely to come after the summer. The decision to keep primary and pre-schools open along with bars and restaurants (although with recommendations against crowding) is in line with this thinking. It’s noteworthy that the public health authorities in both Norway and Denmark advised their governments to keep primary and pre-schools open but were overruled - a reflection of a clear difference in the relationship between the government and its agencies.

A very effective lockdown can in some ways become a victim of its own success. A lockdown can’t last forever and if a large part of the population hasn’t been infected when the lockdown is lifted, there’s a huge potential for a second wave of infection. We’re all hoping that we’ll have effective drugs and/or a vaccine at that point but there’s of course no guarantee of that. Whether the Swedish Covid-19 policies are sensible or misguided, we probably won’t know until at leat the end of this year.

For a Swedish (and perhaps slightly rose-tinted) counter-view, this article may be of interest:


Welcome to the Peaceful Science forum, @Radix. And thanks for providing a very informative and well-reasoned perspective on what is happening in Sweden!

By the way, just to reiterate the point, I started this thread and cited the news story about Sweden as a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to @Patrick’s “More deaths caused by religion” thread. We could just as easily apply the same logic fallacies with a headline about Sweden which says “More deaths caused by democracy” or “More deaths caused by economic concerns.”


We have a winner.


Thanks @AllenWitmerMiller ,

Just wanted to give some perspective from someone “on the inside”. For people who only read headlines and skim the rest, it’s easy to get the impression that Sweden is running some kind of reckless experiment, disregarding the safety of its citizens. This is clearly not the case - the people in charge are epidemiologists who keep a close eye on developments both in Sweden and abroad. If they were to see the numbers starting to deviate significantly from their projections, they wouldn’t hesitate to change tack - and the government would follow their new recommendations.

The notion that Swedens’s strategy is an experiment while the more drastic measures in some other countries are not seems questionable to me. As far as I know, we’ve never tried isolating entire populations this way before, at least not in modern times. To some extent, we’re all experimenting. In some countries with a more severe lockdown, we can already see the law of unintended consequences at work with noticeable increases in e.g. domestic abuse. The long-term economic consequences won’t be fully known for a long time.


Yes, an important point. I wonder also about mental health implications and even potential suicides. We all find ourselves part of a vast social experiment.


@Radix, I understand what you’re saying. In the UK the goal isn’t to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which is known to be unachievable, but to slow it down enough that the health service doesn’t get overwhelmed.* If the Swedish experts think Swedes are naturally sufficiently insular that the virus will only spread slowly, then I agree there’s no need for formal pressure to self-isolate.

*I’m not sure we’re achieving this goal.

Dunno, you tell me?

As a non-Swede living in Sweden without being particularly immersed in the culture, so to speak, thanks for the insight. To the best of my knowledge, the situation in Sweden isn’t too bad at the moment, relatively speaking, the exception being some parts of Stockholm.

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I’ve noticed that some atheism-promoting websites praise Sweden, some praise Norway, and some praise “Scandinavian countries” as their favorite example of “non-religious” people groups. Your mileage may vary.

For example, at Atheist Alliance, they cite Secular World: A Positive Voice for Atheism:

The most non-religious country in Europe is Sweden where less than 20% of the population claims to be religious.

It would be cherry picking if I said “the net effect of religion has been to cause people to reject social distancing”. I haven’t said that, and I don’t imagine Patrick would say it either, but he can correct me if I’m wrong.

As far as I can tell, the argument being made is simply that religion can and is leading some people to do stupid and dangerous things. Not that religion is necessarily a net negative force during this pandemic.
I have to wonder though, how many people are really social distancing because of the bible passages about “obeying the laws of the land”? That seems a bit of stretch to me. It’s not as though non-religious people, lacking a belief in that passage, are social distancing any less than religious people, is it? (Obviously there’s no data on this, but it seems unlikely.) I think for a majority of religious people, they’re not thinking about their religion when they consider whether or not to take part in social distancing.


That was certainly Coyne’s implication.

If you are going to object to @AllenWitmerMiller’s post, you should object to Coyne’s. That was it seems @AllenWitmerMiller’s point.


Glad my post was of some use. Yes, we seem to be doing reasonably well atm. My main critique of the Swedish Covid-19 response is that we’ve been far too slow in ramping up the testing but the signals from the people in charge is that this is about to change.

Agreed! And that is one of my major points. A few defiant pastors are getting publicity by claiming Jesus will protect. Meanwhile, millions of religious people practice social distancing because they believe their religion requires them to obey the laws of the land. Also meanwhile, tens of millions and even hundreds of millions of religious people are practicing social distancing simply because that is what everybody else is doing.

There is a tendency in our society to look for simple cause-and effect (especially when there is an agenda.) But people tend to be far more complex and diverse than that. They make choices based on a wide variety of factors: religious, political, economic, cultural, peer-pressures, social status, tribalism, etc. And we can’t always assume that someone’s stated reason is the actual reason—though inner motives and thought processes are obviously subject to uncertainty when we try to assess the choices of others. Indeed, a number of politicians who cite various noble motivations for their decisions during this crisis may, in fact, only be doing what they think will keep them popular and get them re-elected.

I think we can all agree on this:

Now, if we substitute the variable X for “religion” in your statement, we have an even broader and equally accurate statement:

. . . X can and is leading some people to do stupid and dangerous . . . things

Other values for X include:

“The enjoyment of a wild spring break”
“Economic self-interest”
“Political advantage”
“The natural human craving for social interaction”

… and even:

“Comfort food stress-eating”
“Mary-Janes and a bad case of the munchies”

. . . can be legitimate values for X in the above generalized statement.

Religious motivations are among the many many types of human motivations for making a particular choice instead of some other. Those motivations can have positive outcomes or negative outcomes depending on the situation.


Do you think that’s the case though? That millions of religious people wondered whether or not they should social distance, but then they remembered that the bible says to obey the laws of the land and so decided to social distance? I really struggle to believe that many people at all had that thought process.

Yes, I agree. I don’t think anyone would ever suggest that religion is the only thing capable of driving people to do stupid or dangerous things.