Discourse on Religion and the Secular in the Finnish Media

Religion has been considered as belonging to the margins of media’s interest in a relatively secular society. However, media deal with religion, sometimes directly, but often in the context of other issues. A good example is so-called ”Gay Night” – a televised debate on the status of same-sex marriage in the Finnish society, broadcasted in October 2010. Most of the discussion focused on how the Lutheran church deals with sexual minorities. The debate continued in the print media and online and soon almost 25000 people resigned from the Lutheran church.

Discourse on Religion and the Secular in the Finnish Media is a research project focusing on the formation of and changes in media discourse on religion from the end of the World War II to the present day. During the period Finnish society has changed from agrarian society to industrial and further to post-industrial society.

Earlier research has delineated the key changes in discourses on economy and politics, but this project examines discourse on religion and the secular by exploring the normative role and status given to religion in the development of Finnish society. Special attention is paid to the recent decades when Finland has become more diverse ethnically, culturally and religiously.

The longitudinal part of the project is based on the biggest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, particularly its editorials and readers’ letters. According to the data, discourse on religion changed in the late 1960s from the situation in which the role of the Lutheran church was taken for granted to “modern” claims demanding clear separation of the church and the state. However, since the 1990s, the whole debate has been framed anew according to the idea that Finland is a diverse society which forces all voices to justify themselves in media debates. These shifts reflect increased immigration and broader changes in Finnish modernisation.

Other newspapers and media outlets, including television and new media, have been analysed in selected case studies in order to understand the role of religion in the discourse on diversity. One of the case studies is abovementioned television programme ”Gay Night” and its reception in the media. It demonstrates how dominant church is internally diverse and how it has to justify its societal status in the media. Another example is the controversy around the Summer Hymn – a hymn traditionally sung in school celebrations in spring. Especially secularist minority has opposed in the media the singing of the hymn on the basis of religious neutrality in a diverse society. These cases show how the media love controversies, but, perhaps surprisingly, they are far from anti-religious in defining the normative status of religion in contemporary Finnish society.

The project started in September 2011 and will come to an end in August 2014. For more information about the author, please visit the website http://teemutaira.wordpress.com/.


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