There has been a sharp decline in the number of babies baptised in Finland. According to statistics from the Population Register Centre and the Lutheran Evangelical Church, only three-out-of-five babies born by August this year had been baptised.
According to a new survey on baptism, there are two key reasons for this decline. First, there has been a decrease in church membership in Finland for some time, and those that leave the church generally do not baptise their children. Second, even current church members do not consider baptisms to be the only available option for their children.
"According to the baptism survey conducted early this year, an important reason for not baptising children is that parents do not want to make the decision for the child. The idea is that the child can make the decision about their baptism themself once they get older. This reinforces the child’s own decisions about religion," Hanna Salomäki, director of the Church Research Institute, said.
Another key reason behind not baptising children is that the parents themselves are not church members.
"The difference in the prevalence of these two reasons is currently insignificant. Children making their own choices about baptism and parents not belonging to the church are almost equally responsible for the child not being baptised," Salomäki added.
Significant regional differences
Salomäki pointed out that the percentage of babies baptised in Finland was very high in the past; amounting to some 90 percent.
"In the early 2000s, the percentage dropped so much, that about ten years ago, four-fifths of children were baptised. After that, there was an acceleration in the decline of baptisms. Last year, just less than 65 percent of all babies born in Finland were baptised."
The decline has been particularly sharp this year: only 60.4 percent of babies were baptised from January to July. There are significantly major regional differences in the rate of baptisms, however.
"In the Oulu diocese, which includes Lapland, more than 80 percent of babies were baptised last year. Helsinki is at the other extreme of the nine dioceses. The number of babies baptised there was more than 40 percent," Salomäki said.
The percentage of babies receiving the sacrament in northern Finland is therefore double that of the capital city.
There are also marked differences in the baptism rates of cities compared to the countryside. "Generally, the number of baptisms are higher in rural parishes than in cities," said Salomäki.
Christianity "still strong" in the north
"The percentage of baptisms in Helsinki surely reflects the decreased attachment people feel towards the church," Aki Niemi, a statistician from the parish union, said.
The general assumption is that young fathers are primarily responsible for the decreasing number of baptisms, as young men make up the largest population of those that have left the church.
Recent statistics from Helsinki do not seem to support this assumption. "In Helsinki more women left the church than men did last year," Niemi noted.
Veijo Koivula, director of the parish regional registry in Oulu, said that the high rate of baptisms in the diocese was reflective of the role that religion plays in the lives of people in northern Finland.
"Of course the fact that Christianity retains a very strong status in the Oulu diocese region has a big impact on the number of baptisms. Baptisms are considered perfectly normal here."
Koivula stressed that parents, as well as extended family members, play a role in determining whether or not the child gets baptised. "What people in the neighborhood or a small village think could also have an impact," he said.
Koivula revealed, however, that the number of baptisms in the north has also decreased, just as leaving the church has become more common.
"There is such a trend, but it also gives us work [swaying them in the other direction]," Koivula said.