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Helsinki leads trend to bypass baptism

Four-fifths of kids are baptised in the north, compared to fewer than half in the capital region.

Pappi antaa kasteen vauvalle ristiäisissä
In 2019, 62 percent of babies born in Finland were baptised, down from 80 percent in 2010. Image: Mika Kanerva / Yle

While the number of babies christened has fallen nationwide, the tradition is clearly practiced more commonly in the north than in the south, new data show.

Last year, 62 percent of babies born in Finland were baptised in the Lutheran Evangelical Church, down considerably from 2010, when the proportion was 80 percent. However, according to Veli-Matti Salminen of the Church Research Institute, the popularity of baptism in Finland varies depending on location.

"The situation in the capital region is very different than around Oulu, for example. Last year the Helsinki diocese baptised roughly 40 percent of children born and about 79 percent were baptised in the Oulu diocese," Salminen noted.

The Oulu diocese is a large area stretching from central Ostrobothnia to Lapland. Salminen said that the overall decline in baptism may have been influenced by the fact that fewer people in Finland belong to the church. Different generations also practice their faith in different ways.

Church membership is lowest among 30-34 year-olds, 54 percent of whom belong to the institution. About 70 percent of the entire population belong and pay taxes to the church.

Helsinki a frontrunner

In Helsinki the popularity of baptism has declined rapidly. Twenty years ago 73 percent of children born in the capital were baptised, while 10 years ago, the proportion was roughly 55 percent. In 2019, that number had fallen to 40 percent, according to Helsinki Cathedral dean Marja Heltelä.

Heltelä said there are many reasons that children are not baptised as much in Helsinki as in other parts of Finland, in relation to the population.

"All trends happen first in Helsinki. We are also frontrunners in this area," she commented.

According to Heltelä, many young people move from other parts of the country to Helsinki, which has the highest number of people who quit the church. Multiculturalism is also very important in Helsinki and more than 20 percent of babies in the capital are born to parents who speak languages other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi, she noted.

"We have also noticed that if one parent is Lutheran and the other is Orthodox or Catholic, the child is usually baptised into the Christian faith but then either joins the Catholic or Orthodox Church. This has become more common over the past 20 years," she observed.

Baptism decision based on tradition

National Church Council specialist Katri Vappula said that the decision to baptise a child is based primarily on tradition--the desire to have a christening celebration and to have godparents for a child. Just under half of the parents of kids to be baptised said they considered belief to be important: they wanted their children to grow up Christian.

"Others justified the decision to christen their children by saying that they could later decide whether or not they wanted to remain in the church," Vappula added.

Meanwhile Salminen said that not wanting to decide for their children was clearly the most common reason for not baptising babies. According to a survey by the research centre, 75 percent of parents who did not baptise their infants last year said they wanted to leave a possible decision on church membership to the children themselves.

In other cases, in many families, one parent is not a member of the church and may not want to baptise their children. Some survey respondents also mentioned their worldview: one or both parents don’t see themselves as religious or have tenuous ties to the church.

Roughly 1,000 adults from families with children and at least one parent belonging to the church responded to the church survey. "In families where one family member belongs to the church, children are more likely to be baptised if the mother is also a member of the church," Salminen explained.

According to Finland’s freedom of religion laws, guardians should together decide on their child’s religion.

Peer pressure to be confirmed

Last year more than 16,000 people joined the church. Nearly half of them belonged to the 20-year-old age group. In Finland, about 80 percent of 14-15 year-olds attend confirmation classes and a large number of them have not been baptised. Salminen said the participation of children who are not baptised is usually due to peer pressure.

"On the other hand it says something that every year more than 800 young people who do not belong to the church are baptised alongside confirmation," Salminen noted.

Joining the Lutheran Church requires members to be baptised and confirmed. Salminen said that in 2019, just under 200 people participated in adult confirmation classes, which can be flexibly arranged.

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