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The Religions in Finland Project

Kimmo Ketola & Tuomas Martikainen


Religious diversity has increased in Finland at an increasing pace during the past five decades. At the moment 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 in the near future (Heino, 1997, Kääriäinen, Niemelä & Ketola, 2005).

The Religions in Finland Project is a joint effort of the Church Research Institute and the Research Network for the Study of New Religions in Finland (USVA). Its aim is to collect information on religious communities operating in Finland. The main purpose of the project is to create a permanent and continuously updated digital database and information service for researching religious communities and studying religious change in Finland. The project is conducted in co-operation with several national university departments, mainly those of comparative religion and theological disciplines.

The project creates an electronic platform for mapping, describing and analysing religious diversity in the country. As such, it continues the work other national and local religious mapping projects. The largest of these have been the religion handbooks of Harri Heino (1985, 1997) and The Religious Field of Turku Project (Junnonaho, 1981, Martikainen, 1996, 2004). The main difference to these earlier efforts is a more systematic and comprehensive approach, as will be explained in the following.

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. 

Background, organisation and schedule

The research network USVA started to prepare for the project in fall 2003. Tuomas Martikainen started to plan the project in fall 2004 with the help of a grant obtained from the Church Research Institute. In this initial phase expert meetings, literature and Internet surveys were conducted in order to find out of collaboration partners, similar existing projects as well as inspiration for the structure of the database. Perhaps the most well known similar effort is the Pluralism Project ( at Harvard University, even though its scope is mainly religious groups of migrant origin. The database and the Internet site were designed by Mika Lassander in the fall 2005. His work was funded by the Ministry of Education and the Church Research Institute.

In January 2006, the administrative responsibility of the project was transferred to the responsibility of the Church Research Institute which provided one of its researchers, Kimmo Ketola, to be the coordinator of the entire project. Ketola had been involved with the project previously as the chair of the USVA network. The Church Research Institute is part of the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and one of its ongoing tasks is to provide information on the religious situation in Finland.

The project staff was divided into a management team and an advisory group of experts. The management team consists of three researchers: Dr. Kimmo Ketola, Dr. Tuomas Martikainen and MA Mika Lassander. Ketola is working as the project coordinator at the Church Research Institute. All three together are responsible for the planning of the database. Lassander works as the technical expert of the team and is responsible for the programming of the database.

The project team includes a larger group of advisors from various fields of expertise. Thus all the major religious traditions have an expert that is responsible for the accuracy of the published information.

The pilot phase of the project was begun in January 2006 and lasted until the end of June 2006. During that time the various problems of the database were fixed so that the database is now fully operational. During fall 2006 the project shifts into the phase of intensive information gathering. This will be conducted by the full time workers at the Church Research Institute with the help of a number of students in various departments in Finnish universities.

Principles and guidelines

The Religion in Finland Project aims to collect a systematically structured database of all religious organisations currently operating in 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.

‘Reliability’, in turn, means that the sources for all the information collected in the database will be documented as carefully as possible. This procedure serves as a means for ensuring the reliability through providing means for cross-checking and further inquiry.

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 some kind of 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.

Descriptive categories and the structure of the database

The description of each community included into the database is based upon phenomenological categories. The categorisation is based upon the seven dimensions religion developed by the religious studies scholar Ninian Smart (e.g. 1992). These are the (1) doctrinal and philosophical, (2) narrative and mythic, (3) ethical and legal, (4) practical and ritual, (5) experiential and emotional, (6) social and institutional, and (7) material and economic dimensions. In addition to these phenomenological categories the (8) historical or diachronic aspect is naturally also covered.

These phenomenological dimensions of religiosity provide the basic structure of the database with the exception that the first two (doctrinal and narrative dimensions) have been put together into a single category. The project thus aims to gather information on each of the seven broad topics for each religious community. For each of these topics, the project team has developed a structured questionnaire that forms a distinct table in the database. Each of the seven questionnaire forms has been devised by using the most up to date theoretical and conceptual tools available in the scholarly literature.

The questionnaires include both open-ended and closed-ended questions. Qualitative descriptive and historical information is of course vital for the entire project and for this purpose the database includes many open fields for data input. However, closed-ended questions with fixed alternatives have also been used as far as possible. The advantage of using fixed alternatives is that the information can thus more easily be coded and analysed in quantitative terms for comparative purposes.

In addition of these seven sets of information to be filled on each organisation, the database also includes few important auxiliary tables. The foremost of these is called “religious traditions” and it is used for the inclusion of the basic information on each of the main religious traditions such as Christianity or Islam so that the common elements in each particular community need not be needlessly repeated. In this way one may concentrate on the features that make each community within a broader tradition distinctive.

The religious communities listed into the database have been classified under the religious traditions they represent through historical background. These include ten categories:

  1. Primal religions and Pagan traditions
  2. Buddhism
  3. Hinduism
  4. Islam
  5. Judaism
  6. Christianity
  7. East Asian traditions
  8. Western esoteric traditions and the New Age
  9. Modern religions
  10. Sikhism

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. For this purpose the database includes short synopses of the ten main traditions listed above.

The second important auxiliary table is for the purpose of including more detailed biographical information on important religious founders and influential individuals. Again, this is for the purpose of not having to repeat the biographical information in all groups that trace their community to the same founder figure.

Further auxiliary tables exist for the purpose of entering information on the sources and data editors so that all the information included into the database can be traced to its original source. References and bibliographies are made in conventional academic forms and all individuals responsible for entering the data can be retrospectively identified.

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.

The main purpose of the project is to serve academic researchers of religion by providing systematically collected data on Finnish religious movements and communities. In addition to this, the project aims to publish its findings in various forms. The Internet site is already functioning and it provides short descriptions with some basic data of approximately 600 distinct religious organisations. In the future, some of the data is going to be published also in the forms of books written or edited by scholars of religion.

A project of this magnitude easily reveals gaps in our knowledge that further co-operation both within the study of religion and between different academic disciplines. The phenomenological approach to religion covers such wide areas that few individuals can alone handle it. While the data collection is only at its beginnings, it is evident that close partnership with university departments is a prerequisite for comprehensive data collection. We are yet to meet the challenges of its long-term organisation. In any case, the project has already and most likely will continue to foster the identification of gaps in research, promote novel approaches and become an invaluable asset in teaching and research as well as in spreading information for the general public and media.


Heino, Harri. 1986. Mihin Suomi uskoo. Porvoo: WSOY.

Heino, Harri. 1997. Mihin Suomi tänään uskoo. Porvoo: WSOY.

Junnonaho, Martti. 1981. Turun uskonnollinen tarjonta. Turku: Turun yliopisto.

Kääriäinen, Kimmo; Niemelä, Kati & Ketola, Kimmo. 2005. Religion in Finland. Tampere: Church Research Institute.

Martikainen, Tuomas. 1996. Moniarvoinen Turku: Käsikirja uskonnollisista, maailmankatsomuksellisista ja etnisistä yhteisöistä. Åbo: Åbo Akademi.

Martikainen, Tuomas. 2004. Immigrant Religions in Local Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives in the City of Turku. Åbo: Åbo Akademy University Press.

Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© The Religions in Finland Project