Meet Björn Ulvaeus, Swedish humanist

Meet Björn Ulvaeus, Swedish humanist

ONE of Sweden’s best-known cultural figures is a member of the Swedish Humanist Association (an IHEU member organisation).

Björn Ulvaeus is instantly recognisable to most Swedes and many others as one of the four members of the pop super-group Abba.Together with his fellow Abba member Benny Andersson, he wrote the musicals Chess and Kristina. Now he is involved with the hit musical Mamma Mia! which has been seen by 25 million people around the world.

Chairman of the Swedish Humanist Association, Christer Sturmark, recently interviewed Ulvaeus for the magazine Humanisten about religion, politics and his humanist view of life.

Ulvaeus began by saying:

I have noticed how religion is becoming a power in politics, and is also competing with the scientific way of thinking. That worries me. I have always been a huge friend of ‘the Enlightenment’ and of science. When I saw irrational, religious conservative values and hostility against science influencing society, I searched for an organisation dealing with these questions.

I miss those days when people believed in science and common sense, as they did in the fifties and sixties. Now fundamentalism and contempt for science seem to be spreading. I believe that religion should be totally separated from the state. That’s not the way it is today, not even in Sweden.

For hundreds of years we have struggled to achieve a secular society, and now we seem to be going backwards. I find it quite astonishing that more women don’t stand up to these questions.

I believe that religious faith schools are highly dubious. I also think that it’s absurd that organisations that have secular aims, for example the Swedish Humanist Association, don’t get the same government grants as organisations that hold services, Perhaps we should start holding gatherings where we pay our respect to Voltaire!

He added:

Contempt for science may have arisen because science hasn’t been able to solve many of our basic problems, for example environmental pollution or the problems of HIV and AIDS. This is the worst disease of our time, and scientists are lost. I believe that many people become disappointed with science when the answers we need are not delivered.

I also believe that the atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction show that science can be used in evil ways.

Addressing the issue of religious fundamentalism, this he said might be due to globalisation, and the fact that many people feel insecure in a
rapidly-changing world.

In crises of identity people often turn to their religious origins.

Ulvaeus described himself as:

An agnostic, leaning towards atheism. I don’t have, and I think I cannot have, a clear view of God’s existence. I do not believe in the god that is
described in the Middle East religions or in any other religions for that matter. I’m not denying that there is something out there, but I don’t think that we should try to explain and understand what it might be.

If atheism means that you’re categorically denying God’s existence, I wouldn’t go that far. I would like to say I’m a ‘freethinker’, a better word than both agnostic and atheist. Maybe it should be reintroduced in our modern vocabulary.

Asked where he thought the dividing-line was between freedom of religion and freedom of speech and human rights, Ulvaeus replied:

I am so incredibly tired of giving respect to a lot of delusions and crazy ideas just because they are regarded as religious. Private faith should, of course, be respected, but it can’t be allowed to influence society or other people. Where do you draw the line between superstition and religion? If you bear in mind that we are living on a small planet in a solar system at the edge of a small galaxy at the edge of the universe, it might be a slight exaggeration to state: ‘We have the answer!’

All religions claim to be the correct and genuine one. It’s just too much for me. I think it’s important that you should be able to criticise and analyse religions, the same way that you can criticise opinions and values. Religious people must learn to cope with that.

He added:

The UN declaration on human rights must always take precedence over religious beliefs or cultural differences. It seems to me that this isn’t explicitly stated by our politicians today. Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being. I believe that politicians in Sweden are too cautious in emphasising this, probably out of fear of being regarded as discriminating against non-democratic cultures.


Cultural diversity is always worth striving for, but it must never trump the declaration of human rights. There are brave representatives of other cultures and religions around the world who take active parts in fighting for human rights, for instance Ayaan Hirsi Ali [abve] of Somalia, who fled to the Netherlands. She wrote the book Demand your Right! about the repression of Muslim women.

Those kinds of spokesmen and women from the Muslim world should be taken better care of in the political debate today. She is saying clearly that most politicians are beating about the bush when approaching these issues because they are so afraid of being politically incorrect.

I think that it is mostly Western and left-leaning liberals who take up that attitude. I consider myself being a social liberal, but on this subject even the Swedish liberals are too careful and scared. Hirsi Ali believes that ‘to avoid voicing your opinion’ is the worst thing you could do to women in the Muslim world.

I also think it’s disrespectful to the Arab culture, implying ‘they are Arabs, you can’t discuss human rights with them’. Of course we should have the same dialogue with Muslims about human rights as we have with others. Also many Muslims are no more religious then the average Swede. For them it’s natural that human rights come first.

Describing his own path to humanism, Ulvaeus revealed that he had:

A short flirtation with religion in my youth, when I studied the Bible. When I was about 15 I read Dan Andersson’s novel David Ramm’s Heritage,
about a young man, David, who was pondering over existential and religious questions. When I read that novel, I thought I would also like to be a brooder and severe. But it was merely a pose.

The school and the music started to take over my life and I didn’t have time trying to be severe and pondering.

I believe I didn’t really start thinking about religion until 15 years ago. I got interested in why religion existed and why human beings were in such need of it. I wondered about the religious questions which started being asked such a long time ago. Who were the storytellers and why did they tell them?

Perhaps in order to achieve power and influence. It must have been a very good way of achieving that if you didn’t have soldiers and armies at your


In the Swedish translation of the musical Mamma Mia one can trace your outlook on life. I’m thinking of the song ‘Thank
You For The Music’ translated to Swedish as Tack för alla sånger. You obviously dissociate yourself from religion in the lyrics.

(The Swedish lyrics are presented here in a direct translation back to English: “…Thanks for all the songs, words and tunes, who needs religion?
We can do without that, but imagine if music didn’t exist, not anywhere. Everybody needs a song and a dance …”).

“Did you have a deliberate intention with those words?” Christer asked.

Ulvaeus replied:

I thought we could do like John Lennon did in ‘Imagine’ and sneak in a statement. He wrote ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too.’ It is sung in churches and nobody objects to the wish for a ‘world without religion’.

I wrote the Swedish version of ‘Thank You For The Music’ with Niklas Strömstedt, and we were both prepared for the fact that it would cause
reactions. But not one single complaint has been made! Not one single letter of complaint!

Asked about political developments in the US in the light of President Bush’s distinct religious beliefs, Ulvaeus said:

It is very distressing. The US should have been our allies in the fight for secularisation. The struggle against terrorism is weakened if it’s regarded as a battle between Islamic and Christian fundamentalists.

But, at the same time, I don’t think the American people are as religious as they seem. When they answer in various surveys that they believe in God, it makes me wonder if it’s simply a routine answer.

The church in America is also very much a social institution. Let’s hope that a Democrat will win the election after Bush, perhaps Hillary

• This article first appeared in the September, 2006, edition of the Freethinker. You can read a later article about him here.

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