Björn Ulvaeus interview: Artist and atheist

The following translation appears on icethesite courtesy of Ruth Harris who translated the article instead of getting on with studying for her A-levels!!  Ruth, thanks a million.

Artist and Atheist

“This is our time’s absolute most important question.” Björn Ulvaeus has long been concerned about the increasing religious fundamentalism and extremism in the world. He felt that he wanted to do something, ought to do something. Now he has decided to say what he thinks. He does this in this Vi-interview. But he doesn’t escape the tax affair…

Sometimes it doesn’t really turn out like you imagine.

I’m going to meet Björn Ulvaeus to talk religion. Fundamentalism. In some ways there is a taboo in western society that prevents a critical discussion about the texts that large parts of the world’s population regard as holy. Texts that get some people to voluntarily kill themselves along with the innocent. Texts that get the USA’s president to agree with the demand that Darwin’s theory of evolution should be taught in schools just as a theory alongside other theories which presume an intelligent designer behind the universe.

I’m extremely tired of how you should feel respect towards a mass of delusions just because they’re called religion! – Björn Ulvaeus

Björn Ulvaeus has been a member of the Humanist society for several years, a movement that promotes a secular, reason-based attitude to life with respect for human dignity as it is expressed in the UN’s declaration of human rights, and he is a devout atheist. Before this interview he had agonised for a long time. He is what he is, an ex-ABBA member, lyrics writer, family man – not in any way a representative for an organisation. But he is passionate about something. For the first time in his life, he says, he has a gut feeling that he must, he ought to say something.

This is our time’s absolute most important issue, a pure issue of survival. The increase of religious extremism from both directions is highly dangerous, yet so few dare to question the basis for these ideas—faith. I’ve felt for a long time that I ought to do something, but I’ve held back because of fear of what reactions it would raise if I came out and said something. My family or I could be a target for some madman, but then … I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

I realised that actually I could say something, and then I just felt so strong – well, do it then!

Though the timing could be better for Björn. Four days before the interview the front page of Dagens Nyheter is “Abba-Björn is accused of tax evasion of 87 million kronor”

No wonder that he seems nervous when we meet, at the agreed time, at his home on an island outside Djursholm. His hands actually shake a little when we sit down in the beautiful living room, he in an armchair, I in a soft white sofa.

The view is sea and trees in all directions, the furniture classical in a pleasant, slightly British style. Chequered armchairs, oriental carpets, many family photos on the mantlepiece, the Yorkshire terrier Oskar runs up to the sofa and greets me.

I looked at this place from when I first came to Stockholm, maybe 1968, says Björn about the house. Then I immediately thought that I wanted to live there. Imagine having your own island, a bridge and a gate that you can shut to the world around you. It came up for sale maybe seven years ago, and then we bought it. It’s nice. Though yesterday there was a terrible storm, the wind lashed. You’re really exposed to the elements’ fury here.

He grows quiet. The chitchat is exhausted. And I have two national interests, so as not to say world interests, red-hot topics to choose between: fundamentalism or the tax business, what should we begin with?

He laughs:

I don’t want to talk about the taxes! I only want to say that the tax authorities think one thing, my advisor and I think another. We’ll have to see if it goes to court or if we come to an agreement before that, it’s nothing dramatic. This phrase “tax evasion” that was used in Dagens Nyheter, it’s not a question of that, the issue is that we have different opinions and one party will eventually be found right. It’s as simple as that.

Okay. We’ll leave that issue for a while. For to sit with a former member of ABBA, one of the world’s most successful artists (the records have sold about 360 million copies, the musical Mamma Mia! Has been seen by more than 20 million people up to now). A man who produces the same excitement abroad that an ex-Beatle would produce here – and that he really wants to say something about the state of the world – it’s big. And interesting.

For it is no simple issue he wants to focus on, one that “ordinary people” can easily agree with, like when Astrid Lindgren protected animals, or when Bono demands writing off debts for third world countries. Björn Ulvaeus does something much harder than that – he wants to shout that the emperor has no clothes. Or even God.

Most of God’s Ten Commandments are quite simple, reasonable rules for how we can live together without killing each other, it doesn’t take any supernatural wisdom to think them up. – Björn Ulvaeus

– I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of religion. It includes so many people, the majority on the globe. And people everywhere have such respect for the “truths” that the religions deliver, like those you can read in texts that are thousands of years old, like that of the virgin birth or martyrs going straight to paradise.

The interesting thing is that everything else is always changing, everything apart from this. And you can’t call this into question without the fear that you’ll offend a lot of people. But I think that the religions have such great
influence on politics and social progress that they naturally must endure the same criticism, the same scrutiny, the same discussion as all other ideologies or outlooks on life – it goes without saying. I’m extremely tired of how you should feel respect towards a mass of delusions just because they’re called religion!

What is the worst thing?

– That with religion’s help you can indoctrinate people to believe that they will go to paradise if they carry out suicide attacks against the innocent. And what we’ve seen up to now is presumably nothing compared with what could come. Iran’s president declares that he has 4000 suicide bombers ready. How do we protect ourselves from that, in an open society? Any day someone can go to Grand Central Station in New York and he doesn’t have bombs on his belt but biological weapons, a whole town is wiped out in religion’s name – I wonder: isn’t this worth discussing?

What Björn wants to discuss is not the usual “liberal and left of liberal” issues that are about how badly the west has behaved towards earlier colonies, or how we left the people in oil producing countries in the lurch with money and sheikhs who haven’t been at all interested in developing their countries in a democratic direction, or how we financed Saddam and supported the taliban on different occasions in geopolitical and economical ways, “even if I agree, of course it is so, without doubt it is so!”.

But it leads nowhere to only be self-critical. Now we must start to listen to voices like Salman Rushdie or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the moderate Muslim voices that appeal to us for help.

To show tolerance towards powers that themselves are not tolerant is totally misdirected goodwill, he says.

The young Somali-Dutch politician and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali expresses this in her book Kräv er rätt even more explicitly: that as the west doesn’t dare to criticise the oppression of women by Muslim men, or the religion’s power over thought, because people are worried about being called racist she calls quite simply “selfish”.

And of course it’s surprising that no-one in all of these years of suicide bombings took the 47th Sura of the Qur’an seriously as an example to debate, where there are verses like “And when ye meet those who misbelieve then striking off heads until ye have massacred them”, while those who obey will go to a paradise where there are “rivers of strained honey. They have all kinds of fruits therein, and forgiveness from their Lord.”

Of course there are similar passages in the Old Testament, and there are no excuses for that either, thinks Björn Ulvaeus. But in the conditions when these texts are used, and taught to poor children in countries with strong political tensions, as God’s word, as absolute truth, eventually including schools financed by terrorist-related organisations – then you must as a thinking person say something, and not cover it up with symbolic interpretations, he thinks.

– It would be very interesting to hear what a believing Muslim would say about this piece, is it God’s word? And if not, what is it? Can you choose and reject what you want of so called holy texts?

Of course Björn Ulvaeus is right. Reason and religion obviously don’t always go hand in hand. Anyone who has followed the debate about the new Swedish translation of the Bible, when the question of whether the Old Testament with its long passages about genocide sanctioned by God really should be viewed as holy, or who remembers Eva Moberg’s attack on the “psychopathic” God of the Old Testament a year or so ago, knows that these issues are certainly not debated with any great enthusiasm by the Swedish Church.

The Pope’s attitude to condoms or abortions can’t be defended against realistic discussion about public health, and President Bush’s call from God to invade Iraq and Afghanistan (he heard God’s voice in both cases) is likewise difficult to discuss rationally. Just like the reaction to the Mohammed cartoons, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, all in the name of Islam.

Björn shakes his head and now sounds for a moment like that child in the Hans Christian Anderson tale:

I’d like to know how the religions actually began, do you know anything about that? I mean how did it happen? Who was the first person who decided that there must be a creator, or ruler of some supernatural kind? I understand it, that thunderstorms and other natural phenomena that were hard to explain could be made comprehensible in this way, but I can’t help but think in such simple terms as that it was also about power. Someone who was a good storyteller, someone with a big fantasy, could spellbind the others round the campfire. This person would then notice that, wow, everyone’s listening! I can get them to believe this. I can shape realities. I can threaten with invisible powers. I have power!

Don’t you believe it too – that that’s how it was? That’s how the myths that we have retained to this day were created. Has this been methodically researched? I wonder about that.

Björn obviously agrees that the religions to a large part also have a moral message.

– But most of God’s Ten Commandments are quite simple, reasonable rules for how we can live together without killing each other, it doesn’t take any supernatural wisdom to think them up.

Then we lose ourselves for a long time in this type of discussion that inevitably emerges if someone goes so far as to call into question people’s need for religion. Is nothing holy? Don’t we need to imagine a higher meaning of life, for comfort and strength, or to protect ourselves from reason’s wandering steps? Is all that remains utilitarianism’s mathematical calculations – the most possible happiness to the most people?

What do you do if you can save four lives by killing a fifth and giving away his organs, is it right or wrong? What is the most rational? Is anything actually right or wrong? And if so, where does it come from? In brief: can you do other than feel as Kant felt, respect and wonder before the starry sky above us and the moral laws within us?

– I also believe that we all feel in the pit of our stomach that we must respect each other and also planet Earth, says Björn with hesitation, and laughs at last: I feel that I’m really vague about this actually, what it means to be a humanist… The most important thing for me is not to get your life hung up on belief in the supernatural. The only thing I must believe in is people’s capability, I have no reason to believe in anything else. But I’m not dogmatic, give me a single reliable reason to reconsider, and of course I will do, it would be stupid to refuse.

His wife Lena’s incurable leukaemia that the family has lived with for some time is not something that has got him to reconsider his conviction. He quickly gets tears in his eyes when he gets the question:

–No, that is on a personal level. The sickness can lie latent for a long time, and that is what it’s doing at the moment. But it hasn’t got me to think in religious terms. We live here and now, and you can only try to accept it as it is.

Björn has never been a believer in his life, he says, and his childhood in Västervik in Småland, not far from the Bible belt, hasn’t influenced him in these issues. He has never known any especially religious people “There’s a shortage!”, he can’t single out anything in particular, other than that the atmosphere during the fifties and sixties, when he was young, was so much more optimistic about reason and science than today. He himself would have in all likelihood become a civil engineer if he hadn’t become a popstar.

– Yes, it’s true, I’m probably the only pop artist who chose between those alternatives.

In spite of everything he took a term of Law at Stockholm University before the collaboration with Benny began, which resulted in the album Lycka (which by the way is released in a remixed version in a few days). After that the rest is history as one can say without a doubt. Björn married Agnetha and Benny married Frida, and then it was Waterloo and Mamma Mia and the Australian tour and “We want Abba” and the divorce and a tough last year, which the journalist Per Svensson once described as “a Norén play in platform shoes”.

I never imagined then that we weren’t just ephemeral, says Björn now about how Abba were transformed into part of Sweden’s cultural heritage and that the musical Mamma Mia! Now, with the same songs, brings in more money than the records ever did.

– Of course it was stupid of me really not to understand that we’d stay around, a little bit in any case. Our song catalogue is one of the most important that’s out there on the whole.

And he – son to an employee at a paper-mill in Västervik, “lower middle class”, as he himself describes it—could together with the other members of Abba turn down an offer of a billion dollars to reunite the group a few years ago. Exactly that; a billion dollars.

– Yes, it was so much money that we were forced to discuss it, but we were completely agreed that it wouldn’t be worth it. It was a conglomerate of different companies that came along with the offer—it was serious. But it meant in a big way that we’d be selling our souls. To tour and record records, do publicity, everything possible in a year. It would have taken ten years off my life without a doubt, it wasn’t worth it.

So what does money mean to you?

Freedom. That’s how it’s always been since I started to get wealthy.

Can’t you reach a point when money becomes an inconvenience as well? There’s a limit to how much one can consume.

– Yes, yes. Certain things eventually become a burden instead of the opposite. We had a big house in England where we spent maybe one week a year, but we still got calls about fences that needed repairing. But this with money, I don’t go around thinking about it daily “damn, how much money I have”, it’s not like that.

He smiles and says quickly:

– It sounds so damn… I hear how it sounds myself, in the ears of those who don’t have money, but that’s how it actually is.

Are you scared of how your image will be influenced now by the tax affair?

– My image? I think the Swedish people are quite hardened when it comes to this sort of thing.

I don’t think that they automatically assume that I have terrible tax morals because of it. And it’s so common that people have wrangles with the tax people, isn’t it?

– But, even if I think that the tax authorities are wrong, I’ll still pay the money just to show that I’m not trying to get out of anything. Then, when they’ve got the money, we can sort out who’s right or wrong in peace and quiet, and it will turn out how it turns out. I think that it can be a symbolic gesture to get people to understand that in any case I’m not one of those who tries to escape.

The tax authorities think that you can have acted correctly in every single transaction, but if the purpose of the transactions has been to avoid paying tax, it’s wrong.

– Yes, they behave like… I’ve written a song called Överheten (Authorities), sometimes it can be hard to get the better of the authorities, as everyone knows. No, I don’t want to comment on it in detail, you understand, it’s counter-productive.

But are you critical of the Swedish tax system in general?

– No, the only thing that you can be critical of, or in any case that I want to talk about, is the so-called Lex Uggla. Magnus Uggla and Henning Mankell, amongst others, have been victims of it; that they had a lot of money in a company, but that the tax authorities thought that the money should be taxed, without the authorities having any idea of what the money would be used for in the future.

This way to take no notice becomes fluffy and confusing for citizens. Even if you try to follow the letter of the law you find out later that you couldn’t do so. That’s insecure for the rights of the individual. Though maybe it works in the same way in other countries, I don’t know.

Have you had bad advisers?

Björn gives me a look and laughs.

– I don’t want to go into it. Now you can’t coax me any further, this far but no further. You got a lot there anyway, though, didn’t you?

So, we can both recover our breath. We round off with talking a little casually about good things that Björn ponders spending his money on. Något mognar snart fram” (no idea what this means), he says. And what reactions he’s got up to now to his statements about fundamentalism:

– 95 percent only positive, which in itself makes me think that those who’d really be shocked haven’t read it. Maybe it will take the mullahs in Stockholm travelling down to Iran and showing what that old bloke from Abba has written…

My last question concerns happiness – the title of Björn and Benny’s first record, the one that comes out again now. What is happiness for a man who has been successful with everything?

– I like to walk in the woods. Then you can actually be filled by something you could call happiness – a moment when it becomes magical. Or out on the sea, often. Or it can be when you laugh at something the children do, or you eat something good… Never a long, continual feeling, I think, but just what it is – what was that? Oh, it was happiness!

He grows quiet.

You didn’t mention the premieres of Mamma Mia when everyone stands up and cheers?

You’re right about that. I didn’t say that. (Silence) That was strange, why didn’t I say that?

Have you ever felt happiness on the stage?

Yes, I must have done at some time, but I remember more happiness in my professional life when Benny and I used to sit in my little cottage out on the archipelago and would think of something. And you felt – Oh damn, this is good! This bare melody so to speak, without any text, without anything on it, and it works! It’s so—Oh! You felt that this is the best thing that’s ever been made!

And it was!

Björn laughs, and now he actually looks happy, really:

– Yes, that’s right. Many of them were very good in any case.

What people are saying about Björn Ulvaeus:

Björn is a great poet. And he is a thinking person with a great interest in the existential questions. He has a sense of humour and a lot of self-irony. Before everything I like his commitment to Humanist issues. He thinks in all seriousness that they’re the most important in world politics. – Christer Sturmark, chairman of the Humanists and friend.

He’s a really pleasant person, very nice. And he has a really bad memory, he knows that about himself. I’ve known him my whole life, he’s like a big brother to me. He can be really pessimistic, thinks that everything will go badly. Like when Mamma Mia! was set up, and even worse when Kristina had its premiere, then he’d even booked a boat and a flight to escape Malmö in case it became a fiasco. Then he’s very interested in boats, and very good at driving a motorboat. – Marie Ledin, record company director, newly made director of publishing house Anderson Pocket.


Björn Ulvaeus:

  • Full name: Björn Kristian Ulvaeus.
  • Born: 1945.
  • Family: Wife Lena, children Linda, 32, and Christian, 28, with Agnetha
    Fältskog; Emma, 23, Anna, 19, grandchild Tilda.
  • Hobby: None. Will think about getting some.
  • Passes time by: ”People think that I dash about and work all the time but I
    don’t do that. I devote a lot of time to reading, watching TV, walking, and
    being with the family. Having a good time.
  • Next work project: Prepares Kristina från Duvemåla for Broadway.
    Mamma Mia! which will become a Hollywood film. ”Also maybe something
    totally new, a big project eventually. That’s the most fun!”
  • Income: 2617 000 kronor, taxable capital 28 774 000 kr (income year 2004).

To English from Swedish by Ruth Harris.

Further editing c/o

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