The status of religion and religious life in Iceland today

International Atheist Conference in Reykjavik Iceland June 24 & 25, 2006
Sigurdur Holm Gunnarsson’s speech:


Dear conference participants

shg12bwI can’t help but start my presentation by telling you how delighted I am that an international atheist, Freethought and skeptics conference is taking place in Iceland for the first time. This is an historical day for us Icelanders and hopefully the beginning of fertile discussion about the importance of Freethought and rationalism in Icelandic society.

It’s also rather exciting for me personally to be able to participate in such a conference with so many distinguished individuals who are gathered together. I am an ardent admirer of most of the people who have come here to speak to us this weekend. So if I sound somewhat stressed among all of these distinguished people, it is simply because I am! As if that’s not enough pressure, I have been scheduled to speak right after Richard Dawkins, who is a hard act to follow. However, it is some consolation to me that I have information to share with you that he can’t!

In my presentation I will briefly discuss the status of religion and religious life in Iceland today. I’ll describe the main religious freedom policies of Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association. Then I’d like to tell you a bit about the religious life of Icelanders and compare it to that of Americans. I want to do this especially for those of you who are visiting Iceland and might know very little about the situation here.

After I’ve finished my talk 3 more representatives from SAMT, Sidmennt, Skeptikus, and Vantrú will join me in a panel and answer questions about these 4 different groups which make up the Freethought, Humanist, atheist and skeptic community in Iceland. These groups are all described briefly in the conference program booklet. You will also have a chance at that time to ask me for more details about anything in my talk.

Let’s start with the status of religion

As some of you may know, Iceland has a so-called state church arrangement. This means that one denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, receives special protection and support from the government over and above other religions in the country.
There are 21 registered religious organizations in Iceland and several others which have not applied for registration. Around 84% of Icelanders are members of the state church which is the largest religious organization in the land.

The Icelandic constitution specifies that the state church must be protected. In article 62 it states that:

Article 62: The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland and, as such, it shall be supported and protected by the State.

However, the following article in the constitution is in opposition to the earlier one and it states:

Article 65: Everyone shall be equal under the law and enjoy human rights irrespective of gender, religion, opinion, national origin, race, colour, property, birth, or other status.

In addition, the state church, because of its position, receives more financial support than other religions. All religious organizations in Iceland receive government funding but the state church gets considerably more money than all the others.

It should be mentioned that special Christianity education takes place in Icelandic public schools. The education authorities claim that the idea bPMind these classes is to educate children about the special role of the Christian religion in Icelandic history and culture for over 1000 years. They claim that Christianity is inextricably entwined with the history of the nation and therefore more emphasis must be placed on it than all other religions. However, experience shows that what often occurs is direct indoctrination. Siðmennt has collected many documented cases of such over the past 16 years, posted them on our website, and brought them to the attention of local and national education authorities.

Believe it or not, Iceland also has a blasphemy law which states that: “Whoever publicly ridicules or belittles religious teachings or the worship of God of any legal religions in the country shall be fined or imprisoned for as long as 3 months. The charges cannot be filed by anyone but a district attorney.”

And now a word of caution to all of my fellow speakers: PLEASE be careful of what you say while you are in Iceland.

Fortunately it is extremely rare that anyone is charged with blasphemy in Iceland despite this law still being on the books.

But it has happened. In 1997 the National Prosecutor was requested to investigate alleged blasphemy by several popular Icelandic comedians. They did a satire of The Last Supper on their Easter TV show on the State Broadcasting Network. The show evoked a lot of discussion and many people were distressed including the bishop of the state church at that time. However, after the comedy group was interrogated by the police the matter was dropped. The public thought the charge was ridiculous and people made fun of the oversensitivity on the part of the church.

However, we don’t have to go back any farther than 1983 for an example of an Icelander being found guilty of blasphemy. In that case it was an editor of a controversial publication who was charged with having published a critique of religious confirmation.

And now I’d like to tell you a little about Siðmennt and its aims

Siðmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association was founded in 1990 by several families that had participated in the first civil confirmation in Iceland in 1989. Siðmennt has played a leading role in the struggle for complete religious freedom in Iceland. Although there is freedom of religion here in the sense that everyone is free to participate in whatever type of religious activity they choose or to not be a member of any religious organization, we hardly consider this to be total religious freedom.

Siðmennt has published a detailed policy statement on religious freedom and distributed it to governmental authorities, for instance every Member of Parliament. The introduction in this booklet states the following:

“The board of Siðmennt considers that the aim of government is to guarantee freedom to individuals and protect their right to live according to the life stance that they choose for themselves. Government should be neutral, independent of religion, and should not give preferential treatment to one life stance over any others. That is why separation of church and state is necessary. Separation of church and state consists of, among other things, equalizing the legal, financial, and social status of groups which embrace different life stances. Otherwise, freedom of religion and therefore individual freedom is not guaranteed.”

Siðmennt’s main goals regarding religious freedom are to work for:
1. Separation of church and state
2. To guarantee that all religious and life stance organizations receive comparable (COM-parable) treatment by public authorities.
3. To guarantee that religious indoctrination is not practiced in public schools and other public agencies.
4. To abolish the blasphemy law since it contradicts freedom of expression.

In short, we work for equal rights and governmental neutrality.

Representatives of Siðmennt have been active in meeting with Members of Parliament, education authorities and other public officials. We have issued many resolutions and press releases and gotten a good deal of media coverage. By now the media generally describe Siðmennt in a positive light. Moreover we have noticed that many liberal clergymen within the state church support our positions.

Year after year polls have shown that around 65% of the nation is in favor of separation of church and state. Those who express themselves publicly agree almost unanimously that Humanist life stance organizations such as Siðmennt should receive the same public support as religious organizations.

The struggle for separation of church and state and equal rights is going fairly well in my opinion, but is too slow. Most Icelanders today seem to understand the necessity of having a clear line between religious and secular authority.

Fortunately, most Icelanders are well educated, broad-minded, and tolerant. This is apparent from the widespread, general support among Icelanders for gay rights and great tolerance for various forms of cohabitation. Very few people doubt a woman’s right to abortion and I have never met a single person in Iceland who thinks that creationism should be taught in public schools as science.

It simply does not happen in Iceland that public officials and other civil servants discuss their religious views openly or make decisions based on their religious views. I am quite sure that the Icelandic public would not be pleased if their public officials were to start doing that. The reason for this is that few Icelanders are Christian except in name.

This brings me to the subject of the religious life of Icelanders

Even though a huge majority of Icelanders or 95% are members of Christian congregations, among which 84% are in the state church, Icelanders are generally disinterested in religious matters and there is very little religious fervor in Iceland.

In fact, despite 95% of the population being in Christian congregations, a new survey commissioned by the state church showed that only around 50% call themselves Christian. In this survey done in 2004, it was evident that only 69.3% answered the question “Do you consider yourself religious or not?” in the affirmative. Those who said they were believers were then asked what they believe.
Only 76.3% of those people said they are Christian.
22.4% said they subscribe to a private, personal belief.
According to these state church figures, it appears that only 53% of Icelanders consider themselves Christian. Still, paradoxically enough, 95% of Icelanders are registered in Christian congregations.

When Icelanders are asked what they believe about God, 39.4% say that “There is a loving God to whom we can pray”. Notice that this idea of God is quite general, can apply to any religion, and is in no way a specifically Christian idea.

26.2% say that ”There is no other God than the one that human beings have created”. The unavoidable conclusion here is that just over one quarter of Icelanders who are questioned, are atheists.

An additional 19.7% say “We have no certainty that God exists”. Thus another one fifth of the nation is skeptics or agnostics.

19.2% say that “God must exist; otherwise life would have no purpose.” And only 9.4% say “God created the world and runs it.”
9.7% say they can’t answer the question.

Thus, one can say that only 10% of Icelanders believe in God as described in the Bible, as the creator of heaven and earth. Most of those who believe in God appear to simply believe in some undefined loving force.

These results are completely consistent with earlier research about the religious life of Icelanders which showed that Icelanders are not particularly religious, and hardly Christian in the traditional sense. Earlier surveys showed that only 10-30% of Icelanders accept the basic dogma of the church unconditionally. Furthermore only about one third of the nation considers Jesus Christ to be their savior. Only a few less or one quarter of the population, believe in the existence of elves and the hidden people.

More than half of all Icelanders, considerably more than those who believe Jesus to be their savior, are convinced that it is possible to communicate with dead people during séances. That belief is of course in opposition to traditional Christian teachings.

A large majority of Icelanders or 80% believe in some kind of life after death but only 14% think that after death a person rises up to heaven to dwell with God. But as you know, that is precisely what classical Christianity teaches.

You might find it amusing to learn that only 8% of Icelanders believe in the existence of the devil and even fewer, or 6%, believe in the existence of hell. I suspect that 2% of Icelanders think that the devil is homeless!

According to my information there is a huge difference between the religious life of Icelanders and Americans, for example. The newest surveys show that the overwhelming majority of Americans consider Jesus to be their savior and 68% of Americans believe in the devil.

42% of Americans seem to believe that “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil.”

70% of Americans believe in hell.

The same survey also shows that only 13% of Americans believe that “Man developed, but God had no part in process”

36% say that “Man developed, with God guiding”
And
46% believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

In Iceland we have the opposite situation. Almost everyone considers the biblical creation story to be an entertaining myth, not a fact. Only about 2% of Icelanders believe in the creation story. So we see that the status of Christianity is quite variable in different parts of the world.

Thus it should not surprise you that Icelanders are not particularly pious.

Nearly half of all Icelanders or 43% never go to church. Never!

15.9% say they go once a year.
17.4% go 2-3 times a year, and
13.8% go between 4 and 11 times a year.

Only 10% of Icelanders go to church once a month or more often and no more than 2% go once a week.

Icelandic churches, which are financed by the government, are usually half empty except on the major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter.

We have a little joke here in Iceland that says Icelanders go to church 4 times in their lives and they have to be carried in on 2 of those occasions.

You might wonder if Icelanders practice their faith in private by reading the Bible and other religious books at home in the comfort of their family. No, because even fewer people read the Bible than go to church.

58% of Icelanders never read the Bible. I repeat: never.
Only 5% browse through the religious book once a month, and of those only 1% on a daily basis.

Those who take it upon themselves to read the Bible say they do it for pleasure and information. Far fewer say they read the holy book for directly religious purposes. Considerably more Icelanders read mystical material such as books about spiritualism and New Age matters than the Bible.

In contrast, new Gallup polls in America show that
28% believe that the Bible is the “Actual word of God”
49% believe the Bible is “Inspired, but not everything should be taken literally”.
Only 19% believe the Bible was created by man.

About 37% of Americans read the Bible at least once a week.
16% read the Bible every day.

42% percent of Americans say they attend church once a week or almost every week, 16% say they never go to church.

So what do Icelanders believe?
From the aforementioned, it is clear that Icelanders are a far cry from being very Christian. But that doesn’t change the fact that If you ask the typical Icelander what they believe it is highly likely that they will tell you that they are Christian. Practically everyone who I ever ask claims to be Christian. But when you ask more specifically if they believe in the virgin birth, the holy trinity, original sin, or that Jesus is the son of God and that he arose from the dead you get completely different answers.
Most of them reply that Jesus was just a good guy who preached love and that God is everything that’s good in the world.

In other words, most Icelanders have a personal, private religion and deny all the major tenets of Christianity but consider themselves Christian anyway. In my opinion most Icelanders share a religious view with the founding fathers of the United States; they are Deists (Dí-ists). You could also say that Icelanders believe in the Star Wars mythology. They believe in “The Force”, “The Dark side” and life after death. Sorry Brannon, no room for Star Trek ideology here.

Of course there are some fundamentalists in Iceland. But they are very few and they have little influence although they sometimes make a lot of noise in the media. Religious practice in Iceland is primarily linked with spiritualism, reincarnation, psychics, astrology, healing, alternative medicine and other New Age practices.

I hope this information has given you some insight into the situation in Iceland today.

Feel free to ask me any questions about my talk during the panel discussion.

Thank you for listening!

Sigurdur Holm Gunnarsson
Vice President of Sidmennt – The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association