Twenty-five years of civil confirmation in Iceland
I am one of the founders of Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association and its current president. I am not a native Icelander; I’m a Humanist from New York City. I have lived in Iceland for 39 years. I think Icelanders are basically pagan at heart, just as they were 1,100 years ago when the Vikings first settled the island. Most of them say they are Christian if you ask them. But inquire further about whether they accept Christian dogma such as the virgin birth, original sin, the holy trinity, or the resurrection of Christ, and most of them look at you as if you are insane and say no, that they just ignore those things, choose what they like, and call it being Christian. If I ask people “Do you believe in God?” most Icelanders say yes. If I ask them to define God they say “The Force”, “Mother Nature” or “The best qualities in man”. We, in Sidmennt, think many Icelanders are Humanists without knowing it.
It’s easier to promote alternatives when there is a strong religious movement. In such an environment the choice is clearer. In Iceland most people are apathetic about religion and the state church rarely takes a stand on anything. Iceland has one of the highest rates of out-of-wedlock births in the world, well over 50% of all births; people live together for years and marry after they’ve had several children. Gay rights are among the most liberal in the world. But there are frequent squabbles in the state church and billions of Icelandic kronur are spent on its mostly empty buildings. Its priests are government employees. People don’t view them as spiritual leaders as much as civil servants.
During my early years as a non-Christian foreigner in Iceland, I yearned for contact with fellow Humanists, atheists, and Freethinkers. When my kids approached confirmation age everyone assumed they would go along with the crowd and be confirmed (over 90 percent of teenagers) in the Lutheran state church. Confirmation has a long history in Iceland, a ritual where children sit through a mass and answer one question: “Do you accept Jesus as your savior? When my kids replied vehemently that they had no intention of participating in a religious confirmation, people asked why. We said “because we are not Christian and think it’s hypocritical to stand up in front of a congregation and proclaim a belief that is not there”.
I had heard of civil confirmation in Norway and wrote to the Norwegian Humanist Association asking for advice. In 1988 I wrote an article in a newspaper here saying that my children were going to be the first Icelanders to be civilly confirmed, described the preparation course and ceremony as done in Norway, and asked if there were other families here who wanted to do this with us. Fifteen families responded. My husband, being a laid back Viking and not caring much about religion, went along with it all. My telephone started ringing and it hasn’t stopped since. What I thought I was going to do once has turned into a lifetime commitment and cause!
The Minister of Education and Culture was a speaker at our first civil confirmation ceremony in 1989 and he was loudly condemned afterwards by some people for participating in this “un-Christian event”! Debates raged in the newspapers that first year. Some said that if it was not Christian, then it must be anti-Christian and next thing you know there will be unholy funerals as well. I replied that indeed we would help people organize secular funerals. I asked how they would feel if they’d lived as Christians all their lives and were then buried in a funeral service conducted by a clergyman of some totally different religion or life stance. I said most people want a funeral that is consistent with their values. I said we are not against anything except hypocrisy and that even in Iceland where people are so much the same, not everyone thinks and acts in the same way.
I said we are not trying to take anybody’s Christianity away and indeed we respect those children who choose church confirmation because they sincerely believe. We simply offer an alternative to people who are not religious, not sure yet what they believe, not ready to swear an oath to Jesus for the rest of their lives. Now, 25 years later, there are more people in Iceland who are not Christian and many of them choose civil confirmation because it is independent of religion and is all about being a responsible human being.
Since 2008 Sidmennt has also provided secular and Humanist baby-namings, weddings, and funerals conducted by trained celebrants. Our secular alternatives have become more accepted and more popular with every passing year. Our slogan is that it is valuable to have choices because it makes you think.
Many people including some clergymen say they think our alternative confirmation program is good but they still complain about us using the word confirmation. We say that wherever this alternative is available, it is usually called civil confirmation or Humanist confirmation. At one point, Sidmennt members voted about whether to give in to the critics and just call it a rite of passage but we chose to stick with civil confirmation. Icelanders’ word for Christmas is the pagan word “jol”, similar to the English Yule. We sometimes say that when the Christian Icelanders give the word “jol” back to the pagans, then we will stop using the word confirmation.
As of May 3rd, 2013 Siðmennt achieved one of its founding goals and became a registered secular life stance organization with equal legal and funding status to religious life stance organizations according to a new law passed in January.
The Sidmennt Civil Confirmation Program
Around ninety per cent of Icelandic teenagers get confirmed at age 13 in the Lutheran state church, whether they are believers or not. We think it’s hypocritical to pretend to believe something if you do not. We feel most 13 year olds don’t know exactly what they believe. So we offer an alternative way of marking the transition from childhood to young adulthood.
Our preparation course for civil confirmation is about: ethics, critical thinking, human relations, human rights, equal rights, relations between the sexes, prevention of substance abuse, skepticism, protecting the environment, getting along with parents, being a teenager in a consumer society, and what it means to be an adult and take responsibility for your views and behavior. Our main teachers are philosophers. There are 2 main rules in our course: 1) It is all right to be different, dress differently, look different, and hold different views from the majority. 2) One should always strive to be honest. The course is 12 weeks long, once a week, for an hour and a half after school. Our civil confirmation ceremonies are held in the spring after the completion of the three-month course, which starts in January. In 2000 we began offering the same course concentrated into 2 weekends for kids who live outside the capital area. We offer both the course and ceremony in Akureyri, the largest town in the north of the country and have offered the class and the ceremony in other areas if there are enough kids in the same area.
At the end of the course there is a formal graduation ceremony in which 6 to 10 of the kids perform. The hall is decorated with flowers and flags and a trumpeter plays a festive march as the kids parade in. There is music, speeches, and poetry. A prominent member of Icelandic society gives a speech on subjects such as diversity, respecting people who have the courage to not blindly follow the crowd, or what it means to be a responsible human being. Each confirmand receives a diploma expressing the hope that he or she will become a broad-minded, responsible, tolerant person of great integrity. We have held our ceremonies in a cultural center, an art museum, the ReykjavikCity Hall, and since 1998 we have filled one of the largest halls in Iceland with 1000 guests at each ceremony. In the past couple of years we have held 7 classes and 6-7 ceremonies each year in several parts of the country. We also provide a correspondence course for Icelandic teenagers living abroad and that program has grown a lot as well. We had 12 kids in the email course this year. Many of them come to Iceland to participate in the large ceremonies but we also offer an individual ceremony at home for those kids who can’t attend our group ceremonies.
The civil confirmation program has grown enormously from its humble beginning in 1989 with 16 kids in the first class. In 1996 we began a direct mail campaign, sending information about civil confirmation into the homes of families with children of confirmation age in the capital area. That annual campaign resulted in a doubling of enrollment in the program from an average of 25 kids a year to around 50. In 2000 we expanded the direct mail campaign to the entire nation. The program has grown 40% in the last 5 years alone and we have more than 200 kids participating every year now. This year is the 25th anniversary of the program in Iceland. Close to 2000 Icelanders have participated since we started and around 25,000 guests have attended the ceremonies. Now we even have second generation kids in civil confirmation. We get many letters of appreciation from parents for our program. Many grandparents also tell us how surprised and impressed they are at how moving and beautiful the ceremonies are. We are very proud that we have been able to offer Icelandic society such an important program which has meant so much to so many families for a quarter of a century.
Hope Knutsson, President of Sidmennt, founder and director of Civil Confirmation in Iceland. Hope is a psychiatric occupational therapist from NYC who has lived and worked in Iceland for 39 years.
The name of civil confirmation in Icelandic is borgaraleg ferming. We have short video clips from most of our ceremonies in recent years, both on YouTube and on our website. We have a lot of other informative materials on our website along with the enrollment form.