The History of Siðmennt

Siðmennt supports human dignity, human rights and a broad-minded diverse secular society.

Siðmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association was founded in February 1990. Siðmennt is a registered, secular life stance organization which represents Humanism and Freethought, is independent of religious creeds, is guided by ethics and reason and offers secular and Humanist ceremonies.

The group that organized the first civil confirmation in Iceland during the winter of 1988-1989 founded Siðmennt a year later to ensure that this alternative to religious confirmation would continue to be available in Iceland. Its goal from the start was to provide secular ceremonies at all of the important transition points in life.

The full name of the organization from 1990 through 2005 was Siðmennt – the Association of Secular Ceremonies. As of this writing (December 2015) the Siðmennt civil confirmation program has entered its 28th year. Participation has grown to over 300 teenagers annually with 12 to 14 classes every winter and anywhere from 7 to 12 ceremonies in various parts of the country. This translates into 8% of Icelandic teenagers of confirmation age who choose our secular program. Since 1989, close to 3000 Icelanders have chosen this alternative to religious confirmation and as of spring 2016 approximately 35,000 guests will have attended these ceremonies.

The board of Siðmennt set out immediately after the organization was founded to inform and advise people on how to arrange secular funerals in which family members conduct the ceremony. During the early years (1990-1992) Siðmennt produced and distributed booklets explaining the regulations and options about funerals and also how to hold non-religious baby namings for people who did not want to baptize their children. One of the goals from the start was to set up a secular ceremonies service similar to those that had been available for decades in other countries in Northern Europe. Finally in March 2007 a giant step towards this goal was taken when Baard Thalberg, one of leaders/trainers at the Norwegian Humanist Association’s ceremonies service came and held a training program for Icelandic celebrants. The course was aimed primarily at training celebrants for secular funerals but also covered baby namings and weddings. Of the 10 Icelanders who undertook this training, 6 of them became the first official Siðmennt celebrants when our ceremonies service was inaugurated in May 2008. Siðmennt has run several training programs in recent years and now has 25 celebrants.

Siðmennt has conducted 501 ceremonies since 2008 when our ceremonies service began. To illustrate the increase just from last year (2014) when there were 114, this year the total was 198. In 2015 there were 124 weddings up from 56 in 2014, 57 baby namings up from 50 in 2014, and 10 funerals up from 7 in 2014.

People can choose ceremonies which are purely secular or those which also contain Humanistic values. Our baby namings do not involve inducting the child into our life stance organization, the way baptism involves induction into a religious organization. Siðmennt discourages people from enrolling babies and children into life stance organizations until the age of 16. For this reason our civil confirmation program does not require joining Siðmennt and is open to everyone. Neither our baby namings nor our confirmations require any oath or commitment to follow any leader or accept any dogma, as is done in Christian confirmations.

The biggest turning point in Siðmennt’s history occurred on May 3rd, 2013, when the organization was officially registered as a secular life stance organization under a law passed in the Icelandic Parliament on January 30th of that year. A formal ceremony was held by the Interior Minister Ögmundur Jónasson who had strongly supported our cause, to mark this historical event. As a result, Siðmennt gained the same legal and funding status as religious life stance organizations in Iceland. Weddings conducted by Siðmennt celebrants since then are legal and couples no longer have to go to government offices for that purpose. This turning point was a major step in Icelandic society towards greater religious freedom.

Siðmennt has held many lectures, seminars, conferences, and several cultural/musical events over the years on a wide range of topics connected with ethics, Humanism, human rights, and religious freedom. In 2006 Siðmennt cohosted an international conference on positive atheism with a long roster of prominent speakers.

At our annual general meeting in 2005 the name of the organization was changed to Siðmennt – the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association and a new mission statement was adopted, which was based on the 2002 Humanist Manifesto of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

At the 2008 annual general meeting the Siðmennt bylaws and mission statement were modified to define the association as a life stance organization and included a well-defined definition of what that is. (an organization built around ethics, epistemology, and ceremonies at the various transitions in life)

Siðmennt does not take direct positions on political matters other than standing in favor of all life stance organizations being treated equally by government, which includes the goal of separation of church and state in Iceland. Siðmennt is consulted regularly by Parliament on matters connected with human rights and ethical issues.

Siðmennt is a long time member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the European Humanist Federation, and the Icelandic Human Rights Center. Siðmennt has had a close working relationship with the Norwegian Humanist Association since before its founding. In recent years Siðmennt has entered into a close inter-Nordic network of Humanist associations as well as the British Humanist Association.

The existence of Siðmennt has had many positive effects on Icelandic society. For example:

  • Siðmennt introduced Icelanders to the word life stance organization which is now widely used by individuals, the media, and legislators.
  • Siðmennt has enriched Icelandic society by offering people alternative ceremonies at the important transition points in life (baby namings, confirmations, weddings, and funerals). Having alternatives helps people think about their values and philosophy of life.
  • Siðmennt has held lectures, seminars, and conferences and brought prominent speakers to Iceland such as Richard Dawkins, James Randi, PZ Myers, Maryam Namazie, Dan Barker, Julia Sweeney, Margaret Downey, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Brannon Braga.
  • Siðmennt published the first book in Icelandic about Humanism (in partnership with the publisher Ormstunga ).
  • Siðmennt has worked towards full freedom of religion/conscience, separation of church and state, and an education system where children are not discriminated against because of their parents’ religion or life stance.
  • Siðmennt gives two annual awards: Húmanist of the Year and The Siðmennt Education and Science Award.
  • Siðmennt supports the human rights of minorities, such as gay and transgender people.
  • Siðmennt provides a secular alternative to the Lutheran mass which the state church holds for Members of Parliament at the opening session of Parliament.
  • Siðmennt supports human dignity, human rights and a broad-minded diverse secular society.

Submitted by Hope Knútsson
The author is a founder of Siðmennt and was its president for 19 years from 1996 to 2015