A Secular Organization at the Top of the World – The story of Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association
Background – Land of the Midnight Sun
Iceland is an island nation in the North Atlantic with an affluent population of 315,000. It is a modern democratic republic which prides itself on its human rights orientation. However it still has a state church, the Evangelical Lutheran church. While on paper just over 80% of Icelanders are members of the state church, on any given Sunday no more than 2% of the population attends church.
The number of Icelanders who attend church once a month is around 8%. In recent years, the Icelandic state church has been beset by a number of scandals and conflicts and lost many members. The media report these figures regularly and there is public discussion about separation of state and church. Public surveys in recent years consistently show that two thirds of Icelanders are in favor of separation.
Sidmennt was founded in 1990 by a small group of people who had organized the first civil confirmation in Iceland, which took place in 1989 after a year of preparation. Until recently civil confirmation was our main activity. In 2007 a trainer from the Norwegian Humanist Association came and trained a team of Sidmennt people as professional celebrants. We received some assistance and additional training materials from the British Humanist Association. In spring 2008 we officially started providing a full range of secular and Humanist services i.e. baby-namings, wedding, and funeral ceremonies, conducted by our professionally trained celebrants. This marks a historical turning point in our development. One doesn’t have to be a member to use our ceremonies. We have close to 300 members now, a 5-member voluntary executive board, and a comprehensive web site but no office. During the past year we have employed 2 very part time staff members. Sidmennt is active in the movement for separation of church and state in Iceland. Sidmennt members write articles in the newspapers about issues concerning religious belief and the secular life stance. We have been involved in TV, radio, and newspaper debates and a number of lectures, seminars, and conferences about life stance, church-state relations, ethics, and religious indoctrination in public schools. We have always maintained close contact with the Norwegian Humanist Association, Human-Etisk Forbund (HEF) and are a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the European Humanist Federation, and the Icelandic Human Rights Center.
In 1998 an atheist discussion group was established within Sidmennt which meets monthly for a Saturday brunch. This group, called Samfélag Trulausra (SAMT for short) is a member of Atheist Alliance International. For several years SAMT had a separate website but it has now been incorporated into the Sidmennt website.
An elderly Sidmennt member living in a small village in northern Iceland almost single-handedly established a nationwide organization for the sole purpose of achieving separation of church and state. This group began as an offshoot of Sidmennt in which people of different religious affiliations have joined forces to achieve this goal.
In the early years of our development as an organization it was extremely difficult to promote humanism in Iceland because there was a small humanist political party here. If we said we were humanists we usually had to explain that we were not connected with them. As time passed Sidmennt has become better known and taken more public stands on human rights and church/state issues. We have worked hard to educate Icelandic society about Humanism and introduced the term life stance organization (lífsskoðunafélag) into the Icelandic language. In 2005 we modified the Icelandic name of our association to include the word Humanist and have since then adopted a new vision and policy statement which reflects this decision and is similar to the most recent IHEU Humanist Manifesto.
Sidmennt has applied twice, since 2002, for official registration and funding from the Icelandic government as a religious organization, even though we are a secular life stance organization. We have done this in order to test the current law about religious associations which we feel is unconstitutional. Our application was turned down both times. We were told that Sidmennt does not meet the requirements even though the law does not state that belief in an invisible, supernatural deity is one of the requirements. We were asked to prove that our life stance has historical roots and international connections. We did this in far greater detail in our second application which was accompanied by a letter of support from our Norwegian sister-organization which has held equal status with religious groups in Norway since 1981. Sidmennt has employed lawyers to help us gain legal recognition. We continue to get assistance from the Norwegian Humanist Association and also from the European Humanist Federation in this struggle. We hope we can achieve our goal without suing the Icelandic government for its repeated rejection of our application for equal status, a position which we consider to be a human rights violation. But we are prepared to take our human rights case to the Icelandic Supreme Court and if we do not win, we are prepared to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In recent years we have switched our focus in this struggle to actively lobbying Members of Parliament to try and introduce and pass a new law about life stance organizations and we are nearer than ever before to reaching that goal.
Our dream is to open a Center for Inquiry to house a Free thought library and classrooms for our courses for teenagers and for lectures and discussion groups for adults. In addition we want a hall for conducting naming, wedding, and funeral services.
Civil Confirmation Program
Ninety-eight per cent of Icelandic teenagers get confirmed at age 13 in the state church, whether they are believers or not. We think it is 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.
The 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 teachers are usually philosophers. There are 2 main rules in our course: 1) It is all right to be different, to dress differently, look different, and hold different views from the majority. And 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.
At the end of the course there is a formal graduation ceremony in which some of the kids in the group 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 couple of prominent members of Icelandic society give keynote speeches 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, tolerant person of great integrity. We have held our ceremonies in a cultural center, an art museum, the Reykjavik City Hall, and for the past 10 years we have filled one of the largest auditoriums in Iceland with 1000 guests at each ceremony. Many grandparents tell us afterwards how surprised and impressed they are at how moving and beautiful the ceremony was.
In 1996 we began a direct mail campaign, sending information about civil confirmation into the homes of families in the capital area, with children of confirmation age. 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. At that point we added a concentrated version of the course to people in rural communities. The 2-weekend course is held in Reykjavik and teens from rural areas stay with relatives and friends in the capital. This was a great success and has resulted in a huge jump in enrollment. In 2006 we started having 2 ceremonies per year as enrollment in the program has always been more than 100 kids annually. In the 20 years since this alternative program has been available in Iceland more than a thousand families have participated and approximately 15,000 guests have attended our ceremonies.
Some Icelandic Paradoxes Seen Through the Eyes of a Foreigner
I am one of the founders of Sidmennt and its current president. I am not a native Icelander; I’m a Humanist from New York City. I’ve lived in Iceland for 34 years. I think Icelanders are basically pagan at heart, just as they were a thousand 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 daft 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 lackadaisical 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; 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 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 in the state church. When they protested loudly 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 HEF asking for advice. I put 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 out there 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 job!
The Minister of Education and Culture was a speaker at our first civil confirmation ceremony 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 but 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 life. Now, 20 years later, there are more and more foreigners in Iceland who are not Christian and many of them choose civil confirmation because it is independent of religion but all about being a responsible human being.
Every time we get criticized by religious people, more people choose our services and join our organization! The TV stations have put clips of our ceremony on their newscasts and all the newspapers carry major articles about civil confirmation every year in their special sections about confirmation. Every year it has become more accepted. Our main selling point is that it is valuable to have a choice because it makes you think.
Many people including most of the state church’s clergymen say they think our program and having an alternative 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 give up the word confirmation.
It is difficult everywhere to establish Humanist, atheist, and Freethought organizations. Most groups are small except for the Norwegians who have been most successful and now have 75,000 members! I’m not sure which is a more difficult environment to deal with, a religious one or an apathetic one.
Atheist Brunch Group and the Christianity Festival in 2000
Our atheist brunch discussion group is a lot of fun. Its members range from 16–75 years old. We stuff our faces with food and laugh a lot. We also discuss ethical issues, books, movies, and other material about life stances and the rights of non-believers.
In the year 2000 the Icelandic government spent billions of kronur on a year’s worth of anniversary celebrations of 1000 years of Christianity in Iceland. They prepared an outdoor weekend Christianity festival that they estimated 75,000 people would come to and re-routed traffic for that part of the country. Only 8000 people showed up in addition to the staff, performers, and foreign dignitaries. It was called the flop of the century but government and church leaders tried desperately for the next year to justify the wasted money. That farcical event provoked a spate of critical articles for the next half year about the anachronism of having a state church in a nation that calls itself a democracy in the 21st century. Our group held an outdoor atheist festival on the same weekend in 2000 as the state church’s flop of the century. We had a great time and never expected more than the 20+ members in our brunch discussion group. And no traffic had to be re-routed for our festival.
It was announced in the media that the Icelandic Parliament had spent 60 million kronur on producing a book about the history of Christianity in Iceland and was further subsidizing the price of the book to the public. So we sent a press release to the media announcing that the Atheist Society, after careful deliberation, had decided NOT to apply to Parliament for a grant to publish a history of atheism in Iceland, even though many noteworthy atheists have existed here. We said the reason we were NOT asking for money for this project was because we felt the money could be better spent on more important matters like education and health care. We said that we maintain a web site and support our own activities. We got loads of coverage, one of us was interviewed on the news on TV, and our website got hundreds of hits in a very short time. We often brainstorm clever moves like this, which is why we spend so much time laughing at our Saturday brunches!
The result of the 1000 year anniversary celebrations of Christianity in Iceland in 2000 was a ground swell of voices calling for separation of church and state. Bills were introduced in the Icelandic parliament proposing a gradual separation over a 10 year period. Sweden has led the way in separation of state and church and there are movements in the other Nordic countries to get rid of this anachronistic set-up. We think it is only a matter of time until there is complete religious freedom in Iceland.
Last updated in July 2008 by Hope Knutsson, president of Sidmennt