June 17, 2024

The Struggle for a Fully Secular Iceland

I’ve become rather interested in Icelandic politics of late. The following article was written by fellow humanist, Dr. Svanur Sigurbjörnsson, and sent to me at the request of Thor Viðar Jónsson, director of sidmennt.is, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association.
[Edit: Thor is NOT the director of Sidmennt.is, Hope Knutsson is. Thor asked me to correct that.]
Dr. Sigurbjörnsson says he is now in a group with the Pagans (Asatruarfelag) and Bhuddists to continue the fight for separation of church and state. I found his article interesting and asked to share it here.


Iceland was under the Norwegian and then the Danish crown from 1262. Its first step towards independence was in 1874 when the Danish king handed the nation its first constitution. In it the freedom to choose one’s religion or life stance was secured for the first time since the Christian (Catholic) takeover in the year 1000. There had been a few attempts by individuals to acquire another belief before that but at the time around 99% of Icelanders were registered Christian. Slowly other congregations formed, at first mainly some free Evangelical Lutheran splits from the main Evangelical Lutheran church which is known as the National Church. Its official name is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland or ELCI. Also the Catholic Church sprung up again with the help of nuns and priests sent from Europe. Mormons and others followed suit.

Now there are 39 religious groups registered at the National Registry, 29 thereof are Christian. A new law was ratified on January 30, 2013 in the Icelandic Parliament (Althing), granting non-religious life stance groups almost an equal legal status and funding with religions. Soon the 23 year old Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, which is called Siðmennt in Icelandic, will be granted registration. Still the ELCI has deeply rooted special privileges in financial, legal and social matters.


At the turn of the 20th century there was an unsuccessful struggle for total separation of church and state, but in Iceland, the left wing politicians and workers unions (which favored separation) didn’t have enough power. The country was governed by right wing conservatives, business owners and other powerful classes which strongly supported the clerical system. So unlike Central, Western Europe, and the United States separation of church and state didn’t have strong support here. Politics evolved in many ways towards a secular democracy, but a theocratic leech was allowed to be attached to it. In 1907 (and well before that) it was apparent that the ELCI could not be sustained financially by its huge ownership of farm land because the country was changing rapidly from being mainly agricultural into being urban and depending on fisheries. The ELCI, due to its stronghold within the political sector and its special protection clause in the constitution, was able to make a very comfortable deal with the state back then which was repeated and secured in a law passed in 1997. It ensured the ELCI a handsome salary for all its priests, bishops, and office staff, for an unlimited amount of time into the future, in return for all the land previously owned by the ELCI except the land that churches were built on.

By 1987 the ELCI had run into difficulties collecting its member fees and got another good deal with the authorities, namely that members’ dues were turned into a form of tax that ensured the ELCI and other registered religious groups their monthly fee, irrespective of their members’ ability to pay it. Additionally the ELCI got an exclusive 30% extra for special funds to cover costs of housing, teaching theology, holding administrative conferences, and much more. For this system to work the registration of all Icelanders at the National Registry into either a religious organization or not had to be used.

That registration began earlier and at the start of it the default registration was the ELCI and all newborn babies were automatically registered into their mother’s church without asking the mother or the father. This was partly changed with the new law from January 30th so that the automatic registration of babies only applies if both parents are members of the same church. This is to ensure equal rights of the sexes but does not protect the rights of the child to stay out of a life stance organization (religious or secular) in order for it to decide for itself when it has reached the age of legal and financial independence. This church tax is collected for every

member aged 16 and older but children are not legally adults in Iceland until the age of 18. The new law is a step in the right direction but still contains many inconsistencies.


After the mid-20th century the issue of separation of church and state disappeared from political discussion and was never an issue in any election. The ELCI cleverly made sure that politicians believed that any movement for separation would cost them votes. Until the late 20th century religious education in elementary schools was only about Christianity and totally without any critical element in it. Some prominent thinkers and writers such as the Nobel prize winner in literature Halldór K. Laxness praised humanism and criticized the anachronistic church in the 1960’s. Well educated people were aware of the huge impact the Age of Enlightenment had had on our culture but philosophy, ethics, secularism and humanism were carefully excluded from the curriculum. Instead a lot of Icelanders are convinced that Christianity was the sine qua non for the rise of democracy and all good things acquired in society. The strategy of the ELCI of giving generations of Icelanders only a tunnel vision look of the wide variety of life stances and philosophies of life, succeeded in most cases and the result is a population largely ignorant of what a secular society is and what it is worth. Icelanders are rather naïve in discussing life stances, religion, and philosophical issues. This is also reflected in the relative scientific illiteracy and gullibility of Icelanders regarding health hoaxes, supernatural phenomena, and spiritual mediums.

Over the past 15 years or so this has begun to change for the better because of the efforts of organizations like Vantrú (Disbelief) and Siðmennt (Iceland Ethical Humanist Association). The younger generation is now much more atheistic and almost half of people under 40 years old say that they are not religious compared to only around 15% of those over 60 years old.


In polls taken over the last 16 years there has been almost consistent support by 60-75% of the population for separation of church and state. Still, in October 2012, when the only national referendum since the ratification of the current constitution in 1944 took place, 59% of the voters voted “yes” on the question of whether the ELCI should be mentioned in a new constitution or not. The question did not state directly that the ELCI should continue as a state church and some people who favor separation accidentally voted “yes”. In the run-up campaign before the national referendum, the ELCI used all its superior resources and access to state radio and several newspapers to justify their position. They inspired fear that if the ELCI lost its constitutionally protected status people living out in the countryside would not get burial services because the state church is irreplaceable for all kinds of social assistance. The ELCI suggested that all other religions and life stance organizations should also be mentioned in the constitution and be granted similar rights as itself. It presented a soft front and its position gained momentum because of the new and popular first female bishop. After its victory that positive suggestion was forgotten and never mentioned by them again. The ELCI suggestion of more equality was a campaign strategy rather than a genuine push for equality.

The only time that the media asked the members of government whether we should continue having a state church was in 2010 when a sexual misconduct charge against a former bishop of the ELCI reached its height and the bishop at the time (Karl Sigurbjörnsson) said that it was up to God to judge his predecessor. The question of separation seemed to be raised more as a punishment for the ELCI than a true interest in separation. The politicians did not follow up on it.


As medieval as it may sound, today all tax payers still pay a church tax. In 2012 93.6% (3.67 billion Icelandic crowns) of it went to the ELCI although its members are 76.2% of the nation and decreasing each year. Its priests are government employees and have around 40% higher salaries than unspecialized physicians and

around 70% more than psychologists. They have all kinds of financial and status privileges beyond that of the leaders of other life stance organizations and are alone enjoying the spoils of 874 years of religious monopoly and religious taxation (10% of income since the year 1067) for which the whole nation had to pay dearly. With the law from 1997 the state church was given autonomy over its internal affairs so government authorities no longer have a say in how the ELCI spends its billions. That has given many of the ELCI spokespersons a reason to have the audacity to say that the ELCI is in fact separated from the state! With that twisted view they try to invalidate the demand for separation.

A few years ago, the Ásatrúarfélag, pagan society of Iceland, sued the state for discrimination and asked for their share of one of the funds that only the state church has access to, but the Supreme Court of Iceland ruled that although they had logical grounds for their claim, the ELCI was given the right for special handling according to the constitution. This was allowed even though it is also stated in the constitution that no citizen should be discriminated against on religious grounds. Another justification was that the ELCI provides its service to all Icelanders irrespective of their life stance. The ELCI states on its web page that “all are welcome to its service and no questions are asked of people´s religion”. On the other hand it is stated in its internal bylaws that their housing cannot be used to service other than Christians and in order for their priests to perform a wedding service at least one of the to-be-wed has to be a Christian. The ELCI is then only for Christians, not the whole nation.

What the future holds is unclear but there are some signs of improvement in understanding the nature of this issue and its importance. Humanists, Pagans, Soka Gakkai Buddhists and various atheists individually or in groups are joining forces in continuing the struggle and they are optimistic that a secular society can be achieved in Iceland.

-Svanur Sigurbjörnsson.  Thanks to Hope Knútsson and Svavar Kjarrval for their proofreading, input and corrections.

7 thoughts on “The Struggle for a Fully Secular Iceland

  1. Iceland was annexed in 1262, about the time of the Mongol invasion. A lot of bad shit went down at the time, as the political and economic ripples spread out from the epicenter.

    BTW If you read Gaiman’s “American Gods” you know a clone of Odin still lives in Reykjavik 🙂

  2. Just wanted to correct one thing, I am not the director of Siðmennt, that would be Hope Knútsson who has been our very hard working leader since the beginning 🙂

  3. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our whole community will be grateful to you.

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