Iceland’s Atheist Riot

Protestant Carhedral in Iceland

Protestant Carhedral in Iceland


Gunnar Ingi Gunnarsson is everything but a conventional priest. The pastor of the newly established Emmanuel Baptist Church in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, he is twenty-seven years old and with no hint of hesitation defines himself as a “conservative Christian.”

 At the same time Gunnarsson has no hesitation to criticize the budding relationship between the Icelandic state and the national church. “I think it’s one of the reasons we have one of the highest levels of atheism in the world,” he explains adding that there are a lot of priests who decide to take vows simply because it’s a cushy government job and that this “leads people lo lose faith and interest in mass.”

What the young priest experiences as a problem of faith, is for many Icelanders a political issue. “I don’t understand why despite a largely atheist country, the church still has so much power,” Fiola Helgadóttir, a university student in Reykjavik, tells Quartz.

A recent poll commissioned by Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association to Maskina, one of the country’s leading polling firms, found that no one aged 25 years or younger believes God created the earth and, even more surprisingly, that 72% of Icelanders want a definite separation between two entities that have enjoyed a deep and intertwined history over the past centuries.

“We were aware of the trend in Iceland towards a more atheist and secular society, just like much of the rest of the Western world, but we didn’t expect such a large drop in numbers,” Jóhann Björnsson, Sidmennt’s president, tells Quartz.

Hope Knutsson, one of Sidmennt’s boardmembers, adds that “the survey means that the state financial support to the church in an increasingly atheist society is less and less justifiable in the public eye.”

Until the start of the 20th century the Church owned nearly 70% of the country’s land. In 1907 Church and State reached an agreement and a new reform was passed. The land owned by the Church was surrendered to the state in exchange for the state paying for the salaries of 138 ministers (now 105). Local churches are also heavily involved in community life, helping organize school activities and recreational time.

Líf Magneudóttir, a former teacher turned politician, tells Quartz that:Back in 2004, when I still was working in schools, a reverend entered my class, interrupted the lesson, and took the confirmands away. Such behaviour would be unacceptable today. In 2013 the municipality in Reykjavík voted new rules to ensure schools’ neutrality when it comes to religion.” 

Yet, not everyone agrees the survey is an accurate picture of the current mood of Icelandic society. Þórhallur Heimisson, minister of the National church and former teacher of history of religion at the theological faculty in Reykjavik, point out that “questions in the poll were a little biased and favoured an outcome able to demonstrate the growth of Iceland’s atheism while the reality is much more complex.”

The most contentious was question number three: “How do you think the world came into existence?” A choice of four answers was: 1) The world began with the Big Bang. 2) God created the world. 3) I don’t know/I have no opinion. 4) Something else, if so what? People were offered the choice of writing additional personal replies to this question and many did so.

As Gunnarsson explains “I consider myself a conservative Christian, but I also believe in the Big Bang theory. How could I possibly answer the survey? I think the organization that commissioned it simply wanted to make a point.”

David Tencer, Iceland’s Catholic Bishop, tells Quartz that “the survey was made in a very wrong way …. in Latin there is a saying: audiatur et altera pars [in English: don’t forget to listen to the other version of the story].”

Despite the alleged bias Heimisson himself, a priest, calls the survey results a “wake-up call”. The Icelandic Church cannot ignore such results and the fact that “people have started to question church and state after the survey was published.”

Already in 2012 Iceland figured among the ten most atheist countries in the world, according to a poll released by Gallup, the world’s leading polling firm. In 1996, 87% of Icelanders claimed they were “religious” and 13% “non-religious” or “atheists”. In 2012 the number of Icelanders who defined themselves as “religious” dropped to 57%, while 31% said they were “non- religious” and 10% “atheists.”

The survey might be more of an instrument for a political battle rather than a scientific result, yet the problem of a Church financed by increasingly atheist taxpayers seems something the Icelandic government cannot afford to ignore any longer.




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