Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Our National Religion(s)

In last week’s post I mentioned that I would this time around write about the eruption in Heimaey which occurred in 1973. I hope no one will be disappointed if I postpone this for a week  and instead briefly tell you about the history of religion here in Iceland. This topic is chosen as my daughter will be confirmed on this coming Easter Monday – a ceremony in which 13-14 year olds formally approve of their christening which they undergo as babies, with basically no say about anything, least of all choice of religion. It is considered a rite of passing, once done you are “counted as a grown-up”. Whoever came up with that notion must have had extremely mature children. So a lot of my time these past few days has gone into the organising involved, in particular with regards to the party following the ceremony and to keep myself sane I remind myself regularly that it could be worse, me and my family could be members of the jungle tribe I read about in National Geographic decades ago, the one that stuffs sticks under the skin of a teenager stepping into adulthood, hooks the sticks onto ropes, attaches the ropes to branches high up in a tree and then watch the teenager throw themselves down to prove adulthood, the sticks ripping through the skin just before the crash landing. I would much rather prefer dealing with bakeries that announce your 60 person cake is ready a week ahead of time and invitations that come out of the printer sideways (missing the bit about when and where), than having to coax my daughter into freefall from a tree with sticks threaded into her chest. Humans are a crazy bunch when it comes to complicating life, when animals show bizarre behaviour there is at least always an underlying reason that makes great sense once explained.

Anyway, as I have probably mentioned in an earlier blog, on the whole Icelanders are not very religious, at least not at this point in history. Like many other nations we have slowly but surely moved away from religious doctrine with i.a. increased awareness of how the world and life came to be, not to mention nagging doubts about the sanity of an all powerful and endlessly kind God that seems to look the other way suspiciously often when the innocent and small are under attack. But despite not being actively religious, a large majority of the population is registered as being Lutheran which has been the national religion since 1550. We have gone through our fair share of religions, the Viking settlers brought belief in the Norse Gods with them when they arrived in 874 and were left to their own devices regarding this until the year 1000 when this religion was replaced with Christianity. This occurred through cumbersome and lengthy negations with missionaries, sent by the Norse and Danish kings that had recently become Christian and were worried about the souls of their heathen cousins up in the north. These negotiations took years and years and at one point a volcano erupted, funnelling red hot lava to an area where the missionaries had organised a meeting. Now this was taken as a sign that the Gods were none too pleased, however if you read my previous post, statistically this had to happen seeing that the missionaries were here for some time. But despite this and other shortfalls, the missionaries persisted and Iceland as a country became Catholic, at the same time losing its freedom of religion. Despite the way it might appear, those negotiating on behalf of Iceland were not completely worthless. They managed to eke in a certain amount of leniency clauses, permitting people to continue worshipping the Norse Gods in secret, allowing them to eat horses and to expose unwanted babies to the elements. Let’s make a deal – Viking style.

This discount from hardcore Catholicism was later expanded to allow Icelandic Catholic priests, bishops, monks and suchlike to have sex and father children - as long as they did not marry their women, as strange and illogical as this may sound. Somehow the children from these couplings were not considered illegitimate either which is even odder, considering the church’s take on others living in sin. I am told this leniency had either something to do with them being unable to achieve respect while flagging their celibacy in a rather masculine environment or it having been considered unreasonable to ask Icelanders to abstain from anything - but as I have never been able to nail this down anywhere in writing I cannot guess which, either or if both best explain why a succession of Popes allowed this to pass. As an example, when the last Catholic bishop in Iceland had his head chopped off because he was not willing to convert and become Lutheran, his very respectable sons were executed with him. Along the same line, this same bishop, Jón Arason, was the grandson of a man who was an abbot in a monastery – usually not the guys called dad, much less granddad.

So in 1550, with some ado peppered with head-chopping and pouring of molten lead down throats, we were forced to convert to becoming Lutheran, by decree of the Danish king that ran the show here at that time. He had taken this religion and was super enthusiastic about spreading the joy, something probably not fuelled in any way by him acquiring all of the lands and wealth belonging to the Catholic Church while at it. For the next centuries that followed, i.e. until 1857, being Catholic was illegal in Iceland, punishable by death or deportation, the latter of which was believed by some to be the harsher sentence. Finally, in 1874 Iceland got its own constitution which included a clause regarding freedom of worship. After 874 years of being forced to believe, we were as a people once again allowed to direct our religious needs into whatever direction suited the individual. Which for turned out to be due-Christian as over 90% of the population is now registered as such.

Regarding the rest, the largest non-Christian religious group is the Ásatrúarfélag – those believing in the old Norse Gods. At one point, their one time leader, a colourful poet who was frequently seen doing the rounds downtown met a tipsy couple rolling out of a bar, on their way to a one night stand. In a bout of great humour they asked him to marry them, which he did on the spot, underneath a lamppost. He then went home and registered the marriage, sent it off the day after to the national registry and being a religious leader he had thus entered this unfortunate couple into holy matrimony. They ended up having to go red faced through the courts to obtain a divorce, an Icelandic Vegas-ish adventure.

Finally, it would be great if there were a God up there and that all wrongs are righted at the end of the journey. Too bad he didn’t approve of Galileo when given the chance as this guy could have built him a telescope in heaven so that events down here could be follow more closely.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Yrsa - It is interesting that Christians and Jews have not taken a serious look at the average 13 or 14 year old and acknowledged that, as this is the crowd that can't decide who their friends are from day to day, they are no exactly ready for major life decisions. How can they make a decision about their "adult" commitment to their faith when they are so far from being adults?

    In the Catholic Church, the age to receive Confirmation has changed from time to time. I was confirmed when I was 12; my kids were confirmed when they were 15. I was involved in the Confirmation program when my kids were going through the process and we had a meeting with an old nun who had been dealing with teenagers for more than sixty years. She told us that when dealing with teenagers it is important to remember that the brain and the body cannot grow at the same time. When the body is changing so rapidly and drastically, the brain goes to sleep. We pin our hopes on the belief that when the body stops growing, the brain will awake refreshed and assume its proper role. Anyone who has spent any time with this group knows the description is accurate. So why do we pretend they actually know what they are doing? All the kids I know see the Confirmation party as a celebration because they don't have to go to religious education classes anymore.

    In light of that, I think no one should be confirmed until they are 35 and really know what it is they are doing. That same belief leads me to conclude that no one should get married before they are 35 either (especially my kids).

    I took my son for a haircut the day before we were to attend the Bar Mitzvah of one of his friends. We met the Bar Mitzvah boy and his father and the boys got into an animated discussion about whatever was the big deal 12 years ago. They were lost in their own world, making faces and creating sound effects. The father turned to me and said, "Look, a man."

    When the average life expectancy was 35 years, it may have made sense to consider children of 13 or 14 as entering adulthood. Now there are people who are 35 who still haven't grown up.

    I have dealt with some boys who would think jumping from a tree with sticks woven into their skin would be "cool".

    I hope you have a wonderful Easter and that everything regarding the Confirmation will go off without a problem.


  2. Hi Beth and thanks for your great input, the nun and the bar-mitzvah boy's father hit the nail on the head and I also agree with your 35 year old grown up limit, here kids can vote at 18 and this has not proven very successful for example, not many people know anything about anything at 18. It makes no sense to be too young to be trysted with alchohol but be allowed to ahve a say in running the show.

    May you (and your children) also have a wonderful Easter.

    bye Yrsa