On the morning of the 23rd of February the atheist group Vantrú (Icelandic for “disbelief”) published an article on their website which created quite a fuss in the news and social media in Iceland. To fully appreciate the furore Vantrú created in the Icelandic community with the satirical statement, some history and context is needed.
The website Vantrú started in 2003 as a collaboration between a group of Icelandic atheists who shared the common interest of participating in discussions that more often than not had to do with preposterous claims about the supernatural, pseudoscience, crazy conspiracies and other bullshit on news-sites, blogs, forums and elsewhere on the Icelandic internet.
With vantru.net (later vantru.is) they created a platform to answer and criticize unsubstantiated claims. Claims that in our minds, had received special treatment for far too long and in turn an undesirable effect on the Icelandic psyche so much in fact that it was considered by many to be rude and improper to criticise one's belief or faith. By 2004 the member count had reached 20 and Vantrú was legally registered as an organization in Iceland the same year.
The main goal of Vantrú is to counter the questionable societal effects of religion, religious dogma and other unsubstantiated beliefs, such as beliefs in elves (there are no elves in Iceland!), various forms of alternative medicine and quackery, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and so forth.
Vantrú does not have any legal claim for monetary support from the state. So we don't share the same legal status as a religious or non-religious organization such as the Esetroth Fellowship, Lutheran Free Church in Reykjavík or the humanist organization Siđmennt. And we absolutely do not share the same official status as the state church. Vantrú is just a society of atheists who run a non-profit web-page, publishing articles. That is our status and always has been.
However, there are numerous people in Iceland who seem to think that we have quite a lot of power in form of various, intricate connections to powerful individuals. Which we do not. Our influence on Icelandic society comes solely from publishing articles and participating in discussions with a skeptical mind. In other words: free speech.
The main manifestation of religious dogma in Iceland is the affiliation of state and church, both in the constitution and a preposterous deal the Republic of Iceland made with the Lutheran Church of Iceland in the fall of 1997. This indefinitely guaranteed payment of all costs and wages incurred by the church in the form of an annual tax fee in exchange for official ownership over land that once belonged to the church. This might sound reasonable up to a point, except for the fact that there was never made any effort to ascertain how much land the church owned or how the church procured it. Basically the amount of land was unaccounted for and the estimated property value was not available during the making and signing of these official documents.
Article 62 The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland and, as such, it shall be supported and protected by the State. This may be amended by law.
This theocratic article is to some extend countermanded in the constitution which also guarantees freedom of religion.
Article 64 No one may lose any of his civil or National rights on account of his religion, nor may anyone refuse to perform any generally applicable civil duty on religious grounds. Everyone shall be free to remain outside religious associations. No one shall be obliged to pay any personal dues to any religious association of which he is not a member.
These two articles obviously create a conflict in the constitution, as it clearly favours one religion on one hand, and the right to religious freedom on the other. To put it bluntly, article 62 is irrational and an abomination. No group, religious or otherwise, should be favoured in the most fundamental codified document of any sovereign state which wants to be counted amongst other democratic nations.
Capacent/Gallup have periodically conducted general religion surveys in Iceland. For instance the findings have consistently shown that the majority of the populace is in favour of separation of church and state, and has been since at least 1998. In light of the fact that 72% of the population are members of the National Church it should strike you as odd that 62% are against the arrangement. This is obviously down to the unfair system the government has used throughout the decades. One of the more unsettling attributes about the Icelandic arrangement is this: The government has a record of which belief/faith each and every citizen in Iceland holds.
Another amazingly out of place law, which is still in effect, is a law against blasphemy. The law was last enacted in 1983 when the editor of a satire news publication was found guilty of blasphemy. Recently this law proceeded giving Iceland the status of “severe discrimination” against the non-religious, according to the IHEU’s 2014 Freedom Report. In light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks three MP's from the Pirate Party have submitted a motion to have the law repealed. This is currently one of the motions regarding religious freedom being looked at by the government.
On a positive note: The laws regarding the national church have been eased somewhat in the last decade or so. In 2013 Siđmennt, the only secular life stance organization in Iceland, after a decade-long struggle, gained the same legal status as other religious institutions. The last 20 years show we are heading towards greater equality when it comes to freedom of religion. In fact the National Church's membership count is mostly the same now as it was is 1998.
In 1992 members of the state church accounted for 92,2% of the population in Iceland. More than 90% of all newborns were automatically registered to the national church. This unreasonably high amount of membership was due to a so called "inherited registration law" which stated that if the mother was a registered member of the state church, or any other religious group, her child (and subsequent children) would be automatically registered to the state church.
At the inception of the Republic, almost every citizen of the state was automatically registered to the national church whether they liked it or not. As this was clearly unfair, this law was amended in 2013. This change was in no way a case of the government seeing the error of its ways. Indeed the change was clearly a result of heightened social awareness on religious affairs which to some extent serves as a recognition of our open and active criticism on religious matters in Iceland. The membership is down to 72% and around 60% of newborns are automatically registered.
In truth most people here aren’t bothered about which religious group they are affiliated with. There is a portion of the tax that all have to pay, regardless of your affiliation with state-sponsored life view groups, and until very recently the process of special circumstantial disaffiliation was both time consuming and tedious. The monetary gains are basically none because if you are not registered with any group you won't get that portion of the tax back. Up until 2008 this part was used as partial funding for the state University of Iceland. It now goes to mutual government funding.
At the last board meeting it was decided that starting from the 1st of March, each citizen of Iceland will be registered as a member of Vantrú. You, Dear Reader, will therefore become a member of Vantrú, as of now the most numerous organization in Iceland - unless you specifically decide to disaffiliate yourself from our society. [#]
To say Vantrú´s satirical article caused a commotion in the media is an understatement. Not only did the religious fall for the satirical piece, some evidence suggests that the biggest newspaper did as well. And by not reading the article carefully the newspaper caused one of the biggest social media outcries in Iceland, ever. The article was even categorized as “joke”. The vented rage was in itself quite funny, but the provocative and goading replies were even funnier.
The comments on various news-sites and their social media outlets was mostly shock and indignation over the fact that we could actually register a whole nation into an organization of our choice. Which, of course, we couldn't. It's preposterous, despite the fact that there is a precedent for doing actually that.
Of course a lot of people didn't want become members of Vantrú, which is perfectly understandable. We got numerous litigious threats as well as the lovable, Christian threats of bodily harm and that we should “watch our backs”. Although we've seen comments like these before, we had never witnessed this amount of absolute, sheer stupidity.
A few choice examples:
Are these people insane??! I am voluntarily a member of the National Church, and I don't want ANY part of this orginasation.. Just try make me pay for membership fees!
If they even think about putting my name on their list I will kill them. The blasphemers and heathens have banded together to put us straight to hell.
if they put my name on their list I will hurt them
Ridiculous! Vantrú will hear from my lawyer!!”
Definitely not.. Look at the constitution.. We are a Christian nation and therefore all registered to the national church!
There are laws in this country! and this is illegal!!
This is a preposterous and outrageous move from this retarded and shitty organization.. FU!. We are in the National Church and intend to stay there!.... And as for scanned identification... There is no chance its legal for Vantrú to decide what I believe in!
ARE YOU INSANE???? NO THANK YOU..ABSOLUTELY NOT.. NOT ME THANK YOU VERY MUCH. THIS KIND OF BULLYING IS UNACCEPTABLE… these people have no power over my faith...I BELIEVE IN THE ALMIGHTY GOD CREATOR OF HEAVEN AND EARTH and I WILL ALWAYS BELIEVE IN HIM
Of course comments like these were ripe for a little goading:
Highly Esteemed Comrade. If you do not want to be a part of Vantrú (the most numerous society in Iceland) you are free to send your disaffiliation to disaffiliatefrom(at)Vantru.is. Remember to also send a scanned copy of your identification.
To be fair, it has to be said that most of the “angry” people got the point in the end when they realized this was satire. Many of them agreed that the current system is unfair and biased. Another fact which lent credibility to the article is that Vantrú does not often do satirical articles and are usually quite serious in public discourse. In the end Vantrú did release a statement to clarify the original post.
A few days later the government opposition party Píratapartýiđ presented a bill to amend the current law. It is not by any means perfect but even so, a good start. Unfortunately it is highly unlikely that the amendment will be ratified. A lot can be said about Vantrú´s stunt, but one thing's for certain: The atheist group absolutely and wholeheartedly got the public’s and government’s attention. With a joke.