A Secular Welcome to Iceland’s Parliament May 21, 2009

A Secular Welcome to Iceland’s Parliament

My friend Hope Knutsson is president of Sidmennt (The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association).

Her group was all over the news (in Iceland and beyond) this week because of what they did to welcome in their new Parliament — it was an idea hatched and implemented in under 36 hours.

Here’s her story:

The new session of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, is always opened with the Members of Parliament going into the main cathedral in Reykjavik, which is next door to the Parliament building, and sitting through a mass held by the Bishop and some other ministers of the Icelandic Lutheran state church. Afterwards they all parade out of church and into the House of Parliament. After the Icelandic government collapsed recently and elections were held, the new government was established last Sunday and Parliament was convened on Friday. Sidmennt decided to offer a secular alternative to the traditional mass and we invited every Member of Parliament to attend a thought provoking short talk right across the street given by one of our celebrants who is a philosopher, on the subject of the importance of ethics in politics.

We sent announcements to all the media in Iceland and they all picked up on it. We posted it on Facebook as well and and it set the blog world on fire. We have received enormous praise and a groundswell in favor of complete separation of church and state and condemnation of the religious service that has always been connected with the Althing which is an entirely worldly institution. People wrote things like “we need to listen to more philosophers, not more clergy”. Sidmennt’s mottoes are “It’s valuable to have choices” and “It’s all right to be different”.

On Friday we got fabulous media coverage. Every TV and radio station and every newspaper and web news service repeated the news of our event throughout the day. Around 20 people showed up, 4 of whom were very brave new Members of Parliament and one City Council member. Iceland has a total of 63 MPs. One of the MPs who attended our event told us that her party which includes a majority of people in favor of separation of church and state, but also has a handful of religious people one or two of whom are clergymen, exerted enormous pressure on her to NOT come to our event.

Our philosopher gave an excellent 10 minute talk with lots of great advice for politicians and we served coffee and cake in a ritzy private room of a fashionable hotel across the street from the Althing. When we went outside many people praised and congratulated us. We posted the speech on our website, sent it to the media, and said we will continue to offer this alternative to the traditional Parliamentary Mass. There have only been a very few disgruntled believers writing on blogs and criticizing the event.

There were many protest demonstrations in front of the Althing about many issues (mostly about the economic collapse in Iceland) and some of the signs said things like “4 billion kronur Mass” — The state church receives 4 billion Icelandic kronur per year in government funding. Many people at the protest who were interviewed on the news said they thought it was outrageous and inappropriate that Parliament is opened with a religious ceremony in this day and age. The MPs who attended our event said they saw absolutely no reason why religion should be connected in any way with Parliament.

We got an unbelievable amount of free publicity and positive press coverage on this event which was organized in less than 36 hours and have been feeling very proud of ourselves.

I don’t think we will ever see a similar event be as successful in America, but it’s incredible to know this sort of grassroots campaign works.

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  • David D.G.

    Awesome! You folks at the IEHA did a splendid job of showing us how it’s done. Change generally doesn’t happen overnight; congratulations on the progress you made and the positive publicity you achieved.

    ~David D.G.

  • Hank Bones

    Fantastic! Well done Icelandic atheists!

    Is there an English translation of the speech? I’d be interested to read it…

  • Richard Wade

    Four out of 63 MP’s plus one city council member. Even in Iceland, which can boast of the world’s highest percentage of people who accept evolution, the Church still holds an iron grip on the government. I admire Ms. Knutsson’s and Sidmennt’s courage and pluck. Even with that small number of MP’s who are willing to stand up to the Divine Extortion Machine, they are way ahead of the U.S. I hope they keep these activities up.

  • medussa

    Very, very impressive.
    Makes me feel very provincial, here in this cultural and political backwater called the USA…

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