Religion and Politics – The Icelandic Experiment
Keywords:Study of Religion, Iceland
In a comment on Richard F. Tomasson’s 1980 book about Iceland, the American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset notes that Tomasson ‘traces the ways in which Icelandic culture developed out of the medieval pre-Christian society – in its language, relations between the sexes, egalitarianism and the high frequency of illegitimate births. He also points out the areas of contradictions and discontinuity, noting that Iceland has been transformed in the twentieth century by modernization of the society and international influences upon the culture.’ The purpose of this essay is to give a more in-depth analysis of some of Tomasson’s observations with regard to the status and role of religion in this society. Iceland appears to be a very secular society, but up to very recent times, the national church had a strong position in Icelandic society, and its participation in the life-rituals of families, in national festivals, and in local rituals and festivities has been considered self-evident by the authorities and a large majority of the people. A very homogeneous culture and strong nationalism have a role here to play, but there were also seeds of individualism and pragmatism which may have led the way to differentiation and secularization. Secularization and modernization went hand in hand with the national liberation movement, but nevertheless the national church also made a major contribution to the nation-state building process. It would seem that the Icelanders have throughout their history been more political than religious – and often they seem to have been tolerant in religious and moral issues but fundamentalists in political matters. At least it seems profitable to analyse the reli- gious history of Iceland – the conversion of Iceland at the Alþingi in the summer of 1000; the Reformation in the mid-16th century, and the rapid process of modernization in Iceland – in the context of the political history. Foreigners have often wondered about the liberal attitude of Icelanders in relation to premarital sex, and often they ask why spiritualism and belief in elves and hidden people seem to have survived modernization and secularization. Other possible paradoxes include the very recent appearance of non-Christian religions, such as the Asa faith (which is supposed to revive the pre-Christian religion in Iceland), Islam and Buddhism. And how are we to understand the general support, even among the clergy, for same-sex marriages? In my essay I will try to contextualize these and related questions into an overall picture of the religious history of the Icelandic people.
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