Interview with Hope Knutsson – Former President, Founding Member, and Board Member, Siðmennt (Félag Siðrænna Húmanista)

by | March 22, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Hope Knutsson is the Former President, a Founding Member, and a Board Member of Siðmennt (Félag Siðrænna Húmanista). Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Hope Knutsson: I was born and grew up in New York City, the middle child of 3 sisters, in a secular family with Jewish roots. I feel enormously grateful to my parents for not indoctrinating me with religious myths but emphasizing the importance of education and social responsibility.

My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father, a college graduate who had been accepted into medical school but didn’t go due to the Great Depression, owned a printing company. All 3 of us sisters are college graduates.

I have been a social activist all of my adult life, active in the 1960’s in protesting the war in Vietnam, the Military-Industrial Complex, nuclear power stations, and the inequities of the American health care delivery system. In 1974 I moved to Iceland to help establish a curriculum in occupational therapy at an Icelandic university.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Knutsson: I majored jointly in philosophy and psychology and have a Bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College/City University of NY. I have a Master’s Degree in occupational therapy from Columbia University.

Throughout my life I have read extensively, subscribed to publications, and taken courses in assorted areas of health care, psychotherapy, atheism, and Humanism. I was mentored by the prominent cognitive behavioral therapist, Dr. Arnold Lazarus.

Jacobsen: As a founding member of Siðmennt (Félag Siðrænna Húmanista), why was the organization founded in the first place?

Knutsson: In 1988 I started to organize the first civil confirmation program in Iceland, modeled on the one in Norway.

After the first program was completed in 1990 the families who had been involved in it decided to form an organization for secular ceremonies in order to keep the secular confirmations going and to expand to offering the nation secular baby-namings, weddings, and funerals as well as working towards separate of church and state because Iceland still had and has today, a state church.

This is a bizarre anachronism in a democratic republic. Iceland has in recent years usually been listed in the top ten least religious countries in the world. Siðmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association was founded in 1990. I have been a member of its board ever since and was president for 19 years.

Jacobsen: Why was there a niche for ethical humanism within the context of Iceland?

Knutsson: A very small percentage of Icelanders are religious but most people used the services of the state church clergy because there were no alternatives available. Icelandic clergy are viewed as civil servants, rather than moral leaders.

Siðmennt did a survey of the life stance views of Icelanders in November 2015 and one of the interesting and widely publicized results was that the percentage of young Icelanders who believe that a God created the world was ZERO!

Jacobsen: What are the ethical humanist concerns within Iceland?

Knutsson: Working towards separation of church and state, eliminating Christian proselytizing within the school system and other public places, providing secular alternative ceremonies at the important transition points in life, commenting publicly and holding educational conferences about ethical and human rights issues.

Jacobsen: How has Siðmennt (Félag Siðrænna Húmanista) developed over time, as you have seen the trajectory into over a couple thousand members now?

Knutsson:  Just for background information: the total population of Iceland is only 350,000. After the first 2 decades of its existence Siðmennt had around 300 members. We lobbied Icelandic MPs for almost a decade to get equal legal status and funding with religious organizations.

In 2013 the law about religious organizations was finally amended and granted life stance organizations equal status. Siðmennt applied to be registered under the new law and in May of that year we became the first legally registered life stance organization in Iceland. Since that time our membership has grown by leaps and bounds and is now close to 3000.

Siðmennt has been running the secular confirmation program for 31 years and it has grown from 16 teenagers the first year to 542 now in 2019. This winter we are holding 24 classes in critical thinking/ethics/human rights/human relations and 14 ceremonies in various parts of the country in the spring.

We have around 50 trained celebrants who conduct baby-namings, weddings, and funerals. The demand for our ceremonies has snowballed. In 2018 we conducted 396 ceremonies, which is a 15% increase over the previous year. We conducted 13 confirmations for 470 kids, 123 baby-namings, 248 weddings, and 12 funerals.

Siðmennt is one of the leading groups working for separation of church and state. Another high priority is getting religious proselytizing out of the public schools. Fortunately there are hardly any faith schools in Iceland. Siðmennt holds conferences and seminars on a wide variety of human rights and ethical issues. We also have an annual Humanist of the Year award along with an award for science education.

Jacobsen: Who are the leading writers and thinkers within the ethical humanist tradition?

Knutsson: Do you mean the classical internationally known ones? Or our local ones? Our local living scholars are: Jóhann Björnsson, Sigurður Hólm Gunnarsson, and Svanur Sigurbjörnsson.

Jacobsen: As we move into a world with rising authoritarianism and demagoguery with women’s rights as one of the first considerations of both of those forces for being axed, what can the international ethical humanist, secularist, and, indeed, feminist movements do to attenuate and reverse the corrosive social and legal effects of the aforementioned rising authoritarianism and demagoguery?

Knutsson: Siðmennt has held both local seminars and conferences about the rise of populism and will be hosting an international conference that includes these issues in June.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with donation of time, addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Knutsson: Are you asking about local people or people abroad?

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Knutsson: No.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Hope.

Knutsson: You are very welcome.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Image Credit: Hope Knuttson.

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