Interview with Sigurður Rúnarsson on Icelandic and Norwegian Humanism

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Sigurður Rúnarsson was born in Iceland in 1974 and works as a humanist officiant for both Siðmennt (The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association) since 2013 and HEF (The Norwegian Humanist Association) from 2015. He was on the board of HEF in Drammen and Lier (Norway) local affiliate and served as a board member alternate for Buskerud county affiliate in Norway. He now lives in Oslo, Norway, but works both in Iceland and Norway.

Here we talk about some of the cultures of Norway and Iceland, and the ways in which this can be influential on the forms of humanism, gender equality progress, and the like.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I went to Iceland last year in the Summer. All light during the day; mostly light-ish during the night with pubs and bars open until 4:00 am or later – completely baffling and incomprehensible to a North American and, as I was told by Europeans, to Europeans. Also, a super gender-equal country by most metrics, as I found out based on conversations with many Icelandic women and looking at the real statistics. The public opinion matches the statistical rankings of gender equality – truly a remarkable achievement. How does this gender equality and openness of the people and tourism create the basis for a global, internationalist outlook on the world in Iceland?

Sigurður Rúnarsson: We have been going from Christian opening hours to more normal humans [Laughing]…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Rúnarsson: …opening hours for restaurants and bars. So, that’s what really has been happening in Iceland for the last 30 years because we have been so tightly connected to the church, the state church. We cannot have restaurants, bars, and clubs open on Good Friday. We cannot have them open on Easter Day, and so on. Because we have been very tightly connected with the Christian religion and the church. So, to address that, it is the state furthering itself from the Christian values in many ways. Because when I was younger, we had to close at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock. But it is getting longer and longer opening hours for the clubs. Things are changing. We are distancing ourselves from the religion.

Jacobsen: How is this influencing the way young people talk about religion?

Rúnarsson: In Iceland, and, actually, in Norway too, young people do not talk that much about religion. They’re not very connected with religion. Until, it comes to the age of about 14 years old, when they are supposed to be confirmed. Religion, for young people, if that’s the question, is not something people talk about or practice in Iceland. So, in many ways, it is like a private club somewhere in the background. There are some people practicing the religion. But many people who are doing that; they are doing this very privately. They don’t boast about it, don’t tell others about, even if they go to young Christian camps, which we still have. It is not very much spoken about. People don’t talk about it in school. It is a private thing. It is getting more and more unusual or special to be very religious in many ways. Young people try to steer away from talks.

Jacobsen: I want to focus on gender equality too. Because most religions through most of the last several thousand years have had an emphasis on not being fair or equal to women. Iceland, according to the World Economic Forum, has been the most gender-equal country in the world for many years, probably almost a decade straight. Obviously, this is a conscious move and affects culture. I can give a personal example. When I was in the pubs in Iceland, it was a common and casual thing: if a guy likes a gal, he buys her a drink, which is normal in North America and expected, but the reverse was also the case. If a girl liked a guy, she would buy him a drink. So, it was less a gender thing and more, “Do you like this person? Do you make an offer to them?” It was different. Is gender equality part of the erosion of religious traditionalism?

Rúnarsson: I think the short answer is, “Yes.” I think the long answer is, “Women don’t want to be owned anymore.”

Jacobsen: Right.

Rúnarsson: They don’t want to be in debt or get the feeling that they owe a man something because of all of the drinks. I think we have come so far in equality in Iceland. It is not about religion anymore. It is about the independence of the woman. The women, they are exactly the same free spirit as men. They can do what they like with their mind, body, and soul. They can have boyfriends and lovers. They can choose to buy a guy a drink. They don’t owe anybody anything. This is more to do with the independence of the woman. In the last years with the Me Too revolution, but it started much sooner in Iceland, women went out and fought for equal pay. They fought for an equal pension. All of those things. We have gone through them for the lost 30 or 40 years. You are seeing something today at the bars; a process that has been boiling for 40 or 50 years in Iceland. You are seeing very strong, independent women who take matters into their own hands. They go by the Iceland women’s strong spirit. Definitely, Iceland women possess it.

Jacobsen: At the University of Iceland bookstore, one of the gentlemen behind the counter recommended a book to me. I think it was called Independent People. I did buy it. It was by Laxness.

Rúnarsson: [Laughing] By Halldór Laxness, yes, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Jacobsen: I was told this was the most famous or prominent late/deceased author in Iceland. He told me, “This particular author really got the heart of what Iceland is, Icelandic people are, truly about.” I think it goes right to the point that you’re making in terms of the evolution over the last 30 to 40 years of independent people.

Rúnarsson: Yes.

Jacobsen: That really encapsulated a lot of my experience there. It really did.

Rúnarsson: I think, without being a book critic, and I have read this book, but not in recent years, that he is writing about how the men and the fathers control everything. In the book, in a clever way, he is talking about how the mothers and the women control a lot without it being at the forefront. So, women’s equality, he is dipping his toe into it. This is very early, the last century. So, he is, actually, describing the beginning of women’s evolution or revolution. I think, in many ways, Iceland as in other countries, like in Africa, and so on, the mothers have always controlled things a lot, e.g., the ‘big mommas’ or whatever you call this – when the mother controls the home, the food, the food supplies, the children, and the men are more outside working. This is very early 1920 to 1935, where this book is written and taking place in Iceland in the early 20th century. You can probably see this in the book. But I don’t have the details. This is starting there. I don’t know if this is the same feeling that you get. When we Icelanders read it, we definitely see a man writing the book. But he is definitely talking about how the mothers and grandmothers are teaching their children and grandchildren how to do their job, how to do the work of the farm, even speaking the Icelandic language correctly.

Jacobsen: Fishing still is a big, but was a much bigger, part of the economy.

Rúnarsson: Fishing hasn’t really reduced in the last 50 years. But we have had other export industries that have grown bigger. Fishing is as big as it was before. But we have had other IT, medical, and, of course, tourism, starting to be bigger than fishing export. Fishing is, definitely, as big as before. At least, we are catching as much cod as before. We have had other technological advantages, as well as tourism being much bigger in Iceland than it was.

Jacobsen: How about tourism? Is this a big industry and a way in which there’s an internationalist view of the world, but by Icelanders?

Rúnarsson: I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I think Icelanders are very well informed. They watch a lot of foreign TV. We have always watched TV in the original language and with text instead of dubbing. We have seen a lot of TV from the States. We have seen a lot of TV from the UK. We have seen a lot of TV from the Nordic countries, from Germany. We are very well informed about international politics. I am not sure how big the tourism industry has done for us. I think this comes from within the Icelandic soul and from within the Icelandic culture. We’ve always been explorers in many ways. Before, we got a lot of our international information from Denmark because Denmark used to be our mother country until 1944. We had a Danish crown over us until 1944 in the Second World War. Copenhagen used to be our capital city. That’s just in recent years. For example, with my grandparents, they remember that. So, before, we got all the information from Scandinavia, mainly from Denmark. After the information revolution, we started to see Sky News, CNN, and Al Jazeera. We have Icelandic News Television. In many ways, we are interested in the world. We have always looked for information. We have never been closed in our small country.

Now, I am talking about the last 30 years. Before, we only got the information from the capital city of Copenhagen in Denmark. In the last 50 years, we’ve been educating our students abroad. We sent them to universities; or, they have chosen to go to universities abroad. They go on to academic teaching and working, e.g., doctors, historians, and whatnot. We are very interested in what’s happening in the world. We have always, some percentage of us, been up to date in everything in international politics. For example, let’s just say, India, everyone was watching what was happening when she was running for office or Putin when he was going from the presidency to be the prime minister and from being prime minister to being president. We were always watching international politics, of other countries. Let’s not forget the States, we are very interested in what happens in the States, in the pre-caucuses, and have been for many years. So, tourism is only expanding in the last 10, 15, or 20 years. I don’t think that we get our information from tourists or because of the tourists. I think we started much earlier doing that.

Jacobsen: What do you consider the sensibilities of Iceland that are easily aligned, now, with Humanism? What values of Iceland are similar to the values of Humanism?

Rúnarsson: I think, in many ways, my previous answer to the interest with international things, international politics and discussions, are also a primer to this. In many ways, we are very taken by technology, very taken by science in everything, of course, nature, and religion. You could say, “Where science deepens the theories of Christianity,” for example, “about the Earth, the weather, the plagues, medicine, and many things.” So, I think when you have a nation, which is much better than before. People start to wonder, “Why are we believing in a book – Bible (New Testament, Old Testament)?” It is just storybooks, like Hansel and Gretel. It is just storybooks. After they grow up, you could say; they grow out of this – we call it – “children’s belief in God.” Somehow, the children believe in God, but not the parents. But the parents allow them. I think many parents have, in many ways, relaxed about it. Because the parents found out when they grew up. They just went away from this religious belief and thing. Children, somehow, do this when they get older.  I think the answer is that people are aligning with the humanist take on life, the human, and the world – the mind, science, not least all the beautiful things in the world like music and art. We have a relaxed attitude against everything.

The humanists in Iceland are not very extreme. They take part in public talks about the church and religion, but not very extreme. They do a lot of services to the people or to their congregation. They do naming conventions, confirmations (coming of age), weddings and do funerals. They are providing these essential services and ceremonies to the people, where people can relax and go on with, if you can say, a typical ceremony without the burden of religion. I think, in many ways, Iceland started the humanist revolution in Iceland with – we call it – “a citizen confirmation,” where a 14-year-old girl. What do you call this in English, “Coming of age”? Many people were enlightened. They didn’t need to go through the church system or back to the church. Their parents hadn’t been in their church for many years. A part of the success of the humanists in Iceland and the reason that people are aligning with them is that they have a relaxed attitude against procedures and religion. But they are still doing ceremonies in a way that the people want to have them done. Siðmennt humanists have taken a position in some cases on assisted death, opening hours of public places that I mentioned at the beginning of the interview – opening hours of restaurants and bars, how we are not able to play Bingo on Friday and such.

They have been trying to take part in public discussions and telling the governments to relax a little bit with the old law that banned this and that on Easter days and Christmas days. For example, there are not many years since we weren’t allowed to have restaurants open on Christmas Day. Then we had already started Christmas trips to Iceland for foreigners. We have had problems finding a restaurant for travellers.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Rúnarsson: Because out of religious belief, we are not allowed to be open on Christmas Day, Long Friday, and Easter Day, and so on. So, it was very strange, very old-fashioned thinking. We needed to correct it; and, we did. So, it is much better now. The humanists have been taking a lead in some or, actually, many of the discussions, where rules and regulations are still built on church rules or religious rules. I think humanists are aligned with the thinking of many people in Iceland. I think that’s part of the magic that has happened with the humanists in the later years.

Jacobsen: How is the humanist community in Norway?

Rúnarsson: The humanist community in Norway is big and well known amidst the Norwegian people. The Norwegian Humanist Association has, as of 2018, over 90,000 members registered in the organization.

Jacobsen: How is the humanist community in Iceland? How do these two compare to one another?

Rúnarsson: In March 2007 a giant step towards this goal was taken when Baard Thalberg, one of the leaders/trainers at the Norwegian Humanist Association’s ceremonies service came and held a training program for Icelandic celebrants. The course was aimed primarily at training celebrants for secular funerals but also covered baby namings and weddings. Of the 10 Icelanders who undertook this training, 6 of them became the first official Siðmennt celebrants when our ceremonies service was inaugurated in May 2008. Siðmennt has run several training programs in recent years and now has 25 celebrants.

Jacobsen: How does one become a humanist officiant?

Rúnarsson: I got to know of humanist ceremonies through my upbringing in Reykjavik. Siðmennt  – the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association was founded in February 1990, a year after a group organized the first coming of age education program or civil confirmation (Icel. borgaraleg ferming) in Iceland.

Even though, I did not take part in their ceremony; I always found this new approach to teenagers fascinating and heard of many that went through their course.

Later, Siðmennt started offering celebrant for civil funerals and weddings. And it was in 2010 that my brother and his fiancée where married in a humanist ceremony at Geysir in Iceland by a humanist celebrant on behalf of Siðmennt.

In 2013 I was working at a funeral home as a funeral director as I hade done from 1990 when I was 16 years old in my family business.

That year we got surprisingly many requests for funerals without priests or a church being involved. We arranged for that and some ceremonies were conducted by a humanist celebrant and somewhere just conducted by us, the funeral directors and family member. After this experience, I contacted Siðmennt and met with them. I signed up for the course they were starting for new humanist celebrants in the fall of 2013 and graduated a few months later with a diploma and a license from the Icelandic government, arranged for by Siðmennt as a registered secular life stance organization, to officiate weddings. The following week I got my first chance to conduct a funeral for a woman and soon after that, I had my first naming convention for a young girl. This was the start of my career as a humanist officiant both in Iceland and Norway.

I’m still doing humanist ceremonies today. 2019 was a very busy year for me as I conducted over 20 humanist ceremonies in Iceland and Norway, both wedding and naming conventions, where over 70 children got a name. 2020 is already looking to be the busiest as I have 10 weddings already booked until Christmas 2020.

More ceremonies will follow, but naming ceremonies in Iceland tend to be booked with very short notice.

The custom in Iceland for naming ceremonies is to hold one ceremony for every child, and they are either held in the home of the parents or family member or in a small venue like a hotel or community halls.

In Norway the procedure is different. There the parent’s book in advance on one of the prearranged naming convention days of one of the local branches of the Human-Etisk Forbund (The Norwegian Humanist Association) and up to 10 children are joined with parents and family in a public ceremony in one of the community halls.

Jacobsen: What makes a humanist ceremony aligned with the principles of Humanism? What are the necessities and negotiables of humanist ceremonies?

Rúnarsson: People can choose ceremonies, which are purely secular or those which also contain Humanistic values. Our naming conventions do not involve inducting the child into our life stance organization, the way baptism involves induction into a religious organization. Siðmennt discourages people from enrolling babies and children into life stance organizations until the age of 16. For this reason, our civil confirmation program does not require joining Siðmennt and is open to everyone. Neither our naming conventions nor our confirmations require any oath or commitment to follow any leader or accept any dogma, as is done in Christian confirmations.

Siðmennt supports human dignity, human rights, and a broad-minded diverse secular society.

Jacobsen: What have been some intriguing requests and outcomes for some humanist ceremonies?

Rúnarsson: The vast and changeable nature of Iceland, the venues in Iceland, the clothes we the celebrants wear. Standing on a stone or a cliff, near bubbling volcanic waters and blue lagoons, the gazing wind, the rain and snowstorm, performing and conducting the ceremonies in sync with the magnificent nature and unpredictable and ever-changing weather.

Over 50% of weddings conducted by Siðmennt, in 2019, was for foreign citizens travelling for the sole purpose of getting married there. Many of them only travel alone and have nobody from their family or friends circle.

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

Rúnarsson: Many of the things that I have already said also apply with Norway. I think, in many ways, this is Scandinavian thinking. Of the four Nordic countries, Denmark and Sweden have not gone as far as Iceland and Norway. So, but there is more to be done in this part of the world, the humanists in Scandinavia and the Nordic countries need to work more together and put pressure on governments to relax in the same way that the governments in Norway and Iceland have done. That’s probably my special take on the matter because I worked in Norway and Iceland.

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

Rúnarsson: Sure! You can find more information here: https://Siðmennt.is/english/history/.

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

Canadian Atheist 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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican AtheistsAmerican Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Sigurður Rúnarsson.

One thought on “Interview with Sigurður Rúnarsson on Icelandic and Norwegian Humanism

  1. Thank you.

    What about homegrown pre-Christian traditions? Is the version of Christianity practised in Iceland and Norway influenced by them? Certainly there are local traditions that say a Coptic Christian or other versions nearer the geographic origin of Christianity would not recognize.

    Also, the traditions of local Indigenous peoples like the Saami?

    (Agreed, by the way, we women don’t want to be owned. At least, I don’t know any who openly want that. Do men want to be owned by women? Doubt it. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world.)

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