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Missionaries or Museum-Keepers?

International Atheist Conference in Reykjavik Iceland June 24 & 25, 2006
Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson’s speech:

During my happy student days at Edinburgh University in the early sixties (the 20ieth century, to be sure) I once had the opportunity to attend the Labour Party annual conference as a representative of a radical student organization. I still remember the opening ceremony as vividly as if it had happened yesterday.

After a few words of welcome the mayor of the seaside resort solemnly said prayer. Then the whole assembly of socialist delegates rose from their seats and sang „God save the Queen“. Finally the party chairman stepped forward and delivered an emotional socialist pep talk, sprinkled with fiery phrases emanating from the barricades of the French revolution:

Again the delegates jumped to their feet and with clenched fists sang „Internationale“.
Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant
(The last line has nothing to do with the German philosopher Kant, but everything to do with our usual cant….)
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We’ll change henceforth the old tradition etc., etc., etc..

This was quite a spectacle. Here we had the advance troupes of the army of emancipation from the oppressive feudal and plutocratic past, simultaneously singing hymns in honour of the awkward remnants of autocracy, with its mandate from heaven, and at the same time demonstrating their intellectual kinship with the enlightenment and the French revolution, against „the old tradition“.

I must admit I felt rather bewildered and did not immediately know what to make of it. At first I thought it had something to do with being peculiarly British; the peculiar British way of absorbing old customs and never letting go, even long after those customs have become empty shells, devoid of content or intellectual meaning. Rather like observing a parruced judge in some tropical ex-colony of the Empire or watching the discomfort of the Speaker of the House of Commons, sitting on his 14th century wool-sack.

But then I thought about my own countrymen’s peculiar way of dealing with our Christian heritage. Since you have come here presumably to celebrate the value of intellectual freedom – including the freedom from religious indoctrination – you might as well know a bit about it.

One thousand and six years ago Christianity was adopted as a state religion in this country. This came about by a decree issued by the speaker of Althingi (the parliament) and was accepted by consensus in order to stave off an imminent threat of civil war.

Better Christian than dead, they said. This was simply a political decision imposed by practical necessity. Henceforth Icelanders should be nominally Christian, but remain free to worship the old pagan gods in private, if not actually caught in the act by witnesses. Since then we have been exactly that: Nominally Christian.

The Lutheran church is still today the favoured old time state religion. In practice this means that the church is run by the state and church officials, the clergymen, are, just like any other public employees, paid by the state (i.e. the tax-payers). Religious freedom is nominally preserved in as much as you are free to resign from the ranks – to opt out – and thus deprive the church of your part of the tax money. Actually very few Icelanders bother to opt out. It is not an issue likely to awaken an animated theological debate among Icelanders.
As a matter of fact most Icelanders seem to look upon the church the same way as they do any other state institution, such as the county library or the day-care center down town. Every family has at one time or another to seek out the services of the local church on important family occasions: The children have to be baptized; the adolescents need to be initiated into adulthood; and the adults have to be married, divorced and ultimately buried. Apart from those basic services the churches stand mostly empty all year round. The exceptions are Christmas, the New Year and Easter, seasonal highlights which also happen to correspond closely to ancient pagan feasts. Becoming nominally Chri?tian didn’t change us a lot, after all.

Separation of church and state – and with it the abolition of the ecclesiastical monopoly of knowledge – was at the heart of the enlightenment and the Western tradition of intellectual freedom, scientific enquiry and emancipation from superstitions. And it is one of the cornerstones of the US Constitution, unanimously agreed by the founding fathers of the new world, in their infinite wisdom. The lack of it, the fusion of politics and religion, is one of the scourges of the modern world, an abominable formula for intolerance, fanaticism and violence, if ever there was one.

Why then is there a more or less tacit approval in this country of this co-existence between church and state, despite this de facto infringement of the principle of religious freedom and non-discrimination? I suspect the unspoken reason is the following: By nationalizing the church the state has turned it into a docile icon of our common cultural heritage, side by side with other conventional state institutions such as the National Museum of History, culture, folk-lore etc. And as long as people feel that they need the church’s services and are ready to pay for it, they are less likely to be attracted by sectarian groups of religious fanatics, who are peddling their particular kind of salvation in the market place, a la the born again US commercial TV-crusaders.

Perhaps the Church of England, the Anglican Church and the British Monarchy have come to serve a similar function as benign icons of a common cultural tradition, rather than being religious crusaders or salvation mongers as of old. Perhaps that is why secular Europe – with its spectacular churches standing empty all year round, except for throngs of tourists enjoying those pieces of art, the sculptures, the paintings and the music – perhaps that is why secular Europe is such a peaceful place at long last.

Despite our rather disreputable past we, the descendants of the Vikings in the Nordic countries, tend to think that we invented the peace. After almost continuous tribal warfare during most of our known history, we have been at peace amongst ourselves for the past two hundred years. Although we have been attacked by major powers (Germany and the Soviet Union) all internal conflicts have been solved peacefully. Sometimes we get the feeling that we are an oasis of peace and tranquility in a world engulfed by violence. That’s why we are, happily, never in the news. Switch on the daily TV news and what is it all about? Religious fanatics massacring each other in the name of their God. A few years ago – in Europe’s backyard – orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians massacred each other, and if their atrocities were not directly inspired by their faith, they were at least justified by it. In the Middle-East, orthodox Jews take it literally from the Old Testament that their rather ill-tempered God gave the land of Palestine to them for eternity and that this heavenly real-estate deal places the state of Israel beyond and above the law and the normal rules of engagement in conflicts. And in return Muslim fanatics declare holy wars against infidels wherever they can be caught and executed in the name of Allah. And the present occupant of the most powerful office in the world, a born-again religious convert, tries to justify his illegal invasion of Iraq and the murderous anarchy he has let loose in the land, by saying that it is inspired by his God.

„Peace upon Earth!“ was said: We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison gas.
This is how Thomas Hardy remembered the indiscriminate slaughtering of Europe’s youth on the killing fields of the First World War. This was the war, by the way, which signified the beginning of the long decline of Western civilization. Perhaps the clash of civilizations is not necessarily inevitable, nonetheless. For the first time in its known history secular Europe, with its empty churches, is at peace with itself and the ?est of the world.

How long will it take mankind to turn their crusading dogmas into docile monuments of our distant past? There are strong indications that we do not have a whole eternity to learn from our past futile crusades.

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

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