The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In this country, literally no young Christians believe that God created the Earth

The spire of Hallgrimskirkja church stands above residential and commercial property on the city skyline in Reykjavik. (Arnaldur Halldorsson/ Bloomberg)
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LONDON — If you happen to have the chance to talk to young Icelanders about their religious beliefs, be prepared for a surprise. Exactly zero percent of respondents in a recent survey said they believe that God created the Earth.

Only 20 years ago, nearly 90 percent of all Icelanders were religious believers. Today, less than 50 percent are.

With its growing number of non-believers, Iceland is distinct from much of the rest of the world, as a recent Gallup International and WI Network of Market Research poll found. In fact, internationally, those younger than 34 tended to be more religious than older citizens -- especially in Africa and the Middle East, where eight out of 10 people consider themselves to be religious.

In the United States, a 2014 Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 said they believed that God created "humans in present form within the last 10,000 years." The numbers might not be directly comparable because some Christians believe both in the Big Bang theory and God's role. But even as the number of young believers in the United States declines, Christianity has maintained a strong influence there.

So, why are young Icelanders so different from much of the rest of the world?

"Secularization [in Iceland] has occurred very quickly, especially among younger people," said Bjarni Jonsson, the managing director of the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, an atheist nongovernmental organization. "With increased education and broad-mindedness, change can occur quickly."

Despite the trend, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is still the country's declared state church. Solveig Anna Boasdottir, a professor at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Iceland, agreed that scientific progress had changed religious attitudes in the country. But she said that about 40 percent of the country's younger generation still consider themselves Christian -- but none of them believe that God created the Earth. "Theories of science are broadly accepted among both young and old. That does not necessarily affect people’s faith in God," she said.

According to Boasdottir, the study has been widely discussed by Icelandic priests on Facebook. "As far as I have seen they are [neither] surprised nor [shocked by] the results. They see no necessary opposition between believing in God and accepting scientific theories on creation of the world."

Indeed, the survey also found that nearly 40 percent of Icelanders thought that science and religion should both be used to analyze existential questions.

Rather than simply reflecting an increasing secularization of Iceland, the research suggests the emergence of a more science-based Christian belief. Most experts, however, would agree that the survey also indicates that the Evangelical Lutheran Church's influence is a rapidly diminishing in Iceland. "Results within the survey indicate that the state church holds a weak position in Icelandic society," Jonsson said.

As of last year, about 75 percent of Iceland's inhabitants were registered members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. However, as recent polls suggest, a significant number consider themselves to be non-believers or atheists. Until 2013, newborn babies were automatically registered with their mother's church. Moreover, all Icelanders -- even atheists -- have to pay a tax that is distributed among 40 religious institutions, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church. That is why, until recently, there was little reason to even bother to officially drop out of the Church.

But last year, thousands of Icelanders suddenly joined the ancient Zuist movement -- a religion centered on worshiping Sumerian gods. Within two weeks, almost one percent of the country's population (about 3,000 people) had signed up. Some of the new Zuist members might have been less interested in the movement's spiritual goals than in an announcement that the Zuist church would pay its members the amount of money they were taxed (about $80 per year).

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