Report from Norway

By Doerr, Edd | The Humanist, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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Report from Norway


Doerr, Edd, The Humanist


Norway is a land of stunningly beautiful mountains and fjords, progressive politics, and gracious, generous people. With living standards similar to those in the United States and a population about the size of Maryland's (a little over four million), Norway devotes ten times as much per capita than the United States in aid to developing countries and is a strong supporter of the United Nations.

The major negative aspect about Norway is its archaic church-state arrangement. Its 1814 constitution states:

   All inhabitants of the realm enjoy the free exercise of religion. The
   religion of the state remains Evangelical-Lutheran. Inhabitants of that
   confession are committed to raising their children in the same.

In practice this means that the Evangelical-Lutheran Church gets government preferment, its clergy are supported from taxes, and the public schools promote the state church, even though church attendance is among the lowest in Europe.

Particularly important in Norway is the confirmation of fourteen-year-old young people every spring. Throughout the country's history, confirmation and the mandatory classes that precede it are vital for finding any sort of decent job or succeeding in one's chosen profession.

Enter the Norwegian Humanist Association (Norsk Human-Etisk Forbund), founded in 1956 by Oslo University biologist Kristian Horn. The association grew rapidly over succeeding decades and now counts about 70,000 people as members--nearly 2 percent of the population. The association receives is proportionate share of the church tax and has become the largest and wealthiest humanist organization in the world. About 20 percent of Norwegians identify themselves as humanists in opinion polls.

Among the Norwegian Humanist Association's goals is an amendment to the state constitution to separate church and state and to guarantee "liberty for all religions and life stances on equal terms." This would entail privatizing the state church, eliminating discrimination against citizens outside the state church, making public schools and kindergartens religiously neutral, and facilitating civil rites-of-passage ceremonies.

A major contribution of the association is sponsorship of civil confirmation (Borgerlig Konfirmasjon) and its accompanying class. In 2001 nearly 9,000 fourteen year olds (about 16 percent of their age cohort) had the civil confirmation--900 in Oslo alone.

On May 6, 2001, following a meeting of the General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, I had the privilege of attending the fifty-year jubilee civil confirmation in the magnificent Oslo city hall. In addition to the seventy confirmands, there were an estimated 600 relatives and guests, including members of the IHEU General Assembly and Executive Committee. A very special guest was Her Royal Highness, Princess Maarta Louise, whose appearance provoked indignation from elements of Norway's religious right (under Norwegian law, members of the royal family are to belong to the state church). The ceremony was televised.

Music for the hour and a half ceremony was provided by the Christiania Brass Ensemble and the Humanist Chorus, both of which were superb.

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