Iceland: Petri Dish of European Secularism

In the northwest corner of Europe lies the small island nation of Iceland. Its flag, similar to other Scandinavian flags, bears a giant cross, and the country has an official church called the Church of Iceland. Don’t be fooled, though—Iceland is one of the most irreligious, secular nations in the world.


By now the world is used to secularism as a feature of European life. It is most prominent in Western and Central Europe, where it has essentially been chosen as the way to go by the population, but it’s also heavily present in Eastern Europe owing mostly to the decades-long grip of atheistic communism. Having lived through the brutal repression of religion during the Cold War, Eastern Europe is actually seeing somewhat of a religious revival, mostly of Orthodox Christianity. However, the decline of religious life in Central and Western Europe, especially in countries like the UK, Germany, and Sweden, shows no sign of reversing. Christianity is being slowly replaced by Islam in many areas of the above-mentioned countries, and others. While Iceland is no exception to the trend of secularism, there is one big difference that separates Icelandic secularism from that of the Continent.


Iceland has a population of only about 351,000 people. It’s also among the nations at the very bottom of the list of European countries that have taken asylum seekers or migrants from the Middle East. While there is some immigration in Iceland, it’s mostly from other European countries like Poland. This is a key difference between Iceland and countries like Germany, France, and the UK, which have taken record numbers of Muslim immigrants. A quick scroll through European headlines since 2015 easily reveals the chaos from terrorism and issues of non-assimilation that those countries have brought upon themselves.


Iceland, however, does not have this problem. Muslim immigration is so low there that there is practically no risk of terrorism. To me, there appears to be a very strong relationship between the de-Christianization of continental Europe and the importation of Islam. Viewed as two ends of a spectrum, we would see Europe (Central & Western specifically) heading toward the Islamic end of the spectrum. The midpoint where Europe is both the most secular and the least Islamic is the last glimpse we get of the effects of European secularism. Now, the picture is muddied by the growth of Islam, and we no longer see how pure European secularism plays out in the long run, beyond a desire for massive immigration into a culture that has no will to sustain itself.


With Iceland, however, since there is such low immigration from the Middle East, we will (unless immigration increases) actually get to see European secularism reach a non-Islamic endpoint. We will finally get to see how well the European secularist system really works. I for one am not optimistic. One noticeable characteristic of Iceland, other than its heavy secularism, is the high illegitimacy rate, which is the highest of any European country. It sounds strange, but it’s true. In 2014, 70% of births in Iceland were outside of wedlock. Americans are used to hearing numbers like that only in our inner cities like Baltimore or New York. But no, this is Iceland, a world apart, dotted with its picturesque seaside houses.


From what I’ve read in research put out by the International Organization for the Family, there is basically no stigma at all left for having a child out of wedlock. And this is not a brand new phenomenon; in 1980 Iceland’s illegitimacy rate was 40%, which was at the time still extremely high.  It seems as though that 1980s generation took to heart what it saw at home and perpetuated it.


The question is, how far will this go? What happens if the illegitimacy rate reaches 90%? There are countless studies showing the importance of the stability of a married man and woman raising their kids together. Take that stability out of the picture and what happens? We’ve certainly seen how it contributes to gang participation and crime in our inner cities. But so far Iceland doesn’t seem to have issues like that on any noticeable scale. How long will it take for the generational effects of not having married parents kick in in Iceland, and what will it look like?


Iceland’s illegitimacy rate and its effects on the next generation is probably the foremost social trend to watch, with dwindling religiosity coming in second, in the small island nation. There, in this snowy petri dish, noticeably absent of Islamic influence, we will finally get to see how European secularism really ends up.

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