Saturday, August 16, 2008

For every Humanist in UK there are 100 Humanists in Norway!

source: IHEU Aug 08 newsletter, pg 25

Proportionally Norway Humanist Association has 100 times more members than BHA & NHS in the UK*!
The distinctive Strategy of Norwegion Humanist Association (NHA) is that:
  • by a 1981 law NHA gain same financial support from Government as religious groups
  • members get a reduced or free price for non-religious ceremonies (presumably people join NHA to get a discounted service?)
  • 10% of youths participate in a Humanist Confirmation ceremony

We do not have separation of government and religion in
Norway today.
We still have a state church with specific
privileges in society, having a firm hold over the mindset
of the people in Norway – usually under the guise of
“our cultural heritage”.
More than 80 percent of the
population are still nominally members of the state
church, even if only less than 10 percent go to church

This situation – a lot of minorities and a church that
wants to treat all people alike – is probably why some
people have been fighting for the rights of religious
minorities for almost two centuries. The Humanists fit
well into this fighting tradition, and have succeeded in
building an organisation based on a few main activities,
with this fight as one of them.
There are less than five
million people living in Norway, but the Norwegian
Humanist Association today has 73,000 members – or
just below two percent of the population.
* NB. This compares with some 8,000 members of BHA and 6,000 members of NSS from a total UK population of 60 million (0.02% of the population). Pro rata Norway Humanist Association has 100 times more members than BHA & NHS in the UK.

We have adopted a strategy that differentiates between
long term principles and short term possibilities. It is not
a formal strategy, but has in practice been used to
address many important questions, which are presented

Over the years, some attempts have been made to
change the Constitution so that the state church system
would be abolished and the church would have to
finance its own activities. None of these attempts have
gained much support, so the Norwegian Humanist
Association, which was founded in 1956, in the 1970s
tried to get the same financial support for its members.

First they tried to change the Religious Societies law to
include also non-religious life-stance societies, but did
not succeed. If the Humanist group had called itself a
religious society it would have been included, but the
Humanists insisted on not being labelled as religious.
Based on the international human rights instruments it
was not difficult to argue for equal treatment of nonreligious
convictions, but the politicians were reluctant to
give the Humanists the same rights as religious groups.

a separate law was made in 1981, which gave
secular life stance groups (which at the time were only
the Humanists) the same financial support as the
religious groups.

And later, when the Humanists were given the right to
perform marriages, this was implemented as a change to
the Marriages Law and not by changing the scope of the
Religious Societies law or the law on financial support
for life stance societies.

Life Stance Groups
And this is the situation we have today. We have three
levels of life stance groups in Norway – the evangelicals
with state church privileges, the other religious societies
and the non-religious life stance groups. And citizens
who do not belong to any of these groups are not
included at all, but the NHA tries to speak for them as
well whenever possible.

We can clearly see that a dream of a
completely secular society in Norway is
still far away. And even if that is still the
long term goal of many Humanists, we
have to fight for many small issues
along the way towards that goal. Most
of those fights are won based on the
principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination by
the government towards its citizens. One common law
for all life stances would be a good step forward.

Humanist Ceremonies
So much for history and the legal battle. Another
important activity for NHA is performing ceremonies.
They are clearly Humanist ceremonies, but are offered
to members and non-members alike, and
members get a
reduced price for the service.

Non-religious funerals have been accepted for quite a
while, even before the NHA was started. Now,
we have
trained funeral officials that perform their job for a fee,
even if the service is free of charge for members.

Religious confirmation was mandatory until 1912, and
more than 93 percent of the youth participated up to
1960. In 1951 Humanist confirmation was established in
Norway, and now more than 10 000 youth participate
each year. This is about 10 percent of the population in
this age group, and religious confirmation has sunk to
about 67 percent.

Baptism is still a strong tradition, even if it is no
longer mandatory. In 1960 almost 97 percent of all
children were still baptised – and thus became members
of the state church. Today this number has sunk to about
74 percent. Celebrating a new baby is not foreign to
Humanists, and a baby naming ceremony has been
developed and is popular today. Humanists are clear
that such a ceremony can well be a private affair within
the family, but offers a ceremony with other parents a
few times a year, around the country.

Marriages have been another area with a huge church
dominance, but the government has offered civil
marriage as an alternative for many years. The
Humanists’ long term goal is that marriage should be a
legal procedure performed by the government only, and
that religious groups and others could give blessings and
celebrate the marriage without the legal part. The civil
marriage ceremony is a solemn, but simple ceremony,
and does not allow the couple to bring many guests. We
have tried to get the government to be more flexible and
to make the civil marriage ceremony more attractive, but
have had very little response. We, therefore, applied for
a license to conduct marriages just as the religious
communities, and got that a few years ago. We also
wanted to perform same-sex marriages, and started with
the partnership ceremony which is as similar to
weddings as possible.

*Roar Johnsen is a vice president of International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and past president of the Norwegian Humanist Association.
International Humanist News August 2008 pg. 25

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