Iceland is a fascinating place for reasons geologic, geographic, linguistic, and cultural. Add to the list that it’s one of the least religious nations on Earth.
Unlike most of secular Europe, this isn’t a recent development. Prominent Icelandic expressions of nonbelief extend nearly a thousand years into the past. To gaze into the soul of a culture, look at their legends, the stories they tell about themselves. For Iceland, that would be the Sagas of Icelanders.
Consisting mostly of refugees from Norway in the 9th century, the earliest Icelanders brought Norse paganism along with them. The official religion became Christianity, though many of the settlers retained their pagan beliefs. And whenever two prominent religions cohabitate, a third strain of nonbelief is usually found nestling between them.
The first of the Sagas were written in the 13th century, at the tail end of a period wracked by violence and political uncertainty, and describe life in Iceland from the earlier period just after the Norse explorers had settled it. Among the most popular is the Saga of Hrafnkell.
Hrafnkell’s Saga tells of a warrior chief, Hrafnkell, who worships Freyr, the Norse god of such lovely things as wealth, sunshine, and sex. Hrafnkell gives Freyr his best offerings and constant devotion, even building a grand temple to the god. Despite all this devotion, Hrafnkell is attacked by an enemy, his temple burned, and he and his people enslaved.
“It is folly to believe in gods,” he says, vowing never to perform another sacrifice. Stories of lost faith in hard times are easy to come by, and you can usually count on the hero to experience a sudden epiphany that leads him back to the fold before the closing credits. But Hrafnkell’s Saga takes an unexpected turn: He escapes slavery, spares the life of his captor in exchange for freedom, and lives his life in peace and contentment without gods.
The most famous contributor to the Icelandic Sagas was the wonderfully-named Snorri Sturleson. In addition to leading the nation’s parliament and writing history, Snorri was a mythographer, a gatherer of myths and beliefs. And interestingly, Snorri came to precisely the same conclusion as the mythographer Euhemerus of Crete about the origin of god belief: Human warrior chiefs and kings were venerated in life, then venerated in death, then gradually became venerated as gods.
The more contact a person has with human mythmaking, the more he or she seems to see the man behind the curtain.
It’s unsurprising that Hrafnkell remains among the most beloved and widely-read of the Sagas of Icelanders among Icelanders today. Though most are nominally Lutheran, fully 60 percent of Icelandic respondents in a 2011 Gallup poll said religion is unimportant in their daily lives. It’s a number that is certain to have increased since then, making Iceland one of the least religious countries on Earth.