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A newly released Icelandic study indicates that this increasingly irreligious Atlantic island southeast of Greenland may be an unbelief harbinger for the currently more faithful United States.

The new study shows that Iceland is moving resolutely toward atheism, while religiosity among Americans has also been notably sliding—if at a less breakneck pace than Iceland—for decades.

The study by polling firm Maskína for Siðmennt, The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, an alliance of the nation’s atheists, found that fewer than half (46.4 percent) of long-secularizing Icelanders now self-identify as religious. The harbingers of change in Iceland, as in the U.S., are young adults, who comprise both societies’ least religious demographic by far.

Among Icelanders younger than 25, none—literally 0.0 percent—believe in God. Nearly 94 percent of them believe the universe’s creation was a wholly material process, the Big Bang theory of current scientific consensus; the other 6 percent harbor other material hypotheses or don’t care. Even among Icelandic millennials (people roughly aged 25-44), religious skepticism is high if not absolute, with 77 percent leaning toward the Big Bang and only 10.1 percent believing in God. The only demographic without a majority accepting the universal materiality of the cosmos is people older than 44.

Overall in the U.S., according to the most recent Pew Research Center “Religious Landscape Study” released in 2017, 83 percent of Americans now say they believe in God (compared, as noted above, to only 46.4 percent of Icelanders). That includes 63 percent who are “absolutely certain” and 20 percent who are only “fairly certain.” Recurring surveys show that the intensity of certainty has been eroding for years. Nearly a quarter of Americans today are identified as “nones,” a designation that includes committed atheists and doubting agnostics (7.1 percent of all “nones”), agnostics and people unaffiliated with any religion.

As in the U.S., rural Icelanders tended to be more religious than those within the country’s sole metropolitan hub in and around the nation’s largest city, Reykjavík. Up to 90 percent of rural Icelandic folk are Christian believers, and most of the rest atheist. Only 56.2 percent of citizens within the metro area identify as God believers and 31.4 percent as atheist. In the U.S., the quickening trend is that people are moving from the countryside to more secular cities.

Iceland is an oddity among Western nations—a largely irreligious democracy that still quaintly continues to impose religious taxes on its citizens through parish fees as part of income taxes. The nation has a government-supported state church: the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. But an odd, opportunistic, quasi-religious movement has emerged to counter that—Zuism, an ancient Sumerian religion purportedly promoting absolute religious freedom. The new Icelandic Zuists believe this freedom includes freedom from religion and exclusion of government from the mix. Happily for adherents of Zuism, currently the country’s fastest growing religion, they receive tax benefits from the government as do all other religious groups. Opponents claim Zuists are a political not a religious group.

We’ll see. With the mood of the country clearly moving toward majority unbelief, the future for moot Zuists is probably dim, as it likely is for Icelandic religion in general.

We’ll see if the same dynamic grips America in the near future.

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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