The Rise of Zuism

sumeranu14_17For the last day or so, English-language media has been awash in news of a new-old Icelandic religion: Zuism.

Okay, maybe “awash” is the wrong word; still, Zuism has captured the media’s imagination.

What is Zuism? It’s a recent Icelandic religion that focuses on the worship of ancient Sumerian gods. Originally established in 2013, in 2014, it only had four registered members. Today, though, it appears to have roughly 3,000 members (or 1% of the Icelandic population), an explosive growth rate. What’s leading to that crazy growth?

If you believe the media, taxes. 

At this point, my post becomes a little bit tentative; I neither speak Icelandic nor have any significant familiarity with Icelandic tax law. Still, piecing together what I can from media reports, this is what it looks like:

Iceland has an established church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. As an established church, the government supports it financially. But Iceland also has a strong tradition of religious freedom; as a result, it also supports other registered religions.

It doesn’t support religions through a dedicated church tax (like Germany’s, which I wrote about last year). Rather, the government includes the support of churches in its annual budget; it calls that support sóknargjald (which seems to be translated “parish fees” in most accounts). The sóknargjald a church receives in 2015 is 824 krona[fn1] (about US$6.38) per month for each registered member who is at least 16.

Because the funding for sóknargjald is just part of the general income tax that citizens owe, each Icelandic taxpayer supports religion whether or no she belongs to a religion; she can’t avoid paying her share merely by not registering with any religion.

Enter Zuism. Notwithstanding the ancient worship of Sumerian gods, Zuism is essentially a political protest, aiming to end the public support of religion. And joining may be a good financial move: the church has promised to refund to its members the amount of sóknargjald it receives from the government.

All of this leaves me with a couple questions. The big one is this: though news reports say that the government has budgeted about US$80 per taxpayer for the sóknargjald, because funding comes from the general income tax (a progressive income tax), each taxpayer is not paying US$80. Rather, higher-taxed taxpayers bear a larger portion of it than lower-taxed taxpayers. I assume Zuism isn’t going to ask members to share their tax returns and, from there, calculate how much to give each of them; administratively, it’s much easier to just pay it out pro rata. But it’s not 100% accurate to do it that way.

Also, apparently the sóknargjald related to individuals who are not registered with any religion goes to the University of Iceland. If that’s true, that adds a wrinkle to the claim that nonbelievers (or, at least, unregistered individuals) are bearing the cost of religion. [Update: I’ve been told in the comments that none of the sóknargjald goes to the University of Iceland anymore.] The governmental support of religion may be problematic, but in Iceland, at least, it may be more complicated than it initially appears.

Of course, like I said, I’m not an expert on anything Iceland; if you are, I’d love to hear where I’m wrong on this.

[fn1] The link is in Icelandic, but Google Translate is pretty cool.

Comments

  1. very fun and interesting post — thanks!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I only had to wait until the fourth paragraph for the dreaded word: “taxes.”

  3. Is Sam is posting it’s inevitably going to be tax related. That’s an interesting form of protest.

  4. Should have been “IF Sam is posting…”

  5. So, Icelandic Mormonism. LDS church gets a contribution?

  6. WVS, I would assume so. Based on Iceland’s registration, that means that, in 2015, the church got something around 1.4 million krona, or US$11,000, in 2015 (based on the government’s number of 144 qualifying registered members).

  7. As an Assyriologist I approve of Anzu worship.

  8. As a an actual Icelandic zuist and someone who has been interested in the “sóknargjald” for many years I must say that this is the most accurate article on this subject I’ve seen written in English about zuism and the parish fee. :)

    Just one minor error, the state doesn’t give the University of Iceland the “sóknargjald” for individuals who are not registered with any religion anymore (it was changed in ~2010).

  9. Thanks, Herro, both for the validation and the correction!

    Can I ask a couple questions? Do you know why the University of Iceland lost its share of the sóknargjald? And I saw a couple references to “philosophy clubs” also being eligible for it—is that still true? and do you know what such a philosophy club is?

    Thanks for dropping by; this is both a fascinating and a clever political/religious movement.

  10. Hi Sam, I wanted to clear up a few misconceptions. Unfortunately most of the sources I cite are in Icelandic.

    “Also, apparently the sóknargjald related to individuals who are not registered with any religion goes to the University of Iceland.”
    This is simply not true. The sóknargjald has not gone to the University of Iceland since 2009. It goes directly to the state and if you’re not affiliated with any religious organization, it stays there. Source: http://www.althingi.is/altext/137/s/0155.html , look for “Lög um sóknargjöld”.

    “But it’s not 100% accurate to do it that way.”
    The accuracy problem is definitely there, but the current set-up seems to be the best option available to object to the current system. The problem is twofold. Firstly, those without religion should not be taxed the same as those affiliated with the church. Secondly, if the government would stop meddling with religious matters this would no longer be an issue; each religion could just charge its member on whatever basis they see fit. Just to underline that second point, it should be noted that the government has decided that the tax rebate will be registered as “income”, meaning it will be taxed as such. This is an example of the government indirectly double-taxing those who wish to get their “church-money” back, money that they would otherwise never get (but hey, some money is better than no money, right?).

    “The sóknargjald a church receives in 2015 is 824 krona(about US$6.38) per month for each registered member who is at least 16.”
    That was for 2015, you have to look at the numbers for 2016, which are a bit higher (around $7 per month per person). Source: http://www.mbl.is/frettir/innlent/2015/09/08/soknargjold_haekka_um_taep_10_prosent/

    “as a result, it also supports other registered religions.”
    The government’s support for other religions pales in comparison to the extra-funding the “state-church” gets. In addition to the “7 dollars per member” that every religion gets, they get an additional $12,230,000 (over 12 million dollars). Source: http://www.visir.is/haekka-framlog-til-thjodkirkjunnar/article/2015150908878. At best this is discriminatory against other religions.

    Keep in mind that when a newborn’s parents are registered within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (state-church for short in this response) the newborn is self-registered. Keep in mind that this has recently been changed for the better! Newborn children used to be registered automatically to the same religion the mother was registered as until it was changed in 2013! The state-church system is essentially an opt-out system. This means that many Icelanders are registered in the state-church without knowing it. The result is that the state-church gets 19 million dollars (from the $7 dollars per member per month) on top of the 12 million dollars it gets in “additional funding”.

    Finally, the government keeps the registry of religious affiliations for all Icelanders. Yes, that means that the government could potentially discriminate people based on what they believe in. Oh, they also don’t really “allow” you to change your religious preferences after 1. December each year. If you register with a specific religion on November 30. then “your taxes” will go to that religion monthly for a year. Even if you convert to a new religion on 2. December, it won’t matter until the next “cut-off” period (1. December the year after). Zuism’s ultimate objective is not to get a few dollars in tax rebates for each member; the objective is to raise awareness to the unjust, outdated system the government is guilty of supporting, a system that the European Court of Human Rights has deemed illegal if we adapt their position from another similar case ( see Darby v Sweden : http://opil.ouplaw.com/view/10.1093/law:ihrl/2937echr90.case.1/law-ihrl-2937echr90 )

    Thank you for your interest in our organization,

    Ísak Andri Ólafsson
    Highest Priest of Zuism

  11. My guess is that it was done to save money. ;)

    The registered “philosophy clubs” (I’ve also seen the translation “life stance organizations”) are basically non-religious groups that serve the same function as religions (e.g. conduct wedding cermonies). There is only one such group currently in Iceland, Siðmennt (secular humanists).

    And yes, they still get “sóknargjöld” (actually only since 2013 when the law was changed basically for Siðmennt).

  12. Not the first time people joined a church for financial reasons. Much of Islam’s early growth likely had more to do with its trade benefits. What I want to know is if it will grow to true faith. I would love to see a resurgence of polytheism.

  13. Swami Vivekananda says:

    “I would love to see a resurgence of polytheism.”

    A billion Hindus can’t be wrong.

  14. I completely agree with your last point: Google Translate is pretty cool!