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.