Jim Herrick reports from Oslo on Norwegian humanism
On my way to see the Viking ships in Oslo, the guide emphasised that the Vikings were not the ravagers and looters of myth but influential adventurers who created elegant artefacts. Norwegian humanists today are adventurous and create elegant events especially the confirmation ceremony in the city hall. The Norwegian Humanist Association is the largest in the world in ratio to the size of the population: 60,000 members to a population of 4.2 million. The reasons may be considered threefold: the enormous success of the confirmation ceremony, which brings a large proportion of Norwegians in touch with humanism; the continuing strength of the Lutheran Church, which makes people feel strongly that it is worth joining the alternative; and the deal by which they are given money from the state as are religious communities outside the state church. According to polls 20 per cent of the population identify themselves with humanism. One of their major campaigns at present arises from recent changes to religious education. When a new syllabus came in including comparative religion (but no humanism), no right of exemption from RE was allowed. There were protests from humanists and members of minority religions. The case is going through the Norwegian courts and the Norwegian Humanist Association has vowed to take the case to Strasbourg if necessary.
Confirmation is a ceremony of enormous cultural significance in Norway it is a real coming of age event. There have been 8,707 humanist confirmation ceremonies throughout the country this spring. The occasion I attended was a prestige event, because it was the 50th anniversary of such ceremonies. Television and royalty were there. The 70 confirmands had received some prior training and here were given a diploma and rose. There was dancing, a brass band, a choir, poetry and speeches from dignitaries.
It was all powerful and moving not least the address from Levi Fragell, a leader within the Norwegian Humanist Association, and also President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He spoke of the murder by racists of a Norwegian 15-year-old. He is remembered "because he became a symbol for one of the fundamental causes uniting humanists in Norway the fight to put an end to racism". He also spoke of a lesbian from whom he had received a letter "my feelings are just the same as yours. I am myself, not something different". He hoped that "One day, the notions of 'different' and 'from a foreign culture' will not be used to describe other people." He emphasised the individuals "right to be him or herself". I saw not a few tears in the eyes of those listening.
During the seminar on Secularisation, organised by the Norwegian humanists, Professor Eriksen, from Oslo University, discussed rituals and ceremonies in many cultures. He said that rituals are found everywhere; even the Neanderthals buried their dead. Pre-historians now look for traces of symbolic behaviour. Rituals are not necessarily religious the Balinese cockfight is a manhood ceremony, without religion. There is now a challenge to create non-religious rituals. You need a sacred space, powerful metaphors and symbols and poetry and music. Rituals must ask key questions about the meaning of life. Essential to a successful ritual was a sense of being part of something larger than yourself. How far, I wondered, are humanists able to create such ritual, or are some of them allergic to ritual altogether?
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway, Raymond Johansen, opened the seminar by quoting Article 18 of the United Nations declaration on Human Rights, calling for freedom from religion and freedom of religion. Dr. Massimo Introvigne, an Italian Professor of Sociology and the History of Religion, lectured about Freedom of Religion and belief in the Western World. He talked about the various philosophical and legal models of the position of religion in different Western states and suggested that the test of religious liberty was how far it can protect an unpopular religious minority.
Lars Gule, the Executive Director of the Norwegian Humanist Association, spoke about freedom of religion and belief in the Muslim world. The Islamic tradition contains fierce debate about freedom and has, for instance, a strong condemnation of apostates. There is no tradition of human rights in Islam. Nevertheless there are moderates who want modernisation and even reformers who want human rights. The idea that religion is a private matter is growing among those who point out the words in the Qu'ran "There is no compulsion within religion." The situation within Islam today can be seen as a reaction to changing social conditions, leading to atomisation, alienation and a clinging together for identity.
Standing beside the statue of Ibsen before the national Theatre in Oslo is Bjørn Bjørnson, the poet and dramatist who was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association at the beginning of the last century. The invitation to the confirmation ceremony showed a reproduction of the painting, 'The Dance of Life', by the great Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch: I am not sure how appropriate this is given Munch's unhappy private life. But perhaps his perspective is apt as a full life must take on depression and conflict as well as the great happiness to be found in the confirmation ceremony.