Why Are There So Many Churches in Iceland?


Christianity’s roots run deep in Iceland and one of the signs of its historical and cultural impact is the number of church buildings on the island. There are approximately 350 churches scattered among Iceland’s 330,00 people. Why is this?

There are many churches in Iceland because of how hard it is to travel even medium-length distances due to the challenging climate and landscape. In some places their are few quality roads or none at all. This has led to the construction of many small churches so that worshipers can attend attend Sunday services safely.

The story of Iceland is intertwined with the missionaries who traveled there. Though some Icelanders today are choosing other spiritual paths, like atheism and Asatru, yet many residents remain committed to the Christian faith and many of the faithful attend a church near their home.

Christianity in Iceland invites reflection about the island’s history and raises questions about its future.

How many churches are there in Iceland per capita?

In Iceland there is approximately one church for every 950 people. Icelandic churches don’t hold that many congregants in them because they are too small and not all people affiliate with Christianity attend church anyway.

At first glance, that per-capita figure may may not seem to reflect an abundance of churches. However, compared to other European countries it’s clearly significant. In England, for example, there are 16,000 churches. [1] That amounts to approximately one church for every 3,500 people.

How many Christians are there in Iceland?

About two-thirds of Icelanders identify as Christians. [2] However, “identify” doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual attends a Sunday service at a local church or observes other practices associated with the faith.

Like elsewhere in the world, some Icelandic Christians are likely “nominal” believers, which means that they are Christian “in name only.”

Icelanders may even be members of the Church of Iceland, but again, that doesn’t automatically mean they are regular church attenders.

Membership at a church may not even mean the person is a confession Christian. For example, if a person was baptized as an infant at a church, he or she may technically be members of the national church, but they may not be non-practicing adults. 

In fact, research shows that relatively few Icelanders attend church:

Although 89.3% of Icelanders are officially registered members of Christian congregations, church attendance in Iceland is low.

Some 10% of Icelanders attend church once a month or more frequently, whereas 43% say that they never attend church and 15.9% say they attend church only once a year. [3]

Many Icelanders who identify as Christians, have also committed to certain traditions within the faith.

  • Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (official) 67.2%
  • Roman Catholic 3.9%
  • Reykjavik Free Church 2.8%
  • Hafnarfjordur Free Church 2%
  • Asatru Association 1.2%
  • The Independent Congregation .9%
  • other religions 4% 
  • none 6.7%, other or unspecified 11.3%

Christianity in Iceland invites reflection about the island’s history and raises questions about its future.

Where Did Iceland Get Its Christian Roots?

Christianity arrived in Iceland around 1000 A.D. This is partly due to the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who sought to impose his will on the island.

By the time Christianity arrived in Iceland, it was already widely accepted in neighboring European countries like Britain and Norway.

The presence and growth of Christianity challenged the religious ideas of native Icelanders. At times, the faiths co-existed peacefully. At other times they clashed.

Like in many other locations around the world, the Christian evangelization of native people was contentious.

Sometimes when the resistance of the native population was strong, certain tactics were employed to persuade them to change their minds.

Tryggvason ordered his country to close all travel to Icelanders. He also suspended all trade with them. He sought to prevent the practice of native Icelandic religion by imposing strict punishments on the guilty.

These measures took their toll on Icelanders who valued their religious freedom and were dependent on certain goods, like medicine, from their Norwegian neighbor.

A compromise was eventually reached, and neither side ultimately received what they wanted.

The Norwegian leadership settled for a law that stated that Christianity was the official religion of Iceland. The native Icelanders settled for the right to practice their native religion in their own homes.

Pre-Christian Iceland

The Northern Germanic Religion, known as Gooatru, is a pagan religion brought to Iceland by early settlers from neighboring countries like Ireland and Britain.

Gooatru incorporates Norse deities like Thor, Odin, Baldr, and others into its pantheon. The Gooatru pantheon are collectively considered heathen gods, and the leaders of those who follow them are referred to as heathen chieftains.

The Gooatru belief system, in part, emphasizes these elements:

  • Marriage: Marriage, or “Handfasting” as it’s referred to within Gooatru, is a sacred part of the belief system. However, Gooatru is a decentralized religion, meaning stories, specific practices, and rituals could change between villages. As a whole, the religion is family-centric, and as an extension of this, Icelanders also worshipped their ancestors.
  • Sacrifice: Sacrifices were offered to bring good fortune. Although human sacrifices occurred, early Icelanders routinely sacrificed pigs and horses. They would then leave the meat around statues of their gods as an offering. 
  • Names: Naming children was an important part of the religion as Icelanders believed that naming a child after a god or ancestor would give the child with fortune, power, and a variety of other boons. This is why Thor, Sif, and other deity names, are still common names today.

What are the Biggest Differences between Christianity and Gooatru?

The differences between Christianity and Gooatru are numerous. Here are a few key ways they are dissimilar:

  • Multiple gods vs. One God: Old Norse religions worshipped a wide variety of gods and goddesses, each with their own specific societal and natural domains. Gooatru directly translates as “the truth of the gods,” and while Odin is considered to be the overarching god, there are many Gooatru practitioners that prefer the worship of other minor and major deities.
  • Fallible vs. Infallible: Norse gods, not unlike their Roman or Greek counterparts, were known to make mistakes. In fact, Norse gods behaved in very human ways like playing tricks, wedding, and in one case, even dying. This is a contrast to the Christian idea of a single, infallible, and all-knowing deity.
  • Heaven vs. Gooatru eternity: Gooatru worshippers believe in five distinct domains of the afterlife, depending on how one has lived. The domains are Valhalla, Hel, Folkvangr, Realm of Rán, and The Burial Mound, as opposed to the Christian concept of a single heaven or hell.

How Does Religion Affect Iceland Today?

In 1550, many Icelanders converted to Lutheranism, making The Lutheran Church of Iceland the country’s largest Christian body.

To this day, the Lutheran Church is openly supported by the government, and most Icelandic citizens. Even those with differing beliefs, pay a tax to the church.

The three biggest worldviews in Iceland are as follows: 

  • Atheism: Iceland has been labeled one of the most godless countries in Europe. [4] Atheism is rising on the island, challenging some of the long-held worldviews of many residents.Atheism is on the rise in Iceland, specifically with many youth who reject traditional ways. About 10% of the population identity as atheists, and another 30% state they’re non-religious.
  • Asatru: Sometimes referred to as Neopaganism, Asatru, is directly linked to Gooatru and its corresponding pantheon. About 1.2% of the population practices Asatru. In 1973, after a political petition, Iceland recognized the modern-day version of Asatru as an official religion. 
  • Christianity: While Lutheranism is still the widest practiced religion, the number of followers is on the decline. Because Icelanders are required to register with the Lutheran Church of Iceland, the numbers of its actual followers may be greatly inflated. 

Because of the decrease in practicing Christians and the advent of better modes of travel, many churches in Iceland are unused.

It’s worth noting, however, Icelanders do keep most of their churches in pristine condition despite the irregular use. 

What’s the Largest Church in Iceland?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland has the largest influence of any recognized church in the country.

But for the curious tourist, the church of Hallgrímur built in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, is noteworthy as being the largest church structure and among the largest buildings in the country. 

Building the church was no small endeavor and took over four decades to complete. It stands 244 feet tall and was designed to blend in with the natural landscape of the country.

The church is still open for visitors and worship.

Iceland’s culture is undoubtedly entrenched in Christianity, and although many of its churches are unused, the faith remains an important part of the island’s story.

References:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/22/churches-survive-church-of-england-religion-buildings

[2] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ic.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreligion_in_Iceland/

[4] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/europes-most-godless-country-may-surpise-you/

Also see:

In this country, literally, no young Christians believe that God created the Earth. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/01/23/in-this-country-literally-no-young-christians-believe-that-god-created-the-earth/

6 Beautiful Churches in Iceland You Just Have to Visit. https://www.whatson.is/churches-in-iceland/

Ásatrú, the old Norse Paganism is the fastest growing and largest non-Christian religion in Iceland. https://icelandmag.is/article/asatru-old-norse-paganism-fastest-growing-and-largest-non-christian-religion-iceland

Icelandic Churches. https://www.reykjavikout.is/icelandic-churches/

9 Things You Didn’t Know About Hallgrímskirkja Church https://www.whatson.is/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-hallgrimskirkja-church/

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