Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

Humanism in Norway
Steinar Nilsen
President, Humanist & Ethical Association, Norway

Like other idealistic movements, humanist organizations in most countries have been founded by academics in university environments. This was true in Norway as well. The founder of Human-Etisk Forbund (HEF for short) was Kristian Horn, a professor at Oslo University. For the first 20 years or so, humanist activities could be found only in Oslo and a few other major cities.

Membership grew slowly. At the end of 1976, with about 1890 members out of a population of 4.2 million, HEF was similar in size to other humanist organizations around the world.

Then something happened. Membership doubled in a couple of years, then doubled again. For several years now, HEF has been receiving about 3,000 new members each year. By early 1990, 40,000 Norwegians aged 15 or more are members. A special register shows that 10,000 children under 15 belong to membership families. This total of 50,000 is, relative to population, more than 10 times the size of any other humanist organization (1/2%). in fact, HEF is the second largest lifestance organization in Norway -- after the Lutheran State Church -- larger than the Pentecostals, and twice as large as the Catholics.

What are the reasons for this? Does the Humanist movement benefit from a large membership? And can Humanist organizations elsewhere benefit from the Norwegian experience? This article suggests some answers to these questions.

Discrimination by State Church

The State Church has a strong position in Norway. In addition, there exists a Christian people's party. These institutions have managed to maintain old laws, and to obtain new ones that effectively discriminate against non-Lutherans and especially non-Christians.

A notable example is the Christian Object Clause of the Kindergarten law which legalizes religious instruction in kindergarten against parental wishes. United Nations special reports on discrimination have objected to this, and my daughter Sylvia (with a little help from her friends) has brought this matter before the UN Human Rights committee in Geneva.

This and other discriminatory laws and practices in Norway -- plus the simple fact that a state church exists -- annoy many people. Thus, and especially when their children confront problems, they tend to seek support from HEF -- often ending up as members.

Such circumstances may not apply so blatantly in other countries, but the discriminatory practices of dominant religions in all countries should be examined. When such practices endanger the health of children, whether mentally or physically, people become interested in the kind of rational and sensible alternatives that humanists advocate.

Non-political ethical stand

Kristian Horn established a serious and formal tone to debate in HEF which has been maintained. There is no doubt that this has gained respect for Humanism in Norway.

Statements and resolutions are limited in number, and these centred on ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, the changing of discriminatory laws, and peaceful cooperation between people of various denominations and skin colours. This avoidance of political issues, except ethical ones, has minimized internal conflict and broadened the base of our membership.

Humanists certainly engage themselves in other issues, but in Norway they do so through others organizations like Amnesty, Red Cross, Peace organizations, and so on. In this way HEF members bring the humanist perspective to others. Thus, HEF resources can be applied to the ethical issues that are of unique concern to humanists.

Humanist alternative

The largest part of HEF's work is in providing ceremonies. This all began with civil confirmations, from a small start in Oslo with 36 participants; today, civil confirmations can now be celebrated in 90 places throughout Norway. Each year about 4,000 youngsters, 10% of the age group in question, take the HEF confirmation courses. At the finishing ceremony they bring along parents, relatives and friends. An estimated 50,000 Norwegians follow these ceremonies each year.

We also perform funerals, and over the last couple of years HEF naming ceremonies have become widespread around the country. With the scale of this work, we estimate that most Norwegians will now be in direct contact with HEF at least once during their lives.

A humanist alternative properly done, can give a valuable humanist impact on society at large.

Our way of doing things in Norway has resulted in a large and still growing membership. It has made Human-Etisk Forbund known to virtually every Norwegian with the result that humanist points of view cannot be ignored in Norwegian society.


Thus, when a new law on an ethical issue is launched by the government HEF is asked for comments. For example, a public committee is currently working on ethical issues in gene manipulation, and HEF provides one of the committee members. As another example of our stature in Norwegian society, in a recent special series on national (state-owned) television, when 10 organizations out of some 10,000 in Norway were invited to make their own programmes, HEF was one of the ten.

The founders of HEF, lead by Kristian Horn, laid a solid philosophically sound foundation for our work. Growth and development started with Levi Fragell as chairman of HEF for 5 years and later as secretary-general.

HEF is no longer to be found only among university academics. Through diligent work by many devoted humanists we have become a popular movement with all sorts of people as members.

Of course, ceremonies and membership are not the ultimate goal, which is the making of a better society through the infusion of humanist thought and ideals. There has never been a humanist war, never a "Humanist State Church" and there never will be.

To move society in a humanist direction, we need punch. In Norway that punch is provided by a large membership -- with 140 chapters all over the country -- and by the contact provided through the ceremonies. This results in extensive media coverage, ensuring that humanist issues again and again reach the public.

Although special national conditions may be responsible for what has happened in Norway, other special conditions may be exploited in other nations. I believe that the main reason for our success is not due to the special conditions themselves but to the conscious choice of strategy to exploit them and the resulting lines of work chosen by HEF.

It is my hope that our experience may inspire other humanist organizations in their work. A strong world-wide humanist movement makes for a better world. I think we can do it.