The elders have been called con artists, tax evaders, and heroes. But they might best be described as “millennials.” They are young and ambitious, they don’t own cars, and the best way of reaching them is Snapchat. When I met a few of the elders not long ago on a surprisingly sunny afternoon at a coffee shop near their apartment, one excitedly pointed out a new affordable grocery store that opened down the street. As we spoke, church bells from a more traditional faith ironically tolled nearby.
I’m with the leaders of Zuism, one of Iceland’s newest religions. Although its numbers still pale in comparison to the Lutheran state church, it is fast becoming one of the country’s largest faiths. Followers say it is an offshoot of Sumerian beliefs, a nature-worshipping religion that evolved in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago. But the group’s elders, as they call themselves, make clear that there is nothing truly religious about Zuism. Instead, it might be more accurately described as an anti-religion—and as a protest of Iceland’s parish tax, which has drawn the ire of many as a growing number of Icelanders turn away from the church.
Regardless of whether one is a member of a registered religion or not, all Icelanders pay a tax that amounts to about $80 per year, which is distributed to religious groups based on their membership. There’s no way to opt-out of paying the tax, but Zuist elders are promising to refund the parish taxes of their members, effectively acting as an opt-out within the system. Gunnhildur Gunnarsdóttir, a 26-year-old elder who recently graduated university with a degree in psychology, described the parish tax as akin to having to pay an “atheist tax.” Many Icelanders seem to agree; more than 3,000 people joined the Zuist ranks in the space of just two days last December.
Since Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse, there has been widespread distrust of traditional institutions
Zuism was created in 2013, two years before the current elders became involved, when Icelandic laws were relaxed to recognize a wider variety of religious organization. In fact, only one of Zuism’s current leaders—Ísak Ólafsson, its “high priest—was a member of the religion before last year. “He only joined because he was frustrated with the system,” says Sveinn Þórhallsson, a 29-year-old computer scientist and Zuist elder. If someone was going to be getting his money, Ólafsson thought it might as well be a group of young troublemakers rather than the church or state. Since Iceland’s massive financial collapse in 2008, there has been widespread distrust of traditional institutions, spurring acts of protests by Icelanders such as Ólafsson and the other Zuists.
Last year, when the Icelandic government noticed that the previous group of Zuists weren’t active, Þórhallsson says they threatened to deregister the religion. “That’s where we stepped in,” he says. The current elders launched a campaign last year to encourage young Icelanders to join, but they weren’t expecting it to be so successful. “At first it was like, maybe we’ll get our 5,000 krónur or whatever it is and buy beer for one night,” Gunnarsdóttir says. “But then we saw that we could give people in our religion the opportunity that we never had, which is to get the money paid back.”