Wrestling With God, and Taxes

In Iceland, a group has found a way to game—and protest—the government's "church tax."

The Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik is the largest church in Iceland. Hallgrimskirkja is a Lutheran parish. (Stoyan Nenov / Reuters)

In America, where there is separation of church and state, the government neither taxes nor funds religious organizations (beyond occasional grants for certain social services and a few other exceptions). But in much of Europe, tax revenues are used to support churches—a set of affairs that leaves many secular people feeling put out.

In at least one place, people have come up with a clever strategy for subverting the tax laws: Earlier this month, the BBC and The Guardian reported on a peculiar new religion gaining momentum with some residents in Iceland—Zuism. Followers purport to be worshipping ancient Sumerian gods, but the group’s raison d'être seems to have more to do with political and tax reform, with a long-term ambition to create a separation between religion and government.

The group is mostly atheists and agnostics, and currently has more than 3,000 members. They take issue with Iceland’s religion registry and tax laws, which use tax revenue from everyone to fund religious organizations. Zuists argue that those unaffiliated with one of the qualifying religions are getting less for their money than those with affiliations. “It has turned into a protest and movement in Iceland,” said Snæbjörn Guðmundsson, an Icelandic geologist and a board member of the Zuist organization. “The Zuism organization is more about the legislation, and changing the environment from state-funded religion.”

Among Zuists’ requests are that the mandatory government registry of citizens’ religious affiliations be abolished. The government uses data from the registry to allocate money, called parish fees, to religions organizations. The money for these "fees" comes from a congregation tax that's included in individual income tax. The trouble is everyone pays the congregation tax—even Icelanders who don't have a religious affiliation.

This method of taxation is different than most of Europe (except Italy and Spain, which have systems similar to the Icelandic one), where being part of a religion means paying more taxes: In Germany, for example, churchgoers pay an additional 8 to 9 percent on income and capital-gains tax which the government collects and then distributes to religious organizations. This totals over $13 billion, and has pushed some Protestants and Catholics in Germany to leave the church to avoid paying their share.

Opinion polls that show that Icelanders are increasingly in favor of the separation of church and state, and Zuists hope that, if nothing else, at least the cost of Zuism will get the government to start paying attention to their movement. “It’s getting expensive to the state,” said Guðmundsson. Zuism is costing the Icelandic government $30 million Icelandic krona annually (around $230,000) which the religion distributes to its members—nearly $80 for every Zuist.