Courtesy of The Godless and Irreligious, with over 25,000 likes and 78,000 shares on Facebook. This meme tries to link Iceland’s apparent awesomeness with its adherence to atheism. In doing so, not only does it omit several crucial contexts to the argument, but it makes a pretty significant factual error. For the record, the Meme Policeman is admittedly a godless atheist (see the sister site for the philosophical reasoning), but has no patience for bad arguments, which this meme has in spades. To tackle it, we’ll go through each claim, ending with the last one, which is the real doozy.
Iceland Has No Army
This claim is mostly true, although it lacks much context. The days of the pillaging Vikings are long gone, and Iceland currently has no standing army, although it does have a coast guard equipped with small arms. This doesn’t mean Iceland is defenseless, though. It has alliances with NATO and a defense agreement with the United States, which effectively means it’s defended by the strongest army in the world, not to mention a cold, inhospitable ocean. In return, Iceland provides financial contributions and civilian personnel. Remember, Iceland is a tiny nation with a population of less than 330,000, which is less than the city of Bakersfield, CA (which also doesn’t have an army, coincidentally).
Linking Iceland’s lack of a military with its “atheism”, is a bit problematic. If we look at other countries with no armies, we find another tiny nation that’s been the thorn in atheists’ sides for eons; Vatican City!
Jailed its Bankers and has a Booming Economy
There is a great book on Iceland’s economic collapse, available for free, called Deep Freeze, if one wants an in-depth account of the crisis.
In the early to mid 2000’s, Iceland had a massive economic boom, fueled primarily by the Central Bank of Iceland keeping interest rates artificially low, and its government explicitly guaranteeing the solvency of the commercial banks. This, along with cheap money from central banks in the US and Europe, led to a flood of foreign money into the banking system of Iceland, and a huge explosion of debt, as the banks used these deposits to issue an enormous amount of new credit. This transformed this quaint, frugal fishing and shipping based economy, into a financial juggernaut, where the commercial banks at one point had debt equal to 1000% of Iceland’s GDP! Whether or not this irrational exuberance was caused by the atheists or Christians remains unclear, but most of the country ended up participating in the frenzy, with its citizens buying record amounts of cars and other merchandise during the boom.
When the cheap money stopped flowing during the global financial crisis, Iceland was hit especially hard, as their banks couldn’t remain solvent without a steady influx of foreign capital. The stock market plunged 90%, and the entire economy would have collapsed, absent foreign intervention to bail them out. To give some idea of the binge Icelanders went on during the boom, the country briefly became a net exporter of cars after 2008, despite not producing any, as foreigners bought all the used vehicles Iceland could no longer afford.
It’s true that several of the leading bankers got some prison time recently, but the whole situation is akin to a parent leaving out liquor for their teenager’s party, and then grounding them when it inevitably gets out of hand. Currently, the economy is doing better compared to the huge depression, although it’s still only 1% bigger than it was in 2008. It’s perplexing why one would tout a nation who recently had the biggest economic collapse of the century and was bailed out by the IMF as a model, after only a couple years of recovery.
The truth is, Iceland’s economic booms and busts have nothing to do with their “atheism”, and everything to do with what sorts of economic and monetary policies they follow.
Low Crime and Violent Crime Rates
This seems to be true on all accounts. The reason behind the low crime rates is debatable, but we won’t nitpick this meme on it. This brings us to the final claim.
An Atheist Majority Population?
For the mathematically challenged, remember a majority is over 50%. According to Iceland itself, about 80% belong to the Lutheran State Church, 5% belong to other Christian churches, and another 5% practice ásatrú, the traditional Norse religion. However, this is a bit misleading, as much of the population are RINOs (religious in name only!), and don’t regularly attend the church that they were born members to. So please, no one go creating a meme about 90% of Iceland being religious!
The most reliable data available on this is from a 2012 WIN-Gallup poll that indexed worldwide opinions on religion and atheism. In Iceland, 57% stated they were religious, 31% non-religious, and only 10% claimed to be “convinced atheists”. In other words, the majority of the population is religious, while a relative small minority are avowed atheists. This pretty much renders what’s left of this meme as worthless.
However, it’s true that Iceland has one of the world’s highest percentages of atheists, tying for #7. This could be a feather in the cap for atheists, if they didn’t look to #1 on the list…China. Yes, China has the largest percentage of atheists in the world, although even there it’s a minority-held belief, despite decades of state indoctrination. Before the faithful get too cocky, the list of the most religious countries isn’t exactly better, with Ghana and Nigeria leading the list.
Does the Percentage of Atheists Matter?
Not really. There seems to be little correlation between atheism, theism and their effects on society. Horrors have been committed by governments with both ideologies, and societies with the same religion can vary considerably. While the God debate is important philosophically, what seems to be much more important is the overall adherence to reason in a society. Following rational economic and political doctrines leads to prosperity, while following irrational ones doesn’t. An atheist could (and did) support an economic disaster like The Great Leap Forward, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by a Christian. What one’s views on God are tend not to matter much when it comes to promoting good or bad policies.