The Norwegian Humanist Association

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Humanist confirmation in Norway - a rite of passage has come of age

Every year in Norway over 10,000 youths aged 15 celebrate their Humanist confirmation. Keeping up an over 60 years old tradition they meet in concert halls and medieval castles, municipal cinemas and cultural centres, city halls and community houses. They gather in bigger and smaller towns all over the country. They celebrate from the southern "bible belt" of small towns with white painted wooden houses to the far north close to the border of Russia and in the Sami community of Karasjok. And of course, they celebrate in the bigger towns and regional centres as Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim as well. These Saturday or Sunday events take place from late April till late May every year.

But still, the Norwegian Humanist Association is not present everywhere with active groups able to arrange this. If the youth lives in isolated communities like Norway's northernmost possession, Spitzbergen, between 74 and 81 degrees northern altitude, we will have to use a different approach. The same when the youth lives in a foreign country, often the children of Norwegian staff in companies or institutions around the world. So, while most confirmands join the course in life stance and ethics in their homeplace in Norway, they join a course by e-mail. Some celebrate with their friends and families in the place they are located, some come back home to Norway in the summer and celebrate. An extra ceremony for the "foreigners" is set up in Oslo in June. To sum up: Everywhere youths choose to mark their coming of age in a secular way.

In Oslo, the capital, about 1000 youths walk in procession down the great marble staircase decorated with golden seagulls of the impressive City Hall (where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is being held), while their friends and families all rise for them. In the great hall seating 1400, in twelve ceremonies over five succeeding Saturdays or Sundays, they receive their diplomas for having finished the course in life stance and ethics, as youths have done since 1951. For Humanist confirmation, in 2011 chosen by 15,7 % of the 15-year olds of Norway, is an institution in the land.


For hundreds of years the Lutheran state churches of the Nordic countries had held the key to adulthood with their confirmation ceremonies, in Norway compulsory by law until 1912. Every youth was to be interrogated by the parson to see if he or she understood and shared the dogmas of the church. If one did not, one did not have the right to marry, to wear adult clothes or to do adult work. But it was not only a religious tyranny exercising its prerogatives, it was also a proud occasion for the family and the youth concerned, a tender and joyful celebration of coming of age in the local community, which struck deep roots in traditional popular culture.

With religious liberty, modernisation and secularisation, those outside the church felt a need for a new celebration, equally emotionally satisfying for the participants, but based on new knowledge of the world, and the new ideas of the "good life", freed from religious dogma. The first civil confirmation in the Nordic countries took place in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1915. It was held by the fiercely named "Association Against Church Confirmation", which a few years later became "The Association for Civil Confirmation".

In Norway an "Association for Civil Confirmation" was founded in 1950, with support from the academic community and from leading personalities in the labour movement. The first ceremony took place in 1951, with 34 youths. Its yearly celebration in the City Hall has become one of the great traditions of Oslo, with over 20 % of the city's 15-year olds taking part, as well as in the Greater Oslo area and a large part of Eastern Norway, where a similar high rate of participation has become the norm. This also goes for other regional centres.

In 1956 many members of the "Association for Civil Confirmation" helped in the foundation of the Norwegian Humanist Association, Human-Etisk Forbund (HEF), and the responsibility for civil confirmation passed to the new organisation the next year. For many years it rested an Oslo phenomenon. In 1968 local branches of HEF started their own courses and their own celebrations, and it exploded in the '80s, with 110 local branches celebrating it in 1990. Based on the confirmand book "Think about it!", in the course proceeding the confirmation ceremony, the participants discuss life stances, humanism, human rights, critical thinking and ethical issues, often based on important issues for young people. In short, the questions: how shall we behave towards one another? Some issues are dealt with in every course wherever it is arranged. These issues are considered to be compulsory (life stance, humanism and human rights). Other issues are chosen by youths and leaders, often on the background of local circumstances.

The course is held in the evenings through the winter period and the youths normally attend about ten evenings. Some arrange weekend gatherings, while others join an information camp, usually in the woods, mountain areas or at the sea side.

Growing up means making choices, and the aim of the Humanist confirmation is to help and to strengthen awareness of ones situation and the choices one must make, not as a teaching of dogmas, but as an acknowledgement of rights and responsibilities in society.

The celebration itself changes from locality to locality, but certain features recur: Music and poetry frame the ceremony and there are civic and cultural dignitaries taking part. A standard part of the ceremonial programme is the speech of the day: A speech addressing the confirmands in encouraging words, maybe telling them they are important, addressing them about making choices, getting more responsibility and about engaging in more than the little family circle. Even on a day dominated by family gatherings this might be the focus of the speech. Another standard part is the speech from one of the youths on behalf of them all, a speech often summing up what the course has been all about, what the time of coming together has been like, about the position to the young people of today. Often one sings the classical freethought song "Your thoughts are free", sang in the Norwegian language, though, and the audience joins in the singing. The Norwegian poet Nordahls Grieg's poem "To Youth" is read or sung by an artist contributing to the ceremony from the stage. In some ceremonies an artist sing "Imagine" by John Lennon, there is classical music, choirs and orchestras or readings by local poets, depending on the availability of art and artists. When the confirmand is presented with the diploma for having taken part and finished the course in life stance and ethics, he or she is probably on the tensest point in the ceremony. Every confirmand is called forward to get this. After all in the confirmand group have got their diplomas, and are lined up on stage, the audience warmly applauds them. When the ceremony starts and ends the confirmands come in and leave in a procession accompanies with suitable music. Duration of a ceremony is about an hour.

Over the years many confirmands have made their mark on Norwegian society, ranging from the great jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek to former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, leader of the UN commission on Environment and Development. But it is a rite of passage reaching outside the intellectual middle class, even outside those with an ethnic Norwegian background, with each year a leaven of immigrant youths, children of political refugees or from families of mixed cultural background taking part, finding in it an institution supportive of their sense of being and becoming. 80 % of those taking part in Humanist confirmation do not have a family background with membership in the association. This means it also serves as an annual outreach by our organisation to the greater society, a way in which new people become aware of our existence and come in touch with our activities and ideas. More than 200.000 are taking part in humanist ceremonies in Norway every year, celebrating or marking the child with a naming ceremony, confirmation, marriage and same sex marriages. We humans have throughout our existence, in all cultures, at all times, celebrated the great turning points of life in our rites of passage.

In the international humanist movement these celebrations are a feature not only of our organisations with an historical background as a religious organisation, but also among German free-thinkers, the Danes and the Belgian laïque/vrijzinnig organisations. Swedes and Icelanders has found inspiration in the Norwegian Humanist confirmation (former Civil confirmation) for their own coming-of-age ceremonies these last years, celebrated in both Reykjavik and Stockholm and other parts of Sweden, and now also in Denmark.

Humans need not only intellectual clarity and truth, but also sharing the ideas one hold at the significant points in ones lifetime and celebrating them in forms fitting the occasion.

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