Thesis: Estonian residents join Christian congregations seeking purpose

Tartu Uspenski Cathedral (Orthodox) was consecrated in 1783.
Tartu Uspenski Cathedral (Orthodox) was consecrated in 1783. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Despite the fact that Estonians are known for their lack of religiousness, a quarter of the population considers themselves religious. People in Estonia join various Christian congregations either out of the wish to seek purpose for their lives or following the example set by loved ones, it appears from the doctoral thesis recently defended by Liina Kilemit.

There are many reasons why and means by which people in Estonia find their way to Christian congregations. The atheist policies of the Soviet era led to a break in the passing down of religious tradition from generation to generation. According to Kilemit, the growth of an individual into a Christian in the 21st century is often a long road, in the course of which they choose a church that supports their personal development.

In researching those who have joined a church, Kilemit noticed some postmodernist tendencies. This means increased individualism, i.e. the idea that "I must like the religion I choose." Christianity is likewise regarded as one of many different possible kinds of lifestyles, indicating that one's chosen religion cannot be a personal nuisance. Those joining churches are also seeking religious emotions new experiences from them.

This is why the main reason why people in Estonia join a church is an attempt to explain and make sense of one's own experiences and what is going on in the world with the help of religion, and achieve inner peace by doing so. Those joining churches are seeking "something different" from the everyday in their lives.

People who are seeking a more sacred experience often begin their journey with the teachings of new spirituality.

"Information related to new spirituality is more accessible to the modern person, as it is prevalent in online media, such as via online news portals that many people read on a daily basis," Kilemit said. "If someone has deeper questions about life and the world around them, they will most likely find answers [to their questions] via info that is more conveniently accessible to them."

Research nonetheless revealed people who were disappointed in the teachings of new spirituality and shifted toward more traditional Christianity. While Kilemit would like to study such people further, she explained their change of mind as the result of disappointment that, unlike Christianity, new spirituality does not allow for the development of a comprehensive explanation of the world around them. Some people were also bothered by excess individualism in new spirituality; others developed health issues as a result of new spiritual practices.

"In addition to the aforementioned, the conventionality of Christianity in our cultural space likewise played a key role in why one reached Christianity," Kilemit noted.

According to the thesis, it was those to join the Lutheran church in particular who cited the importance of the Lutheran church's ties with Estonian culture and mentality. Among those to join Lutheran congregations were middle-aged people whose families had nonetheless carried religious traditions on during the Soviet occupation via grandparents, particularly grandmothers. Nonetheless, people raised in religious families have not automatically adopted the faith as their own, but rather have considered it important to interpret it for themselves. Orthodoxy is most closely tied to identity first and foremost among local Russians.

Estonian residents to join a Christian congregation also tend to do so following the example of a loved one or some other Christian they like. Those to join congregations, however, value the warm interpersonal relations and sense of belonging they find there. An informal and open atmosphere are especially important to young people joining the church. Some people also seek help from the church for their worries or in times of psychological crisis.

Other reasons for joining a congregation included the desire to participate in religious rites during milestones (such as baptisms, weddings), the impact of prior mystical experiences, or just liking a specific confession, particularly aesthetically.

According to 2011 census data, approximately one fourth of Estonian residents consider themselves followers of a religion. While this ratio isn't high, Kilemit nonetheless does not consider Estonians to be an unreligious people. While it is true that fewer people in Estonia belong to traditional Christian confessions than in other European countries, studies nonetheless indicate that several other kinds of nontraditional religious beliefs and values are popular in Estonia, Kilemit noted.

"Thus if we consider religiousness somewhat more broadly than simply in the Christian context, then we are not particularly unreligious and do not differ all that much from other peoples," she concluded.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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