Survey: Church attendance has fallen slightly in past five years

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Interior of Tallinn's Jaani Kirik (St. John's Church). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Church attendances and a desire for a greater role to be played by the church within society has fallen over the past five years, according to a recent survey.

Society has also become increasingly polarized on the churches' role on social, ethical and political matters, the survey found, with few people sitting on the fence on this.

At the same time, general religiosity in Estonia has not seen any significant change in the five years since the last survey on the topic was conducted.

Whereas in 2015, 20 percent of people aged 15-74 said they would describe themselves as religious, this figure stood at 19 percent in the recent survey, conducted by the Estonian Research Center (Eesti Uuringukeskus) on behalf of the Estonian Council of Churches (Eesti Kirikute Nõukogu).

Number of convinced atheists rises slightly

Meanwhile the number of people who described themselves as a committed atheist only rose a little, from 7 percent to 9 percent, over the same period.

Nonetheless, the Estonian populace is as a whole a little less certain about the existence of a deity now, than it was in 2015, the survey found – in other words the proportion of agnostics has grown, from 10 percent, to nearly three times that, at 28 percent, 2015-2020, the Estonian Research Center said.

This worked the other way too – the proportion of respondents who said they did not believe, and had never believed, in the existence of a deity, but did not describe themselves as convinced atheists as such, shrunk from 44 percent in 2015, to 31 percent in 2020.

Estonia is popularly referred to, particularly online and by Estonians themselves, as variously the most atheist, least religious or least god-fearing nation in Europe, or sometimes the entire globe. Upon her inauguration as president in late 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid turned down the offer of a ceremony to mark the occasion and to be overseen by head of the Lutheran Church, Archbishop Urmas Viilma.

Nearly a third are 'spiritual but not religious'

As regards to those who would describe themselves as fitting the popular "spiritual but not religious" motif, in the latest survey, 29 percent described themselves as such, with 26 percent saying they were non-religious and 22 percent that they were indifferent to organized religion.

Nineteen percent, on the other hand and as already noted, said they were religious.

Ten percent described themselves as a religious or spiritual "seeker", nine percent as noted said they were atheist or god-deniers, while 6 percent would not put themselves in any of those categories, the survey found.

Participation in worship has declined, however – though this would presumably also need to be seen in the light of coronavirus restrictions, which have banned in-person services at religious buildings, off-and-on for the past year or so.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they had not been to a worship service of any kind in the preceding year, compared with 53 percent in the 2015 survey.

Those who said they had been to church once or twice in the preceding year also fell, halving to 15 percent in the latest survey.

Six percent said they attended church four or five times a year, four percent said they went around once a fortnight and five percent of respondents said they were weekly attenders of church services.

Fewer people want the church involved in social affairs

The share of respondents who would like to see the church more involved in social matters has also fallen; 23 percent wanted the church to take a public stance via the media on issues of morality and ethics, down slightly from 26 percent in 2015.

However, the figure who wanted the church to reduce its public pronouncements on social issues had nearly doubled, to 20 percent (from 11 percent) of respondents during that time.

A recent example of such an issue would be an abortive referendum on whether the definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman should be enshrined in Estonian law.

The sections of society who said that it should, as evidenced by a bill presented by the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), climbed down from originally saying such a definition should be mentioned in the constitution (which would reportedly require the assent of two consecutive Riigikogu compositions – ed.) to saying it should be worded as such in legislation.

When it became clear that a definition along these lines does in fact appear in the Family Law Act (which can be amended – ed.), the referendum was presented more as a much-needed thermometer to take the nation's opinion temperature on the issue.

The bill was ultimately withdrawn in the face of vast numbers of amendments from both opposition and coalition MPs, late last year.

Society more polarized on church role

Society also has become polarized on the position of the church in social and political issues, however, since 2015.

The proportion of those who want an increased role to be played by the church in domestic politics, environmental and national security issues doubled, but so too did the proportion of people who wanted such activity to be toned down. The proportion of uncommitted respondents thus fell significantly.

Similarly, those who opposed same-sex relations and those who supported them was almost split 50-50 and made up the vast majority of respondents on the issue – i.e. only a small proportion declared no view on the matter.

The death penalty, too, divided respondents, with 51 percent utterly opposed and 41 percent finding it acceptable.

The death penalty was abolished in Estonia in the 1990s.

From 66 percent who said in 2015 that they though the church should play a larger part in helping the poor (64 percent in 2010), the figure had fallen to 46 percent in the latest survey.

Conversely, the proportion who said the church should provide less assistance to the poor, for whatever reason, rose from 2 percent to 9 percent over the five years.

Exactly a third of respondents said that they had, regardless of their beliefs, experienced unexplained or even supernatural incidents which they found hard to rationalize.

More than half feel 'close' to Christianity

As to actual religions, Christianity of all or any denominations attracted the largest number of respondents, with 34 percent saying they felt "somewhat close" to it and 29 percent saying they felt to a large extent close to that religion.

Twenty-five percent of respondents said they did not feel close to Christianity whatsoever, while 12 percent said they could not answer.

Denominational, theological and other questions were not delved into in the survey. Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy are the largest denominations by attendees in Estonia, and also historically and culturally the dominant strands.

Twelve percent of respondents said they felt very close to atheism, and 19 percent said they felt somewhat close to it or its main perceived tenets.

Of other religions, as many as 20 percent said they felt somewhat close to the two major Dharmic faiths, Buddhism and Hinduism, while 56 percent said they did not feel at all close to them.

By contrast, the figures for Islam were four percent and 75 percent respectively, while the other major Abrahamic faith, Judaism, posted similar figures of 6 percent and 70 percent respectively. Far fewer than 6 percent of the Estonian population is actually Jewish.

Four percent of respondents said they considered themselves to be largely close to some other religion or worldview.

Pandemic only had slight effect

About half of respondents said the pandemic had not affected their interest in or attraction towards religious and spiritual issues; two percent said that it had dampened their enthusiasm towards Christianity.

The proportion of those who thought that the church should bear an increased role in education in fact increased, to 22 percent (from 16 percent in 2015) though the share of "don't knows" also rose on this question.

More than half said that religious education in schools, covering all the world's major religions, should be compulsory, however; 31 percent said it should not or definitely should not.

Among native speakers of Estonian, however, 62 percent supported widespread education on religion, compared with 48 percent for those whose native language is Russian or another language.

Those with higher education tended to favor religious education more, while slightly more women (60 percent) than men (55 percent) were in favor of it.

On other issues, close to 80 percent thought divorce ethically fine, and only slightly fewer, 77 percent, thought unmarried cohabitation was acceptable.

Three-quarters of respondents had no issue with premarital sexual relations, while the proportion who found abortion and euthanasia ethically acceptable were similar, at 71 percent and 69 percent respectively.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents said they opposed human cloning.

The survey was held between November 25 and December 31 2020, and randomly polled 1,000 residents of Estonia, both online and via a postal survey.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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