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How is freedom of religion taught in one of the most secular countries?

Girl reading.
Girl reading. Source: Johny McClung/Unsplash

Estonia's referendum on religious education in 1923 was a bitter religious-secular standoff, driven by left-wing politicians. Today, while religion is not included in the national curriculum, a Tartu University survey shows that a level of religious intolerance among pupils is alarming. Archbishop Urmas Viilma has called for a referendum, but researchers disagree: the reintroduction of religion into the national curriculum must be a political decision.

In the early 1920s, a vehemently anti-religious minister of education banned schools from lighting candles on the Christmas tree, calling the practice a religious custom and thus anathema to the new secular school.

Estonia gained independence in 1918, when support for socialist and Marxist ideas was at an all-time peak. Majorities of left-leaning political parties in the Constitutional Assembly of 1919–20 and the first parliament of 1921–23 laid the foundation for the new, strictly secular education system.

The transformative change was met with intense opposition, primarily from right-leaning political parties and the dominant Lutheran Church.

71.2 percent of the population voted in favor of religion in the ensuing referendum, but nearly one-third of the population – 28.8 percent – voted against religion in schools even as a voluntary subject.

Referendums so clearly defined as a standoff between the religious and the secular were rare in the period preceding the Second World War, Mark Gortfelder, a researcher at the Estonian Institute for Population Studies at the University of Tallinn, writes.

In his recently published study, Gortfelder treats the votes cast against religious education in 1923 as an indication, or a proxy, for early secularization. After all, representative opinion polls are a late invention.

The analysis revealed the importance of political party affiliation. Gortfelder showed that the votes cast for passionately secular, left-leaning parties had a strong association with secularist principles.

Many people, however, may have been influenced by political forces speaking on their behalf as workers, Gortfelder suggested. "This is difficult to analyze given that unlike the educated elite, 'common people' did not record their individual life stories, and/or these have not been collected and published."

A monument marking the Estonian War of Independence was unveiled in Viljandi on Victory Day 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Today, Estonia consistently ranks among the most secular in the world. The level of secularization is comparable to that of the Nordic countries.

Aleksandra Sooniste and Olga Schihalejev, researchers from the school of theology and religious studies at the University of Tartu, undertook a statistical analysis of the present-day national curriculum to see to what extent the school in Estonia still supports "religious literacy"  – or, to what extent our public schools guarantee religious freedom of expression.

Their analysis shows that what is taught today in terms of religion is "implicit" and very limited and associated primarily with cultures that are both historically and geographically distant.

This significantly obscures the understanding that religion has relevance in the present day, they said.

"The fact that we are not dealing with religion in schools comes at the expense of some students for whom religion is very important," Schihalejev, who has worked extensively on the topic of religion in high schools, said.

The fresh survey that Sooniste, a religion educator with over 25 years of experience, conducted among high school pupils shows that over a third of them "would not accept" or "strongly not accept" a fellow student wearing a headscarf.

Also, about a third of students said that the school canteen does not have to take into account the religious backgrounds of students when serving food.

"It's not so much about wearing the headscarf to school or not; it is about how well we tolerate these differences," she said.

There is a growing tendency in Estonia to silence the topic. "We do not speak about it; religion is seen very much as a private matter," Schihalejev said, citing the results of an earlier survey where Estonian students supported by far less open attitude to religious differences compared to those by their peers in the U.K. and Nordic countries, while they also thought that religion is a tricky topic to speak about in public.

"Essentially, our students do not even have a vocabulary to speak and think about issues related to religious worldview or religion as a concept," she said.

"When they have so little knowledge it contributes to stereotypical thinking. This can also cause problems among students," Schihalejev said.

"As the Estonian society becomes increasingly multicultural with considerably more pupils of different backgrounds attending primary schools now, the problem becomes particularly acute," she went on to say.

In Italy, the Christmas display with two Marys caused controversy; the priest in charge said that the Church must take into account the realities of modern times. Source: SCANPIX/REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

"I was a Catholic student in school during the Soviet times and I had to hide it, it had to be a big secrete," Sooniste recalled. "But it is a big secret for many students also now, they hide their religious background," Schihalejev added.

"Religious literacy is extremely important for a democratic society, for life in its fullness – democratic societies do not function well without religious freedom," Schihalejev said.

"People often see it as something that helps to understand conflicts, but as a teacher, I see it primarily as something that helps to understand other human beings. For example, young people get extremely interested in religion as a part of their dating world: 'What if I date a Muslim? What do I need to know?' It is really not uncommon for a person in Estonia today to date someone from another culture," Sooniste said.

Religious literacy entails "the capacity to make informed decisions and to communicate one's worldview and opinions to others in a respectful manner," she said. "It helps people to operate in the world where religions do exist: to make better judgments in policy making, in communication or in cultural sphere."

"We cannot expect our youth to understand these concepts if we do not teach them," she added.

The researchers show that religion is offered as a voluntary subject in about 10-14 percent of schools (depending on year). But not everyone is able to choose the class, so in reality it is less than 3 percent of students that can study religion in Estonia, mainly in the so-called "elite" schools that offer religion electives in their upper-secondary program. This is in line with the Eesti Uuringutekeskus 2020 survey, which showed that the majority of pro-religious education respondents are university graduates.

On December 8, the head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) launched a petition to hold a referendum on whether to make religious education a compulsory subject in Estonia. The online petition currently has 784 votes on the petition platform, which can reach the Riigikogu with 1,000 signatures.

"A century ago, when people voted in favor or against religious education, they had personal experience with the subject. Today, opinions are expressed based on what they think the subject is," Schihalejev wrote in response to Viilma's proposal.

"I agree that religious education is an essential subject for the 21st century person, but I am not sure it should be brought into the schools via referendum," she said.

Moreover, religious education is no longer a way to "teach students into religion," but to provide basic understanding of metaphysical frameworks that span across ages, cultures and societies.

"In 1923, we had a referendum on Christian religious education, but now we have a religious education that introduces different faiths and worldviews," Schihalejev continued.

"I do not think any subject, however necessary, should be brought into the curriculum through a referendum," she said, giving an example of defense training, which was recently introduced into the national curriculum without any referendum.

"The idea of making religious education compulsory merits discussion, and the arguments on the petition page are compelling, but the status of religious education in the national school curriculum must be a political choice," she said.

The VIII Estonian Song Festival was held in Tallinn in 1923. It was the first song festival of the independent Republic of Estonia.

Looking back to the early 20th century, Gortfelder argued that the early secularization of Estonian schools was not so much a matter of an explicitly anti-religious stance but rather a matter of political decision.

Gortfelder explained that several smaller churches also advised their members to vote against religion in schools. In particular, the Estonian Orthodox Church, the largest of the smaller churches with 18.9 percent of the population, advised against, possibly out of fear that the Lutheran Church is becoming too dominant.

So most Estonian Orthodox believers followed the official leftist political line in this regard.

Other smaller Protestant churches, such as the Baptists, Adventists, and Methodists, were also wary. Gortfelder suggested that their reluctance was primarily doctrinal, as they had never enjoyed state support and spread their message through personal initiative rather than official curriculum.

Only Russian Orthodox priests (the Church itself was in disarray under the Bolsheviks) advised to vote in favor of religious education in schools. These smaller groups of Orthodox believers, the urban and rural Russians, but also the Estonians from the historically Orthodox areas in Petseri County, were the firmest supporters of religious education.

What other considerations shaped public opinion on religious education in 1923?

Gortfelder's study revealed the importance of politics – a new secular worldview.

Anticlericalism directed solely at the dominant church, according to Gortfelder, might have prompted people to change their denomination as opposed to becoming secular. Even if the Orthodox Church was deemed untrustworthy, the new Protestant denominations could have been one option for preserving religiosity.

Also, the socio-economic framework had become much more egalitarian by 1923. Estonians took over control of the Lutheran Church and rebranded it as the "Church of the People." The primary rationales for anticlericalism had so ceased to exist prior to the referendum, according to the researcher.

The left-leaning political views, however, were categorically and conscientiously opposed to religion.

The role of educated voters is interesting as well. The new nation-state had largely resolved the most pressing socio-economic issue with a radical land reform, so from that point on the two projects, the National Awakening and the Radical Left, parted ways.

For the national-minded educated elite the principal aim became the development of culture and it increasingly saw Protestant Christianity as its foundation.

The ongoing war in the Gaza Strip is making it very difficult to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Source: SCANPIX/AP Photo/Leo Correa

The school in 2023 now awaits a political choice towards the re-introduction of religion studies, which would be again a decision based on a (secular) worldview.

The national curriculum does not discuss contemporary religious context, either locally or internationally. It mostly talks about the past. The school program does not give the Estonian students the knowledge and skills they need to communicate and operate in a globalized, multicultural society that highly values religious freedom, the researchers say.

It is presupposed that students could learn sufficiently about religion from their classes in history and literature.

"This is what we – mainly, Aleksandra – studied in this paper, how religion is dealt with in national curriculum," Schihalejev said. The two researchers categorized every "implicit" and every "explicit" mention of religion in the national curriculum.

For instance, students learn that "in ancient Greece religion was part of human experience, but after the Reformation, it was only connected to conflicts and distant cultures. So, for example, it is not addressed at all when discussing European culture," she said.

"A rare occasion when religion was mentioned as a concept is in the mathematics program: 'You can calculate the percentage of religious people in a country,' it says in the syllabus," Schihalejev gave an example of what they categorized as an explicit reference to religion.

Religion as a disposition was explicitly mentioned only once, which means that discussions of attitudes, opinions and prejudices related to religious matters is not part of the school program, they said.

Even less attention is paid to examining religions as a category, which would be necessary to grasp changes in religions across time, place and cultures.

The key finding is that the present day Estonian curricula focuses on social skills rather than religious literacy itself. Religion is barely named, even when related concepts are discussed.

Olga Schihalejev. Source: Andres Tennus

It seems that in developing our national curriculum, we tend to be overly cautious of religion, Schihalejev said. "We tend to see it as a strange thing, and in turn, our students do so as well."

"One of the parts of religious literacy is that the student would be able to discern the differences: where is a religious discourse, what part of it is cultural, what is historical, what is political, and what is something else. So that one would not make simplistic judgments, for example, about the Israel-Hamas conflict," Sooniste gave an example.

Religious literacy is mainly about attitude and skills to communicate, which need time and space to develop, she said. "With our current education policy, we are depriving our children of a huge amount of information that would otherwise be very valuable for them."

The concept of the referendum has thus far not generated a great deal of positive support. In an interview with ERR, the minister of education, Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), said that religious education as an elective is sufficient at this time, that there is a growing body of self-study literature in the Estonian language, and that the mandatory curriculum cannot be endlessly expanded.

Should the discussion continue, the government might also bring up the tax increase debate, reminiscent of the one in the lead-up to the referendum in 1923, where the left-wing political parties claimed that the reintroduction of religious studies would mean new costs and thus the need to raise additional revenue through taxes.

But the religious education is mandatory in most European countries and their curriculum is not made of rubber, Schihalejev said, recalling that religious education is allocated 286 hours in Finland and 580 hours in Norway.

We would do better to spend money on developing the religious freedom curriculum than wasting it on organizing a vote, she said. In both Finland and Norway, it was a political decision to add the subject to the national curriculum, as it should be in Estonia, a matter of political choice.

Mark Gortfelder's paper "What influenced early secularization? A statistical analysis of the results of the 1923 referendum in Estonia" is published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2021.

Aleksandra Sooniste and Olga Schihalejev's paper "Religious literacy in national curricula of Estonia" is published open access in Religions in 2022.

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