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Estonia

Estonia is a fine example of a European country where secularization and secularity seem to be inherent features of society, and where general indifference concerning religion in all of its aspects prevails (Casanova 2006; Bruce 2002). Indeed it is often considered to be one of the least religious and most secularized societies in an already highly secularized Europe. This image is largely the fruit of the publication of Eurobarometer 2005 poll results that identified Estonia as the least god-believing country in Europe. Consequently, media reports have further strengthened the Estonians’ self-image as the most irreligious nation of the EU (Remmel 2013).

Based on several measurements of secularity and secularization, Estonia can be seen as a secular society. According to the 2000 and 2011 population censuses, 29 percent of citizens over 15 years old defined themselves as religiously affiliated. Whereas levels of religiosity have thus been stable, the number of Lutherans has declined considerably during the first decade of the 21st century, whereas in 2011 Orthodox Christians outnumbered Lutherans for the first time (Ringvee 2014). Census data also revealed that the younger generations constitute the least affiliated segment of society. In general, Estonians tend to be less religiously affiliated than other ethnicities living in the country.

According to a 2010 survey on religious life in Estonia, 16.4 percent of the population is a member of a religious community or congregation. The survey also indicated that while 6.3 percent of Estonians considered themselves to be ‘believers’ (25 percent inclined to belief), this percentage is no less than 26.2 among other ethnicities (31.4 percent inclined to belief). A similar situation could be observed in the case of ‘convinced atheists’ (Estonians 12.5 percent, other ethnicities 4.4) and those who define themselves as being inclined to atheism (respectively 16.4 and 6.7 percent). There was also an ethnically determined difference in attendance of religious services: the percentage of Estonians who attend religious services on a monthly basis was 2.1 percent, while other ethnicities reached an attendance rate of 4.3 percent (On Life, Faith and Religious Life 2010).

Estonian secularity is the consequence of a historical process that goes back to the Estonian 19th century nation-building drive. Although at that time the majority of the population was a member of the Lutheran Church (the majority Church since the 16th century), and although some Estonian Lutheran clergymen were involved in the nation building process, the Lutheran Church as an institution remained largely hostile to the population’s unitarian aspirations, as they were closely linked to the Baltic German gentry who had colonized Estonia during the 13th century Northern Crusades (Ringvee 2015). Also in the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church began its missionary work, whereas in the early 20th century the cultural, literary and artistic elite of the Young-Estonian movement looked for inspiration to Europe, where anti-clerical sentiments were gaining momentum. The ensuing secularization was accompanied by urbanization, industrialization, and expanding social, cultural and political pluralism.

In 1918 Estonia was finally declared an independent Republic. Church-State separation became a fact, a measure that affected both the Orthodox and Lutheran Churches. The 1920 Constitution declared freedom of religion and belief, whereas it also explicitly prescribed that the country was to have no State religion. This was followed, in 1925, by the Religious Societies and Associations Act, which was egalitarian and hence did not differentiate between religious groups.

Mid- and second half of the century Soviet rule (1940-1941 and 1944-1991) was characterized by Soviet style secularization policies, whereby religion was neutralized and marginalized. From the early 1960’s onwards, membership numbers and ritual participation rates rapidly declined, and religion and religious institutions became part of a marginal counter – or alternative – culture. However, from the late 1980’s onwards, religion and spirituality made their return to the public sphere, as part of a process of national reawakening.

Consequently, in the 1990’s religion gradually met with greater acceptation in a new democratic neoliberal transition society in which secularization processes also continued. As did its 1920 forerunner, the 1992 Constitution prescribed freedom of religion and belief, and stated that there was to be no State Church. This was followed, in 1993, by the Churches and Congregations Act which established a liberal legal framework for religious associations. Proposals for a preferential treatment of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) did not obtain political support – although at the cultural level the Lutheran tradition is in many aspects inseparable from national life. However, around about the same time State policy on religions was declared egalitarian towards and cooperationist with religious associations, especially in areas of mutual interest.

As the largest religious institution, the EELC has a somewhat special relation with the Estonian State. Since 1995, the EELC and the Estonian government have created a joint-commission, consisting of sub-commissions on conservation of cultural heritage, social affairs and education, to name but the most important ones. In 2002, the government also signed a protocol of mutual interest with the Estonian Council of Churches, a sort of ecumenical umbrella organization for the ten largest Christian Churches in Estonia (the Lutheran, the two Orthodox, the Catholic, the Baptist, the Pentecostal, the Seventh Day Adventist and the other Protestant Churches and congregational associations). Matters of mutual interest were defined as, among other things, spiritual care in public and closed institutions, social care, education, and cultural heritage.

Although there is no legal basis for any direct funding of religious associations, certain patterns can be identified. Like other non-profit associations, registered religious associations are eligible to apply for public funds for a number of activities. The only religious organization that receives annual allocations from the State budget is the ecumenical Estonian Council of Churches (since 1991, cf. Ringvee 2013), which represents almost 90 percent of the religiously affiliated population. Furthermore, heritage protection programs (conservation of church buildings and natural ‘sacred’ landscapes) may also be interpreted as indirect funding, although the main criteria that are applied are culture-related (Ringvee 2015). Finally, there has also been limited financial support for Old Believers communities and their particular religious-cultural heritage through local development programs.

Throughout the 1990’s the role of religion in public institutions (prisons, armed forces, schools) has been subject to debate. This continued in the early 2000’s, when the issue of religious education in public schools was raised. Syllabuses on the subject were notably considered to be too Christian-centered, and substituted by more balanced and pluralistic course materials and curricula. Religious education in public schools is of the same type as can be observed in Norway and the UK, i.e. voluntary non-confessional teaching about religions (Schihalejev 2014). Confessional religious education is only available in private schools. Finally, a new and very recent trend is the creation of private religious schools, whose number increased from three to seven in 2014.

Recently, a heated debate on a gender neutral cohabitation law has polarized Estonian society. Its opponents, while speaking of a ‘culture war’ (SAPTK 2015), saw the Registered Partnership Act draft as an attempt to redefine the traditional understanding of family as monogamous heterosexual marriage. Religious institutions were also opposed to the act, as they opined that it altered the traditional concept of marriage. As did a score of other religious communities and institutions, the most influential religious organization in Estonia, the Estonian Council of Churches, explicitly stated that it was opposed to the draft (EKN 2014).

In October 2014 the Registered Partnership Act (Kooseluseadus) was finally adopted by Parliament (Riigi Teataja RT I, 16.10.2014, 1). However, about eighty legal acts have to be amended before it becomes effective. Also, the new Act does not make it compulsory for clergy who have the right to conduct marriages with civil validity – since 2001, clergymembers can obtain this right provided they pass exams conducted by the Interior Ministry – to register partnerships.

We can conclude this short study by observing that in present-day Estonia, religion does not play a central role, neither in social nor in political life. Although religion is more important for ethnic minorities than for Estonians, it is the latter who set out the general lines along which religion is dealt with in society. Generally, religion is considered as something that belongs to the private sphere. Hence attempts by religious associations to obtain more visibility in the public sphere have often met with criticism on the part of the secular and unaffiliated segments of society, i.e. on the part of the majority of the population. 

Ringo Ringvee (University of Tartu).

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