In the early 1920s, a vehemently anti-religious minister of education banned schools even 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 the support for socialist and Marxist ideas was at an all-time high. Left political parties held majorities in the Constitutional Assembly of 1919-20 and the first parliament of 1921-23, laying the groundwork for the new school system – strictly free of religion.
The ground-breaking change was met with bitter protest, with the dominant Lutheran Church and the right-leaning political parties taking lead.
In the referendum 71.2 percent voted pro-religion, but the 28.8 percent – nearly a third of the population – who voted against religion in schools even as a voluntary subject set in motion Estonia’s early secularization, writes Mark Gortfelder, a researcher at the Estonian institute for population studies at the University of Tallinn.
Today, the religious outlook in Estonia is like that of the Nordic countries in terms of the degree of secularization (not in terms of church membership, which is still much higher in Nordics). The Soviet occupation from 1944 onward brought about further secularization, and yet Estonia is more like the post-Lutheran Nordic countries than post-communist Eastern Europe in its lack of explicit religious beliefs in society, write Aleksandra Sooniste and Olga Schihalejev, researchers at the school of theology and religious studies at the University of Tartu.
Sooniste and Schihalejev conducted a statistical analysis of the present-day national curriculum to see to what extent the school in Estonia today still supports “religious literacy” – or, to what extent our 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 any 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 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 were 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 [students] 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.
“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 religious literacy 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 the 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,” the researcher said. “So it helps people to operate in the world where religions 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 studied as a voluntary subject in less than 3 percent of schools in Estonia, mainly in the so-called “elite” schools that offer religion electives in their upper-secondary program, which is in line with the Eesti Uuringutekeskus 2020 survey, which shows that the majority of pro-religion 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 religion 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 proposal.
“While I share the view that religious education is an essential subject for the 21st century person, I am not sure that it should be brought into the schools via referendum,” she wrote.
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,” she wrote
“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 a 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 can only be a political decision,” she concluded.
Looking back at the beginning of the 20th century, Gortfelder argued that the early development towards secularization of schools in Estonia was also not as much grounded in an expressly anti-religious stance but rather a matter of political decision-making.
It also shows that even some smaller churches 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 voting, possibly out of fear that the Lutheran Church would become too dominant.
So most Estonian Orthodox believers followed the official leftist political line in this regard.
Other smaller Protestant churches, such as the Baptists, the Adventists, and the Methodists, were also wary. Gortfelder explained that their reluctance was primarily doctrinal, as that they had never enjoyed state support and spread their word with personal initiative not official curriculum.
Only the Russian Orthodox church advised to vote in favor of religious education in schools. In fact these smaller groups of Orthodox believers, the urban and rural Russians, but also Estonians from the historically Orthodox areas in Petseri County, were among the firmest supporters of the proposal to bring back religion to schools.
What other considerations shaped public opinion on religious education in 1923?
The results reveal the importance of politics – a totally new worldview. The vote share of left political parties, which were against including religious studies in the school curriculum, gave the biggest impetus to early secularization.
Gortfelder reasons that a mere anticlericalism aimed against the dominant church could have also led people to change their denomination, rather than becoming secular. Even if the Orthodox Church was considered untrustworthy, then at least the new Protestant churches could have been one possible way to preserve religiosity.
Also, by 1923 the socioeconomic system had become much more egalitarian and Estonians had taken over the running of the Lutheran Church declaring it to be a “Church of the People.” So the main reasons for anticlericalism were gone by the time of the referendum.
The left-wing political worldviews, however, were categorically and conscientiously opposed to religion.
The role of educated voters is also interesting. By this time, the new nation-state had largely resolved the most pressing socio-economic issue of the time with a radical land reform. From this 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 the foundation for a future generation of civilized and cultured society.
School in 2023 also awaits a political choice towards the re-introduction of the religions studies, which is again a decision based on a (secular) worldview.
The national curriculum does not cover current events, either locally or globally, and instead focuses on the past. It does not provide Estonian students with the necessary information and skills for communicating and functioning in a globalized, multicultural society where religious freedom is a highly valued idea.
It is believed that students could learn sufficiently about religion from their classes in history or literature.
“This is what we – mainly, Aleksandra – studied in this paper, how religion is dealt with in national curriculum,” Schihalejev said. The 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 when discussing European culture at all,” she explained.
“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 discussion of attitudes, opinions and prejudices related to religious matters is not included in 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, as well as in non-religious worldviews and communities.
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.
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 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.
“It is not only about acquiring knowledge; it is also about attitude and skills to communicate, which need time and space to develop and grow,” she went on to say.
“With our current education policy, we are depriving our children of a huge amount of information that would otherwise be very valuable for them in a multicultural society,” Sooniste said.
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 further.
Should the discussion continue, the government might also bring up the highly pertinent tax increase debate, reminiscent of the one from 1939 in the lead-up to the referendum, 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.
In most European nations, Schihalejev suggested, the subject is mandatory and the curriculum is not rubber, “in Finland, for example, there is 286 hours of religious education and in Norway 580 hours, next to the electives.”
It was a political decision that determined the national curriculum in these countries, and in Estonia the status of religious education should be a political decision as well, she said.
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.