Is Estonia really the least religious country in the world? | Ringo Ringvee

Estonia and the Czech Republic are the two nations that often claim to be the least religious in Europe. And they seem to be proud of their unbelief. According to the census of 2000, 29% of the total population considered themselves as adherents of some religion. Almost 14% of them were Lutherans (in the 1930s the percentage of Lutherans was over 80), and about 13% Orthodox Christians divided between two churches: one under the canonical jurisdiction of ecumenical patriarchate and the other under the jurisdiction of Moscow patriarchate.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2005 found that only 16% of the Estonian population believed in God. With this number, Estonia hit the bottom of the list. However, at the same time more than half the population (54%) believed in some sort of spirit or life force. Thus it could be claimed that 70% of the Estonian population are believers, at least in some sense of the word. Professor Grace Davie’s description of the British religiosity as “believing without belonging” seems to fit to the Estonian context as well.

The churches are on Sundays mostly empty and the ignorance of religion is widespread. According to the available statistics and surveys, the membership of religious associations in Estonia remains under one fifth of the total population.

Non-Estonians (mainly immigrants of Russian stock) are considerably more religious, and this becomes even more evident among the younger generations. Surveys show that young Estonians in general have become estranged from every form of religion that could be considered as traditional or as religion at all.

For this situation there are several reasons, starting from the distant past (the close connection of the churches with the Swedish or German ruling classes) up to the Soviet-period atheist policy when the chain of religious traditions was broken in most families.

In Estonia, religion has never played an important role on the political or ideological battlefield. The institutional religious life was dominated by foreigners until the early 20th century. The tendencies that prevailed in the late 1930s for closer relations between the state and Lutheran church were ended with the Soviet occupation in 1940. While the Roman Catholic church maintained its dissident role in the Soviet countries, the Lutheran church was not successful in this. This might to have to do something with the Lutheran tradition in general as the role of the Lutheran church also in East Germany diminished considerably during the GDR days.

Although there were some clergymen associated with the dissident movement, the churches remained within the limits set for them by the Soviet authorities. The national reawakening in the late 1980s was accompanied with the religious revival. Religion was something that was seen as a connection with the pre-Soviet golden days. However, by the early 1990s the interest in institutionalised religion started to diminish. Currently the Lutheran church, still considered as the most traditional religious institution in Estonia, has fewer members than it had in the first half of the 1980s when the dues-paying membership reached its Soviet nadir.

The big question for the next decades concerning the religious situation in Estonia is what is going to be the future of the Lutheran church? Although it has been the dominant church among Estonians since the Reformation, the vast majority of younger generations have been estranged from it and the membership numbers are declining.

A new phenomenon during the last 15 years has been the rising number of Estonians identifying themselves with a nature-spirituality that could be defined as the Estonian neo-paganism. However, exactly what this is is much more difficult to explain, as it stresses individualism in religious matters. Although the organisation of the neo-pagans claim to represent pre-Christian religious tradition that has been passed from generation to generation through centuries, and dislikes the term neo-pagan, the historical facts do not support its arguments.

Estonian neo-paganism is closely associated with reverence to nature as well as reviving and following the centuries-old folk traditions, such as the lighting of bonfires during the summer solstice.

Reverence for nature and vocal protection of historical sacred groves has given a positive image to the movement and to their religion, known also as the Earth religion. On the other hand, there are not many neo-pagans officially affiliated with the organisation itself, and during the ancient holy days the groves are not filled with people. The claims by the organisation that all of that 54% who said they believed in spirit or life force are followers of old Estonian religious traditions is pure wishful thinking.

• This article was commissioned after a request by cbarr. If you have a subject you would like to see covered on Comment is free, please visit the You tell us page

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