Thursday, September 11, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Estonians Believe in Higher Powers but Not in God, Lauristin Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, September 11 – Even as Russians are being offered the notion that Putin is God and some are telling jokes with the punchline that the difference between Putin and God is that God doesn’t think he’s Putin, a new study by Marju Lauristin provides an important glimpse into the nature of the understanding of the unseen world by Estonians.


            The distinguished Tartu University sociologist told a conference earlier this year devoted to the 25th anniversary of the Council of Churches of Estonia that sociological surveys she and her team have conducted show that Estonians “believe in the existence of some kind of higher force but not in God” (


            At the outset, Lauristin said that she is not a member of any church but that whenever she is asked about religion, she “without vacillating answers that [she] is a Lutheran,” a pattern that she suggests “characterizes a large part of the Estonian people.


            Surveys show that the Czech Republic and Estonia are the most secular nations in Europe. In Estonia, only 18 percent of the population say they are believers compared to an EU average of 51 percent. “But everything is not so simple,” Lauristin said. That is because 50 percent of Estonians say they believe in a supernatural force, and only 29 percent say they don’t.


            Those figures mean, she continued, that “in present-day Estonian society among the Estonian population,” the nature of belief is more complicated and that from one perspective at least, “the Estonian people and the population of Estonia is under the power of superstition.”


            Estonian society is divided by language, nationality, and culture, and within culture, it is divided with respect to religion as well, Lauristin says.  Only 10 percent of ethnic Estonians are believers and follow religious rituals, while among ethnic Russians, that figure is 27 percent, almost three times as great.


            The differences between the two communities continue.  Estonians who are believers but who don’t observe church rituals or even go to church are seven percent of the total, while among Russian speakers, that figure is  31 percent. At the same time, the two groups divide as far as those who don’t believe but nonetheless observe certain religious rituals.


            Among Estonians – and Lauristin said this was true of her – about 36 percent of the population does not believe but despite that follows certain church rituals, while among Russian speakers, only 21 percent fall into this category. Seven percent of Estonians are “principled” atheists, while among Russian speakers only three percent say they are.


            That has some broader implications, she suggested.  Many Estonians are accustomed to thinking that Soviet brain-washing affected Russians more than Estonians, but “in reality,” at least with regard to religion, “in reality, it turns out not to be so.”


            If ethnic Estonians and Russian speakers are to be better able to understand one another, Lauristin argued, “it is necessary to understand the role of religion in the formation of cultural foundations and contemporary human values … [especially since] the Russian community does not understand the particular features which are formed on the basis of Protestantism and the Estonian does not understand the particular features formed on the basis of Orthodoxy.”


            The basic social values found in the various confessions of Estonia vary widely, the sociologist said. “People who connect themselves with Lutheranism” are inclined to put “control over their surroundings” above average in the scale of values. Those linked with Orthodoxy place salvation, spiritual harmony and the like nearer the top. And Catholics present “an entirely different picture.” For them at the center of attention is the personality.


            “What does this mean?” Lauristin asked rhetorically. “People with a different set of values choose a different religious self-consciousness, but lengthy contact with a specific religious milieu also makes possible the strengthening of definite values.”


            The separation of church and state in Estonia makes these cultural differences even more important, she suggested in conclusion. Estonians, reinforced by Lutheranism, tend to be demanding and severe in their judgments of themselves and others, something that can make it more difficult for them to interact with others.


                Given that the world is becoming more diverse and that the Estonian government wants to promote immigration, Lauristin said, Estonians need to understand more about themselves and about others in the religious and cultural spheres if they want to have positive and mutually rewarding relations with them.


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