Vienna, April 25 – More than 800,000 school children in the Russian Federation are now taking courses on religion or religious subjects, an increase of almost 20 percent over last year and one certain to rise even more in the 2007/08 academic year when such courses are slated to be introduced in additional Moscow and Tatarstan schools.
Yesterday, the Social Chamber’s Commission on Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience released data on the number of pupils now taking courses in religion, comparative religion or religious culture in 72 of the 88 regions of the Russian Federation (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/print.php?act=news&id=17895).
According to the commission, 700,000 to 800,000 of students in these federation subjects were studying religion in one way or another, a figure 15 to 18 percent higher than last year, and “not fewer” than 20,000 to 30,000” teachers were involved in their instruction.
“The overwhelming majority of those studying in government and municpal general education institutions – about 500,000 to 600,000 – are studying courses on Orthodox culture,” Interfax reported. An additional 150,000 to 200,000 pupils are studying Islamic culture.
In addition, the Russian news agency said, some 50,000 young people are being instructed in religious studies, 10,000 in the history and culture of Judaism, 10,000 in Buddhist thought, and 10,000 in the traditional faiths of the numerically small peoples of the Russian North.
In almost all parts of the country, the commission reported, courses on offer are those of the religious culture “traditional for these locations: Orthodoxy, Islam or Buddhism.” Moreover, it found that the number of courses in religious culture outnumber those on the philosophy of religions as such” by a factor of ten.
The number of pupils studying religion in Russian schools is certain to jump this fall, perhaps by more than the increase from last year to this. That is because schools in Moscow and in Tatarstan will then begin offering such courses http://www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=13206 and http://www.religio.ru/14703_print.html).
Virtually all such religious courses on offer in Russia today are voluntary rather than required and are defined as cultural and historical rather than theological. But the religious content of many has offended both those committed to a secular society and members of local minorities who fear their children will be converted.
Many in leadership positions of Russia’s so-called “traditional” religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – have pushed hard over the last decade for the inclusion of such courses as part of a broader effort to help Russia’s citizens recover from the depredations of Soviet-era atheism.
In the last several years, more and more Russian officials have come to support the offering of such courses, as long as instruction in them is defined as non-theological. Part of the reason for this is because many of these officials either feel the same way their co-religionists do or because they want to curry favor with such groups.
At the same time, however, there is another and perhaps more influential factor at work: As advocates of such courses have noted, sociological research suggests that Russians who follow one of the traditional faiths not only tend to have more children and suffer from fewer social pathologies but also seem more inclined to participate in public life (For such studies, see http://www.pravaya.ru/news/11988?print=1 and http://www.eparhia-saratov.ru/txts/journal/articles/02society/20070404.html).
No one can dispute the importance of the values advanced by most religions for the recovery of Russian society, but using the public schools as the primary means to promote these values at least in the case of the Russian Federation seems fraught with two overwhelming dangers.
On the one hand, the tradition of secularism in Russian society is still relatively weak, and consequently, the introduction of religious courses, however defined in the schools, makes it unlikely that the rising generation of Russians will make the kind of distinction between church and state on which a civil society rests.
And on the other, given the diversity of faiths within the Russian Federation and especially the cleavage between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, there is a very real danger that such courses, with the suggestion that local or national officials support this or that faith, will exacerbate divisions in that country rather than help to overcome them.