Monday, January 11, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Patriarchate’s Drive for Religious Education in Russian Schools Backfires

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 11 – The Moscow Patriarchate’s push for religious instruction in Russian schools is backfiring in at least three ways, revealing how small a percentage of Russians are or are likely to become committed believers and, at least in the case of Orthodox Christianity, pushing more people away from the faith rather than attracting new followers.
First, polls from around the country show that an overwhelming percentage of young people and their parents want to attend courses in secular ethics rather than religion. Second, rights activists are warning that religious instruction particularly if it is given by unqualified people will alienate many young people still further from any interest in religion.
And third -- and beyond doubt the most important -- public reaction to the Orthodox Church’s effort highlights two things that the Patriarchate cannot be pleased about. On the one hand, it shows the impact of Soviet anti-religious efforts were more successful and continue to cast a longer shadow than many in that country and the West have thought.
On the other, this reaction calls into question the Patriarchate’s repeated insistence that more than three quarters of the Russian population is Russian Orthodox because more than three quarters of the population is ethnic Russian and that as a result, the Russian state should defer to Orthodoxy rather than defend the secular values enshrined in the Russian Constitution.
Many surveys have shown little interest in religious instruction, but one reported today is especially striking. A poll of 1331 children in a Urals city found fewer than a 100 wanted to attend courses in Orthodox culture and a mere handful courses on Islam or Judaism, while 93 percent wanted courses in secular ethics (
This result, the latest in a series of polls conducted by education officials, suggests that relatively few children, perhaps less than one in ten, and their parents are interested in religious instruction, a reflection of both widespread support for secular values and concern about just how religious groups might use such courses.
And because such polls are being used to guide regional administrations concerning the purchase of textbooks and the hiring of instructors, their findings suggest that Patriarch Kirill’s push for such instruction may not have the results that he and the Orthodox Church hoped for or that many human rights activists feared.
Moreover, as Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the longtime head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, pointed out in an interview with, the Church itself should recognize that “in fact, the introduction of a school course on ‘The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” is not in [its] interest” either (
That is because, Alekseyeva continued, there is nothing more likely to drive people away from religion “than lessons which are conducted by illiterate instructors,” something Russians experienced in the 19th century and that, at least in some places, Russians may experience again in the 21st.
Both these polls and those possibilities naturally are a matter of concern for the Russian Orthodox Church – and for the other “traditional” religions of Russia (Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism). But this pattern because of what it says about the pattern of religious belief in Russia carries with it an even greater challenge to the Moscow Patriarchate.
More than the leaders of any other faith, the Patriarchate has insisted on an “ethnic” definition of religious life, even as it has denigrated claims by the leaders of other religions, particularly Islam, that they can count as members of their faith all those who identify themselves with a nationality that historically practiced that religion.
Kirill and his supporters regularly claim that almost 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation is Orthodox because almost 80 percent of the population is ethnic Russian, and many in the Church use that argument to make three inter-related claims about the nature of the country.
First, they insist that the 80 percent figure makes Russia an ethnically and religious unified country with minorities rather than a composite of several different nationalities and faiths. Second, they say that the state must recognize that reality regardless of what the 1993 Constitution says about the separation of Church and State.
And third, they say that the Russian political establishment must recognize Orthodoxy not just as primus inter pares but as the definer of Russian nationhood and statehood, however tolerant or intolerant the powers that be may prove to be with regard to the other “traditional” faiths or non-traditional ones.
Such claims may seem plausible, but the results of this campaign suggest that Kirill and the Moscow Patriarchate may have made a major miscalculation in pushing so hard for religious instruction in the public schools, a drive that could undermine their claims for Orthodoxy and encourage both followers of other faiths and those of no faith at all to defend their interests.

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