In Tallinn's medieval Old Town, the primary tourist attraction of the Baltic seaport capital, Estonia’s Christian heritage is ubiquitous. Gothic church spires and crosses are the architectural leitmotif.
Despite prominent symbols of faith in public spaces, Estonia is noted as one of the world’s most agnostic nations. A history of foreign occupation and cultural imposition has left an ambiguous relationship between Estonians and the role of religion in their lives.
But Estonia is not so much a nation of atheists – France led the way in that category in the latest poll of European religious sentiment, the Eurobarometer survey of 2010 at 40 percent – as an amalgam of the utterly indifferent and the spiritually seeking.
“The image of Estonia as the most atheistic country seems to exist only in the Estonian popular imagination,” explains Atko Remmel, a scholar of Estonian church history at the University of Tartu, the country’s leading research institution.
Indeed, many Estonians have faith of a sort. Half of respondents to the Eurobarometer poll expressed belief in “some sort of spirit or life force."
Where Estonians are irreligious is in lack of church attendance and specific religious affiliation, in part due to the country's historical legacy.
An anticlerical tendency
Pagan Estonia was Christianized by the sword during the Northern Crusades of the 13th century and dominated for centuries by the Baltic German nobility, who imposed Catholicism and, after the Reformation, Lutheranism. Ensuing colonial powers included the Swedes, who were also Lutheran, and importantly after the Great Northern War in 1721, the Russian Empire which introduced the Orthodox Church.
For Estonia, one of the least populous nations in Europe, religious life imposed by much larger powers resulted in a measure of resentment which has become part of the national consciousness. Riho Altnurme, professor in the faculty of theology at the University of Tartu, notes it is not Estonian history as such, but the reconstruction of the past through narrative which emphasizes the contentiousness of religion.
“It is actually not the past or events in the past that suggest this problem,” says Dr. Altnurme, “but rather the historical construction of the past that works that way. Estonian nationalism has a strong anticlerical tendency that has influenced historical writing.”
In fact, opposition to the various Christian churches made the job of imposing atheism all the more easy when the Soviet Union absorbed an independent Estonia following World War II.
“Cultural hostility towards the church was a part of the national narrative before Estonia became part of the Soviet Union, a fact that was very handy for Soviet propagandists of atheism,” says Mr. Remmel. “But the main outcome of Soviet anti-religious policy, at least in Estonia, was not conversion to atheism but indifference towards religion and total ignorance. It created a religious gap.”
A spiritual 'marketplace'
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this gap has been filled in various ways with those interested in spiritual matters left a panoply of choices.
The path of economic liberalism chosen by the government at the time of Estonian independence was mirrored in religious policy, which promoted freedom, tolerance, and openness in the spiritual “marketplace.” This meant that the traditional Estonian Lutheranism was on equal footing with Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Buddhists, and Hare Krishnas. Interest in non-traditional religions has seen an upsurge in the ensuing twenty years.
The “new age” movement can trace its roots to the 1960s and '70s, but its worldview has taken on popular cache in contemporary Estonia.
“Since the 1990s, the new age ideas have become part of the general spiritual scene, and it could be claimed that the new age ideas are not considered as specifically religious ones,” says Ringo Ringvee, an expert on contemporary religious life in Estonia and an adviser to the ministry of interior on religious affairs.
“Many of the ideas that have their roots either in Estonian pagan/indigenous traditions, Eastern religions, or new age such as reincarnation, the law of karma, the notion of plants and animals having a soul, and respect for nature are so widespread that they are not considered anymore as religious ones or ideas coming from some specific tradition, but accepted as common knowledge.”
Still, as some spiritual notions have become commonplace or even taken for granted, the deeply private quality of religious feeling remains.
For Erkki Sivonen, an Estonian living in London, the religious landscape of his homeland is still an opaque one.
“For Estonians, religion or lack thereof is still a very personal thing, not discussed amongst friends or colleagues. As it was hidden during the Soviet times, so it has remained,” Mr. Sivonen says. “In all sorts of polls I usually tick the 'agnostic' box though my agnosticism doesn't prevent me from shouting to God occasionally.”