East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Religious Education in Russian Schools

Fedor Kozyrev

Since a federal law on education was passed in 1992, government agencies have interpreted it as prohibiting the teaching of religion in state schools. Yet this position has been changing rapidly. On 24 April 2001 a roundtable meeting, "Religious Education in Russia: Problems and Prospects," was held at the parliament of the Russian Federation. The final document produced from this meeting was considered a breakthrough where the importance of spiritual education in schools was concerned. Participants agreed that spiritual upbringing and religious education in Russia's schools should be given priority. They agreed in principle that the secular character of Russia's state school system should not exclude education based on a religious outlook.

In many respects, our future depends on our success in combining the idea of a pluralistic democratic state, as formulated in the Constitution, with the spiritual ideals and traditional religious values forming the basis of the great union of various cultures, peoples, and creeds which is Russia. Perhaps, then, this is an opportune time for the majority Russian Orthodox Church, jointly with other religious denominations and creeds, to become an independent, full-fledged partner in education and the spiritual consolidation of our society.

Historical Roots
Russia has lived through a long reign of state-supported atheism and the effects of this history on society's attitudes toward religion cannot be underestimated.  As a consequence of Russia's Communist history, citizens are wary of any penetration of the church into public life, especially as it relates to religious education in schools. Parents are often afraid that some new ideological control may enter schools under the guise of religious education, and that children may once again be told what is and is not permitted. This kind of distrust naturally leads to resistance among professional pedagogues against the inclusion of religious education in Russia's school programs.

Also, there have never been theological departments in Russian universities, as there are in Western Europe. With European education forced on Russia by Peter the Great, seminary theology and academic science found themselves on different levels of public life. This development resulted, to a considerable extent, in the isolation of clergy from public life and the polarization of spiritual and secular principles in Russian culture. Today, despite a great number of intellectuals joining the clergy, this separation is still in place in both public and clerical consciousness.

Hazards of Indoctrination
While it is still too early to estimate the future extent and form of religious education in Russia's schools, there is some danger that ideology will enter schools under the guise of religious and spiritual education. The likelihood of such a scenario is confirmed by the increasingly close cooperation between the Ministry of Education and the Moscow Patriarchy. For example, a new concept of moral upbringing and spiritual education has been developed on the order of the Ministry of Education by the Orthodox Church-sponsored Pokrov Institute. The official position of the Russian Orthodox Church concerning religious education is reflected in its recently adopted social doctrine, which reads, "From the Orthodox viewpoint, it is desirable that the whole system of education be built on religious grounds and be based on Christian values."

While expressing its respect for secular schools and its preparedness to build a relationship with such schools on the basis of respect for the freedom of man, the Orthodox Church believes that "the forcing upon students of anti-religious and anti-Christian views and the affirmation of the monopoly of the materialistic view of the world is inadmissible." However, this well-substantiated position does not provide any answers as to whether or not the Church finds admissible the forcing upon students of Christian ideas and views.

A report prepared in November 2000 by the Pokrov Institute attempts to substantiate on the basis of domestic pedagogical tradition the moral admissibility and social usefulness of religious education, regardless of students' free will. The aim, noted the report, was to promote the spiritual consolidation of Russia and the instilling of patriotism in her students. The authors of the report seemed to omit, however, the issue of how this proposed indoctrination was compatible with the principles of freedom of conscience, tolerance, and pluralism. According to this new concept, the basic principle and objective of moral upbringing and spiritual education is attaining the likeness of Christ.  It may not be clearly realized that the tactless enforcing of a system of religious values in a multi-denominational and multi-religious democratic state may result in the profanation and depreciation of the values one is trying to transmit. This approach may also result in turning religious education into a means of indoctrinating students, forcing upon them a rigidly regulated system of values, rather than a means for students to develop their own abilities and to broaden their outlook.

A critical revision is also needed of both the methods and overall principles of pre-Revolutionary religious education. Despite the fact that religious education has been in the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries, there has been a universal explosion of ungodliness, the desecration of churches, and ill feeling towards the Church. Today, neither the leaders of the Church nor religious pedagogues display the will to analyze old mistakes and bring the principles of spiritual education in harmony with the realities of contemporary pluralistic society. At the same time, Russian society has received too serious a lesson of skepticism and nihilism and has been too much inoculated with European enlightenment to accept bold religious indoctrination. That is why many parents, even Orthodox believers, are not likely to allow their children to be indoctrinated in school in the spirit of Orthodox patriotism in the way similar to indoctrination in Marxism-Leninism.

"Spirituality Without Indoctrination"
Many people in Russia find the current irreligious condition normal. Yet the number is growing of those who realize that the deliberate impoverishing of the spiritual world of a child, which inevitably results from lack of familiarity with religion, can never be the means of protecting the child's freedom of conscience. It will be a great loss for Russia's children if either the path of indoctrination or an irreligious school education is pursued. In the former case, while trying to preserve national identity and the consolidation of our society, we potentially lose democratic principles and freedoms. In the latter case, while trying to preserve freedoms, we lose all connection with our national spiritual tradition and, along with it, the ability to understand the spiritual identities, cultures, and historic legacies of other peoples. Such are the extremes. I believe that the best path lies somewhere in the middle.

In whatever way the organization of religious education in Russian schools is developed, its future depends on whether it will become truly professional or subservient to some political cause. These realities are already understood by many teachers, priests, and religious believers of various denominations and creeds. A movement of pedagogues and believers whose motto is "Spirituality without Indoctrination" has already appeared in St. Petersburg. This initiative brings together teachers of humanities and methodologists from the city's leading universities and high schools together with priests and other church leaders.   Their work includes promoting and introducing various programs of religious education in schools in order to maximize students' knowledge of religion without infringing on their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Participants in the movement believe that the alternative to indoctrination is not the absence of religious education in schools, but rather, the consistent and well-considered introduction of it. They also clearly understand that an attempt to pass religious education in school into the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church will not cause any reconciliation. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.

A Call for Balance and Nuance in Russian Pedagogy
Russia needs to develop its own domestic school of religious pedagogy, which, while coordinating its activities with clergy, should remain consistently secular. On the one hand, we must use the experience of religious education accumulated by secular schools in democratic countries. On the other hand, we must rely on our country's own pedagogical and spiritual resources, such as correlating foreign experiences with the historical, cultural, and religious peculiarities of Russia and attaining cooperation between traditional denominations and creeds.

Since much of Russia remains Orthodox Christian and because Christian Orthodoxy is Russia's ethnological core, this fact must be reflected in programs of religious education. Religious education should never be abstract and separated from tradition. And there is no need to try and achieve the "equality" of religions. Of course, children should not be deprived of a chance to get acquainted with religious traditions other than their own and should never receive a distorted or partial view of other traditions. We must also make sure that students belonging to religious minorities can receive religious education based on their own traditions. Taking Russia's historic experience into account, school programs should also pay attention to atheistic views. There is nothing wrong with having our children receive impartial knowledge of the ideas of irreligious Humanism and Communism.

The question we must ask (and answer) is whether the exploitation of religious feelings toward political and social ends is permissible and, if so, to what extent. This exercise includes a clear evaluation of the phenomenon of indoctrination. If, while answering the above questions, the public and professional pedagogues become divided and unable to find common ground, then in accordance with the essence of pluralism, several pedagogical schools and trends must be developed. In such matters forcible unification has no place.

Fedor Kozyrev is director of the Centre for Religious Pedagogy, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from EEF-NET, the Newsletter of the Team on Education and Ecumenical Formation of the World Council of Churches 10 (April 2002): www.wcc-coe.org; and the International Association for Religious Freedom, Religious Education in Schools: Ideas and Experience from Around the World (Oxford: IARF, 2001).

Fedor Kozyrev, "Religious Education in Russian Schools ," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Fall 2002), 2-3.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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