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

Second Thoughts on Religious Education

Elena Miroshnikova

The problem presented in [Fedor Kozyrev's] essay is the dilemma faced by religious and political leaders of how to teach religion to Russian students with the aim of promoting spiritual consolidation and maintaining Russian national and cultural identity, while at the same time preserving the constitutional principles of freedom of conscience, including freedom of religion. The first of these two goals is likely best achieved by emphasizing Russian Orthodoxy, but this hinders the second goal, fostering students' "ability to understand the spiritual identities, cultures, and historic legacies of other people."

Can Russian Orthodoxy and Freedom of Conscience Coexist?
Fedor Kozyrev believes that the solution to this seemingly irreconcilable dilemma lies somewhere in the middle. He advocates a religious education program in public schools that would teach religion without indoctrinating students. In order to do this he believes that a secular institution of religious pedagogy needs to be created--headed by academics rather than the Russian Orthodox Church.  It would develop a system of teaching various religions that is tailored to fit the religious and legal context of Russia today, while meeting the religious and social needs of society. Since Russian Orthodoxy lies at the center of Russian spirituality, it must unapologetically be presented as such in the religious curriculum. By devoting parts of the instructional program to religions other than Russian Orthodoxy, Kozyrev believes that the religious freedom of students from other religious traditions would be protected. While the goal of such a program would ultimately be political (the promoting of Russian Orthodoxy as a means of connecting Russian students to their cultural and national roots and thus strengthening the self-identity of Russia), the religious freedom of all students would supposedly be respected and guarded against indoctrination through the teaching of a variety of religious traditions.

In Violation of the Russian Constitution
I understand the seriousness of the dilemma presented by Kozyrev, but I do not fully agree with his solution. His plan violates Russia's Constitution, specifically Articles 14 and 28, which state:

The suggested religious education program favors Russian Orthodoxy over other religions and thus violates Article 14.  In theory, since religious classes would not be mandatory and would be offered as part of an overall "secular" program, they look as if they will not violate students' freedom of conscience.  But, given the priority of Orthodoxy in the program, the potential for students from minority religions to feel slighted and to have their consciences violated is high, and thus Article 28 is also breached.  Moreover, Kozyrev's proposal does not specifically prohibit religious instruction, in Orthodoxy or other traditions, that seeks to inculcate faith rather than present only objective facts about various religious traditions.  Such a program violates both articles, especially since Kozyrev's plan calls for using Russian Orthodox priests to carry the load in providing the instruction. We fool ourselves to think that Orthodox priests will present all material in a completely objective and neutral fashion.  In addition, I anticipate that considerable pressure will be exerted by Orthodox and officials to make the program mandatory for all students.  But even if the program remains genuinely optional, the pressure on students to participate will be enormous and the program will thereby be so closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church that it becomes a program of indoctrination into Russian Orthodoxy in the name of "religious education."

With Respect to Minorities
Russia is a vast nation and, despite the overwhelming presence of Orthodoxy, numerous religions are actively practiced on Russian soil--at least 60 at the present time. Islam and Protestantism, in particular, are growing at astounding rates.  In spite of the increasing presence of religion across Russia, however, agnostics and atheists still comprise about 30 percent of the Russian population.   Members of these groups--religious and nonreligious--fear that a program of religious education might cause their children to be "indoctrinated into a rigid system of outward semblance of values" rather than be presented with a more global religious outlook that will broaden their children's religious perceptions and equip them with the knowledge to make their own religious choices.

The Orthodox Presence in Public Education
Notwithstanding these concerns, it seems that some leaders in Moscow and the regions, together with officials from the Russian Orthodox Church, ignore the Russian Constitution and work feverishly to implement a program of religious education in the public educational system. They are assisted by the rigorous efforts of the Department of Education of the Russian Federation.   Together they have so far been successful in achieving their aims.  Already, for example, public school students are required to take a course in "The Basics of Russian Orthodox Culture."  In addition, they have established theology departments in many state universities.  More extensive penetrations into the public school system, such as those proposed by Professor Kozyrev, will bring them their final victory.

Mandatory Orthodoxy
It should be mentioned, of course, that there is considerable opposition to these efforts across Russia.   Since the end of the Soviet era, more than a decade ago, there have been conferences, seminars, religious gatherings, and various appeals to the government opposing these illegal practices. But these demurrers, including a highly critical special report issued by the Department of Justice, are like voices crying in the wilderness.  The latest activities of the Russian government confirm this fact. On 10 October 2002 in Moscow the government held a conference on the forms and methods of religious instruction in Russian public schools. Many officials from the Russian Orthodox Church were in attendance. The central idea emerging from the gathering was that religious education must become a mandatory subject in public schools, but paid for by the "secular" state. This notion, in the way it so preferentially treats Russian Orthodoxy, is actually quite close to the practice in contemporary Germany whose constitution (Article 7) mandates religious education in public schools. The eight religions in Germany that qualify as "corporations under public law" receive preferential treatment to the virtual exclusion of many minority religions in the public school curriculum.  This obviously discriminatory arrangement is widely criticized within modern Germany but it persists nevertheless. If proposals like Kozyrev's are adopted Russia will move swiftly toward an arguably even more discriminatory model than that in Germany: One religion (at most four, if Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam are grouped with Orthodoxy as the favored "traditional" religions of Russia, as in the preamble to the 1997 "On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations"), not eight, would be favored over others.

A Clear Threat to Freedom of Conscience
I am not opposed to religious education.  Some instruction about religion is needed--even in the public school setting. An education without some exposure to the role of religion in the lives of human beings throughout history is indeed incomplete.  But any proposal, such as that of Professor Kozyrev, that calls for inculcation of faith rather than merely presenting objective facts about religion, or that so clearly prefers Russian Orthodoxy over other religious traditions, is unacceptable for today's Russia. The Constitution must be respected.  Its separation of church and state is the primary guarantor of religious freedom for all Russians. The public schools and universities should provide a primarily secular education because this is the best way to realize all citizens' right to freedom of conscience, especially in a multi-cultured country like Russia. Religious education that has faith as its goal should be the responsibility of the churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and other houses of worship, as well as schools and universities that are religiously affiliated. Any attempt by the Russian government to wrest this responsibility from institutions of faith at government expense threatens the freedom of conscience of all Russians.

Dr. Elena Miroshnikova is a visiting professor in the Department of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, Waco, TX, and professor of education at Tula Pedagogical University, Tula, Russia.

Elena Miroshnikova, "Second Thoughts on Religious Education," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Fall 2002), 6-7.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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