East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 2005, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Religious Education in Post-Soviet Latvia

Anta Filipsone

Under the new conditions of freedom, it gradually became clear that Christian churches in Eastern Europe had bought their survival at a very high price. Existing within deformed societies, they in turn were considerably deformed by totalitarianism. Consequently, as Lutheran pastor Juris Rubenis has noted, “The church could not urge society toward new spiritual life and truth if it had not yet resolved the burdens inherited from the past.” Yet the process of clarification and cleansing turned out to be “very complicated and, at times, unrealizable.”1

Even after ten years of freedom the process of clarification and cleansing is not yet complete. To this day in most countries of the former socialist bloc, Christian churches still have not recovered from what Georg Lukacs called the “persecution syndrome.” He characterizes it as follows:

It was difficult to forget the times of oppression and persecution and change the attitudes caused by the pressure of discrimination. Consequently the oppressors were blamed for all the failures and mistakes of the churches. The time of oppression was a favorable time for charismatic personalities and private adventures, but destroyed the need for cooperation and organized structures.2

In Latvia, too, the challenges of the historical heritage are sometimes confused with the pressures of the pluralistic post-modern world. For example, L. G. Taivans acknowledges, “While much blame for the decline of religious practice and belief can be placed at the doorstep of organized and militant Soviet atheism, not all of its inroads and seeming victories are the result of its own actions and policies, but rather, can be found in the peculiar mix of Latvian history and the worldwide process of urbanization and modernization.”3

In order to discern the sources of various challenges and design adequate strategies for dealing with them, Christian churches in Latvia are working in several directions—reclaiming and strengthening their particular confessional identities, reestablishing theological education, developing ecumenical dialogue and cooperation, and rethinking their social status.

Confessional Identity,Theological Education, and Ecumenical Cooperation
After the restoration of religious freedom in Latvia, Christian churches experienced the “shock of modernization,” concluding “neither the pre-Communist practice of interweaving state with church nor the ghettoized or underground existence of past decades”4 would permit an open, pluralistic, democratic, and capitalist society. The new opportunities and freedoms that were offered to churches required new qualifications that not every church worker possessed.

Eastern European Christians want to protect the authentic, dynamic, and vital faith which they developed during years of persecutions from what they regard to be the sterile Christianity of the West. According to Rubenis, Westerners look upon East Europeans as “immature children who could eliminate their deficiencies only by completely adopting the theology and practices of West European churches.” Without denying the need to learn from both achievements and mistakes of Western Christians, they still regard it important to assert, “We East Europeans are not just needy and immature orphans, but people gifted with a rich history and experience.”5

Church and Society
After the reestablishment of religious freedom in Latvia, the public status of Christian churches changed. First of all, as they became seen and heard, they started experiencing ebbs and flows in popularity. Second, not only did the churches become visible, but they also became accountable and liable. Very soon it turned out that “the church knew that it needed to influence the public life of the nation, yet it did not quite understand how to go about it.”6 Rubenis attributes this confusion mainly to a lack of adequate theological and pastoral education:

It must be admitted that the clergy was not always able to speak to people in a way that they could understand or that related to their lives. Far too often the clergy was under the illusion that quick evangelism was attainable by putting rigorous and moralizing pressure on people. This, in turn, only annoyed people and pushed them further away from the church.7

Yet other experts, such as R. Putnis, think that reasons for the current difficulties in relations between churches and society go deeper, that the Lutheran church lacks both the means and desire for meaningful dialogue with society. According to Putnis, church leaders often display a lack of reality and an ignorance of the true needs and hopes of parishioners and all inhabitants of Latvia. Putnis is critical of public activities of the Lutheran church because, in his opinion, they are not directed to the right issues:

Women’s ordination, gays and lesbians, abortion, and, of course, taxes on church property are the only topics which have motivated Archbishop Vanags to express his opinion. Where are his activities in such areas as poverty, prostitution, homeless children, relief, development of democracy, political participation, evaluation of the effects of totalitarianism—both in the society and in the church—integration of minorities, tolerance, openness, education, sects, integration into Europe, and environmental problems? Even though these are problems which confront every Christian on a daily basis, they are dealt with in very few homilies.8

In general, Putnis is concerned that “in the Lutheran church of Latvia it is difficult to find a place for an open and honest forum on such issues” due to “a lack of intellectuals among parishioners (which leads to the lack of Christian debates on social issues in church), poor theological education of clergy, and correspondingly poor knowledge of Christian doctrines in society.” Instead of dealing with problems related to widespread social tension and religious pluralism in Latvian society, “the church displays heightened centralism” and, as a result, according to Putnis, has an insignificant public role.9

In Estonia, by Comparison
Comprehensive studies on the development of religious education in Latvia after the collapse of the Soviet Union are lacking. However, in neighboring Estonia, where the situation is somewhat similar, such research is being carried out by historian and theologian Pille Valk from Tartu University. She concentrates on the effects of Soviet atheism on the religious thinking and imagination of Estonians and the challenges that Estonian religious education is facing in the transition from a closed totalitarian system to an open, pluralistic, postmodern society.

Valk lists the following factors that strongly influence the development of religious education in Estonia: (a) Almost all people over 30 (parents and teachers) have experienced the influence of a strongly atheistic education, and their knowledge of religion is limited. (b) Many people have no contact with the church, and for them religion is something alien. (c) In the Soviet period, religion was a very private matter. (d) Due to the heritage of the former totalitarian regime, many people do not trust new “prophets” and ideologies. (e) The sometimes aggressive activities of various new religious movements have created skepticism and fear of religion. (f) Yet for many people, formal connection to a church still appears to be part of the national identity.10

As a result, even though many people seemed to be interested in religion and even supported teaching religion in public schools, at the same time, introduction of religion in Estonian schools in 1991 triggered sharp discussions in the press formed by ideas of personal freedom and pluralism as well as residues of Soviet ideology and atheist propaganda. Today Estonian public schools offer a Christian ecumenical approach to religious education to provide knowledge about religion and to help in understanding the world, culture, and the role of the religious dimension in human life. Religious education in public schools also supports students’ moral development and the formation of national identity as well as attempting to create preconditions for personal religious choices.11

Valk acknowledges that the status of religious education in Estonian public schools is still quite vague. Usually it is school principals who, depending on their personal attitudes, decide whether religious education will be taught in their schools or not. In addition, when schools initially became open to religious education, many zealous Christians rushed to teach religion and failed due to the lack of pedagogical experience and professional skills. Unfortunately, since then those individual failures have been exaggerated, generalized, and presented as reasons for leaving religious education out of the curricula of many schools.12

Today no school in Estonia has systematic religious education from the first to the last grade. Teachers must develop curriculum mostly by themselves. In terms of resources, initially it was quite common that teachers had only their own copies of the Bible and perhaps one book of Bible stories for the entire class. Thus, the lack of teaching materials was one of the most serious problems. Today the situation has somewhat improved, but it is “not yet normal.”13


  1. Juris Rubenis, "Rebirth and Renewal in the European Churches Today: A View from the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church," 5, retrieved 1 September 2001 from http://www.butler.edu/www/philrel/rubenisa.html.
  2. Georg Lukacs, "Religion and Media" in M. Tomka and P. M. Zulehner, eds., Concilium: Religion During and After Communism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000-3), 98-99.
  3. L. G. Taivans, "Reflections in the Invisible Religion of Youth: The Case of Latvia," 1, retrieved 5 September 2001 from http://cis.georgefox.edu/lee/html_articles/TAIVANS.LAT.html.
  4. Lukacs, "Religion and Media," 10.
  5. Rubenis, "Rebirth and Renewal," 4 and 9.
  6. Ibid., 6.
  7. Ibid., 5.
  8. R. Putnis, "It Is Evident That the Church Has Problems," Diena [The Day] (8 December 2000), 15.
  9. Ibid., 9.
  10. Pille Valk, "From Soviet Atheism to National Identity--A Specific Background for Religious Education in Estonia." Panorama, 12 (1) (Summer 2000), 84-85.
  11. Ibid., 84 and 88.
  12. Ibid., 87-88.
  13. Ibid., 89.

Anta Filipsone is a lecturer in the Religious Education Center, School of Education, University of Latvia, Riga, Latvia.

Editor’s Note: The conclusion of this article will appear in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Anta Filipsone, “A Critical Analysis of Approaches to Religious Education in Public Schools of Post-Soviet Latvia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 2002.

Anta Filipsone, “Religious Education in Post-Soviet Latvia,” East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Summer 2005), 9-10.

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2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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