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PESC-1: Religious and Inter-Religious Education
Dr Theodor Kozyrev: The Contemporary Condition of Religious Education in Russian Schools and the Perspectives of its Interdenominational Model 

 
First of all, I would like to warn our colleagues, whose knowledge of the situation in today’s Russia is limited, against believing that there is a spiritual renaissance, sorts of a leap from total atheism into a world of Christian values, taking place in our educational system. Our past was not so dark. I went to a regular Soviet school where our math teacher read Ecclesiastes to us during her classes. Of course, this did not happen in every school and, of course, that teacher was sternly reprimanded by the headmaster for the liberty she took (which was not only on ideological grounds but rather because mathematics should not have been neglected too). But all good teachers of literature, rather numerous I should say, thought it their duty to give their students some idea of Christian ethics. Also, despite the powerful ideological pressure, there remained many threads connecting the Soviet society with the rich Christian culture of our past. As one of the paradoxes of Soviet life K. D. Ushinsky was always named among the pillars of Soviet pedagogy although he had remained a consistent Christian throughout his life, never trying to conceal his religious believes.
And the opposite, when talking with teachers of literature who have worked in our school system for the past 15 years, I heard repeatedly that the ethical aspect of our education has lately seriously deteriorated. There are many reasons for that. First, the number of curricula hours allocated for the study of humanities has been consistently cut with the growth of the prestige of economics and legal subjects, which are more helpful in finding a well paying job. This has also resulted in that only the least gifted university students become teachers. Humanities obviously suffer from natural selection. Secondly, the today’s system of education proves unable to adjust to the challenges presented by the new spiritual realities of contemporary Russia. To characterise in short the situation existing around religious education in Russia, I would choose the word chaotic. In school, decisions as to whether or not religious disciplines should be at all taught are left to each school headmaster’s discretion. As for headmasters, the easiest way for them is to leave all religious education out of their curricula, which is exactly what most of them do. Those who keep religious subjects in do it at their own risk often working against a serious resistance on the part of the officials of the system of education. The attitude toward religious education, which prevails now throughout state agencies, does nothing to help to introduce religious subjects in school curricula. In the whole country, there is no state-approved religious education program yet there are some customary taboos, which prevent, for instance, priests from visiting state schools. Of course, there has been a certain progress in the way that a teacher reading the Bible to his students or declaring himself a religious believer has much less chance to be fired than he had in the older days. Yet comparing the situation around religious education with the massive turning of people to faith, which occurred within the past years, one can hardly see any progress. Considering the tremendous growth of the number of church goers, the Russian system of education may be compared with a levee erected in order to keep religion out of school and hardly restraining the flood of people’s religiosity.
Three months ago, I attended one more conference in St. Petersburg, my home town, where representatives from religious communities met with educators. The latter were quite united in that there was no way religious subjects could be taught in school. Their arguments were sometimes rather curious. For instance, someone said that faith was something existing a priori, something that either was there or not and could not be enhanced by education. Someone other said it was immoral to grade students as to how much they believe. Of course, there was the same old argument that, in multi-ethnic Russia, the teaching in school of any one religion would result in a bloody conflict (probably right there in the classroom). One aged teacher of much merit exclaimed, “How could several different religions be taught [at the same time] when it is known that every religious believer holds all representatives of other religions sub-human!”. In short, the teachers were consolidated in that religious education better be left to religious communities, and if religious matters were at all touched upon in school, it better be done in a very non-involved manner and best by an atheist. This is to say that, as regards spiritual renaissance in post-communist Russia, one should not forget either K. D. Ushinsky glorified by Soviet pedagogics who used to say that any teacher indifferent to religion should be kept a mile away from children, or the teachers in today’s Russia who think that, in school, religion should be taught by atheists. 
The evolution of religious education in post-Soviet Russia can be subdivided into two periods: before and after the passing of the National Law on Education, that is, between 1989 and 1993 and thereafter. The first period was that of anarchy. During the first four years after the cardinal political changes in Russia, state schools were accessible to the representatives of any religious movements or sects. Militant atheism was replaced by no less militant pluralism perceived and accepted with truly Russian maximalism. That period was rather fruitful in that, first, it was the time when the wave of enthusiasm brought to life nearly all promising and viable enlightening organisations and movements and, secondly, it revealed all the problems so unexpected for the recently Soviet society related to the freedom of religious belief. Yet it was the period when so many children, affected by the uncontrolled activities of totalitarian sects in the sphere of education, left their homes, dropped out of schools, or became psychiatric patients. These negative consequences of the total lack of control gave to the opponents of religious education their strongest arguments.
The 1992 Law banned political parties and religious organisations from schools and determined the secular nature of state school education in Russia. So for now, this ban and this determination regulate the legal relationship between religion and education. The law does not prohibit religious education, yet in reality, because of the negative attitude of the majority of educators toward the introduction of mandatory religious disciplines, this Law has been interpreted as legal grounds for the banning of religious subjects from state schools.
At this time, in Russia, there are several forms of religious education. First, there is a system of schools, which belong to religious organisations, where believers or those preparing to join religious communities become more familiar with their religions. Speaking of the Russian Orthodox Church, with which I am more familiar since I belong to it, this kind of catechism teaching is done in about every parish, usually in the form of Sunday schools. In St. Petersburg, at the Theological Academy and Seminary, there are pedagogical courses for school teachers. Any teacher is accepted, for the period of two years, to study the basics of Orthodox Christianity and is certified upon the completion of the course. Besides, in the city, there is a number of Orthodox societies, clubs, and initiative groups that, while being legally no part of the Church, are engaged in missionary activities and religious enlightenment. Within the past several years, public organisations have done a lot of work as to the catechisation of prisons, hospitals, and orphanages. Yet such activities should be more properly regarded as part of the mission of the church rather than an element of the system of education.
Yet within the educational system proper, that is, in primary and secondary schools, the familiarisation of children with religious issues is, as a rule, limited to several literature lessons, during which students are briefly acquainted with the Bible and other literary monuments. Leaving alone the fact that the allotted two or three academic hours are absolutely insufficient for the acquiring of any knowledge of religion, a suggestion has been made that, during these classes, the sacred texts be considered only as to their literary merit. Certain small elements of basic knowledge of world religions are incorporated in other subjects such as the basics of law, the world artistic culture, history, etc. Yet this sort of “religious education” is superficial and fragmentary.
At some schools, courses of the basics of religion are taught, which are supposed to acquaint children with the leading world religious teachings. The problem here is that teachers who believe in God are usually kept away from these classes to avoid any partiality. So called “specialists on religion” are invited instead, that is, graduates of Soviet departments of the “scientific atheism” who never since changed either their methods of teaching or their atheistic views.
As opposed to this, there is a very small number of non-state yet state-accredited schools of several religious denominations. Teachers for theses schools are selected on the basis of their religious and denominational affiliation. Common prayers are conducted, religious holidays observed, and the denominational traditions studied in depth. These schools maintain close relationships with their sponsors among religious organisations. Of course, despite being accredited by the state, they are not state funded. Yet I know of at least one state school, in St. Petersburg, where a Christian Orthodox class was created (as a sort of experiment), in which Orthodoxy was taught and classes began with prayers. Yet this case has its own setbacks such as tendency and bias in the teaching of humanities. Sometimes also the specific selection of the teachers for such schools cause detriment of the other general educational subjects. During this year, for example, in a Moscow Christian Orthodox gymnasium, a question was raised of the firing a biology teacher, a brilliant and rare specialist, for his “heretical” adherence to the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Then again, there is a number of borderline versions and forms of teaching religious subjects in general educational schools. At the Moscow Classical Gymnasium, one of the best schools in the country with its own special curriculum, which includes old Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, Orthodox Christian teaching has been added as a compulsory subject. It is taught by a priest from the Moscow diocese. To illustrate how much the issue of religious education is left to the discretion of headmasters, suffice it to say that at the St. Petersburg Classical Gymnasium, which has the same status and almost the same curriculum, religious education is totally missing. There are schools where representatives of several denominations take turns at teaching religious subjects. Such is the St. Petersburg Peterschoole, in which the Orthodox archpriest taught the basics of Christian religion jointly with a Catholic priest and a Lutheran pastor. Finally, there is the teaching of religious subjects during optional classes, which could be the most acceptable form of religious education in today’s Russia if the option is really provided. I mean, the obvious drawback here is that only a small number of students who are overloaded in the secondary school find strength for attending extra-curricular classes. Normally we can’t expect more than 10 % of students ready to attended such classes. I think that if this form of teaching is to be further developed, it is absolutely necessary to introduce in school curricula several optional-choice subjects, including religious, of which each student must attend at least one. This will also resolve the problem of inter-denominational relations. The children will exercise their right to choose between religions they would like to become familiar with.
As to the higher schools, just several months ago, theology was introduced as a state-authorised specialisation, which allows higher schools an option of teaching it among other professional courses. Until now, neither the St. Petersburg State University, nor the Pedagogical University educated professional theologians. Yet in our city and, of course, in Moscow, several non-state higher schools of philosophical and theological profile have operated successfully. The examples of these in St. Petersburg are the Higher Religious Philosophic School and the Russian Christian Institute for the Study of Humanities (RChIH); both became state-accredited recently. With the addition to this number of the previously mentioned Pedagogical Courses at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, we have a sufficiently developed network of schools capable of outputting teachers of religious subjects. Quite regretfully, because of the policy of the Department of education concerning religious education in primary and secondary schools, today this network is not unlike an idling machine: only a small number of the graduates of theological departments and courses have any chance of placement according to their specialisation.
Considering the perspectives of interdenominational model of religious education in our country I see 4 possible situations as follows in increasingly preferable order. 
The first and worst is total and obligatory indoctrination of young population in a kind of semi-religious, semi-ideological teaching eliminating any spiritual pluralism. 
The second is absence of religious education and it seems to be today’s reality in Russia.
The third is separate education in schools or classes differentiated on the denominational principle. It is efficient, clear and easy way, but one of its results is disintegration of society. 
And the last, more difficult and risky but most desirable in pedagogical respect approach is that one which makes students acquainted with different religions and help them see what is common and what is specific in these traditions. Practically this approach may be applied in several models e.g. that used in Great Britain. But in any case it requires high-quality educators, for there is always a danger of its transforming into above-mentioned way of unification. I think this approach may be successful if the educator has got not only knowledge but personal spiritual experience of God too. 
So the question what religious education will be like in the new Russia remains unanswered. What adds to its complexity is the fact that we find ourselves in a situation totally new to our country. In the Russian history, there was a long period of a unity between Church and state, when in passports, instead of the ethnicity of their carriers, religious affiliation was indicated. Taking part in religious sacraments was not only a religious but also a civic issue. To occupy a governmental position one needed a verification as to the fact of baptism and the regularity of attending communion signed by a priest. Of course, the teaching of Christian Orthodox religion was then an integral part of the system of education. There was in our history a different Soviet period when the Church was outlawed and religion proclaimed a harmful anachronism. In the system of education, the teaching of religion was replaced by that of Marxism and militant atheism. Now we have entered still another period when the Church is separated from state, yet state is not antagonistic to religion and has a tendency of developing a close co-operation with the Church and other religious organisations. No one can tell, at this time, what the interaction between state and Church in the sphere of education will be like, yet this is what the future religious and cultural condition of our society and, largely, the state ideology and the public and political climate in our country will depend on. The wariness, with which the state treats the idea of the incorporation of the Church into education is easy to understand and not without ground.
 The return to the pre-Revolutionary practices would only mean the possibility of the invasion of privacy and the forcing of religious beliefs upon children, which would only lead to a new surge of godlessness and anti-clerical sentiment. Yet leaving religious upbringing and education entirely to religious organisations would mean that children from non-religious families that do not maintain connections with any religious traditions would remain totally untouched by any religious education whatsoever. Besides, if the state shies away from being a directing and co-ordinating force in the sphere of religious education of its citizens, it risks the disintegration of our society, the self-isolation of religious communities, and the appearance of religious subcultures or environments opposed to secular culture. The answer to this lies, probably, in co-operation between Church and state. In this, the experience of resolving similar problems in democratic European countries is of a great interest to us. After all, the principal reason for the unsatisfactory condition of religious education in Russia is the fact that resolving this problem is in the hands of people who themselves have no religious education whatever. This is the condition that must be changed.
Back to Report 2001/2002 "A Soul  for Education"