Estonia – few gods, but loads of angels

In late September 2013, I was in Estonia, widely referred to on the web as the ‘most godless’ nation in the world. This is based on a 2005 Eurobarometer poll Social values, Science and Technology Report (June 2005)[1] which recorded the Baltic state as having the lowest level of belief in the existence of God in all the 32 European nations polled. Only 16 per cent agreed with the statement “I believe there is a God”, with the Czech Republic next at 19 per cent, Sweden on 23 per cent, Denmark on 31 and Netherlands on 34 per cent; the UK stood on 38 per cent, and Germany on 48 per cent; holding up the European average at the other end were Malta on 95 per cent and Cyprus on 90 per cent agreeing with the statement.[2]

I was there to participate in a conference of provisional results being presented by students of Prof Riho Altnurme at the University of Tartu. What came over was the apparently high level belief pagan or neo-pagan beliefs, seen in one national narrative of newly liberated Estonia as a source of national identity that emerged as a resisting ideology in the latter decades of Communist rule.[3] One of those beliefs was the high level of belief in angels – reported to me in Tartu to be at 77 per cent. This seems on the face of it as an extraordinary bifurcation of the Estonian religious psyche between low god belief and high belief in angels (and other beings related to Estonian folklore).

But the non-Estonian commentator needs to be chary about leaping on this at face value. What is being meant by “angels” might not be the form that is taken to be standard in western European Christian heritage. These angels appear not as adjuncts to Christian belief, aides-de-camp of the divine. They seem something rather different.

In searching for an equivalence from my own knowledge repertoire, I alighted on the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland where levels of Christian belief are low (in the 2011 census, the second-lowest level of religious belonging in Britain, beaten only by Aberdeen city), but where there is a vigorous “culture” of fairies, trows and other “beings” reputed to live in the hills. Now, if asked if they believe in these beings, Shetlanders are likely to smile broadly and say “Well, yes, of course!!” – it being a necessary adjunct to Shetland identity. (I explored this in Callum Brown, Up Helly Aa: Custom, Culture and Community in Shetland (Manchester University Press, 1997)) But is this “belief” in the manner asked of the Eurobarometer or other religious surveys? I rather think not.

In like manner, Estonia’s religious non-religious “beliefs”, those linked to that annoyingly-difficult category “folklore”, may need to be approached with epistemological care. Beliefs are not limited to the foundations of faith, but extend broadly to flippancies we humans foster to bolster our humorous senses of belonging. I think such flippancies are unlikely ammunition for a revisionist approach to the secular condition of Eastern Europe.


[2] An American study, Tom W Smith, “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries” (2012)(pdf) at the University of Chicago, came up with different rank orderings, putting East Germany ahead of Estonia.

[3] See Marion Bowman and Ulo Valk (eds.), Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life (Sheffield, Equinox, 2012).

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