Russian Students Overwhelmingly Uninterested in Learning about Russian Orthodox Religion
On September 1, 2012, it became a national requirement that 4th and 5th graders learn about religious culture and morality. Their topic choices have angered the Orthodox Church.
In 1999, Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II pressured the Russian government to require students to learn about Orthodox culture in its state and municipal educational institutions. After a decade of collaborating between the Ministry of Education and the Russian Orthodox Church on what this kind of program might look like , a course called “Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics” was implemented as a pilot in 18 regions in 2010. It became law in April 2010 and mandatory for 4th and 5th graders in Russia on September 1, 2012. Students are given a choice of six modules to study:
- Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture
- Fundamentals of Islamic Culture
- Fundamentals of Buddhist Culture
- Fundamentals of Jewish culture
- Fundamentals of the World's Religious Cultures
- Fundamentals of Social Ethics
The Ministry of Education and Science decided that it would not allow regional governments and schools to influence students’ module choice. The course was positioned as a secular topic, but a compromise was reached with the Orthodox Church that these course modules would be considered “living,” requiring continual updates and changes. Thousands of teachers were trained to teach these modules as their knowledge of these topics varied extensively.
What are the results of this program? Of the 1.3 million students who were part of the pilot courses in the first 18 regions:
The country as a whole:
- Fundamentals of Secular Ethics - 42.7%
- Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture - 31.7%
- Fundamentals of World Religious Cultures - 21.2%
- Fundamentals of Islamic Culture – 4%
- Fundamentals of Buddhist Culture – 0.4%
- Fundamentals of Jewish Culture – 0.1%
- Fundamentals of Secular Ethics - 47.4%
- Fundamentals of World Religious Cultures - 27.7%
- Fundamentals of Orthodox culture - 23.43%
In St. Petersburg:
- Fundamental of Secular Ethics - 52.6%
- Fundamentals of World Religious Culture - 37.7%
- Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture - 9.46%
These results have angered Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow Kirill as one of the Church’s goals for this program was to raise students’ tolerance towards representatives of various religious traditions. The Church wants to introduce Russian students to God’s Laws within the context of Orthodox culture. In the class Fundamentals of Social Ethics there is very little material covering different religions. In regions such as Ingushetia and Chechnya nearly 100 percent of the students are studying “Fundamentals of Islamic Culture.” Patriarch Kirill now regrets the “step towards the irreligious” and hopes that these distortions can be corrected. There is pressure to amend the Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics requirement with changes to the textbooks, involvement of centralized religious organizations in the development of the courses and an accreditation process for teachers to be given by centralized religious organizations. With only one “centralized” religion in Russia, Patriarch Kirill wants much more influence on this course requirement.
Teachers are not theologians; they are trained to teach prescribed coursework. No accreditation program can equip teachers to form the faith of their students. The Church’s influence on this program has already angered some parents who believe that the majority of society has made a "step towards the Church and recoiled." The Church has been very supportive of President Putin, especially during his last campaign and elections. In 2007, Putin played an instrumental role in reunifying the Russian Orthodox Church with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia that split away from the Russian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1928 to demonstrate its loyalty to the Bolshevik state.
The Russian Orthodox Church was the only major social institution to survive its nation’s turbulent history. Yet it made significant accommodations to do so, most notably working very closely with the KGB during Soviet times. Today the Church is fighting for relevance. Of the 80 percent of Russians with Orthodox ethnicity, only 3-5 percent are associated with the Church. Influencing students in school is an opportunity it wants to maximize and it is likely to continue its impact. Last week, Patriarch Kirill stated that only six of eighty embassy schools abroad offered a course in "Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture" to its Russian students and that is not enough.