The Estonian Atheist Experiment

Martin A. Noorkõiv is the CEO of Domus Dorpatensis Foundation. He is one of the founders of Estonian Civil Society Week, TEDxTartu conferences and the Young Leaders programme. Martin studies economics at the University of Tartu.

Martin Noorkõiv

Speaking at the TEDGlobal 2012 TEDx pre-conference in Edinburgh. Photo by TED/Creative Commons.

For the majority of my life I’ve lived in Estonia, the most atheistic country in the world (Only 14% of Estonians gave a positive answer to the question: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”), and I’ve been proud of that. I’ve even thought of myself as a “fighting atheist”, listening to Richard Dawkins with great admiration, ready to prove any religious person wrong.

Yet during the past three years this worldview of mine has been quietly, but very steadily deteriorating.

With this article I’m offering a theory, some of it based on fact (psychology mostly) and some, well, on hunches. It’s open to discussion and change, and I do not claim to be an expert on this topic – these are just my observations. I believe Estonia is on the forefront of the biggest religious shift in history. This is where the future of human society and the role of religion will be determined.

The background

Estonia has a rich history of violence and occupation – too rich, in fact, to be described in a short article like this. A very short overview of its religious aspects would go something like this: It was a land of pagans first, then around the time of the 13th century Christianity was forced upon it by foreign rulers (in many ways as a mixture of pagan and Christian traditions in the beginning) and then in the 1940s the Soviet Union forced (again) atheism on the Estonians, until the 1990s when the Union collapsed and every Estonian could choose what he or she wanted to believe.

In contemporary Estonia a very small proportion of people call themselves religious, yet more than 50% of the population claims to believe in some form of spirituality or life-force. In recent years, New Age, neo-paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and some other Asian practices have been becoming more and more popular in Estonia. These people don’t call themselves religious, and in most cases rightfully so, but they are definitely not atheist either.

The dimensions of religion

Religion in its essence consists of many dimensions. I would claim that understanding these dimensions is essential to understanding where the human race is moving in terms of its religious standings. I would personally describe three dimensions of religion:

1) The initial spiritual experience of the prophet, the founder of the religion. This is the spiritual experience at the centre of every religion. This experience is then repeated through tradition and specific practises. This might be praying, meditating or even just the aesthetic experience of admiring the beauty of nature or art. The important part is the feeling of connectedness to something bigger than yourself.

2) The truth, or the explanation. Every religion has its own answers to important questions – about life and death, the origins of the world, and the rule-book for everyday life. This is true of major religions like Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, but also with New Age or even the Star Wars-originated Jedi religion.

3) And then there’s the organisation, or the church, the community. These include buildings and the structures that keep the religion alive well after the death of the founder. Some are powerful and complex, some small and simple. The organisation keeps amongst its traditions the initial experience and passes its truth on, but it also just maintains a community of like-minded people who share values and want to lead their lives in accordance with their specific religion.

Most atheists (especially the fighting kind) ridicule the “truth” and the “organisational” aspects of religion. This is an easy thing to do. Science answers many of the important questions and religious organisations lose their credibility with pedophilia cases, etc. Religion has become an easy target.

Spiritual need

What the critics have missed, though, is that the second two dimensions of religion are just the outside layer, the tip of the iceberg, if you will. The real essence and reason for religions are the spiritual needs that we’ve had (as humans) since our cultural beginnings. I do not claim that we need religion, but instead that we have needed a part of it ever since cave paintings and thereafter.

I would claim that the need to be in contact with something bigger than just our everyday life is an intrinsic part of being human, as real as our need for social contact or recognition or safety. How else could you explain the universal nature of these phenomena? Every ancient tribe, every culture, and every empire has had its spiritual ways and will have them in the future as well.

I claim that the Estonian atheistic experiment might give a hint about these human spiritual needs and show the way for the rest of the world, which is secularising by the minute.

We have thrown religion out (the organisation and their truth), but most people, despite agreeing with science and not liking the institutions of religion, have still searched and found ways to have spiritual experiences. It is not forced upon them, it’s just what they need naturally. And I believe we will be seeing this kind of transition, from all three dimensions just to the first one, all around the world.

A better life

According to extensive research on the topic of life expectancy and satisfaction, there are basically four elements to living long lives: 1) moving naturally (not sports, just normal physical activity); 2) having the right outlook on life (sense of purpose, taking time off); 3) eating healthily (and less); and 4) social connections (belonging, taking care of each other).

This research is based on so-called “blue zones”, geographical areas in which people live noticeably longer, such as in Okinawa, Japan, or a village in Sardinia, Italy. More about that here.

All of these special communities have, among other similarities, a religious setting. Yet it’s not about the religion, it’s about the way religion carries community values and simple, yet consistent rules for everyday life. And this is important. I claim that if one would take the “explanation” part out of the Bible, the Quran or almost any other holy text, you’d find a pretty similar set of simple guidelines for a well-oiled community and personal life.

These include rules such as don’t steal, cheat or betray, take time off every day and every week (to pray, meditate, walk, etc.), go and meet other members of the community regularly (Sunday church, holidays), take care of your elders and help those in need. I claim nothing about the origins of these guidelines, because it doesn’t matter if they are of divine origin or just an accumulation of community wisdom. All that matters is that they are actually useful if one wishes to live a long and happy life.

This effect of religion, I think, is also one of the reasons why so many in Estonia have sought an alternative community and rules for life. I think this is the main reason for the rapid growth of eco-communities, yoga camps, alternative medicine groups and so much more, because people have lived their lives without these things and have found themselves unhappy, closed off from their families, doing work that has little meaning to them, and experiencing an overall feeling of disappointment with their lives.

To wrap it all up, I believe Estonia’s experience is proof that religion carries many socially and individually important functions – functions that let people live longer and happier, and that fill some of their intrinsic needs. This says nothing about the content of religious ideas, about the existence or non-existence of divine entities, afterlife or any of those things, but rather how it fills our intrinsic needs and helps us live our everyday lives.

And just as a reminder: This is all up for discussion. I do not claim all of this to be definitely true, it’s just a theory, based on hunches and hints of fact.

Some of these concepts originate from Professor Tõnu Lehtsaare’s lectures on the Psychology of Religion.

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  • Some thoughts: 1. Was the Russian minority included in the mentioned survey?
    2. Can you be an Atheist and at the same time be spiritual?  3. Isn’t what you describe the need for social contact and some kind of a community?

    • Koit Rikson

      1) I would assume it was. Surveys are generally not targeted towards a specific group since they would lose their credibility if they were. The Soviet-induced atheism prevailed in every state without preference to any church or denomination.
      2) Yes. Atheism is, by dictionary definition, the theory of the non-existence of God/deities. Thereby, spiritualism as an explanation of the spirit is very different from any religious sect as long as it does not introduce deities. 
      3) It is the need for a well-working social contact (although I would prefer to use social contract as the term here) that helps people within their own lives without taking this view to a larger scale. Communities need, unfortunately, some sort of cohesive force that would (in the beginning) create this “community”.

      • Thank you Ole for your questions! And Koit for your answers too 🙂

        1. Yes, I’m not personally involved with the survey, but minorities were included. And you are pointing at the right direction, because the Russian minority has in fact a higher percentage of religious people.

        2. This is a tricky question. There are many definitions and disagreement among scientists as well. What Koit said is of course right, but there are also views that say that spirituality is indeed a subbranch of religion. So it really depends on the definition, but generally speaking you can be both an atheist and spiritual.

        3. Yes and no. It is definitely just that – the need for social contact and community, religion offers these things, but it’s not the only way to have social contact or a community, but what I’m trying to say, is that if you are atheist, you need to find an alternative way to have a community and this social contact. The spiritual needs and the rules for life are separate from those needs, but can still be fulfilled through alternative ways to religion.

  • Thank you for the great post, Martin. I like your theory – it might be a great scenario for the world and would probably reduce religious conflicts, miscommunication and hatred. However, it seems like religious differences are deeply rooted in culture, and can be very difficult to overcome. What do you think?

    • About overcoming religious differences: http://charterforcompassion.org/

      If this would happen (and I’m not sure it will), then one day there wouldn’t be any religious differences, because most likely there wouldn’t be many religions left. The needs I have described in my theory would be consciously fulfilled by alternative means, that don’t need to include a religious “truth”/”explanation”.