View from here - Russia goes pick 'n' mix on faith

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
Colin Graham reports on a surprising decision to allow pupils to choose which religion they want to study

Images of tank processions and tightly choreographed pageants commemorating this or that anniversary in Red Square have etched an assumption into the minds of many Westerners that Russia is a monolithic country populated by white-faced citizens sharing much the same beliefs.

The reality is infinitely at odds with this prejudice, even if the continuing conflict between Moscow and Chechen separatists appears to reinforce the notion that Russia is a staunchly Christian land faced by an Islamic enemy.

Beginning on April 1, Russia's education and science ministry launched an experiment across 19 of the vast country's regions, which would see 10 to 11-year-old pupils study religion in an unprecedented manner. The scheme, "Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics", will initially run for two years and gives the children and their parents the chance to opt for a single module of study out of six: Orthodox Christianity (Russia's main religion), Islam (the country's second largest faith with some 23 million followers), Judaism, Buddhism, the religions of the world, and secular ethics.

Though at first glance the project seems a little divisive in that in some of the modules pupils are given the opportunity to focus on one religion to the exclusion of others, the government contends that it wants its innovation to foster "unity through diversity". It also acknowledges that it might be courting controversy by being too religious for some people and not devout enough for many others.

But some of the results of the scheme do make for surprising reading, particularly when we consider the "clash of civilisation" motifs often at work during discussions of the "war on terror", for example.

In the south-central city of Krasnoyarsk, for instance, with a population of nearly one million, 7,244 pupils were given options: 4,249 wanted to learn about secular ethics, 1,180 the fundamentals of Orthodoxy, 1,690 world religious cultures, 96 Islamic culture, 15 Buddhism and 14 Judaism.

The south-western Stavropol region revealed a slightly different pattern of preferences. Surveys among parents found that the majority of them were in favour of their children learning about the Orthodox religion.

In second and third places were secular ethics and Islam, followed by the other options.

With its new educational experiment - given its purposeful emphasis on "choice" - Moscow is showing that it has far more than just authoritarian strings to its bow.

It is also clearly bent on acknowledging that religions such as Islam and Judaism are central to the cultural lifeblood of the nation. The strength of secularism, too, reveals, arguably, a more democratic strain in civil society than is commonly recognised.

And there are other factors to mull over. Pupils will not be graded for their work on the new course, and all classes, regardless of size, will be staffed by qualified and experienced teachers.

There are many aspects to this brave new take on religious study that could be adopted elsewhere, it would seem.

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