The Role of Religion in the Emergence of Civil Society in Lithuania

Versija spausdinimui

by Andrius Navickas

The religion has long been recognized as an important institution of civil society, significant to the regime for its support and promotion of the values important for political culture. Together with schools, families and a variety of political and other voluntary interest organizations, churches influence political and societal attitudes. On the other hand, there is no firm consensus – does religion promote or subvert civil society? In his famous book about Italy and social capital “Making Democracy Work” Robert Putnam states that the hierarchical structure of Catholic Church is rather alternative for civil society than one of its component. Though great french thinker Alexis de Tocquille in his classic work “Democracy in America” observed that religion played the essential role in American type of civil society. I value very much Robert Putnam books, but I think that in soviet Lithuania the Church was real agent of civil society. In the era of communist dictatorship, the Church was a teacher of lasting and destuctible values and the conscience of an enslaved society. The Catholic Church as the largest religious institution in Lithuania was the leader of opposition.

The independence of Lithuania was the outset of religious freedom too. During the first period of the postcommunist transformation the increased importance of the religion met with popular support. On the one hand this can be explained as a reaction to the political persecution of religion in the soviet period, and on the other as a search for support in the changing reality. In the outset of postcommunist reform democracy and religions was closely linked concepts. There was a great enthusiasm about the prosperity of civil society and religious values.

Lithuania reestablished independence thirteen years ago. And I can state with certainty that nowadays Lithuanian society is very different from the expectations at the dawn of the transformations. Of course, there were a lot of changes in the material prosperity and in the life-styles, but we also have to aknowledge that posttotalitarian society is very different from our dreams about civil society and religion became the traditional decor of our life rather than vital force. We still talk a lot about civil society, religion, but these are only talks without any commitment.

A. Society

The large part of the Lithuanian society emerged from communism convinced that the sources of all problems were left in soviet regime. It was great ilussion that we, who spent the great amount of our lifes in soviet asylum are not effected by its vices and diseases. For a long time we hope that the greatest in the world rate of suicides, total distrust in social institutions, the ignorance of the common good, the lack of solidarity, the erosion of sociality were the signs of transition, which will disappear after some time of rehabilitation. We are not so sure about it now.

In many aspects the attitudes and values of Lithuania people are similar like in other countries of East and Central Europe. However we are more pesimistic, less proud of our state. Lithuania is going to enter Europian Union and NATO. Alongside the Poland Lithuania is one of the most positive towards United States countries in Europe. Another similarity with Poland –" the great majority of people – " 70 or even 80 percents are nominal catholics. It seems unpopular in Lithuania to be an atheist or even unbeliever. In political and social spheres Lithuania is more close to Latvia or Estonia rather to Poland, we have common expierence of life in soviet system.

Nominally we have liberal democratic system with democratic constitution. On the other hand we suffer from the big level of corruption, the great social inequality, distrust in parlament, goverment, political parties and the extreme fragmentation in political life. We still Homo sovieticus, whoes do not know the differences between our own interests and the common good. And, as once said great polish thinker Joseph Tischner: Homo sovieticus can set a cathedral on fire to fray his scrabled eggs.

Though the most people nominally prefer free civil society to soviet type regime, but they still understand the state as the distributor of boons. On the other hand, the government is sure that it knows the interest and values of the peoople better than they own.

Then the politicians in Lithuania speak about “human rights”, “freedom of religion”, “protection of minorities” they usually understand such things as the requirements of eurobureaucrats, not as the essential principles of civil society. Politicians, journalists treat religion either as the part of cultural heritage, which have cultural not existential meaning, or as the threat to quasiliberal principle “anything goes”, as potential problem, that we need to move to the margins of society. Donatas Glodenis is going to tell about some legal paradoxes in the sphere of religious freedom in his report. I only want to stress that our politicians about religious commitments talk as about the source of problems rather as about the fundamental right of every person. It is more convenient in Lithuania to talk about the control of religious matters rather than the protection of freedom of conscience.

Despite the fact that all prominent politicians in Lithuania enthusiasticaaly attend catholic Mass during state holidays, they treat the attendance as usual ritual prescribed for politician. Very interest but not cheery facts were revealed during some last months. Our new President have his own hex Lena Lolishvili. She came from Georgia, does not know lithuanian language, has no any systematic education. She claims to have ability to predict the future, to heal serious diseases and to protect all society from evil forces. Lena Lolishivili uses to load with positive energy water and even toilet paper.

It is very difficult to believe, but this is true, that this hex has very great influence not only on President, but also on Prime Minister and the decisions of other prominent politicians. It was published a book about this woman some weeks ago in which businessmen, politicians praise Lolishvili. We can find many interest facts and quotations in this book. For example, Prime Minister Brazauskas states there that Lolishvili is the main source of physical energy for him, he cofesses that the hex had very great influence on his decision to not take part in the President elections.

There are many evidences that the great majorities of the new Presedent office workes had to pass special test – the conversation with Lolishvili. The hex decided their eligibility to work in office.

Lena Lolishvili claims that she is christian and all her power comes from God. On the other hand in her numerous interviews she speaks more like new God rather modest instrument of God. For example, she warned that if she would leave Lithuania it would open the doors for serious catastrophes.

The hierarchy of Catholic Church heavily opposed the hex. Arcibishop of Kaunas Tamkevicius asked President Paksas, who publically declares his catholicism, to keep the distance from the hex, but the President answered that Lena was the bridge to the faith for him and he does not want to stop contacts with her.

B. Traditional religious communities

Despite the blow-up of esoteric and occultic phenomenas in Lithuania, the absolute majority of society still belongs to traditional religions. The problem is that the nominally dependence to traditional religion for the most people is no more than cultural sign without any commitment. On the other hand we can speak about the great spread of esoteric beliefs and occultic practises among Lithuanian catholics. I quess that this spead is higher than in Western countries and one of the reasons is the superficial modes of religious socialization during soviet period,

Representative surveys in Lithuania indicate high levels of confidence in the Church. Alongside the media the Church is the most reliable social institution. On the other hand, all attempts of Lithuanian Catholic Church or other traditional religious organizations to be moral authority and to give guidance for people had ill success. All attempts of the Church to express the attitude towards moral issues were in vain. It is clear that there is a high selectivity of attitudes towards moral issues among the members of the traditional religious organizations. The leaders of Catholic Church can successively push the government to give some privileges, but no one privilege for institution can not make people christian.

What is happened that the role of the traditional churches in society becomes so impoverished? In my opinion, the legacy of the soviet period is more troublesome than it was supposed. The majority of tradition religious communities in Lithuania are concerned more with restitution of property than religious matters. Catholic Church joined the free society with great wastage – serious shortage of priest, superficial knowledge of christian doctrine by believers and the average age of the priest – 65 years. It was necessary to adjust to absolute new situation, to break isolation with Vatican.

There were a lot of changes in the institutional church during last thirteen years. In my opinion, Catholic Church is growing insitutionally stronger. Though it does not became the effective agent of promoting civil society values. On the other hand, Lithuanian Church is less critical to modernization of society as Polish one. Lithuanian Church also is an active protagonist of our joining to European Union. So we can conclude, that there is no reason to speak about the subversion of the Church to the new type of society.

Traditional churches are likely to favour a greater freedom of worship, but very often more as privilege, not as democratic rule. They afraid that more abstract freedom would allow religious minorities to propogate their views sucesfully. Alliance with the civil power in favour to get more privileges or economic goods still more popular tactic of the church than the fostering of values of freedom and responsibility.

C. Nontraditional religiosity

The emergence of nontraditional religiosity in Lithuania was with big delay in comparison with Western countries. So the first period of de-sovietization was also the period of the establishing of numerous new religious communities. The first reaction of society was very positive. The variety of religious communities was treated as the significant mark of democracy. Though the positive attitude has disappeared during couple years. One reason was the wave of anticultic rumours which followed new movements. Another reason – general change in the conception of the role of religion in society.

The conception which dominates now – religion is a private hobby which cannot influence ones public life. If religion commits one to something it is not the healthy religion but rather fanaticism. On the other hand the majority of new religious movements like very much such slogans as “religious liberty”, “tolerance” but they care exclusively about the interests of their own communities and are indifferent about the real emergency of civil society. In my opinion, this is the misunderstanding then the protagonists of religious freedom think that it is possible to secure freedom by changes in the law of religious communities, without any attempts to change the general attitudes of society. On the other hand, the role of non-tradition religious groups in the current society is very small. They cover less than 0.5% population and usually are socially and politically passive.

My presentation of nowadays situation in Lithuania is quite pesimistic. In my opinion, it is important to refuse popular view that full- fledged democracy and free civil society is the inevitable outcome of dismantel of soviet regime. I quess that not only Lithuania but other postcommunist countries too have many problems with the soviet legacy. On the other hand, the role of religion in the emergence of civil society is less important than it was in the fight against soviet system. At the same time, I am sure that religious institutions can be more active agents of democratization, but first of all we must recognize all problems which we inherited from the soviet period.

Andrius Navickas (New Religions Research and Information Centre, Lithuania)
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

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