Spirituality in Estonia - the world's 'least religious' country

Estonia - The windy streets of Tallinn offer a misleading picture of Estonia's religiosity.

Spires decorate the old town, bells ring out on Sundays and song emanates from churches as visitors walk in and out.

A closer look reveals that many of these visitors are tourists.

When I went to the city's large Lutheran Dome Church one Sunday almost all of the 70 congregants turned out to have travelled from the Netherlands.

A handful of people standing at the back - 15 at the most - were the sum total of regular Estonian church-goers.

As the dean of the church, Arho Tuhkru, explains, it is not a new problem: "People believe, but they do not want to belong to the Church.

"We do not have such a tradition where the whole family comes to the church."

Historic hostility

Although the Lutheran Church is the largest in Estonia, it accounts for only 13% of the population, Rev Tuhkru says.

There is, however, a more telling statistic: fewer than one in five Estonians say any religion plays an important part in their lives.

It is a trend visible at every level in society. Even in schools religion does not feature on the curriculum in its own right.

Instead, in history lessons, young Estonians learn about the waves of invasion led by the Germans and Danes who brought Christianity to the country. It came to be seen as the faith of the colonisers, one rejected by the majority.

"I think one of the main reasons why we can today speak about Estonia as a secular society is that the national and religious identity do not overlap," says Ringo Ringvee, an adviser at Estonia's department of religious affairs.

Another problem is language. Many Estonians did not understand the foreign missionaries who came to preach to them.

"The Lutherans spoke German," explains Mr Ringvee. "The Russian Orthodox came in the 19th Century and until the early 20th Century they were still speaking Russian."

With the establishment of an Estonian Orthodox Church in the 1920s (its leaders look to the patriarch in Constantinople rather than in Moscow) services were soon held in Estonian, yet by 1940 the Soviet Union had invaded and annexed Estonia.

For almost the entire duration of Soviet rule - which ended in 1991 - public worship was not encouraged.

While in other former Soviet states there was an immediate revival of Christianity at the point of independence, in Estonia it never really came.

But that does not mean Estonians do not believe in anything at all.

Nature worshippers

It is one in a chain of events that led the majority of Estonians away from God, but that does not mean they do not believe in anything at all.

About 300km from Tallinn I journey to the forest to meet a group of nature lovers - nature worshippers you might call them.

"We are pagan," says Aigar Piho, father of eight children from the village of Rouge in southern Estonia.

Sitting on a log in a forest clearing he tells me: "Our god is in nature. You must take time, sit down and listen."

Like many Estonians Aigar is spiritual. He defines his religion as Maausk - a form of Estonian nature spirituality - in which the trees and earth are cherished objects that possess power.

Aigar says his place of worship is the forest yet with neither ceremony nor routine nor religious text, it is hard to say it is an organised religion.

His daughter, Kotre, 22, chips in: "Most of us say, yes, we're Mausk but we don't go into [detail]. We just know that it is in harmony with nature and our own souls."

I am invited to a midsummer festival with Aigar and his family at which they dance around a huge bonfire, mount a giant wooden swing and sing songs.

Young girls pick wild flowers and make crowns, which, apparently, according to ancient beliefs, they must put under their pillow at night in the hope it will bring them a husband.

Traditions like these are deeply embedded in the Estonian culture: well over 50% of Estonians say they do believe in a spirit or life force, however ill-defined.

There is some dispute, however, as to how old they are.

"They're usually based on folklore…collected from 19th and early 20th centuries," says Tonno Jonuks, an archaeologist specialising in pre-historic religion in Estonia.

"It is something they believed and used. It is not something from medieval times or before Christianity."

Tree talk

Others disagree and have founded an organisation based on what they describe as ancient runic calendars dating back centuries.

It is called Maavalla Koda and has some three or four hundred members. Among them are Andres Heinapuu and his son Ott.

For them earth spirituality remains intensely personal - it is all about how you relate to the living things around you:

"The tree doesn't have ears. I think the question out loud in front of the tree. And then I feel somehow the answer be sent back.

So, I ask, you are actually having a conversation with the trees?

"Of course," says Andres.

I tell him that I would love to have a conversation with a tree, but how, I ask, can I talk to a natural object?

Ott explains that "the tree is a subject not an object" before telling me how the oak is judgmental while the rowan can be discerning at times.

In leaving Ott and his father I get the impression that, although many Estonians love the nature around them and want to protect it, it is also true that a minority take things to the extremes of Ott and his father.

However I also leave with a sense that they, like all Estonians, are passionate about their country - it appears as a gentle, dutiful kind of nationalism.

But it is one which leaves the Church struggling to define its role in a place where Christianity, and organised religion in general, come bottom in most people's list of priorities.