The New Freedom: Living with Hope, Skepticism and Irony
More profound than the choice of consumer goods are choices concerning church affiliation or noninstitutional spiritual practice and the choice of friends. We heard stories of religious leaders who had fought long-term battles with the Soviet government to allow them to worship in their churches and had paid great prices for the limited religious freedom that they were granted. Hungarians and Estonians can now freely worship and recruit new members to their churches, explore alternative lifestyles, purchase homes, and express their unique abilities. Sadly, this is not the case with all societies that have experienced freedom during the past 30 years. In some countries (especially in the Mid-East), there has been increased constraint on the practice of certain religions – even violent actions being taken against those of alternative faiths. The so-called “advanced” countries of Europe and North America have not been immune to this “cancerous” tendency: what is it about human beings that we find freedom of choice for ourselves in order that we might eliminate freedom of choice for other people?
It should be noted that even after the Soviet Union collapse, many Hungarians and Estonians felt that the state/party combine still sought to discouraged them from following their religious leanings, and some of them felt challenged to circumvent the obstacles. Even though the governments in both Estonian and Hungary made the return of church property to the religious institutions a high priority (and even provided some financial assistance to churches), there remained a skepticism about actual, deeply-embedded support for religious practices among many of the people we interviewed. Other Estonians and Hungarians whom Berne Weiss and I interviewed during the early 1990s, indicated that religious practice was not important for them. They had either been “brain-washed” by the Soviet regime to devalue religion and spiritual practice or (more often) they simply exemplified the growing “secularization” in most societies throughout the world. For these more secular citizens, the government policy (official or unofficial) about religion didn’t really impact their lives. It was other types of choice that had a major impact—often regarding consumer and/or economic choices: what do I buy and where do I work?
Even though there was a fair amount of indifference about religious practices, there was an awareness in the early 1990s, that many religious groups were stepping into the vacuum created by the potential for private education and social services. Not all human services were to be provided by the government. One Hungarian woman who worked for a political party spoke of meeting with a local parish priest to discuss the feasibility of a collaboration between the church and the local self-government on a senior center in a newly restored church building. She reported that the social workers in the local government were reluctant to approach him because they were not accustomed to dealing with priests. There were now more denominations vying for both followers and the state’s financial support. In various quarters, there was concern over the appearance of religious sects and New Age spiritual beliefs that many Estonians and Hungarians viewed as a sort of opportunistic infection of the spirit.