Has God Really Returned to Eastern Europe?

A recent Washington Times editorial proclaimed “God Returns to Eastern Europe”. In AR_2016this media response blog, Atko Remmel addresses the problems with survey questions, the conflation of terminology and how we measure religion to analyse if God really has returned to Eastern Europe.

Referring to a Pew Research Center study “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe”, a recent Washington Times editorial rejoices about the resurgence of religion in Eastern Europe, titling the text “God returns to Eastern Europe”. The message is simple: godless Commies failed and religion is back, prospering again much as it did a hundred years ago. At first glance, the data presented in the article seems to support this understanding: 86% of Russians ascribe to some variant of religious belief and 44% of Russians claim to be “quite religious”. Moreover, the percentage of atheists has dropped by half from 26 to 13% in last three years. While it is definitely true that religion in post-Soviet society is in a much better position than during the project of “forced secularization” (Froese 2004), the author(s) of the editorial may have got some things wrong and missed some important points. First of all, although the editorial claims to rely on Pew study, some of the data seem to originate from Levada Center’s (Russian counterpart of the Pew Research Center) recent survey on religiosity in Russia (report in Russian), mediated to Anglophone readers by Breitbart News – during which some things have been clearly lost in translation. For instance, looking at the original Levada report, 44% of “quite religious” Russians turn out to be “somewhat religious” and only 9% describe themselves as “very religious”. In sum, only about half of the population considers themselves more or less “religious”. Regarding the diminishing percentage of atheists, Levada data actually indicate a noticeable change (which instantly arises suspicion) among those, who said they are “totally irreligious”.

Recent studies have shown that atheism and other forms of nonreligion have very different meanings and forms, depending on time, place and cultural context. The fact that “totally irreligious” is interpreted as “atheists” already in Levada report (see this post for problems about measuring and differentiating nonreligion) tells us more about the local conception of atheism than philosophical positions of these respondents. Deriving from my studies among Estonian nonbelievers (Remmel 2017), it is quite possible that also for many Russian respondents “totally irreligious” demarcates their difference from institutional Christianity or lack of interest towards it. Thus, instead of diminishing number of atheists, this change may indicate something completely different. For instance – as a speculation – it may point to the change in the concept of “religiosity” towards more non-institutional forms, therefore more people may be willing to pronounce themselves as “somewhat religious”.

Second, religious identity (86%) taken in surveys is only one – and some scholars argue, the weakest – facet of the whole religious package and the other data should be considered as well. Although there are many conceptions of religion, a common practice among (quantitative) sociologists of religion today is to distinguish between three “big B-s”: belonging, belief and behavior; mainly because they are (at least to some extent) measurable. From the point of religious practices, Russians’ alleged religiosity looks quite different: according to Levada report, only 2% of respondents fully follow dietary restrictions during Great Lent while 73% make no changes at all into their diet and, according to Pew survey, median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across Eastern Europe say they go to church on a weekly basis. On top of it, only 15% of Russians regard religion as very important in their lives. Levada survey points to social pressure to define oneself as an Orthodox. One could not help but notice a similarity with the situation in Soviet Union when there was a social pressure to identify with atheism, yet this identity often said next to nothing about person’s actual beliefs or attitudes – just like Orthodox identity, in many cases, does not today. For instance, according to Pew study, religious identity was seen as a matter of personal faith only by one-third of Russian Orthodox, most of the rest regarded that as a matter of national culture or family tradition. Thus, regardless of the dominant ideology or regime, the majority of respondents are just conformists – and we can talk about the shift in social acceptability of religion and religiosity rather than the “return of God”.

Yet I’m not arguing here that Russia or Eastern Europe, in general, is very secularized. Rather, I think that due to the history of large-scale “forced secularization,” the religious situation in Eastern Europe is something we have no prior experience with. Therefore our understanding of the whole situation is inevitably limited. Still, I’m quite convinced that interpreting the situation only in dichotomous terms of secularization vs resurgence of (institutional) religion or atheism vs institutional religiosity is too narrow and leaves out the most of the diversity that actually exists. One of the possible ways for better understanding is a focus on “non-religion”, i.e. on the phenomena that are defined by their difference from what is perceived as “religion”. As seen from the data presented above, not everything that seems religious actually is. It seems to be quite common that in quantitative surveys “religious” questions get “cultural” answers that are then interpreted “religiously” again. Therefore, I think, it’s yet too soon to tell in what terms the situation should be interpreted because we’re just learning to ask the right questions. In that regard, Pew study has done a good job.

IMG_0292 (okt 2014)

The image ‘God is dead’ was taken by Atko in Tartu Estonia.


References

Froese, Paul. “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 1 (2004): 35–50. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00216.x.

Remmel, Atko. “Religion, Interrupted? Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia.” In Religious Indifference. New Perspectives From Studies on Secularization and Nonreligion, edited by Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, 123–42. Springer, 2017.


Atko Remmel is a researcher of cultural studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia), Institute of Cultural Studies. The topic of his PhD thesis (2011) was the development and activity of the institutions involved in antireligious policy and propaganda in Soviet Era Estonia. His research focuses on the history and sociology of nonreligion and atheism, especially in the association with ‘forced secularization’.

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