Religion after atheism

Cecilie Endresen

Fifty years ago, multi-religious Albania was declared the first atheist state in the world. Today the number of “nones” is almost negligible. Albania is a veritable laboratory for the study of forced secularization and religious diversity. To make this point, Cecilie Endresen introduces recent statistical data about who Albanian “nones” might be.

 

From Islamic to atheist

Europe’s first state with a Muslim majority, Albania, proclaimed independence in 1912. Until then, Albania’s Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians were part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Hardly one generation later, they had all become atheists, at least officially.

Secularization from above had started decades before the communist take-over. Albania was funded as a multi-religious country. The political elites considered religion, particularly Islam, an impediment to national unity and progress. The inhabitants were urged to ignore religious differences, and the first Constitution (1922) established that ‘the state does not have any official religion’.

During communism, the top-down secularisation programme was intensified and radicalised. Under Enver Hoxha’s iron fist, the religious institutions were utterly curtailed, and in 1967 shut down. All forms of religious worship were banned, also in the private sphere. The cultural heritage was destroyed, traditions broken, and clerics and worshippers persecuted.

Revival and pluralism

In 1990, the last year of communist rule, religion was legalised. A myriad of Muslim and Christian traditions resurfaced, and Albanians of different religious persuasions celebrated their newborn freedom.[1] Surveys indicate that secularism, religious freedom and equality have strong popular support. An IPSOS poll from 2011 shows that 95.3% of 1500 respondents think religious equality should be the political norm.[2] In a worldwide survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013, 98% of Albania’s Muslims – a higher percentage than in any other country  – say it is ‘good that others are very free to practice their faith’.

Do we have any facts?

Before communism, Albania had 68.9 % Muslims, 20.7% Orthodox Christians, and 10.3% Catho­lics.[3] Many later percentages are disputed and can often be considered wishful thinking, especially pro-Christian or anti-Islamic “statistics” that reduce Muslims to a minority. The official census from 2011, conducted by the State Institute of statistics (INSTAT), stirred controversy and was partly boycotted due to its inclusion of ‘sensitive’ questions about religious and ethnic affiliation.[4] A variety of religious and ethnic interest groups contested the results, and 13.79% preferred not to answer.[5] In an IPSOS poll from the same year, less than half of the 1500 respondents believed the census would correctly reflect the country’s religious make-up.[6] Asked an open question about their religious affiliation, people defined themselves as follows:

“Islam”/ “Muslim” 59.2
“Albanian Orthodox” (Christian) 14.1
“Bektashi” (Muslim) 7.7
“Roman Catholic”, “Catholic” (Christian) 5.7
“Sunni” (Muslim) 2.5
“Atheist” 2.2
“Greek Orthodox” (Christian) 2.1
“Non-religious” 1.6
“Eastern Orthodox”, “Orthodox Christian” 1.1
“Shiite” (Muslim) 0.7
“Mixed” 0.6
“Jehovah’s Witnesses” 0.5
“Protestant Christian” 0.2
“I don’t know” 1.9

In short, seven out of ten Albanians are Muslims, and almost a quarter of them Christians[7] – almost the same as before communism.

Believing and belonging

Generally speaking, most Albanians can be defined as non-practitioners. Only 1.8% visit churches or mosques on a daily basis, and more than a quarter of the Muslims “never” attend religious service.[8] 85% of those who do, do it only in connection with major holidays, weddings and funerals. So while the ritual side of religion may be less important to people, it does not make religion socially irrelevant. In fact, it might be social obligations that make most Albanians visit mosques or churches in the first place.

According to the Gallup Balkan Monitor, almost half of the respondents identify ‘very strongly or ‘extremely strongly’ with their religion,[9] and in the IPSOS poll, 87.5% say they ‘believe in God’.[10] Only 5.3% label themselves “atheists”, “non-religious”, “mixed”, or reply “I don’t know”.[11] The formerly atheist nation is thus among the more religious nations in Europe, both in terms of believing and belonging.

Religion: It’s complicated

The statistics give us an idea about sociological aspects, but say less about “lived religion” and individualised systems of meaning. Available survey data do not, for example, tell us how many who, for example, “believe in God, but not in religion”, see religious differences as “manmade”, or insist that Islam and Christianity are “the same” religion. Years in the country makes me believe that such views are widespread. And how many Muslims can be considered Sufis, Salafis,[12] Islamophobes, pro-Catholic,[13] or New Agers?[14] The formerly isolated country still receives scant scholarly attention, but one thing is sure: Secularization, religious revival and globalization have made Albania’s intricate religious landscape more complex than ever.


References

Clayer, Nathalie. 2007. Aux origines du nationalisme albanais: la naissance d’une nation majoritairement musulmane en Europe. Paris: Karthala.

Clayer, Nathalie. 2008. “Behind the veil: the reform of Islam in inter-war Albania or the search for a ‘mod­ern’ and ‘European’ Islam. In Islam in inter-war Europe, p. 128–155. Nathalie Clayer and Eric Hermain (eds.). New York: Colombia University Press.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2016. «Allah og aliens: Albanske mellomvesener og albanere som mellomvesener». Aura. Tidsskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet 8: 28- 56.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2015. “The nation and the nun“. Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 1: 53-74.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2015. “Faith, Fatherland, or both? Accommodationist and neo-fundamentalist Islamic discourses in Albania”. In The revival of Islam in the Balkans. A. Elbasani and O. Roy (eds.). New York: Palgrave, 222-243.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2014. “Status report Albania 100 years: symbolic nation-building completed?”. Strategies of Symbolic Nation-building in South Eastern Europe. P. Kolstø (ed.). Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 201-226.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2012. Is the Albanian’s religion really «Albanianism»? Religion and nation according to Muslim and Christian leaders in Albania. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

INSTAT. 2012. Population and housing census. http://www.instat.gov.al/media/178070/rezultatet_kryesore_t__censusit_t__popullsis__dhe_banesave_2011_n__shqip_ri.pdf

Popovic, Alexandre. 1986. L’islam balkanique. Berlin: Osteuropa-Institut an der Freien Universität Berlin, Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaden.

[1] Endresen, Cecilie. (2012). Is the Albanian’s religion really «Albanianism»? Religion and nation according to Muslim and Christian leaders in Albania. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag; Endresen (2015). Faith, Fatherland, or both? Accommodationist and neo-fundamentalist Islamic discourses in Albania. In A. Elbasani and O. Roy (eds.). The revival of Islam in the Balkans. Basingstoke: Palgrave, Macmillan.

[2] Question number 46, “Albania” in a survey conducted by IPSOS Strategic Marketing on behalf of the research project Symbolic nation building in West Balkans. Survey results for Albania and other Balkan countries are available.

[3] Popovic, Alexandre. 1986. L’islam balkanique. Berlin: Osteuropa-Institut an der Freien Universität Berlin, Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaden, p. 38.

[4] p. 33.

[5] INSTAT (ibid.), 1.1.14.

[6] Question 71, “Albania”, IPSOS 2011.

[7] IPSOS 2011, question 39, “Albania”.

[8] IPSOS 2011, question 41, “Albania”.

[9] “Identification with own religion”, Balkan Monitor 2010.

[10] IPSOS 2011, question 40, “Albania”.

[11] IPSOS 2011, question 39, “Albania”.

[12] Endresen, Cecilie. 2016. «Allah og aliens: Albanske mellomvesener og albanere som mellomvesener». Aura. Tidsskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet 8: 28- 56.

[13] Endresen, Cecilie. 2015. “Faith, Fatherland, or both? Accommodationist and neo-fundamentalist Islamic discourses in Albania”. In The revival of Islam in the Balkans. A. Elbasani and O. Roy (eds.). New York: Palgrave, 222-243.

[14] Endresen, Cecilie. 2016. «Allah og aliens: Albanske mellomvesener og albanere som mellomvesener». Aura. Tidsskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet 8: 28- 56.


Cecilie Endresen (PhD) is Associate Professor in History of Religion at the University of Oslo, Norway. She is the author of the book Is the Albanian’s religion really «Albanianism»? Religion and nation according to Muslim and Christian leaders in Albania (Harrassowitz, 2012). Her research focuses on religious pluralism in Southeast Europe.

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6 thoughts on “Religion after atheism

  1. The 2011 study which most of the articles conclusion come from, used a wording that makes the number of non-religious Albanians appear a lot lower and has ignored other studies that show a different picture. The census on the other hand had many flaws that had nothing to do with being “Pro-Christian”.

    A newer 2012 study found by the “Open Society Foundation” found out that the percentage of people not identifying with a religion was 25%. A 2016 study from Gallup found out that 39% were not religious (30% non-religious + 9% convinced atheists) Another survey from 2008 showed that Albania had the highest number of people in Europe not believing in the “life after death” (75%), something that is the basis of monotheistic belief.

    The article is also giving undue weight to nominal religious identification. Putting someone who identifies with a religion just because of “grand-grandparents” in the same group of people who are actually religious is just silly in my eyes. Albania in no way can be considered one of the most religious countries in Europe.

  2. Thank you for your comments. Let me clarify: The topic of this article is exactly the nominal aspects of religious identification, where it is common practice to accept the labels people give themselves. As I wrote, «the statistics give us an idea about sociological aspects, but say less about ‘lived religion’ and individualised systems of meaning», but in this short text there was no room to discuss all other relevant aspects of religion. In any case, it is not up to the researcher to decide which criteria the respondents should apply for deciding what counts as religious or expect them to respond in accordance with «the basis of monotheistic belief».

    In the IPSOS survey the responents were asked “çfarë feje ke”, “what is your religion” (which IPSOS afterwards translated as “what is your religious denomination?»). There is no reason to believe the Albanian question would make “the number of non-religious Albanians appear a lot lower”. I did not write that the census was “pro-Christian”. I would appreciate references to the 2012 and 2008 surveys that you mention, which I cannot find.

    In the 2016 Gallup survey I think you are referring to (http://www.wingia.com/web/files/richeditor/filemanager/Religion_Tabs_Q5_EOY_2016_02.04.2017.pdf), which I had missed, 80% say they believe in God, compared to for example 26% in the Czech Republic, 34% in Slovenia, 58% Bulgaria, 65% in Russia, 39% in the UK, 29% in Estonia and Belgium, and 22% in Sweden. Also in this we see that Albania, as well as Serbia (79%) and Romania (94%), ranks quite high in Europe when it comes to the percentage of the population who say they believe in God. At the same time, only 56% say they are «a religious person» while 30% say they are not, and 14% say they do not believe in God. All this shows that it is hard to know exactly what people really mean by such labels, which was my point.

    • Thank you for your response!

      I did not say that nominal religiosity should be dismissed but that it should emphasized and explained, since it seems to be one of the most important features of religion in Albania. While for many Albanians nominal religiosity might be still related to a strong religious identity, for others it might just something peripheral and shallow. Because of the dereligionisation of Albania during communism, non-religious people in Albania see no real desire to assert their identity (but that might be changing now). In the IPSOS poll in 2011, while only 4% did not identify with religion, 25% said they were not religious (not just non-practising). Worth noting, male circumcision an almost universal tradition among the Muslims in the world (according to all recent data) is less practised in Albania. In 2008-2009 study from WHO where 78% of the Albanian population was from a Muslim background, the circumcision rate was 47.8% (the rates includes also non-religious reasons.)

      https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR230/FR230.pdf

      As of the 2008 data, just follow the link:

      https://books.google.de/books?id=cZvhAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA18&lpg=PA18&dq=albania+74.3%25+atlas&source=bl&ots=5OTckEUeLv&sig=CGE1jgPxKKKprSwANizwJUrvxd4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjTo4OH_5jXAhXHJVAKHT8UAeEQ6AEIQzAE#v=onepage&q&f=false

      As for the 2012 data (the sample was 1200 people), they can be found here, but you will have to log in in order to see them.

      The first question is “Do you have a religion?” and 24.1% (after weighting) said no.

      http://nesstar.ess.nsd.uib.no/webview/index.jsp?v=2&submode=abstract&study=http%3A%2F%2F129.177.90.83%3A80%2Fobj%2FfStudy%2FESS7e02.1&mode=documentation&top=yes

      While this is the whole picture with different denominations:

      http://nesstar.ess.nsd.uib.no/webview/index.jsp?v=2&submode=abstract&study=http%3A%2F%2F129.177.90.83%3A80%2Fobj%2FfStudy%2FESS7e02.1&mode=documentation&top=yes

      Here are the images of the data for people who can’t acces it:

      Belonging to a particular religion:

      https://imgur.com/gallery/7y6MO

      Religious denominations:

      Now as for the 80% believing in “God”, that does not show us much of what sort of deity they believe. Considering the lower belief in mainstream religious beliefs, it would suggest that people view “God” in a more deistic way.

      The same study also included a question on the topic of heaven, life after death and the soul. With 40% not believing a life after death and 57% believing in the Soul, Albania is closer to generally less religious countries, and not the most religious ones.

      http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/370/file/370.pdf

      Now, sorry for the long comment, but I just wanted to make sure people understand how complex religion in Albania is, and that nominal labels bear little meaning.

      • Since I can’t edit the comment, I will add a special response to this part.

        “In the IPSOS survey the responents were asked “çfarë feje ke”, “what is your religion” (which IPSOS afterwards translated as “what is your religious denomination?»). There is no reason to believe the Albanian question would make “the number of non-religious Albanians appear a lot lower”. I did not write that the census was “pro-Christian”. I would appreciate references to the 2012 and 2008 surveys that you mention, which I cannot find.”

        In Albanian context asking people what religion they have and not if they have a religion is bound to reduce the number of of people non identifying with a religion. People assume the question wants to know “their religion” even a shallow meaning of the word. That is why as I mentioned, the IPSOS poll had only 4% not identifying with a religion but 25% saying they were not religious (almost the same as the Open Society Study).

        About the “Pro-Christian” part, I did not mean that you said that the census was “Pro-Christian”, but that you are wrong to assume that the dispute of the figures was “Anti-Muslim”. The simply census had many reported problems reported in the Albanian news.

  3. Sorry for the typo in my comment, correct: All this shows that it is hard to KNOW what people really mean by such labels, which was my point.

  4. Thank you both for further valuable discussions. I think that you two are making exactly the same point (and the author had made it clear from the beginning): how complex Albanian religious landscape is and how little we in general know about it. It was very unfortunate that there was not enough space for the author to address every sensible issue that needs elaborative discussions, but I understand that the author was careful to present her argument as one of the many possible interpretations. It was also unfortunate that the author was being criticised in some occasions for what she actually didn’t say.

    In any case, the last paragraph of the original text and further comments by MK open up a very important question that begs for collaboration between quants and qualitative research in order to answer. Can we know whether we can actually ‘emphasise’ nominal religiosity without such collaboration, for example? How can we know how exactly the ways in which nominal Albanians who identify with a religion ‘just because of grand-parents’ and those ‘who are actually religious’ (I’d like to know how we can define whether people are actually religious, though) explain their religiosity differ from one another? Are there any Albanians in between and who are they? And, whether, how and why do some Albanians identify themselves with non-religion in such a complex cultural, socio-hisotical context? These are just some of the many big questions. After these questions are dealt with, in my view, we will then be in a better place for explaining in-depth what MK wants us to understand: how ’nominal labels bear little meaning’.

    Any research on this topic out there!? Why don’t you consider submitting a manuscript for the blog??

    Y Osakabe

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