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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[Event Report] Secularization, Social Movements, and Sea Turtles: Reflections on the 2016 Association for the Sociology of Religion Conference

In this event report Jacqui Frost and Amanda Schutz cover the Association for the Sociology of amanda-picjackie-picReligion’s 2016 annual meeting. They detail the launch of new research projects into Understanding Unbelief as well as offering reflections from Woodhead’s lecture ‘Is No Religion the New Religion.’ Also, they share insights from a convened joint session on what social movement theories can tell us about nonreligion.

This year’s Association for the Sociology of Religion’s annual meeting was taken place on 19th – 21st August in Seattle. The theme was Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion. As a result, there were numerous panels and presentations on the importance of increased sociological investigation into nonreligious experience and community. While there were too many great panels to recount here, including Author Meets Critics sessions for Lois Lee’s Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular and Christel Manning’s Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children, the overall takeaway from the conference was that nonreligious experience is increasingly influential and sociologists will have no choice but to engage with it going forward.

Kicking things off early Saturday morning was Lois Lee’s convened panel titled “Who Cares About Unbelief? Social, Political, and Legal Questions for the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief.” This panel came directly out of Lee’s new research initiative (with Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias, and Jonathan Lanman), the Understanding Unbelief Programme, which is offering research grants, early career awards, and public engagement funds to further scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of unbelief around the world. The panel was asked a set of questions regarding who, apart from social scientists and unbelievers themselves, might be interested in unbelief and why; in what ways the growth of unbelief will affect local communities, journalists, and public institutions; and how this growth will curb or create new social tensions. Overall, the panelists asked more questions than they answered, but the questions generated are likely to be a primary focus for many nonreligious scholars in the near future. Jessica Martinez from Pew Research Center tackled these questions from a political engagement angle, asking how changes in the religious landscape might result in changes to the political landscape. She discussed how the unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the Democratic Party, but that the unaffiliated have historically been less likely to show up at the polls on Election Day. She raised questions about how the rise in atheists and agnostics among Americans will influence the 2016 election (if at all), and if the unaffiliated will become more politically engaged than they have been previously. Sociologist Rhys Williams focused on social movements and immigration, asking how unbelief might mobilize activism and foster commitment in social movements. He also asked whether nonreligious organizations and communities will be able to cultivate resources and cultural reproduction for immigrants—something that religious organizations have been so good at for centuries. Journalist David Briggs implored nonreligious scholars to help journalists get the story right by providing them with responsible summaries and statistics, and religious studies scholar Joseph Blankholm focused on organized non-belief. Finally, education scholar Alyssa Rockenbach asked how higher education influences nonreligious beliefs and behaviors. While there has been a lot of research about the “secularizing effect” (or lack thereof) that higher education has on religious students, Rockenbach pointed to the need for similar studies on the nonreligious students.

On Saturday night, the presidential address was read by Mary Jo Neitz, as president Lori Beaman was unable to attend the conference. Beaman’s written address, titled “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion,” centered largely around the experiences of… sea turtle rescuers. Beaman’s proclamation that she will henceforth be known as the “crazy sea turtle lady” did not deter her from spending most of the allotted hour discussing people’s motivations for rescuing stranded baby sea turtles and the ways this activity has affected their lives and relationships. But what do sea turtle rescuers have to do with the study of religion or nonreligion? Beaman stressed that the “threat” of nonreligion is an ongoing and important social force, creating opportunities for conflict with an established institution. However, this division also creates opportunities for cooperation. Sea turtle rescuers are an example of cooperation: they represent a case of people overcoming worldview differences to participate in shared action that emphasizes similarities across life forms, provides meaning, and “soothes the soul.” In this way, Beaman suggests, “examining sites of action and activism can help us to better understand the contours of both religion and nonreligion.”

The next day, Ryan Cragun convened a joint session with the American Sociological Association titled “What Social Movements Theories Can Tell Us About Nonreligion.” Rhys Williams kicked off the panel by emphasizing cultural context, boundedness, and resonance, and how nonreligious movements will have to overcome the legitimacy of religion in the American context by taking on similar forms but changing the content. Penny Edgell offered both “promises and pitfalls” of a social movement approach to nonreligion. Promises include a focus on identity and the cultural work that it takes to create nonreligious identities and movements. A social movements approach allows for a de-centering of belief and a shift towards lived, institutionalized nonreligion that moves past the dead ends of the secularization debate. However, Edgell argued that not everything should be seen through a social movements lens, and she argued that social movement theories often make the mistake of seeing identity as a “thing” as opposed to a set of belief and values that change over time. She argued for more work on “indifference” and stigma among the nonreligious, both of which require more than a social movements perspective. Joseph Blankholm focused on the “messy etymology of humanism” and the ways the secular humanist movement has co-opted the term to expand what the “secular” can mean. He described the boundary work being done by secular humanist groups as they navigate tax laws and church/state battles and attempt to set themselves apart from other humanist and secular groups, as well as religious organizations.

Linda Woodhead closed the conference Sunday night with the Paul Hanly Furfey lecture titled “Is No Religion the New Religion?” which focused on nonreligion in Britain. (Woodhead also gave this lecture at the British Academy earlier this year, covered in this event report by Lois Lee.) In 1983, 31% of the population identified as religious nones; in 2013, 51% claimed no religious affiliation (more than double what it is in the US). Nones in Britain tend to be liberal and tolerant of diversity. They are more likely than the general population to be white, but there is no significant difference along lines of gender or class (again, unlike the US). Nonreligion is the norm for younger Britons, and 95% of those raised by nonreligious parents will remain nonreligious (only 55% of those raised religious remain so). Only 13% of nones (5% of the total population) are explicitly anti-theist, what Woodhead calls “Dawkins atheists.” Most nones, however, fall somewhere in the middle: they are either nonbelievers or simply not strong believers who practice spirituality in private. Woodhead suggests a Durkheimian approach for studying the nonreligious, focusing on practices relative to the sacred. But what do nones consider sacred? Woodhead notices some trends, including a lack of deference to authority: everyone has the potential to be fulfilled and to make the most of their lives on their own terms. She also described new rituals gaining in popularity in Britain, including prom, preschool graduations, and house parties. These events can be interpreted as a source of collective ritual and intimate connectedness. (Sea turtle rescuers, for instance, may see the environment as providing ritual and connectedness!) These ideals and rituals that nonreligious Britons hold sacred constitutes what Woodhead calls the “new religion.”

The conference was—like Lee writes in her own report of Linda Woodhead’s lecture—a “celebration” of a young field of study that is “really coming into its own.” With too many relevant sessions to report, see this year’s conference program for more of the latest research focusing on nonreligion and secularism. The Association for the Sociology of Religion’s 2017 annual meeting will be held August 12-14 in Montreal, Quebec.


Jacqui Frost is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on non-religious identities and communities and her dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Sunday Assembly, a nascent network of non-religious congregations. As a research fellow with the American Mosaic Project, Jacqui is involved in numerous projects exploring religious and non-religious diversity in American life, including the influence of conservative religiosity on understandings of racial inequality, the rates and patterns of volunteering among the non-religious, and the influence of different non-religious identities on social and political attitudes.

Amanda Schutz is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation research takes a qualitative mixed methods approach to understanding diversity in nonreligious organizations and individual involvement in such groups. Other research looks at atheist identity disclosure and gender differences in nonreligious experiences.

News: Three Doctoral Fellowships in non-religiosity open for applications

ENP_PhD

Three Doctoral Research Fellows (E13 TV-G-U, 75% part-time) are sought by the Emmy Noether “Diversity of Non-Religiosity” Research Group at Goethe-University Frankfurt  based at the Institut für Ethnologie (Social Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy und History). The start date is 01.11.2012 and the positions are limited to a period of three years.

The Doctoral Fellows will develop their research projects under the supervision of the Principal Investigator. Their main task will be to complete individual research projects in collaboration with the other participants. They will have an independent budget for research and travel expenses. The Research Group further offers interdisciplinary and international collaborations and comprehensive supervision by the Principle Investigator who is also teaching and conducting research on this topic.

The Research Group is organized around the assumption that a comprehensive understanding of the role of religion(s) within contemporary societies has to take the “diversity of non-religiosity” into consideration. The aim of the Doctoral Fellowships is to conduct empirical research on non-religious individuals, groups or phenomena – preferably in different countries. For example topics may include but are not limited to indifference towards religion(s), worldviews alternative to religion(s), or criticism of religion(s) made in relation to atheist, humanist or skepticist thought or identity. The specific object of inquiry, methodology and theoretical approach will depend on the Doctoral Fellows’ training, interest, and research focus. Curiosity about the research topic, intellectual creativity, and an enjoyment of academic collaboration are crucial for the success of the project.

All applicants must hold a master’s degree (M.A.) or an equivalent qualification in anthropology, religious studies, sociology, or a related discipline. The University is an equal opportunities employer and supports women’s career development. Applications from women are thus explicitly welcome. Disabled applicants will be considered preferentially in case of equivalent qualifications.

Please send the electronic version of your application (including cover letter, Curriculum Vitae, university transcript/degree, two letters of recommendation, and a synopsis of the intended research project of approx. 5000 words) to: quack@em.uni-frankfurt.de by 31.07.2012. Please do not hesitate to contact Johannes Quack for further information concerning the research project and the application process.

First events listed for the new programme of the Study of Religion and Non-Religion at the London School of Economics.

The Forum on Religion is pleased to announce the establishment of a new Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion at the London School of Economics.

The Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion, based in the Department of Anthropology, aims to bring together staff and research students from across LSE, and within the wider academic and policy communities, working on issues to do with religion, secularism, and “non-religious” practices, beliefs, and traditions. The main aims of the Programme are to:

• Foster and provide a framework for primary research

• Facilitate academic and public discussions on issues relevant to religion, atheism, secularism, humanism and post-humanism

• Provide a platform for researchers and stakeholders to showcase and communicate their findings to broader academic, public, and public policy audiences

The Forum on Religion is becoming part of the new Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion and will continue to host public lectures and an interdisciplinary seminar series. For more information on the Programme, visit the website or contact Dr Matthew Engelke at m.engelke@lse.ac.uk

We will continue to advertise Forum on Religion events through their mailing list.

FORTHCOMING EVENTS

Seminar

Religion and Non-Religion: A Roundtable Discussion
With Dr Amanda van Eck (INFORM), Dr Matthew Engelke (LSE Anthropology), Dr Simon Glendinning (LSE, European Institute), Dr John Madeley (LSE Government), Rev James Walters (LSE Chaplaincy)
9 May 2012, 16.30-18.00
Seligman Library, Department of Anthropology, Old Building, LSE

Public lectures

At the Origins of Modern Atheism
Speaker: Rev Dr Giles Fraser
Discussant: Prof John Gray (London School of Economics)
Chair: Dr Matthew Engelke (London School of Economics)
6 June 2012, 18.30-20.00
Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building, LSE
This event will be followed by a reception and marks the public launch of the Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion

Ethics as Piety
Speaker: Prof Webb Keane (University of Michigan)
Discussant: Dr Faisal Devji (Oxford University)
27 June 2012, 18.00-19.30
New Academic Building LG.09, LSE

ALL EVENTS ARE FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC