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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[Research] The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age … Continuing the Conversation

In this blog post, sociologist Joel Thiessen follows up on his previous NSRN contribution “Religious Nones in Canada: A Qualitative Exploration” which previewed the findings of his newest book Thejoel Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Since its release, Thiessen has continued to interpret these findings through “author-meets-critics” sessions at some major conferences. Below, he charts some of the most provocative questions coming out of those sessions, whose as-yet-unknown answers might steer where our knowledge of Canadian nones goes next.

Background

The Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (May 2016) and Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meetings (August 2016) provided me the occasion to receive feedback on my recent book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. The following individuals kindly participated in the author-meets-critics sessions (framed by Paul Bramadat as a hazing ritual!): Reginald Bibby, Paul Bramadat, Sam Reimer, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, Ryan Cragun, David Eagle, Marcus Mann, and Josh Packard. All were generous in spirit and substantive content.

This monograph is based on face-to-face interviews with three groups of Canadians: 30 active religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services nearly every week), 30 marginal religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage), and 30 religious nones (do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services). Contrary to rational choice theorists who contend that there is ongoing demand for the things that religious groups offer (e.g. meaning and purpose in life, life after death), I question the assumption that if we simply adjust religious supply (e.g. better music or preaching, more programming, or more liberal theology) we should expect increased involvement in institutionalized forms of religious life. Further, I develop how and why I think secularization theory remains useful for describing and explaining religious belief and practice in Canada.

Some Questions Raised

As the critics generally affirmed my central premises and conclusions, they raised a range of pertinent questions. Below are some of those questions and my brief responses in turn.

Are the three central affiliate categories fixed or do individuals navigate their way in and out of the different camps during their life course?

Both/and … and a longitudinal panel study (which I hope to do) will help to unpack the specific directions and contexts for such transitions. Still, my hunch – based on data elsewhere – is that most of the transitions, if/when they occur, move toward the secular end of the continuum. That is, active affiliates are more likely to become marginal affiliates or religious nones versus religious nones who become marginal affiliates or active affiliates; and marginal affiliates are more prone toward religious nones than active affiliates.

Does societal secularization cause individual secularization or do these processes occur simultaneously?

This is an insightful chicken versus egg problem. Building on Peter Berger and Steve Bruce, I suggest the former in the project. Yet upon further consideration I see the argument that society is ultimately made up of individuals and thus rather than evoking causational language, correlation is more apt. But I stand by the core assertion that if strong religiosity or secularity are encouraged in the social environment/discourse, individuals will more easily follow the societal norms – as reflected in politics, education, mass media, the law, or healthcare. I hope to nuance this relationship further in future writing on this topic.

Are religious nones as tolerant toward active affiliates as I suggest?

My reading of other data in Canada does not lead me to conclude otherwise. True, a recent study by Angus Reid reveals that those without religion have more negative feelings toward those in conservative religious groups (and vice versa) – but do these perceptions translate into intolerant behaviours toward active affiliates? I have my doubts. There are surely pockets of religious nones in Canada who would be an exception to this interpretation, but religious nones overall do not confront the marginalized or hostile setting in Canada that their counterparts do in the United States – and thus have less reason in Canada to be intolerant toward active affiliates. Only more data and time will help to probe this subject further.

What role does immigration play for the future of religion in Canada and does immigration pose problems for the secularization thesis?

Immigration is essential to this discussion. First, immigration keeps Catholics and evangelicals afloat. How these groups respond to and embrace immigrant communities will factor into whether these Christian communities thrive, survive, or dwindle in the years ahead. Second, immigration contributes to the growth of non-Christian religious traditions. However, I note that Canada is not as religiously diverse as many assume – only 7.2% of the entire Canadian population identifies with a non-Christian tradition. While this figure will continue to rise, it is not as expansive, proportionately, as suggested in popular rhetoric. In the end, immigration slows but does not reverse the secularization process in Canada.

Will secularization give rise to innovative and entrepreneurial activities in Canadian congregations?

Very likely, as my latest research on flourishing congregations in Canada reveals. But what is the source of growth in such congregations? It is primarily transfer growth or retaining children and youth within that tradition. In other words, innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives such as new church plants or “Christian” coffee shops, for example – while occurring – are not reversing the secularizing trends.

Unanswered Questions

Several other questions came my way too. For example:

  • Can individuals pinpoint, understand, or articulate motivations for their own behaviours? What are the limits of micro-level data collection and analysis?
  • Is it possible that belief in the afterlife is a more salient motivation for religious affiliation, belief, and/or behaviour at the point of conversion versus later in one’s life?
  • How do my findings compare with the “believing without belonging” and “spiritual but not religious” literature?
  • How transferrable are the findings in this book for those in religious traditions outside of Christianity? Moreover, how applicable are the findings in Quebec?
  • How do these findings intersect with larger political, economic, cultural, and global realities in late modern society? Related, how does disengagement from religious organizations compare to disengagement from other social institutions?

Space does not permit me to address each question here, though these are all helpful and logical questions to extend the methodological and theoretical underpinnings to my work. The final question is the most intriguing to me, and one that I hope to interact with more completely in my future thinking and writing related to religion and culture in Canada.

To conclude, Marcus Mann picked up on the theme in my book where Canadians share the ethos that religion is a private matter and thus individuals or groups should not and generally do not push their religion on others, so as to not offend or exclude them. In turn Marcus suggested an alternative title to the book: How Canadian Politeness Killed Religion. This is a provocative statement that I wish I thought of first – politeness is not the sole variable at work, but in Canada it is an important factor that should not be ignored.

Thanks to all who have generously interacted with The Meaning of Sunday, and to those who continue to use this book as part of an evolving conversation in the sociology of religion, in Canada and elsewhere.


Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). The focus of his research is religion and culture in Canada, including secularization, religious nones, nominal and regular church attenders, religious and secular socialization, and congregations. He is author of two books, The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (Oxford University Press) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press), along with a range of articles. He is an avid sports fan, and a drummer, and he enjoys reading biographies, traveling, and exercising. For more information see www.joelthiessen.ca.

Event: ESA Research Network 34 – Sociology of Religion

An interesting conference for the network, regarding forms of secularism and trends of believing without belonging.

ESA Research Network 34 – Sociology of Religion

Transformations of the Sacred in Europe and Beyond
First bi-annual conference, 3-5 September 2012 at the University of Potsdam, Campus Griebnitzsee

The thesis of secularization, once sheer uncontested in the social sciences, is increasingly under fire. Secularization is nowadays often deconstructed as an ideology or mere wish dream that is intimately connected to the rationalist ambitions of modern Enlightenment. Such alleged blurring of morality and science, of what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’, informing sociological analysis obviously obscures clear sight on recent developments in the Western world.

Countless empirical and theoretical studies convincingly demonstrate that religion is alive and well in Europe and beyond. Particularly after the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, religious identities have become salient in a situation of cultural polarization and religious pluralization. Moreover, we are witnessing a trend towards ‘believing without belonging’ (Davie, 1994) and – particularly in those European countries that are most secular – a shift from organized religion to ‘spiritualities of life’ (e.g., Heelas and Woodhead, 2005), paganism and ‘popular religion’ (Knoblauch, 2009). And although the thesis of secularization has always been highly problematic from a non-European or global perspective, the rapid globalization of Islam and the Evangelical upsurge – especially in Africa, Latin America and East Asia – fly in the face of the long-held expectation that religion is doomed to be a marginal or socially insignificant phenomenon.

Evidently, then, the focus of sociological analysis has shifted over the last decades from religious decline to religious change. More than that: it is theorized that we are living in a “post-secular society” (Habermas, 2005) where religion is re-vitalized, de-privatized and increasingly influences politics, voting behavior, matters of the state and ethical debates in the public domain (e.g., Casanova, 1994). Motivated by such observations, the mid-term conference calls for papers addressing changes in the field of religion and, more in particular, transformations of the sacred in Europe and beyond. Particularly we welcome studies covering the following topics:

  • Studies on how and why conceptions of the sacred, religious beliefs, doctrines, rituals and organizations of long-standing religious traditions – such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism – transform under the influence of processes of globalization, individualization, mediatization as well as changing gender relations.
  • Studies dealing with trends of believing without belonging, i.e. non-institutionalized beliefs, personal ‘bricolage’ and privatized conceptions of the sacred outside the Churches, Chapels and Mosques. Encouraged are also studies addressing new, more informal ways of ‘belonging’, religious communication and collective effervescence, i.e. in loose social networks, discussion groups or virtual communities on the internet.
  • Studies covering popular religion and post-traditional spirituality, i.e., New Age, esotericism, paganism, occultism, discussing for instance an epistemological turn from belief to experience and emotion; a shifting emphasis from transcendence to immanence; from seriousness to playfulness; or a transition from dualism to monism.
  • Studies dealing with implicit religion, i.e. addressing a re-location of the sacred to seemingly secular domains in society such as self-identity, sports, modern science and technology. This avenue of research may also include the place and meaning of the sacred (i.e., religious narratives, symbols and images) in popular media texts – in novels, films, series on television or computer games.

These topics are rough guidelines; papers dealing with religious change and the transformation of the sacred in Europe and beyond other than these outlined above are also very welcome. Furthermore we invite PhD and post-doc candidates to contribute to a poster session, including work in progress; the best poster will get a – small, but nice – prize.

Contact details

University of Potsdam

PD Dr. Heidemarie Winkel

esa-2012@uni-potsdam.de

Postal Address:

August-Bebel-Straße 89

D-14482 Potsdam

CFP: Radical Secularization? Deadline 1 May 2012

20-22 September  2012, Universiteit Antwerpen will host a conference on secularization theory. Conference organizers are currently accepting abstracts and will do so through May 1

“This three day international conference tries to frame a status quaestionis of secularization theory in the field of contemporary philosophy. It starts off with an assessment of the classic Löwith-Blumenberg debate. This debate centers around the relationship between monotheism and Christianity on one hand, and Modernity on the other. The focus of the conference then shifts to contemporary debates, with Charles Taylor and Marcel Gauchet as exemplary protagonists. The debate will revolve around ‘transcendent’ versus ‘immanent’ readings of Christianity. On its last day, the question of religion in the public sphere comes to the fore.

Though the conference is philosophical in nature, it hopes to explore interdisciplinary crossroads with theology, sociology, and the social sciences in general.”