Puzzling statistics on religion in Russia


by Anton Skripunov

RIA Novosti, 23 August 2017


Around a third of "Orthodox" Russians do not believe in God. Unrelenting statistics testify to this. At the same time, various groups now and then propose making Orthodoxy the state religion. In their arguments they cite data of sociological surveys according to which "80 percent" of the population of Russia consider themselves Orthodox.


At the same time, the voice of believers is becoming ever louder. Nowadays they are active participants in practically all social processes and heated discussions about construction of new churches or mosques, teaching religion in the schools, and banning abortions do not come out of thin air.


RIA Novosti materials deal with how many believers there really are in Russia and whether their quality is more important than quantity.


Percentages accumulate


From year to year sociologists unanimously identify the growth in the number of believers. For example, since 1991, ever more Russians come to rely on God in daily life. The same can be said about trust in the Russian Orthodox Church and religious organizations as a whole (data of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion).


The Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences tried several years ago to measure the level of religiosity of compatriots and discovered that 79% identify themselves as Orthodox, 4% are Muslim, and 9% "believe in some higher power." Scholars conclude that the number of atheists is decreasing.


The latest data are supplied by the famous Pew American research center. According to its data, 71% of Russian profess Orthodoxy (in 1991 this figure was 37%) and 75% of the population of Russia believes in God. The research also supplies data about Muslims—there are 10 percent of them.


Sociologists have noticed an interesting detail: in Russia and countries of eastern Europe, the overwhelming majority of believers associate their worldview with their national identity. Moreover, in Russia, if one believes the data of American scholars, national identity is linked to Orthodoxy even for Muslims and atheists.


For the sake of ideology


"In what kind of statistical mirror Orthodox believers constitute 130 million persons is completely incomprehensible. In the best case one may even say that 4 to 8 percent of the population of Russia fall into the traditional church understanding of religiosity, which constitute from 5 to 12 million persons," the religious studies scholar Pavel Kostylev, the senior teacher of the philosophy faculty of Moscow State University, maintains.


The proportion of Russian who consider themselves to be Orthodox has grown since 1991 up to 68%. In fact there exists a "substantial gap" between those who consider themselves as Orthodox by self-identification and those who actually observe fasts, attend church, and receive communion.


"Unfortunately, we can conclude that the thesis about 70, 80, 100, or 130 million Orthodox (it must be emphasized) plays a purely ideological role. Similarly there also are, for example, 20 million Muslims, depending on who, when, and for what purpose Russian religiosity and the confessional composition of Russia are mentioned," the expert calls attention to.


People simply see the value of Orthodoxy for themselves and therefore they identify themselves with it. It is another matter when the issue is their being churched, posits Iosif Diskin, the vice-chairman of the academic council of the Center for Study of Public Opinion and head of the commission of the Public Chamber of Russia for Harmonizing Inter-ethnic and Inter-religious Relations.


There is a similar situation with the Muslims, of whom the Council of Muftis of Russia maintains there are more than 20 million, not all of whom, for example, observe the Ramadan month of fasting. After all these figures often become an argument in property claims.


"By the way, we have a secular state, which is supposed to protect the interests both of agnostics and atheists and of believers. Therefore when a request for allocation of land (for a house of worship—ed. note) arises, let's look at the number of registered communities. At the same time, there often really is a lack of spaces for believers," Diskin notes.


A part of civilization


The Russian Orthodox Church does not see a great problem in the fact that of the 80% of Orthodox, according to statistics, only two-thirds of them believe in God and only 4% observe fasts and attend church.


"Any company that conducts sociological surveys uses its own method of accounting. This technique, which whole scientific schools may support, gives its own results, which more often than not do not correspond," notes the deputy head of the synodal Department for Relations of Church and Society and News Media of the Moscow patriarchate, Vakhtang Kipshidze.


"I do not consider that this number (80%) raises any questions. And here is why. In many countries, not only in Russia, people identify themselves with one or another religious confession or religious community not strictly just on a doctrinal basis but also on a cultural one. Probably in any state where over the course of a long time—several centuries or even millennia—one or another religious community has existed, affiliation with it bears, inter alia, a civilizational character. Therefore when a person calls himself Orthodox, he is merely bearing witness that Orthodox civilization is a value that constitutes a part of his identity," he maintains.


Quantity or quality?


However, in this regard a question arises: is it at all necessary that there be many believers? Perhaps it is more important for confessions to have smaller but faithful flocks rather than public popularity.


"It is not right to set up a contradiction between quantity and quality (of believers—ed. note) just for formal assessments. A person may attend church for decades and know well all church rituals and participate in the sacraments. But if at the same time he does not become purer, better, and more pious, then this does not mean that divine grace is real for him. For example, the so-called "index of churching," which in its time was devised by the sociologist Valentina Chesnikova, or proper church criteria—these all are external markers. But substantive markers are known only to a spiritual director who works directly with a person and observes him in action. Therefore a substantial increase in the percentage of those who regularly observe fasts and participate in services, and so forth, does not at all reflect the quality of faith as such," explains the rector of the Piatnitsky affiliate of the Saint Sergius Holy Trinity lavra and docent of the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy, Archpriest Pavel Velikanov.


The results of the Synodal period (from 1721 to 1917—ed. note), and also the experiences of the time and after the revolution, in the priest's opinion, showed very well "that no external forms in and of themselves speak of anything." At the same time, the church has a definite attitude toward those people who call themselves Orthodox but do not lead a corresponding form of life.


"We view them primarily as people who are open to influence and open to nurturing. They are a potential flock. Perhaps they intend to attend church. They do not have conscious prejudice against the church. Consequently they are that very part of our citizens who at any moment could become active parishioners," the archpriest adds.


But how to calculate this "potential flock" is still incomprehensible In any case, studies on this topic are published with the qualification: all figures are conditional. (tr. by PDS, posted 23 August 2017)

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