Russia emerges as Europe's most God-believing nation

Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the atheistic Soviet Union, a recent poll found that 82 percent of Russians classify themselves as religious believers. But far fewer subscribe to organized religion.

Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters
Russian Orthodox Old Believers hold candles during an Easter service at a church in Moscow on April 23.

Two decades after the collapse of the USSR, history's most atheistic state, the vast majority of Russians attest to a belief in God – more than in any other European country – according to a new opinion poll.

The survey, carried out in April by the independent Public Opinion Fund (FOM), found that 82 percent of Russians say they are religious believers, while just 13 percent say they do not believe in any deity.

But the powerful Russian Orthodox Church will find nothing to celebrate in the survey's details.

The church claims 70 percent of Russians as its adherents and on the basis of that has successfully pressured the Kremlin to return most church property seized by the Bolsheviks almost a century ago, including vast tracts of land, churches, monasteries, and thousands of religious artifacts formerly held by state museums.

But according to the poll, just 50 percent of Russians say they are Orthodox, while 27 percent didn't associate themselves with any particular organized faith. Among young people between 18 and 24, the number of unaffiliated believers was 34 percent.

"It would be correct to describe Russia as a land of believers, but it cannot be called a country of religious people," says Mikhail Tarusin, head of sociology at the independent Institute of Public Projects in Moscow. "We were an officially atheist state for 74 years, and it may take some time to rebound from that. Right now I don't think we could put the proportion of truly religious, church-going people at more than 20 percent."

Experts say that most Russians lead overwhelmingly secular lives and pay little heed to the Orthodox Church's increasingly frequent efforts to influence public morals, including a leading priest's recent call for a national dress code and a string of Church-instigated lawsuits against artistic "blasphemy."

"There is no doubt that Orthodoxy is the traditional confession in Russia, but only a small part of those who call themselves Orthodox actually go to church regularly, mark the festivals, or practice the rituals," says Vladimir Gurbolikov, deputy editor of Foma, a missionary magazine published by the Orthodox Church. "The problem is a lack of information in society. People do not have normal communication with the Church and are unable to establish it, and so they do not know the Orthodox Christian faith even if they identify themselves with it."

In another surprise, the poll found that just 4 percent of Russians are avowed Muslims, far below the 15 percent figure most sociologists cite. One reason, experts suggest, is that the FOM survey – which polled 1,500 people in 44 of Russia's 89 regions – may have avoided the insurgency-torn, but mainly Muslim republics of the north Caucasus.

Under Russian law the country has four recognized "founding faiths": Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. The poll found that 1 percent of Russians are Buddhists and less than 1 percent are Jewish.

But Roman Catholics, who are not recognized under Russian law and are sometimes subject to legal harassment, number a whopping 7 percent (a figure experts also dispute), the FOM survey found.

The FOM results contrast somewhat with a global survey of religious beliefs conducted in April by Ipsos, an international market research company. The survey found that 51 percent of people worldwide believe in a "divine entity," compared to 18 percent who don't and 17 percent who aren't sure.

According to the Ipsos poll, 56 percent of Russians are firm believers in a "divine entity," while a further 18 percent believe "sometimes."

But that still puts Russia at the top of the list in Europe, where 51 percent of Poles, 50 percent of Italians, 27 percent of Germans, and just 18 percent of Swedes declared themselves definite believers in a divine entity.

Several countries, including Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States clocked in as significantly more religious than Russia.

"It's pretty hard to get clarity on religion, and there are a lot of variables that can lead to an erroneous picture," says Marina Mchedlova, a religion expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. "But the trends in the FOM survey are confirmed by other studies. Belief without religion is one; about a third of people are not satisfied with organized churches and choose to remain outside of them," she says.

Another is the lack of religious knowledge among the Orthodox Church's superficially huge public base.

"The majority of people who position themselves as Orthodox when asked to identify their faith cannot go on to answer even simple questions about it," she says.

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