Opium of the people back in former communist countries

politics, religion

Former communist countries returning to the Church

After years of declaring that religion was the opium of the people, former communist countries in central and Eastern Europe are returning to Christianity.

A major new Pew Research Centre survey finds that religion has reasserted itself as an important part of individual and national identity in former communist countries.

Majorities of adults across much of the region say they believe in God, and most identify with a religion. Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are the most prevalent religious affiliations, much as they were more than 100 years ago in the twilight years of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

The report found that being associated with the national religion is part of nationalism where being truly Russian means you have to be Orthodox, or truly Polish means being Catholic.

Few Orthodox or Catholic adults in Central and Eastern Europe say they regularly attend worship services, pray often or consider religion central to their lives. Only 10 per cent of Orthodox Christians across the region say they go to church on a weekly basis.

However compared with many populations Pew Research Center previously has surveyed – from the United States to Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa – Central and Eastern Europeans display relatively low levels of religious observance.

However Pew said that the comeback of religion in a region once dominated by atheist regimes is striking – particularly in some historically Orthodox countries, where levels of religious affiliation have risen substantially in recent decades.

Whether the return to religion in Orthodox-majority countries began before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 remains an open question.

In Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, far more people said they were religiously unaffiliated in 1991 than describe themselves that way in the new survey. In all three countries, the share of the population that identifies with Orthodox Christianity is up significantly since the collapse of the communist Soviet Union.

Catholicism in Central and Eastern Europe, meanwhile, has not experienced the same upsurge as Orthodox Christianity. In part, this may be because much of the population in countries such as Poland and Hungary retained a Catholic identity during the communist era, leaving less of a religious vacuum to be filled when the communist USSR fell.

To the extent that there has been measurable religious change in recent decades in Central and Eastern European countries with large Catholic populations, it has been in the direction of greater secularisation.

The most dramatic shift in this regard has occurred in the Czech Republic, where the share of the public identifying as Catholic dropped from 44 per cent in 1991 to 21 per cent in the current survey. Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three-quarters of adults (72 per cent) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

But these perceptions do not tell the entire story. Despite declining shares in some countries, Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe generally are more religiously observant than Orthodox Christians in the region, at least by conventional measures.

For instance, 45% of Catholics in Poland say they attend worship services at least weekly – more than double the share of Orthodox Christians in any country surveyed who say they go to church that often.

In addition, Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe are much more likely than Orthodox Christians to say they engage in religious practices such as taking communion and fasting during Lent. Catholics also are somewhat more likely than Orthodox Christians to say they frequently share their views on God with others, and to say they read or listen to scripture outside of religious services.

Although Catholics overall are more religiously observant than Orthodox Christians in the region, however, the association between religious identity and national identity is stronger in Orthodox-majority countries than in Catholic ones.

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