Staunton, May 23 – Russian Orthodoxy is more an ethnic marker than a faith for many Russians, given that only 55 percent of those who identify as Orthodox say they believe in God and an additional 10 percent say they have doubts about His existence, with large numbers placing their faith in superstitions and even witchcraft, surveys show.
But precisely because Russian Orthodoxy is more an ethnic rather than a religious identity for many, it has been far easier for the Moscow Patriarchate to offer itself as the foundation of the state, to support in many cases a rapprochement with the Soviet past, and to back the repression of dissent in a manner consistent with the communists.
In this week’s “Argumenti nedeli,” journalist Denis Terentyev discusses the pretensions of the Moscow Patriarchate to make Orthodoxy the foundation of Russian national identity and the many reasons for thinking this “foundation” is anything but the simple and unified thing its supporters claim (argumenti.ru/toptheme/n539/448944).
The Patriarchate routinely invokes VTsIOM’s finding that “75 percent of the population of Russia considers itself to be Orthodox” as the basis for its claims. But such claims need to be examined with care, not only because they conceal as much as they reveal but because of the hierarchy’s frequent “crude falsifications” of all kinds.
Polls on the religious affiliation of the population first began to be conducted at the end of the 1980s, Terentyev points out. At that time, the sociologists found that from 16 to 19 percent of the population declared themselves to be Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, while 70 percent said they were unbelievers.
By 1993, however, 69 percent of Russian men and 82 percent of Russian women declared that they were believers; and the leaders of the various religions drew on “these fantastic statistics” to claim that there were 120 million Orthodox and 40 million Muslims, for a total “greater than the 140 million people” in the country.
Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center polling agency, adds that Russian Orthodoxy is “an ethno-confessional identity” rather than a faith, with fewer than seven percent of those saying they are Orthodox in fact observing religious rules, fewer than half attending services regularly, and only 55 percent of them saying they believe in God.
Moreover, he continues, “25 percent of the Orthodox believe in magic and witchcraft, and 30 percent believe in astrology and horoscopes … [and only] about half of the Russian Orthodox have not opened the Bible, with only a handful able to name all ten of the Commandments.”
Like many in Europe, a large share of Russians identify with a religion but place no faith in it, surveys show. And an increasing number who declare that they are believers do not link themselves to any particular denomination. In Russia today, such people number 4.2 percent or six million, “more than the population of St. Petersburg,” Terentyev points out.
Another two million are those who identify as Orthodox but do not link themselves with either the Russian Orthodox Church or the Old Believers. Few of them organize into congregations but have views produced by personal reading and reflection, Russian experts suggest.
Roman Lunkin, a specialist on religious life at the Moscow Institute of Europe, says that his survey found that only five percent of Russians polled are part of a specific congregation and regularly attend church. “Experts have known about these figures for a long time, but they are consistently ignored by politicians and church hierarchs,” he adds.
Others have made similar points. An article in “Moskovsky komsomolets” yesterday, for example, suggests that superstition, not religion, is overwhelming Russians today (mk.ru/social/2016/05/22/nevynosimaya-legkost-vyrozhdeniya.html), and a commentary on the Russkaya narodnya liniya site today offers an even more disturbing observation.
It suggests that the neo-paganism now spreading throughout the country is to Russian Orthodoxy what Islamism is to traditional Islam, implicitly calling for the same methods to be directed against neo-pagans that are already being visited upon radical Muslims (ruskline.ru/news_rl/2016/05/23/neoyazychestvo_ne_imeet_nikakogo_otnosheniya_k_tradiciyam/).
If that approach is adopted, the number of Russians who will say they are Orthodox almost certainly will rise; but the number of them who will actually become believers may in fact decline as it becomes obvious that Orthodoxy is a political category rather than a religious one, something a Russian must declare to fit in rather than a faith he or she can live by.