Pew: Here’s How Badly Soviet Atheism Failed in Europe

In 18 nations across Central and Eastern Europe, religion is now essential to national identity.

Across countries, solid majorities say that in order to belong, one must identify with the majority religion. For example, most say being Orthodox is essential to truly being Russian or Greek, while being Catholic is essential to truly being Polish. The close connection between religious and national identity is stronger for Orthodox than for Catholics (regional medians: 70% vs. 57%).

 

“Believing and belonging, without behaving.”

This is how the Pew Research Center summarizes the surge of Christianity in Europe around the fallen Iron Curtain roughly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The comeback of religion in a region once dominated by atheist regimes is striking,” states Pew in its latest report. Today, only 14 percent of the region’s population identify as atheists, agnostics, or “nones.” By comparison, 57 percent identify as Orthodox, and another 18 percent as Catholics.

In a massive study based on face-to-face interviews with 25,000 adults in 18 countries, Pew examined how national and religious identities have converged over the decades in Central and Eastern Europe. The result is one of the most thorough accountings of what Orthodox Christians (and their neighbors) believe and do.

Pew surveyed citizens in Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine. (Pew did not survey citizens in Cyprus, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovakia, or Slovenia.)

“Religion has reasserted itself as an important part of individual and national identity in many of the Central and Eastern European countries where communist regimes once repressed religious worship and promoted atheism,” Pew researchers stated. “Today, solid majorities of adults across much of the region say they believe in God, and most identify with a religion.”

While a minority in the region, Protestants are strongest in Estonia, where 20 percent identity as Lutheran; Latvia, where 19 percent identify as Lutheran; Hungary, where 13 percent identify as Presbyterian or Reformed; and in Lithuania, where 14 percent say they are “just a Christian.”

Only the Czech Republic remains majority religiously unaffiliated (72%), followed by a plurality in Estonia (45%), then Hungary and Latvia (21% each).

However, while citizens in once atheist countries are increasingly Orthodox, those in Catholic-majority countries are increasingly secular.

Across countries, solid majorities say that in order to belong, one must identify with the majority religion. For example, most say being Orthodox is essential to truly being Russian or Greek, while being Catholic is essential to truly being Polish. The close connection between religious and national identity is stronger for Orthodox than for Catholics (regional medians: 70% vs. 57%).

However, observance is a different matter. “Relatively 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,” Pew researchers stated.

Catholics are twice as observant as Orthodox when it comes to weekly church attendance (medians: 25% vs. 10%). “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,” Pew researchers stated. “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.”

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