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An Orthodox mass infant baptism near Tbilisi, Georgia. Image: David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters via Christianity Today

 

 

Roughly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Iron Curtain and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, a major new Pew Research Center survey finds that 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.

Today, solid 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.

So the Pew Research Center introduces a fascinating report: Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe.

It’s not that everyone is observant; on the contrary, few people attend church or pray daily – just 10 percent of Orthodox Christians, for example.

Nonetheless, 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.

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 USSR fell.

In fact such countries countries have seen a decline in Catholic affiliation, notably in the Czech Republic

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

This may be explained by their “political geography”, the Catholic countries being further west (and identifying with the West) while the Orthodox countries are further east and many were part of the former Soviet Union.

Religion and national identity are more intertwined in the latter countries and Russians, for example, are much more likely to say that their country is much more religious now than a few decades ago. Yet the question of who is more religious is not so simple:

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.

People in the Orthodox countries take a pride in their ancient national churches and tend to support the church playing a large role in public life.

In Catholic-majority countries, there is greater support for separation of religion from the state, with a median of just 41% who back state funding of churches and 28% in favor of governments promoting religious values and beliefs.

The whole report can be read here.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet