Staunton, April 18 – In Soviet times when religious belief was persecuted, the differences between believers and unbelievers was enormous, so great indeed that many felt that the recovery of religious faith by Russians after 1991 would lead to a transformation of their society and country.
But a new study conducted by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences finds that “in their misconceptions, their views on good and evil and their hopes for a better future for their country, Russia’s believers and atheists are identical,” according to Yekaterina Dobrynina of “Rossiiskaya gazeta” (rg.ru/2015/04/15/religia-nauka.html).
The survey of 4,000 Russians found that 69 percent of them identify as Orthodox, five percent as Muslims, six percent believe in “a higher power” but don’t identify with any particular religion, two percent say they are members of other religious faiths, and ten percent identify as atheists. But that division hardly ends the story, the sociologists say.
Thus, for example, 87 percent of the Orthodox believe in God as to 89 percent of Muslims and 50 percent of other faiths. But 12 percent of the self-proclaimed atheists also believe in God. How the faithful cannot and how the atheists can remains very much a mystery, Dobrynina says.
Many believers combine their official faith with superstitions of all kinds. Half of the Orthodox and a third of the Muslims believe in signs, and every third or fourth member of these faiths believes in witchcraft and magic. As far as life after death is concerned, 32 percent of the Orthodox, 27 percent of the Muslims, and five percent of the atheists do.
According to the journalist, “sociologists do not see anyting unusual” in this pattern. People in most countries regardless of their faith choose “a mixed ‘salad’ of at times mutually inconsistent ingredients” on the basis of their national and religious traditions. And within any country, “the views of religious and non-religious people correspond on key state issues.”
More than half of all believers (53 to 57 percent) consider the state to be their chief defender, as do 49 percent of atheists. More than two-third say one must never ignore moral norms even if one benefits by doing so, while those willing to violate the to get ahead are somewhat fewer but only a little among believers than among non-believers.
There is no fundamental difference between the two groups about the state, although the religious and the non-religious rank institutions somewhat differently, with all putting the president first but then differing in their ordering of the government, the military and so on just below him.
Important too is the fact that there is little difference between religious and non-religious groups in terms of their professed willingness to support opposition groups: six percent of the Orthodox, ten percent of the Muslims and five percent of the atheists say they are prepared to back opposition candidates and parties.
Orthodox Russians are somewhat more inclined than others to support Moscow’s actions such as the annexation of Crimea. 82 percent of them say they back that move, compared to 72 percent of Muslims. One place where believers and unbelievers do divide is in their choice of information sources: Orthodox Russians trust government media; atheists used the Internet.
All groups are almost equally patriotic, and all expect the state to provide social justice, with the Muslims somewhat more insistent on that than are other groups. The Orthodox say that for them it is more important to restore national traditions and values; for the other faithful and the atheists, that is less important.
Commenting on these results, Mariya Mchedlova, head of the Institute of Sociology’s Center for Religion in Contemporary Society, did point to one key difference between the Orthodox and Muslims that she suggests could be worrisome: Muslims feel much greater irritation with the world around them than do the Orthodox.
She says that it is “now very important not to allow radical Islamist activists and movements to use this emotional state for their own purposes,” something she said other Russians “are very much afraid of.”