Measuring religious belief is almost impossible and the meaning of identification with this or that faith varies widely. Some will say they follow a faith but only because it is a national or cultural marker, as is typical with Orthodoxy and Islam in Russia while others will identify as believers only if they in fact take an active part in religious life (Protestants and Catholics).
Moreover, the number of people who will say they are followers of one or another religion to pollster depends to a great degree on the way in which questions are posed. Consequently, different polls yield different results; and all sides in this debate can point to some survey that they like and others that they don’t.
The current controversy over religious adherence in Russia has been triggered by a Public Opinion Foundation survey which reported that 65 percent of Russians were Orthodox, “no more than seven percent” Muslims, and that only one percent were Western Christians. It also said that 21 percent of Russians do not consider themselves believers at all.
The Moscow Patriarchate regularly insists that about 80 percent of the Russian population is Orthodox, but experts on religion like Roman Lunkin of the Institute of Europe say that figure is wildly inflated. They note that a Sreda poll in 2012 found that only 41 percent of Russians identify with the ROC MP and only single digits take part in religious life.
Muslim leaders too are convinced that Russian polls routinely understate the number of followers of Islam. Gulnur Gaziyeva of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) says that in 2005, Moscow officials said there were 24 million Muslims in Russia on the basis of the 2002 census; but that number disappeared – and since then officials have used only he figure of 14 million.
They have done so even though census figures show that Muslim peoples have continued to grow in number. Moreover, all Russian government figures contradict the conclusions of the Saudis who say there are “no fewer than 24 million” Muslims in Russia and allocate haj slots on that basis.
Lunkin agrees that the seven percent figure for Muslims is too low, perhaps, he suggests, because the Public Opinion Foundation did not sample sufficiently in historically Islamic regions. He also says that Muslim believers are far more active in the religious life of mosques than Orthodox Christians are in churches.
According to Lunkin, the figures the Foundation gives for Catholics and Protestants are more adequate in one way: the one percent of Russians who follow Western Christian faiths declare they are members of these faiths if and only if they actually practice. Looked at from that perspective, one percent of all Russians in these faiths is actually a large number.
Bishop Konstantin Bendas, a senior churchman with the Russian United Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals), says that his organization surveyed Russians recently to determine how many Russians actually participate in religious life of the organizations they say they identify with or are members of.
That survey found that only 9.5 percent of Russians are active in church life. The other 90 percent, the bishop says, know about religion and may have some views about it but are not really part of their religions. In that context, the one percent of Russians who say they are actually Protestants or Catholics is actually more than 10 percent of the genuinely religious.
Muslims also form a higher share of active believers, but the Russian Orthodox a much lower one. Consequently, the Catholics and Protestants may equal the number of active Orthodox; and the Muslims may exceed all three Christian groups taken together. If that calculation is correct, the religious balance in Russia has really changed even if the Kremlin acts as if it hasn’t.