Staunton, Apr. 10 – In Soviet times, few Kazakhs declared that they were believers; but over the last 30 years, the share of those doing so has skyrocketed, with almost 90 percent of Kazakhs telling census takers they are religious. But the real percentage is 20 percent of more lower, according to sociological studies, Kazakh journalist Bauryrzhan Makhanov says.
Kazakhstan became the first in the CIS to include a question on religious affiliation, and only the third of the former Soviet republics – after Estonia and Lithuania – and if one accepted official census figures, Kazakhstan would be “one of the most religious countries in the world alongside Afghanistan, Somalia and other hardly civil states” (qmonitor.kz/society/5096).
According to Makhanov, one of the reasons the census figure is so high for Kazakhstan is that “instead of first asking citizens whether they are believers or not, they are asked to immediately declare their religious affiliation” – and people identify with the religion associated with their nationality – Muslim for Kazakh and Christian for Russian or German.
In the last, 2021, census, the share of Kazakhstan residents who characterized themselves as non-believers fell from 2.8 percent to 2.3 percent, but the percent of those who refused to answer this question rose from 0.5 percent a decade ago to 11.1 percent. Those answers in turn reduced the share declaring themselves to be religious from 96.7 percent to 86.6 percent.
Sociological research indicates that the actual share of the population of Kazakhstan that is religious is in the 66-68 percent range, less than in Russia where it is said to be 70 percent or Kyrgyzstan where it is 72 percent but greater than in Uzbekistan where the share according to one survey is 51 percent.
That pattern, Makhanov says, raises questions about the Kazakhstan figure, which he believes is much lower than in these other countries; and that in turn suggests that it is time to “rehabilitate” the concept of atheism, “not of the militant kind which was at some point in the past but of a normal and constructive variety” so that people won’t be reluctant to declare it.