National Review's blog "The Corner" by John Derbyshire contains the following extended discussion of religion in Russia:
An interesting email from Prof. Alexander Lebedeff on the state of religion in Russia:
I would like to share the latest information on religion in Russia, based on a poll by the newspaper Izvestia and the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (ACSPO). The text of the article [unfortunately in Russian—JD] is here.
Briefly, it states that at the end of 2006, 15 years after the fall of the atheistic Soviet Union, 86% of the population believes in God, and only 16% consider themselves atheists.
Fully 63% of the (adult) population consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians. This is 75% of those who believe in God.
The article states that in the beginning of the 1990s, when the ACSPO first began to analyze the data on religion, only 34% of the adult population considered themselves to be Orthodox, by 1999, this had risen to 50%, and now is at 63%.The percentage of those who are 'churched,' defined as those who attend churches at least once a month and regularly partake of the mystery of Holy Communion, is also rising. In the 'perestroika' years,it was around 4%, and that has now risen to 10-12%.
If 15 years ago the average age the majority of people attending services was 60, at present the average age has fallen to 48, which is much closer to the average age of the population in general — 44.
Even more important is that the percentage of young people (those under 25) who consider themselves Orthodox is 58%.This poll was taken in 153 population centers in 46 regions and republics of Russia.
Mr. Derbyshire—-Prot. Lebedeff is putting a lot of lipstick on some very ugly pig. In reality, compared to the Russians, you could say that the Brits are consumed with religious fervor (there are more people going to church in UK than in much larger Russia). If you use the methodology of that poll (and yes, I read the original article), you can find that about 100% of Americans are nice (that is, if you just ask the respondents a question "Are you nice?")
According to police estimates (Russian police do show up in force wherever and whenever significant numbers of drunk men are expected to congregate), only about 1.5% of Moscow area population actually attend Orthodox churches on Easter (and, of course, anyone not showing up even for Easter can be safely assumed not to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word). Also, according to polls, about one third of Moscow population observe Lent (which is very strict in the East and involves a complete ban on meat - for the entire 40 days, not just on Fridays). But actual sales of meat in Moscow supermarkets decline only the same 1.5% during Lent.
In its media campaign the Russian Orthodox Church totally disregards its own rules and definitions (of what it means to be a member) in order to (grossly) inflate the number of its adherents (the Patriarch is quoted in that article basically counting even people who merely light a candle with good intentions - with such methodology one could count hundreds of millions of Hindus as members of the Russian Orthodox Church!)
And of course, that article completely ignores some more scientific and meaningful polls in which the Russians were actually asked more detailed questions (about whether they believe in particular items of faith - I don't remember whether only specifically Christian items of faith or other beliefs as well). 84-86% of respondents gave answers absolutely incompatible with Christianity of any stripe. And even if the remaining 14-16% giving 'Christian' answers to different questions were the same people for all questions, they do not necessarily really believe with any conviction - they may simply know the 'right' answers and choose to give them because they like to consider themselves Orthodox for cultural reasons. Oh, and for the record, I am a Papist.
From a person who really should know, though he asks that his name and clerical status not be posted:
"Mr Derbyshire—-A basic phenomenon when dealing with Russians is that being Russian equates to being Orthodox in the Russian mind. 'Sectarians' (i.e., Protestants) are widely reviled, and Uniates (Roman Catholics using the Orthodox liturgical forms) are mostly confined to Ukraine and its environs. When did you last hear of a group of Muslim Russian citizens refer to themselves as Russians?
"The upshot? It's like Italians and Roman Catholicism. The Italians all claim it, even if the piety and practice aren't there."
[Derb] This issue of religious identification from cultural motives (as opposed to actual piety) seems to need factoring into any discussion of how religious a population is. It used to be the case that 99 percent of non-RC English people, faced with a box on a form labeled "Religion" would write in "C. of E.," even in they hadn't been inside a church for years. I feel pretty sure that my father—a militant atheist, but 100 percent Grade-A English—did this.
John, your correspondent has a good point (as you recognize), and, as you say, the same applies in England. For example, with the exception of "hatches, matches and despatches" and, when the time comes, my own deathbed conversion, I never step foot inside a church, but I always describe myself as C of E.
The more interesting question is how much the distinction between 'cultural' and 'actual' religion really matters in practice in countries where the wilder excesses of religious enthusiasm have, thank God, faded away. If, in such countries, you identify yourself as a cultural 'Christian', your general worldview and moral outlook are, if only loosely, likely to reflect the way that that the practical teachings of that religion (who cares about theology?) have evolved in that country and will not be particularly affected by, for example, your view as to what may or may not have happened two thousand years ago.
What is more problematic (I seem to recall this was discussed in 'The Closing of the American Mind') is whether this cutural Christianity is strong enough to be passed on to successive generations. I'd argue that it is, but only in societies culturally self-confident enough to do so. Sadly, England no longer appears to meet that test.****
Well said, Andrew; but the answer to your question "Who cares about theology?" is, as you surely know from your own email-bag: Lots and lots and lots of NRO readers.
In the recent exchanges about eugenics, one such reader explained to me at length why even the merest kind of genetic intervention is wrong, wrong, wrong. I couldn't follow his argument at all. It might as well have been in Greek—which, in fact, a couple of his technical terms were!
If that is typical of the arguments that will be placed before the American public to persuade them that it would be wrong, wrong, wrong for them to pay $2,000 to a clinic to increase the odds of their newborn being healthy, clever, and good-looking; well, as I said, lotsa luck.