Andrew Sorokowski's column

Fading Faith?

10.08.2015, 13:03
The Russian government’s attempts to exert social control through the established Church have failed.

The Russian government’s attempts to exert social control through the established Church have failed.

Is religion fading in Russia and Ukraine? In an on-line article in the Economist last July 31, “Erasmus” wrote that “Russians feel less positive toward religion now than they did in 1990.” Whereas in 1990, the percentage of Russians surveyed who felt that religion did more good than harm was 61%, and the proportion feeling that it did more harm than good was only 5%, this year the first group was down to 36%, while the second had risen to 23%. Why the change?

Meanwhile in Ukraine, a survey conducted between July 22 and 27 by the Il’ko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund and the Razumkov Center revealed that those surveyed who trusted “the Church” constituted only 62% — the lowest in five years – while those who did not trust “the Church” numbered 28%. According to this survey, citizens of Ukraine felt the greatest trust for “volunteers”: 67% (while those who did not trust them numbered only 23%). Again, why the change?

First, one must note that the parameters of the two surveys were different. In Russia, the subject was religion in general. Officially, Russia has four chief religions: Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and  Judaism. Citizens were being asked generally about whether “religion” did more harm or more good. In the Ukrainian survey, the parameter was “the Church” – that is, religious institutions -- which include three Orthodox Churches, the Greek-Catholic Church, and a host of smaller Protestant and other Christian churches. It is difficult to say to which religions the feelings expressed in the Russian survey were directed, though numerically the Orthodox religion is overwhelmingly dominant. In the Ukrainian case, while the “trust” being measured was presumably understood to pertain to the Christian churches, it is not clear to which ones the respondents were referring.

With regard to Russia, nonetheless, “Erasmus” does permit himself a few tentative conclusions. For one thing, in the first flush of religious freedom in the wake of the Gorbachev reforms, many Russians were attracted to religion simply because it had been opposed by the Communist regime. It was a novelty. Inevitably, this “fashion” eventually waned, with only a core of genuine believers remaining religiously committed. For another thing, people gradually began to distinguish between religious faith and religious institutions. Thus, as various scandals shook the image of the Russian Orthodox Church, some became alienated from it while remaining Orthodox believers. Particularly harmful to the public reputation of the Moscow Patriarchate, according to the Economist, has been its close relationship with a succession of repressive political regimes. Bishops’ collaboration with the KGB and its predecessors have tarnished the Church’s record of martyrdom earned in the years of Bolshevik persecution.

In fact, some experts on the Russian Orthodox Church have noted a separation between Orthodox faith, which has become popular among many young people, and the Orthodox hierarchy, which is losing control of the forms and manifestations of that faith. As a result, the government’s attempts to exert social control through the established Church have failed. As “Erasmus” concludes, “the State’s effort to tame and co-opt the power of religion has not been entirely beneficial to either state or religion.”

If, however, it is the institutional church (and not the faith itself) which has been compromised in the public eye, why do more Russians have a negative view of the effects of “religion” in general than before? Is it because they identify “religion” too closely with religious institutions? Or is it natural that dislike of institutions leads to dislike of the beliefs which they represent? Only further studies can sort this out.

As for Ukraine, the meaning of the decline in trust of “the Church” is equally hard to decipher. If Ukrainians reserve their greatest trust for volunteers – those who work without compensation for the good of society and nation -- it seems likely that they view the Church in terms of its socio-political posture. In particular, they are likely to evaluate religious institutions in terms of their resistance to corruption and their attitude to national politics and the Russian invasion. With regard to domestic and international politics, the Ukrainian Churches take widely divergent positions. The Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate under Patriarch Filaret, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church all supported the Maidan and continue to support the Ukrainian government in its resistance to Russian political and military pressure. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, on the other hand, has been more cautious, and is practically split between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions. While apparently seeking to maintain a certain spiritual distance, Metropolitan Onufrii has been more on the Russian than on the Ukrainian side of the issue. Since this Church still commands a plurality of Ukrainian Orthodox believers (though some surveys have challenged that conclusion), it is reasonable to suppose that its political ambivalence has caused a decline in public trust. Would that, however, account for the over-all decline, at a time when one might expect that the other Churches have gained in trust? That, again, would have to be clarified by further studies.

Religion, of course, is not a popularity contest. The only criterion is truth. But a church cannot carry out its mission if it is not trusted. What seems undeniable is that Russia’s aggressive behavior has been harmful to religion – both at home and abroad.

Andrew Sorokowski

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