Only a quarter of a century after the Iron Curtain rang down on the repression and official atheism of the evil empire — “godless communism” some called it — there’s a resurgence of religious faith and identification in what was once the Soviet Union and its satraps in eastern Europe.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center finds solid majorities of adults in those places profess a belief in God and in the Christian faith, as usually expressed in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Some smaller Protestant bodies, such as the Baptists in Russia, are prospering again much as they did a hundred years ago in the twilight of empire.
Pew researchers find that though relatively few attend worship services regularly, or even pray regularly, the number of those who call themselves atheists has declined a stunning 50 percent over the last three years. Many churches in the old Soviet Union were converted to “museums of atheism” by the Communist regime, but now the museums themselves have become curious artifacts of a bygone day, when religious faith was derided as a fairy tale, and after death there would be only death.
Now 86 percent of Russians ascribe to some variant of religious belief, and 44 percent claim to be “quite religious.” Orthodoxy is the most popular faith, and 92 percent of those polled — even more than the number of those who now believe in God — view this church with “respect and benevolence.”
Other findings: 74 percent say that of Roman Catholicism, and 57 percent say they regard Islam with similar respect. More good news is that anti-Semitism is declining sharply. In 2014, roughly 15 percent of Russians expressed “fear” or “dislike” of Jews, and now 11 percent say that.
The resurgence of religion in eastern Europe follows a Pew finding last year that “the share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing [and] fully 23 percent now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular.’” A follow-up Pew report early this year said that trend seemed to be fading, if only by a bit.
But Pew researchers find that believers in the United States, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa observe the traditions and rituals of their faith to a far greater extent than in eastern Europe, as do Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. Many embrace faith as closely identified with national identity, and large majorities of those polled say that faith makes them feel more “truly Russian,” or “truly Polish” or “truly Greek.
What the Communists learned is that faith and freedom are inseparably linked, and that tyrannies grow where atheism dominates. Despots of all stripes learn to their sorrow that true faith comes not as something collective, but to each man and woman as individuals. There’s something deep within the human heart that reaches out to find a spark of the divine. No government, no army, no bureaucracy can crush it.