This political divide is seen in responses to two separate survey questions: How religious do you think your country was in the 1970s and 1980s (when all but Greece among the surveyed countries were ruled by communist regimes), and how religious is it today?With few exceptions, in former Soviet republics the more common view is that those countries are more religious now than a few decades ago.Only 15% of Russians, for example, say their country was either “very religious” (3%) or “somewhat religious” (12%) in the 1970s and 1980s, while 55% say Russia is either very (8%) or somewhat (47%) religious today.
Indeed, compared with many populations Pew Research Center previously has surveyed – from the United States to Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa – Central and Eastern Europeans display relatively low levels of religious observance. Christians in Western Europe, for example, have been described as “believing without belonging,” a phrase coined by sociologist Grace Davie in her 1994 religious profile of Great Britain, where, she noted, widespread belief in God coexists with largely empty churches and low participation in religious institutions.
In East Asia, there is a different paradigm, one that might be called “behaving without believing or belonging.” According to a major ethnography conducted last decade, for example, many people in China neither believe in a higher power nor identify with any particular religious faith, yet nevertheless go to Buddhist or Confucian temples to make offerings and partake in religious rituals.
In part, this may be because much of the population in countries such as Poland and Hungary retained a Catholic identity during the communist era, leaving less of a religious vacuum to be filled when the USSR fell.
To the extent that there has been measurable religious change in recent decades in Central and Eastern European countries with large Catholic populations, it has been in the direction of greater secularization.
But Pew Research Center’s predecessor organization did ask about religion when it surveyed several countries in the region in 1991, during the waning months of the USSR.
In Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, far more people said they were religiously unaffiliated in 1991 than describe themselves that way in the new survey.But, in some cases, even members of religious minority groups take this position.For example, about a quarter of both Muslims and religiously unaffiliated people in Russia say it is important to be Russian Orthodox in order to be “truly Russian.” In addition, people living in predominantly Orthodox countries are more inclined than others in the region to say their culture “is superior to others” and to describe themselves as “very proud” of their national identity.Relatively few Orthodox or Catholic adults in Central and Eastern Europe say they regularly attend worship services, pray often or consider religion central to their lives. Three words, three distinct ways in which people connect (or don’t) to religion: Do they believe in a higher power? Do they feel part of a congregation, spiritual community or religious group?For example, a median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across the region say they go to church on a weekly basis. Research suggests that many people around the world engage with religion in at least one of these ways, but not necessarily all three.In addition, Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe are much more likely than Orthodox Christians to say they engage in religious practices such as taking communion and fasting during Lent.