Eastern Europe’s patriotic faith

Especially observed from afar, Europe is often viewed as a continent where traditional forms of Christianity are dwindling fast, and the only kinds of faith which flourish are those brought by recent arrivals, ranging from Pakistani or Turkish Islam to Nigerian Pentecostalism. But a newly published survey of belief and identity in central and eastern Europe presents a different picture.

The study of 18 countries by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, mostly shows huge majorities professing their adherence to Christianity in its locally dominant form, and linking that affiliation with loyalty to the nation and socially conservative views. The report looks mostly at ex-communist countries, but also includes Greece which shares some cultural traits with its Balkan and Slavic neighbours.

Thus 90% of Greeks, 89% of Georgians, 88% of Serbs and 86% of Romanians identify as Orthodox Christians, as do 78% of Ukrainians and 71% of Russians. The Catholic faith is professed by 75% of Lithuanians, 84% of Croats, and 87% of Poles. The Czechs are an exception, with one of the most secular profiles in Europe: some 72% profess no religious affiliation.

The survey finds Catholicism slightly on the decline in its historic heartlands, but more fervently practised by its adherents than is Orthodox Christianity. Some 45% of Polish Catholics say they attend church weekly, compared with 17% of Orthodox Greeks and 6% of Orthodox Russians. But Orthodox Christians were even more likely than Catholics to say that following the nationally dominant faith was an important aspect of belonging to the homeland. That view was held by 81% of Georgians, 76% of Greeks and 57% of Russians. In mainly Orthodox countries, those religious-nationalist views were held by a median of 70% of respondents; the equivalent figure for mostly Catholic lands was 57%.

But this picture of a generally devout region needs some qualifying. Pew’s editors found a neat way of summing up their findings. As they recalled, Grace Davie, a British sociologist, had once coined the phrase “believing without belonging” to describe many west Europeans: they wanted a spiritual aspect in their lives but had little interest in joining a church or attending worship. In central and eastern Europe, Pew found, the picture was of belonging and believing but not necessarily behaving in a religious way. People linked faith with collective identity but only a smallish minority accepted Christianity’s more burdensome demands, from praying regularly to studying the Bible or sharing it with others. In Russia, for example, only 15% of respondents said religion was “very important in their lives”. It might be added that some professed Orthodox or Catholic respondents rejected certain basic Christian concepts like heaven or hell. That might be called “belonging without believing”.

Across central and eastern Europe, religion affects people’s attitudes to ethical questions, as well as to politics and geopolitics, but not always decisively. In some places there are huge generational differences. Gay marriage is favoured by 45% of Greeks aged from 18 to 34, but only 19% of their compatriots aged 35 and above. In Poland, 42% of the younger cohort were in favour but only 28% of the older one. In conservative Russia, the respective figures are 9% and 3%.

Abortion is fairly easily available, and widely practised, in most of the countries studied, with the striking exception of Poland. Quite a lot of people in central and eastern Europe like the present situation, it seems. The proposition that “abortion should be legal in all or most cases” was accepted by 80% of Bulgarians, 63% of Serbs and 45% of Greeks. Some 36% of Russians agreed. When set against Russian social reality, that figure sounds low, and suggests that Russians feel a certain pressure to give conservative answers to such touchstone questions.

In most places studied, to be Orthodox is to be Russophile. The statement that a “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the West” is accepted by 80% of Serbs, 70% of Greeks (although their country is a long-standing NATO member), and 56% of Bulgarians. As you might expect, a much smaller share of Ukrainians agree, only 22%. General sympathy with Russia is not seen as incompatible with friendship with the West. In Romania, which is mainly Orthodox but pro-Western in orientation, some 82% agreed that their country should work closely with America and its allies, but as many as 52% also liked the idea of a strong Russia.

The report found that support for liberal democracy was “less consistent” in Orthodox countries than in other parts of the region. But there were big variations. In Greece, the land of democracy’s birth, some 77% thought that form of government was preferable to any other, against 15% who thought that “non-democratic government” was sometimes preferable. But in Russia, the latter, anti-democratic view was in the majority (by 41% to 31%). It also prevailed in Moldova and Serbia. Some 28% of Serbs thought non-democratic rule was sometimes better, against 25% who preferred rule by the people and a depressingly high 43% who didn’t care.

As long as you allow for some massive exceptions, stereotypes aren’t always wrong. Perhaps there is some truth in a story about Serbian politics which is meant to bring home that country’s authoritarian, patriarchal streak, especially seen in rural areas. A liberal candidate for office patiently explained his manifesto to a rustic voter, only to be told: “I think your policies are excellent, and I really hope you stage a military coup.”