Vienna, July 3 – Eighty percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, a figure far greater than the share of those who say they are believers and one that includes many who indicate that they are agnostics or atheists, according to a new book by two leading specialists on Russian religious life.
That represents Russia’s “pro-Orthodox consensus,” a unique phenomenon which emerged in the 1990s and has only grown stronger during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, Kimmo Kaarainen and Dmitriy Furman argue in “Old Churches, Old Believers – Old Churches, New Believers” (in Russian, M/SPB: Letniy sad, 2007, 400 pp.).
That book a follow-on to their study, “Old Churches – New Believers,” published in 2000 and reviewed at http://vertograd.narod.ru/0900/church.htm, concludes that today most Russians view Orthodoxy as “’their own’ ideology” even if they do not accept it as a religion (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=comment&id=1248).
Kaarainen and Furman cite as a classical example Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s boast that he is “an Orthodox atheist,” a claim that few would have made only a couple of decades ago but one that is increasingly widely heard in the Russian Federation.
At the very least, this development is not entirely positive either for the Russian Orthodox Church as a repository of faith or for Russian society that is seeking to recover from Soviet times, Father Grigoriy writes in his Portal-Credo.ru review. Indeed, in many respects, it is dangerous for both.
On the one hand, he writes, “in place of the dogmatic system of historical Orthodoxy, a new dogmatic system is emerging in our time, one in which many of the principles of the Orthodox faith are being replaced by various superstitions, drawn particularly from astrology and occultism.”
And on the other, even as the church has become “a symbol” of “national and state unity” under Putin, Father Grigoriy continues, it no longer is viewed as it was in the early 1990s as a basis for societal renewal and a source of values and hope for a better future for the residents of the Russian Federation.
Indeed, as Kaarainen and Furman show, Orthodoxy in Russia now trails the workplace, family, friends, entertainment and politics as a source of values. And because of that loss of status – or better, failure to recover a status it had before Soviet times – the church is at risk of a radical shift in popular attitudes in an anti-religious activity.
Some within the Orthodox Church may even want that swing to take place, the authors say, concluding that only such attacks on Orthodoxy would permit the church either to recover its true functions or allow its hierarchy to function without additional political demands being put on it.
But instead of viewing this trend as the negative one it so clearly is, Father Grigoriy points out, many senior hierarchs appear to welcome it. Patriarch Aleksii II has been an enthusiastic participant in state functions that often are devoid of any religious content besides his personal presence.
And Metropolitan Kirill, the powerful head of the Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, has actively promoted the idea of the notion that Russians are “Orthodox by birth,” a view that allows him and the church to claim far more followers than Kaarainen and Furman suggest it has.
Father Grigoriy concludes his article with the following observation: The chief competitors of the Russian Orthodox Church today are not other religious organizations as some of its leaders argue but rather “drug abuse, alcoholism, pornography and the gaming business.”
If the church wants to be true to itself and helpful to Russian society and the state, he suggests, it should “struggle with all of this” rather than engage in unequal combat with other religious groups, many of which have followers who are far more faithful than its own.