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I know that religious faith is a personal thing, some people have a stronger faith than others, and for some people religion is more a matter of cultural identity than personal conviction. Also how much politicians talk about religion (or brief journalists about it) can be influenced by how it is likely to be received by their electorate.

But, all that said, it does seem remarkable that the former communist country which was officially atheist and sought to make life difficult for religious believers (albeit under Mikhail Gorbachev using less brutal means than formerly) should now have a mainly Christian population.

Were the majority under communist rule secret Christians who have now come out in the open? Are the majority who now profess Christianity simply following a cultural movement without personal conviction? Or has there been a mass conversion from atheism to Christianity?

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    The 2004 article "Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed", by Paul Froese, seems like it might be pertinent. (I found it linked from the Wikipedia article on Religion in the Soviet Union.) Dec 4, 2021 at 16:37
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    You need to be much more precise about what you mean by "Christian country". For instance, the US is officially an agnostic country (see the 1st Amendment), but plenty of people will claim it's a Christian country for political purposes. There are also places/subcultures where being overtly non-Christian will result in a degree of social ostracism &c,
    – jamesqf
    Dec 4, 2021 at 18:45
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    @Nemo: You're perhaps confusing agnosticism with atheism. Agnosticism is not something you profess. It's defined by a lack of professing. So, since the 1st Amendment explicitly forbids the US government from professing a particular religion (that is, "respecting an establishment of religion"), it's agnostic. That's not to say that there aren't many Christians living in the country.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 5, 2021 at 3:28
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    What majority now professes Christianity? What majority formerly professed atheism? This question needs some sources to back up the assumptions underlying its premise. A country having an official policy concerning religion does not imply that a majority of its population agrees with that policy, nor does having a state religion imply that a majority of the population professes to follow the state religion.
    – phoog
    Dec 5, 2021 at 4:30
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    @jamesqf "Agnosticism is not something you profess": you seem to have an idiosyncratic understanding of "profess" or "agnosticism." Since agnosticism is a system of belief, namely the belief that it is not possible to know whether god exists, it is certainly possible to state that one has that belief, which is in fact what "profess" means. The idea that the first amendment makes the US officially an agnostic country is mistaken.
    – phoog
    Dec 5, 2021 at 4:46

3 Answers 3

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From afar it seems to be another example of government and religion symbiosis, like what Pakistan did in the 60s/70s.

A country starts out with a certain amount of religion built into its culture.

Government wanting to retain power plays up its chumminess with certain groups, typically fairly intolerant/doctrinal ones, of that religion.

"You support us (the government) in the name of culture. We'll support you by allowing you to repress what you don't like and giving you more say in state affairs".

Given enough time and propaganda the coopted religious group becomes more important, possibly even in its position vs different subgroups of the same religion.

There is no real way to "prove" this thesis, but this trick has been played before, from Franco in Spain to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Yes, and Poland too nowadays.

South and Central American dictatorships struggled with using this against peasant and Communist movements in the 70-80s because South America's Catholicism was influenced by Liberation Theology, but otherwise it's a frequent item in the dictator's bag of tricks, along with playing up external enemies.

And, yes, I'll go along with the idea that the USSR was only nominally atheist because it was a foreign imposition, not a natural cultural fit to Russia. But Russia's "normal natural religiousness" still doesn't seem to explain the evolution towards what seems to be a fairly intolerant version of Christianity, especially after a long latency under Communism.

Somewhat related is the idea that Eastern Europeans tend to have more conservative religious views than Western Europeans (yes, this link concerns Catholics only, but the point is to compare geography-based conservatism which is hard to if you compare varying flavors of Protestants and Evangelicals or if you look at the Orthodox Church which is right now influenced a lot by Russian prominence):

Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe tend to be more socially conservative than those in the West. In every Western European country with enough Catholics in the survey for analysis, majorities of Catholics support legal gay marriage, including overwhelming shares in the Netherlands (92%) and Belgium (83%). By contrast, most Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe oppose gay marriage, including nine-in-ten in Ukraine and Bosnia. Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe are more likely to favor legal abortion than same-sex marriage, but support for legal abortion is still substantially lower than among Catholics in Western Europe (median of 47% vs. 71%).

There is risk in this type of alignment, as a church can lose a lot of moral stature if the government falls later. The Spanish Church still get tarred by Franco's support, even if it's hard to separate from pushback against child abuse. By contrast, the Polish Catholic Church has done rather well from its role in opposing Communism throughout the 80s.

Last, "being a Christian country" can mean different thing depending on who you ask. When it comes from a government engaging in this type of behavior, who is it speaking for? The government and their committed religious supporters? The masses of variously practicing religious people, from the devout to people merely born into it? The people who are not religious or who follow other religions?

In the case of Russia, in 2012, 47% were nominally Christians.

In the absence of clear polls or classifications, it is easy to make these claims from a government pulpit. Some factions of US politicians make this type of statement frequently and have to tried upon it, despite a strong constitutional separation of Church and state. Does it mean everyone there believes in God, the Bible and the Devil?

I.e. the party in power can make these claims and gradually influence public belief without the need for initial mass conversions. In a sufficiently illiberal political system they can move the needle quite a bit over time, partially by just ignoring and suppressing anyone who does not follow the professed state religion.

If no one has the right to broadcast "no, we are not a religious state" and if there is little judiciary oversight, then the state can become religious in practice at a state level, regardless of the doctrinal beliefs of individuals.

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  • You forgot the US in the above list, but otherwise +1 Dec 4, 2021 at 21:56
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    I don't think the US is there but the 80% support of Trump by Evangelicals shows early signs of this type of commonality of interests. Dec 4, 2021 at 23:33
  • I was thinking more as it manifests in the judges appointed by conservatives. But also, abortion rights have been politically polarized since at least the 80s, and I rarely hear nonreligious arguments against it Dec 5, 2021 at 1:13
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    @Punintended: But OTOH we see wide support for things like gay marriage, which are antithetical to Christianity (and a number of other religions): npr.org/2021/06/09/1004629612/…
    – jamesqf
    Dec 5, 2021 at 3:33
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica This is a recognised phenomenon. But religions make truth claims about supernatural realities so even with the above phenomenon in play apparent mass conversion still calls for explanation. Only your statement the USSR was only nominally atheist addresses this aspect of the question though, to be fair, you do start your answer From afar... Perhaps we will also get some answers from Russians.
    – Nemo
    Dec 5, 2021 at 10:07
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Russia is barely a "Christian country" in traditional sense. Yes, about 60-70% of population say that they are Orthodox Christians, but merely 7% attend church at least several times per year and less than 2% attempt to actively follow religious practices (see here for example). Perhaps unsurprisingly, system of beliefs for persons that call themselves Christians is often rather inconsistent with strict definitions of Christianity (see here). Just to name an example, about 10% say that they are Christians, but that they do not believe in God. Another easy-to-see example: upcoming New Year's day is a vastly more popular holiday in Russia than a Christmas (both are state holidays). So it's mostly cultural phenomena, not a sudden conversion.

As was already mentioned, a significant part of this cultural phenomena is related to the fact that it's not safe to be atheist in Russia today and it was not safe to be non-atheist in Soviet Union. A large fraction of population is likely apatheists, they are barely interested in religion and just follow whatever practices are most convenient to follow at the present moment. But other people do not change their beliefs easily. Core groups that are actively practicing Christianity today were also practicing it in Soviet Union and those who were adherent atheists in Soviet Union are still atheists today. Things are gradually changing, but it takes decades to really affect true atheists-to-Christians ratio.

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    Honestly, I'm not interested in Vladimir Putin personality. I heard that he is not really religious person and the only time I briefly saw him in person (which coincidentally happened to be in one of the most famous russian monasteries) he did not look like a man that's paying significant respect to the holy site. But his personal life is one of the most well guarded secrets in Russia and I don't see why it could matter anyway Dec 7, 2021 at 14:26
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    not really relevant in the overall context of the question but I was just curious.
    – Nemo
    Dec 7, 2021 at 14:32
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    Seems relatively similar to some Western European countries then. France is nominally 80%+ Catholics in origin, 50% self-identified as Christian but in fact maybe 5-10% actually believe and go to church. The poll results in 1986 / "ethnic origin" of 82% - i.e. going back 2-3 generations, what was your parents' religion - allows people to claim France "is a Christian country". But it means little in term of actual religious beliefs and practice. Dec 7, 2021 at 20:17
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    I love this "apatheism" term, but what it really is is conformity: the trait that explains much of human behaviour everywhere. Nevertheless, the "sudden change" to religion in the 90s was partly driven by contrarianism: if the [Soviet] government banned it, it must be good!
    – Zeus
    Dec 7, 2021 at 23:34
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    Still, is it really "not safe to be atheist"? From what I know, it's safer (and more common) than being one in the US.
    – Zeus
    Dec 7, 2021 at 23:37
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Communism, specially in USSR, was some kind of religion itself. Keep in mind that Stalin went to school for orthodox priests and the founder of KGB Dzerzhinsky wanted to become katholic priest. Once the state religion, which communism was, was away people were searching for a new one to replace it. Not only orthodox religion gained popularity after the end of communism, but also all other traditional russian religions, like islam for example. Also the conection between religion and government started not with Putin but Yeltsin and had exactly the same reason as in all eastern european countries, religion was seen as a main allie against communism. Just to make it more clear Yeltsin was anticommunist.

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