God is back! (in Russia)

For over ten years I have been making fun of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2009 book God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that anyone who was looking at the data could see the period between 2000 and 2020 has witnessed a massive secularization in the most powerful nation in the world. Being generous to the metrics for religion, the United States has become twice as secular in a single generation (i.e., 10% “no religion” in 1990 vs.
20% in 2020).

This was a surprise to social scientists. If you read Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge’s The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, written in the mid-1980s, descriptively it seems that the United States went through a cultural change in the 1960s where many marginal Christians ‘defected’ to irreligion, “New Religious Movements”, or nominal adherence (e.g., no church attendance), but that by the 1970s that trend had played itself out and a ‘new normal’ equilibrium had been established.

This is the story you are told in Barry Kosmin’s 1993 One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, based on the 1990 “Religious Identification Survey.” America was an 85:5:10 nation. 85% Christian, 10% “Nones” and 5% “Other religion” (the largest proportion of these being Jews). Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, assumes this as a background condition. But by the time that the book was published, there was already evidence in the data, including from Kosmin’s follow-up surveys, that the old equilibrium was changing.

Rodney Stark, who by the 2000s had become a semi-Christian apologist, who has a “supply-side” religious framework which argues that secularization couldn’t happen anymore, actually came out with research trying to show that actually American’s weren’t getting more irreligious. But these attempts seem to have stopped by 2010 when scholars couldn’t ignore the writing on the wall.

By the end of the 2000s, Robert Putnam assembled the data and presented a causal hypothesis in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam and his coauthor offer a simple story: as American Christianity became politicized in a polarized culture war, many defected. This is the case particularly for those with more liberal or Left ideologies, and younger people. Whether you believe this story is irrelevant to the descriptive reality. And 2016, with the election of Donald J. Trump, illustrates that secularization has even started to work its way into the Republican party.

And it’s not just America, though to be frank, we’re the most important dynamic. Despite the fact that the 2000s were focused on Islamic terrorism, the Arab world is now undergoing mass disillusion with religion. Believe it or not, “New Atheism” is still relevant in the Muslim world! Richard Dawkins is viewed negatively by much of the Western intelligentsia today for his dim view of Islam, but he is still a heroic figure to freethinkers in the Muslim world. It’s still 2006 in places like Bangladesh or Algeria. Religious violence against freethinkers is actually a sign of secularization because freethinkers are getting bold enough to express their views in public.

Then there is China. In 2003 Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China And Changing the Global Balance of Power was published. Written early in the George W. Bush administration this book was catnip for Christian conservatives, presenting the vision of a China which was substantially Christian, and whose conservative Protestant Christianity would result in a pro-Israel orientation!

I’ve tracked the numbers and read some books on the topic of religion in China today, and overall it’s a complicated story. Obviously, China is not undergoing “secularization,” but neither are mainland Chinese becoming devout Christians in the same way that the religion is dominant (if still a minority) in a place like South Korea. Jesus in Beijing suggests that 10% of Chinese were Christian by the year 2000, but the best estimates put the figure close to 5% today (more conservative estimates would put it at 2%…it’s complicated not just because of “high churn” “House Churches”, but because some “Christians” are pretty heterodox. Google “Eastern Lightning”). There is a revival of “traditional religion” in China as well. But, I don’t think anyone can assert that China is more religious in a deep sense any more than they were in 2000.

Which brings me to Russia. Recently the World Values Survey came out with its 2017-2020 “wave.” You can find out many interesting things from this website (also, you can pull down the raw data). For example, ~20% of mainland Chinese in the survey believe in God. The figure is 80% for self-identified Protestants and Muslims in China (the sample sizes are ~50 for these two groups), the same proportion as self-identified Buddhists (N~250 for that religion)!

But, what is striking me to is that over the past 30 years Russia has become far more religious, while the USA has gotten less religious. Here are results for selected nations (the exclusion only makes a difference for Japan):

These results pass the qualitative “smell test.” The USA and Spain have both gotten more secular in the last generation. While Russia seems to have embraced religious social conservatism under Vladimir Putin.

We need to be careful about how we interpret these data. For example, if you ask if people “belong” to a church, 90% of Russians say they do not. The figure for Americans is 40%. And 32% of Americans are avowed “active members” as opposed to 3% of Russians. Russians have a strong identity with Orthodox Christianity in 2020, but they are not actively practicing Christians in a way that American Protestants would recognize.

One question you might ask is that is this about age effects? No. If anything, very young Russians seem a bit more secular.  It seems that the generation that came of age under Gorbechev and Yeltsin was raised without religious identity, has proactively embraced it as adults as they have aged.

Is God back? Not necessarily. But the average is definitely over.


12 thoughts on “God is back! (in Russia)

  1. (i.e., 10% “no religion” in 1990 vs.
    10% in 2020

    10% = 10%
    I assume one is a typo, but I don’t know whether it should be 5% on the low end or 20% on the high end.

  2. Human nature abhors a vacuum. As Aristotle taught us. As one religion declines, so another must arise.

    I applaud your straussian move in this post, resisting the urge to explicitly make this point. Which of course I could not resist.

  3. “Putnam and his coauthor offer a simple story: as American Christianity became politicized in a polarized culture war, many defected.”

    The same thing is just starting to happen in Judaism — over the last decade (but especially the last four years), Orthodox Judaism has become politicized in a way that it never really has been before.

    A good perspective on the subject: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/belief/articles/evangelicalization-orthodox-jews

  4. Emmanuel Todd predicted this in Lineage to Modernity. He puts the emphasis on Russia’s family attractive. He is optimistic that Russia is going to rebound and maintain fertility levels

  5. Perhaps one problem with this kind of polling is that it doesn’t do a good job of teasing out details like becoming a considered converted atheist and simply becoming irreligious. I suspect that Internet pornography is an underappreciated cause of irreligiosity. If you spend an hour on Christmas Eve wanking over something “depraved”, it makes for a very different Christmas experience than spending the evening reading next to your family or watching the midnight mass from Rome. And those choices and experiences project their influence into your future feelings.

    I wonder what effect the “Great Sort” has as well. Two Harvard grads who move away from their hometowns to live in a SuperZip together can reject religion together much more easily than either could had they married a differently-educated sweetheart and lived around one of their respective families.

  6. As a meta-comment about the fluidity of changes in confession over short scales of time (and in keeping with general trend of analogies on your twitter 😉 ), pretty interesting.

    I do wonder how much this change is actually reflected or will continue to be reflected in Russian culture though and in a “religious life”; seems like Russian marriage:divorce still high, youth seem about equally obsessed with education, wealth, lifestyle, sex and military weapons as everywhere else (or more so in the latter), not much of a TFR bump. Single parent households in 2010 about as common as other countries (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-of-single-parent-families?country=AUT~ARG~IND~COL~JPN~IDN~KOR~USA~GRC~BRA~RUS~ITA~IRL~HKG~GBR).

    It seems a bit more about pageantry and identity than anything else; the sort of thing that gets them a new “cathedral” that looks like an architect confused the plans with a screenshot from Command & Conquer:Red Alert or some other 1990s PC game of similar CGI aesthetic.

  7. I used to go to a popular fruit shop a few years ago in a major Chinese city that prominently displayed the Christian beliefs of the custodians. There were Virgin Mary statues, Jesus paintings and crucifixes being worn. I used to wonder if they were being subversive or risking government wrath but they were allowed do it, I went there about a year.

  8. Human nature abhors a vacuum. As Aristotle taught us. As one religion declines, so another must arise.

    Perhaps. But that raises the question of what a religion is. What makes something a religion? And what religions are filling the vacuum in Japan, Sweden, U.S.? I’d love to hear what you think.

  9. How confident is the survey that what’s measured in Russia is indeed a religious faith and not a mixture of a new national symbolism and the deep-seated Eastern European superstition (with the soothes and amulets increasingly provided by the official church)?

    The new Official Orthodox Temple of the Armed Forces, with its murals extolling nationalist heroes from Stalin to Putin alongside with the old military saints, may be a good encapsulation of the faux-religious patriotic symbolism trend.

  10. @Roger Sweeny
    “But that raises the question of what a religion is. What makes something a religion?”

    Japan puzzles me because although it claims to have a higher amount of irreligious than most countries, in many ways it’s the most religious land I’ve ever been to.
    Shrines, temples and Jizō are everywhere. At least 80% of homes have some sort of alter. Everyone is into fortunetelling and horoscopes using everything from astrology to blood types.
    Every time anyone does the least bit of land development they have a Shinto priest placate the local spirits and gods. And it’s not just little players either, but big companies like Toyota and Sony as well as government agencies. Could you imagine Coke or GM holding a prayer meeting every time they built something?

  11. @Roger Sweeny
    “But that raises the question of what a religion is. What makes something a religion?”

    Émile Durkheim’s definition was:

    “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.”

    Remove “called a church” due over-specificity, and its a pretty good one…

  12. The Cantonese expression 講耶穌 gong2 je4 sou1, literally ‘to give a sermon about Jesus’, or ‘to preach’, means to prattle, or to speak in a boring and vacuous fashion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *