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organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Sociological Aspects of Religiosity and Education in Russia

by Inna Naletova, GfK Rus’, Institute for Market Research, Moscow, Russia
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Correlation between education and secularization: recent challenges

Based on the Enlightenment critique of religion, the theory of secularization views modernity as a continuous process of disenchantment of the world. Following Max Weber, sociologists use the term "disenchantment" to indicate increase of rationalization and intellectualization of modern societies and decrease of authority and power of traditional religions. It is the "fate" of modernity, wrote the founder of modern sociology, to force man to chose between autonomous spheres of activity governed by different systems of values which are no longer embraced by religious beliefs. Pushed into its own separate sphere, religion cannot claim a universal authority, and neither can it uphold an objective moral order to guide individualsí decisions and actions. The differentiation of modern society is unavoidable. However, as sociologist David Martin has noted, in every society this process develops within the parameters of a specific pattern of secularization and expresses itself with a different degree of distinctness. The specificity of the Russian situation, to my mind, lies in the loose character of differentiation. The Orthodox Church is deeply embedded in the institutional structure of the Russian society; and Orthodox values not only co-exist with those of other spheres and institutions, but also fuse and synthesize with them internally.

On the level of consciousness social differentiation orients man toward a specific set of values. It stresses individual autonomy, personal responsibility, freedom and intellectual integrity as defined within the requirements of a chosen sphere of activity and without the guidance of religious traditions. For Weber, to be religious means to make an "intellectual sacrifice," i.e. to be in conflict with the demands of the time.[1] In Russia, however, the penetration of religious values in other social spheres is viewed as acceptable, desirable or simply is taken for granted. To be religious is no longer perceived as an obstacle to the individualís relations with the world but rather as an important quality of human personality enriching the individualís social adjustment and interactions or, at least, creating healthy tensions with the secular society. The response of contemporary intellectuals to the rise of religiosity in Russia (which I will review at the end of the paper) will illustrate this tendency.

The Soviet school of sociology was based on a thesis, similar to Weberís, of a positive correlation between education and secularization. "Religion," writes one of the leading sociologists in Russia, "is stronger in those parts of society where man is lesser equipped with the rational-scientific picture of the world."[2] Up until recently, based on this assumption, religion was expected to decline with the rise of individualsí social participation and education. Those individuals who were working in intellectual spheres and involved in public leadership were expected to be less religious than the rest of the society. The sociological data of the Soviet period proved this assumption to be correct. But the contemporary data call it into question.

A challenging observation was made by Paul Zulehner and Miklós Tomka in their study of religion in post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. They noted that, in some parts of the region, religion does not decline with the rise of education. Although, in general, the least educated people continue to be more religious, in such countries as East Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary the better educated people turned out to be more religious then their less educated compatriots. This observation led the scholars to the conclusion that intellectuals are not always in the vanguard of secularization.[3] A growth of de-secularization in Poland, in the Soviet period, can also be mentioned in this respect.

Before turning to the Russian data, it is informative to look at the circumstances in which the process of secularization developed in Russia and how it led to what often appears in the eyes of foreign observers as a touch of "irrationality" and "inconsistency" in Russian mentality and public life. These "irrational" and "inconsistent" features of Russian modernity are rooted in the centuries-long fusion of Russian traditional religion with Russian culture, society and national identity. It is surprising to Western observers that Russian political leaders publicly display their religiosity and the new business elite strangely inclines to religious mysticism and ritualism. There are also specific characteristics of the Russian scientific ethos that made Russian science different from Western science:  particularly, the image of a "true" scientist, a devotee of science and broadly informed intellectual whose life and personality are endorsed with heroic, prophetic or monastic meanings. In general, there is hardly a sphere of modern Russian society that would not experience the impact of religion. Religion expressed itself not so much as an alternative value system opposed to secular values, but rather as an essential part of the Russian national culture, history and nationhood. Deeply ingrained in individualsí thinking and acting, it is felt by people as "the right thing" to be preserved and nurtured independently on the level of their orientation to the church. In the context of this loose differentiation of religion and society I will view the religiosity of Russian intellectuals.

The Russian pattern of secularization : specific features

The active social involvement of a traditional religion in political and public spheres of modern world is not specific to Russia. This phenomenon was viewed by sociologist Jose Casanova as de-privatization of religions. The revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia can be seen as a part of this larger development ñ but with some reservations.

It has to be stressed that religion was not privatized in Russia in the same way as it was in Western Europe and America. When Protestant and Catholic Churches negotiated their borderlines with the secular world, the Russian church was controlled by the Tsarist regime and oppressed by the atheist state. The Soviet rule did not recognize the right of an autonomous religious sphere, viewing the latter as undermining the Soviet system of norms and values. Being limited in its official public life, religion transformed into public memory, little traditions, spiritual afterimages, and minimal- or quasi- religious beliefs and practices. As such it soaked into the social and public lives, merged with culture, custom and history, resisting secularization from within social spheres and institutions. "When the Church died," wrote Alexander Block, "the street turned into a church."

Some specific aspects of Orthodox beliefs are also responsible for the Churchís resistance to secularization. Preserving its universalism, messianism, other-worldliness, and the Byzantine ideal of a "symphony" between church and state, the Church does not view itself as a private denomination and resists disestablishment from the Russian nation. These features of Orthodoxy created a ground for the Orthodox beliefs to exist in the Russian society in two forms: the official church and the loose and non-institutionalized religious expressions. The two are neither opposed to each other, nor disconnected, but are deeply fused with Russiaís social structures. Russian religiosity, therefore, appears as a broad phenomenon, broader than the official religiosity of the church; and the sphere of its presence in Russian society is broader that the sphere of churchís official activity.

The history of institutionalization of science in Russia can serve as an illustration of this fusion of external (religious) values of Russian society and internal (rationalist) values of modernity.

"Russian science" : invention of a new image

Before the reforms of Peter the Great, Russia had no scientific organizations and was isolated from the intellectual life of Western Europe.[4] Being imported from the West, science brought with itself the ideal of a rational, skeptical and empirical view of the world.  A central characteristic of this newly imported sphere was the belief that the world can be controlled by reason and scientific method. Scientists were expected to strive to avoid any impact from religion, tradition, emotions or feelings. By the end of the 18th century, science became an important part of Russian society, and the two sets of values, traditional (religious) and imported (rationalistic), began adjusting to each other.

At the result, a new social image of science was created. It was based not only on scientistsí curiosity and striving for knowledge, but also on the Russian nobilityís romantic sentiments, on their desire to serve to the nation and the feeling of being important for the state. A successful scientist was respectfully called "a man of science" and treated as a great teacher, an individual with a true personality, almost a hero or a prophet. Herzen was one of those writers who promoted this romantic-existential vision of science as a "synthesis of being and thought," a "vital question: to be or not to be."[5] Influenced by Marxism, at the end of the nineteenth century, the pursuit of science acquired sectarian and revolutionary flavors.[6] An understanding of science as an activity endorsed with ethical meanings developed some years later, in the Soviet period.

The appeal of scientists to the authority of philosophy and religion and their inclination toward a broad, almost mystical view of the world, to the detriment of rational and practical orientation, has been noticed by many historians as a characteristic feature of the Russian scientific ethos. The predominance in Russian Universities of a humanistic curriculum, instead of a narrow technical one, the strength of Russian science in theoretical knowledge and the weakness in experimental studies also surprised the scholars looking at Russia from abroad. It is worth noting that "nauka" (the Russian word for science) does not correspond to the strict English and German equivalents. "Nauka" and "nauchnoe tvorchestvo" (scientific creativity) mean a pursuit of knowledge in the widest sense, including an instruction of right, ethical behavior, use of imagination and appeal to patriotism and passion. The social meaning of Russian science is broader than reason and method. Science is understood as a way toward "the Lofty, the Good, the Eternal." As an English historian succinctly remarked, one should be able to feel the "Russian atmosphere" and "Russian personality" in order to write about Russian science: "It would be possible to write a book about English science without more than passing reference to philosophy, culture and social life in England. But in Russia it has to have more than facts and figures."[7] To understand Russian science, as he concluded, a scholar should study Tolstoy, Turgenev, Shestov, Dostoevsky, and Gogol.

Science is a remarkable product of Russian modernity. A brief excursus into its history opens up a more nuanced perspective on the nature of the Russian intelligentsia and allows us to see the current turn of intellectuals to religion not as "irrational" and "inconsistent", but grounded in the specifically Russian pattern of  secularization.


Education and Religiosity : synopsis of recent data

An image of the Russian church as the church of intellectuals seems counter-intuitive. It contradicts to the Soviet-made image of Orthodoxy as the religion of Russiaís past, attractive only to marginal social groups. Yet the data show that in the early 1990s, individuals with high education accepted religion and identified themselves with Orthodoxy more quickly than other social groups. During the first years of the religious revival the percentage of University-educated individuals among the Orthodox was significantly higher than among the population in general, thus supporting the aforementioned observation of Tomka and Zulehner that intellectuals in modern societies may lead the process of de-secularization.[8] Today, the educational composition of the group of Orthodox corresponds to the educational composition of Russiaís population as a whole, confirming the status of Orthodoxy as the national territorial church.[9]

A study of religiosity among the members of the Russian Academy of Science in the year 2000 came out with the following result: 89.7 percent of individuals in academia identified with Orthodoxy; only 0.6 percent of them were unbelievers; the remaining 9.7 percent identified with other faiths.[10]

A sociological study conducted in Kama Region by Perm State University showed that education and religiosity increased parallel to each other. Thirty years ago, 90 percent of believers were illiterate or had only elementary education. Today, about 70 percent of them have at least a high school diploma. The educational compositions in the groups of believers and unbelievers are similar.[11]

According to several independently conducted studies of religiosity among youth in Russia, schoolchildren and people younger than thirty are more religious than older people. The majority of schoolchildren define themselves as believers. The vice-minister of Education, Yuri Kovrizhnich, confirmed that up to 80 percent of schoolchildren believe in God.[12] The predominance of young people among believers was also reported in the aforementioned study in Kama Region.

Russian Orthodoxy is not a phenomenon of Russiaís provinces. It is concentrated in the capitals. The data shows that Moscow and St. Petersburg are more intensely populated with believers than the other parts of the country.[13] It is important to mention in this regard that 59 percent of Moscovites approve of the idea of introduction of the basics of Orthodox theology and ethics in the curriculum of the public schools. In the population as a whole the percentage of people accepting this idea is lower, 45,2 percent.[14]

Scholars from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences think that beliefs in various supernatural and magical phenomenon do not depend on level of education.[15] In some cases these beliefs indicate individualsí orientation to the church, in other cases -- moving away from it. One scholar rightly noted that intellectuals began to be interested in Orthodoxy starting from the interest in Russian tradition and culture. The study of the phenomenon of churchliness (vozerkovlennost) of sociologist Valentina Chesnokova showed that the group of believers with very weak orientation to the church (the so-called "zero-level of churchliness"[16]) is the least educated group. In other words, there is hardly an educated person in Russia who would not be, in one way or another, related to Orthodoxy. Alexander Block illustrated this phenomenon in his poem "The Twelve." Later he commented: "I am Russian, and Russians always think of the church; there is hardly anyone who is completely indifferent to it; some hate it; some love it; but both ñ with pain." Education opens up a window to culture which also become a window to religion. Despite historical disruptions, Orthodoxy preserved its role as the keeper of the Russian nation and culture, similar to that which it had prior to the reforms of Peter the Great.  

Trust in the Church is evenly expressed by different social groups. Several studies of public opinion confirm that the Church continues to be the most respected institution in Russia after the President and the Army. Education, however, makes an impact on the certainty with which individuals state their religiosity and trust. Educated believers tend to be more hesitant between belief and disbelief, trust and distrust.[17]

Not all religious people affiliate with religious institutions. In 1991, 56 percent of the population stated their religiosity but only 37 were affiliated with the church. In 2000, the data were, correspondingly, 60.1 and 55 percent; in 2001 -- 65 and 59. During the last decade, the gap between church-oriented and unaffiliated believers lessen.[18]

To summarize, Orthodoxy returned to Russiaís public life not from the marginal social groups and strata but clearly from those who were more exposed to the influence of modernity: educated people and youth, residents of Russiaí capitals. These data show that the rise of religion and modernity are not opposed to each other, and that educated individuals manage to find ways to be both religious and modern. It is important to stress again that intellectuals were among the first in Russia who found the way to the Church and, today, constitute a significant part of Russian believers, proportionate to the educational composition of Russiaís population. It is not education that drives people away from the Church, remarked one priest, but their arrogance and pride.[19] "We became too smart to believe in God," wrote Alexander Block, "but not sufficiently strong to believe in ourselves. How is it possible to believe in the rationality of mankind after this war and before the inevitable, even more horrible, future wars?"

A more detailed analysis is necessary to see better how modernity and religion relate to each other within each social sphere. The lesson one could take from the already available data is that religion is not an abnormal phenomenon of modern society, and that there is no need to view the rise of religiosity in Russia with an alarmist stress on nationalism, clericalism or conformism. Reducing religiosity to external factors (political influences, psychological misbalances, national pride or fashion) one risks substituting it for something that is not religious and failing to see its actual meaning and role.

[1] Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in H.H.Gerth and G.W. Mills, eds., Oxford University Press, 1946.

[2] Garadzha V.I. Sociologia religii. Uchebnoe posobie. Moscow: Nayka, 1995, p. 171.

[3] Tomka M., Zulehner P., Religion in den Reformländen Ost(Mittel)Europas, Pastorales Forum: Wien, 1998, p. 231.

[4] Graham L. R., Science in Russia and in the Soviet Union: A Short History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 9-32.

[5] À. Herzen, “Diletantism v Nauke,” Collection of works, Moscow, 1954.

[6] Vicinich A., Science in Russian Culture 1861-1917, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1971.

[7] Ashby E., Scientist in Russia, Harmondsworth, England, Penguin Books, 1947.

[8] Chesnokova V.F. Process vozerkovlenia naselenia v sovremennoi Rossii, Fond “Public Opinion.” The data on the year 1992:






Unfinished middle










In 1995, the Independent Institute of Social and National Studies of St. Petersburg reported about a predominance among the Orthodox believers in Russia the individuals with a University-level education. They constituted 46,4% percent. The believers with middle or professional education was 43,1 percent and only 10 percent had an education lower than middle. See the dissertation of Baklanova, G., Moscow State University, Dept. of Religious Studies, 1999, p.96.

[9] Chesnokova V.F. Process vozerkovlenia naselenia v sovremennoi Rossii, Sravnenie dvyx issledovanii 1992 i 2000,” Fond “Public Opinion,” 2000.

[10] Peikova, Z. I., a researcher of the Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of Science, “Otnoshenie Rossiiskogo naselenia k Pravoslaviu,” Christmass Readings, 2001.

[11] Pismark, M.G., “Chislo ubezdennix veryiyzhchix v Prikamie heyklonno pastet,” NG, 17.05.00.

[12] Quoted from the research of the State Committee on the Youth Affairs, Blagovest-Info, 08.05.00.

[13] Nation-wide poll, Fund “Public Opinion,” April, 2000:


Moscow and St. Petersburg


big cities

small cities


Groups in %






Do not believe













[14] Mir Religii, 11.04.02 (www.religio.ru); Mchedlov, Ì.P. “Obrazovanie I dyxovnost,” NG 16.12.98.

[15] The study was conducted by Chernysh M. in 2000, with 2500 respondents surveyed, and was reported by Chernov, A. “A Third of Russians Believe in Miracles” in Vedomosti, 27.09.02 (www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/0209c.html#16).

[16] Analysis of churchliness allows a researcher to see a respondent’s type of orientation to the Church in its complexity: church attendance, prayer, fasting, communion and knowledge of the religious texts.

[17] See, GfK RUS International Institute of Social and Marketing Research, “Omnibus IV” June-July, 1994.

[18] “Attitude of Russians toward Religion,” Russian Public Poll and Opinion Research, posted at 31.01.00 at “Russian Religion News,” Stetson University (note 15). See also a report by Öèãåëüíèê È. “ åëèãèÿ –îññèÿí,” ROMIR research group (www.romir.ru). These data correspond to the data of &Mac215;åñíîêîâà.

[19] Veniamin (Mitropolit), “Veryiyt li ychenie?” Pravoslavnaia Beseda, 4/1994. Quoted from Kiselev, A. “Pravoslavie i nayka: spor ili vsaimodeistvie?” Dychovnii Sobesednik, 4(24)/2000.

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