As a half-involved, half-detached observer I have been watching the continuous rise of religious feeling in Russia over the past two decades.

I have reason to be half-involved – my own cousin has gone deeply religious. So much that she, after having earned a degree in chemistry and biology, has now done a batchelors degree in theology swiftly followed by a masters degree in the same (the atheist in me would much prefer to call these degrees the “so-called” degrees). And over the last years, I have been witnessing her deepening mistrust towards all things associated with, in her eyes, a lack of christian and godly morality. It’s put quite a strain on our relationship, and of course some areas of conversation have become a zone where both of us feel like we tread on eggshells. But this subject continues to fascinate me. Especially since her faith is a heady mix with a parallel belief in astrology, which surely is a “pagan” area – and in any case, not a science after all?

The search for god in Russia is hardly surprising – in its days, communism acted as a form of belief system, faithfully adopted by some and forced onto many other unwilling ones. The collapse of communism, the appallingly shameful and horrible information about the bloody wrongdoings of the past leaders that was finally disclosed in the wake of that collapse, and the extreme economic hardships of the nineties left a vast emptiness in the lives of many and caused them to look for alternatives to run to. Anything went in those days – all things occult flourished, astrology enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) a huge following, whole families crowded before TV screens watching some charlatans waving their hands about on prime time telly promising to “charge up”  water bottles dutifully held by viewers – waiting for all their illnesses being cured overnight.

Then, by the mid-nineties, and after decades of communist suppression, religious community leaders came out of the shadows and all churches started enjoying a revival. And it feels like it’s really taking hold of Russians by now. How much of it is a fashion thing and how much of it a true faith? It is probably a mixture – and this raises some interesting questions. Those people who only two decades ago professed to be atheists could not have been so, and certainly fear of being in trouble for being religious had a big part to play. But are they truly religious now? What makes them so sure of their faith? What makes a person look for god? How many of these people truly think and examine their position, and how many are ready to run for any sort of “shelter” as soon as things are tough?

I am also fascinated by some faith-related problems that my cousin seems to be not seeing at all. For instance, I asked her about the position of orthodox christians on catholics and protestants. Are the latter two supposed to be “deviant faiths” in the eyes of her church? Are they wrong in how they worship and will they go to hell for that? – Don’t laugh, as this is what catholics have surely been taught in the past about protestants, I have heard many references to that. Anyway, my cousin opined that the orthodox church has no agreed position on this. No agreed position!! And no view! How can a church not have a view on this major split between its key branches – apart from calling it “wrong”?

Certainly the current intention of educating younger people in the christian faith is to go out and seek like-minded faithful ones. These groups go on pilgrimages all over Russia, seeking out other people belonging to their sect and establishing contact (my cousin does not belong to mainstream russian orthodox church – they actually disapprove of one another and the followers are not welcome in each other’s places of worship). And perhaps that’s a good thing – it’s their own business how they spend their own free time provided this keeps them out of trouble? But of course they also want to convert young minds to their belief system. The view is that the current levels of morality have sunk so low – the lowest ever in the history of humankind – that there is nowhere left to go but to god. It’s interesting that most generations (since the Romans, I believe) also think that the next generation will bring about the end of the human race due to their total moral decline – so far we are still standing.

I want to finish this essay by briefly turning to the question of “why people might turn to god”. It is really difficult to comprehend why people believe – there are no facts to base one’s faith on, is one problem of many that atheists would point out. But this summer I came across a fanstastic science-fiction novel called “The Roadside Picnic” writted by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. I was re-reading it again, and one passage struck me as so very relevant to the question that has been puzzling me for so long. Here it is:

“…Man, as opposed to animals, is a creature with an undefinable need for knowledge. But the whole problem with that is that the average man … very easily manages to overcome this need for knowledge. I don’t believe that need even exists. There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas pins so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”


Copyright 2009 by CuriouslyInspired