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Church Influence Minimal Among Russian Faithful, Columbia University Researcher Finds

The Russian Orthodox Church remains the dominant faith among Russians but exerts minimal influence on the values and behavior of young believers, according to new research by a Columbia University professor. In a survey of 3,400 Russians aged 17 to 32 conducted earlier this year, Columbia Sociologist Susan Goodrich Lehmann found that while half of young Russians consider themselves religious, few attend church regularly after they marry and start families because church-sponsored family and social activities common in the United States, such as Sunday school, do not exist. In her research, Professor Lehmann tried to determine to what extent claims can be made for a significant revival of interest in Russian Orthodoxy in the post-Soviet era. She compared three age groups among ethnic Russians -- 17 year old high school students, 24 and 25 year olds and 31 and 32 year olds. She found that 13 percent of those surveyed reported that they both believe in and actively observe religious rituals; another 37 percent reported that they believe in religion but do not take part in rituals. Among this group of active and passive believers, the majority claimed Russian Orthodoxy as their faith. "But few Russian believers attend church on a regular basis," Professor Lehmann wrote. She found that among 25 and 32 year old believers, 26 percent said they never attend church. An additional 54 percent report attending only for family celebrations, such as christenings, or on religious holidays. When asked about beliefs that clearly run counter to Russian Orthodox teachings, the survey found that religion exists "in puzzling co-existence with pagan beliefs," said Professor Lehmann. For example, only 28 percent of young Russian believers said they did not believe in witchcraft and magic. Faith also seemed to have less impact on such practices as prayer. When asked how often they prayed, 36 percent of 17 year old believers said never and another 16 percent couldn't say or refused to answer. Attitudes in Professor Lehmann's survey group mirrored Christian views found in the United States and Europe, she said. Women were more strongly religious than men, as were parents of very young children. But she found that unlike Christians elsewhere, Russian religious affiliation dropped off rapidly after children are born, "suggesting both a superficial attachment to the church and the absence of reinforcing mechanisms ... The unavailability of religious education and religious and social activities prevents the Church from holding on to those young people who are initially interested in the Church," Professor Lehmann wrote in her study, "Religion and Contemporary Russian Youth." Unlike parents in Western Europe and the United States, who attend church for the sake of their children and then continue as their children grow, Russian believers show a sharp drop in church attendance with their children still toddlers. "Marriage and childbearing may bring Russian couples to the church [but] without the widespread availability of religious instruction for children or other social benefits from church involvement which we typically find in America, the parents' interest in the church is not sustained beyond a child's first years," Professor Lehmann wrote. "Now that the state is not an obstacle to Russian Orthodox religious revival, we must wait and observe whether [church] leaders can successfully reclaim the influential role over everyday life which characterized the pre-Revolutionary church. Our data suggest that in the realms of religious and ethical values and behavior, so far this has not yet occurred. To the extent that the church leadership chooses to invest its limited resources in monuments of religious architecture and the persecution of the the religious competition instead of the development of religious education and social activities, we should expect the religious revival among the Russian Orthodox to be slow indeed." The Russian Orthodox Church pushed for a bill that would restrict religious freedom in Russia in an attempt to protect itself from competition from encroaching foreign religions in the West such as Baptist and Evangelical Christian groups. Conservatives also support legislation as a mechanism for controlling radical elements within the church. Under the legislation, any breakaway sect could be banned as a new religion. President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the bill July 22 but the battle is not over. The Russian Parliament could vote to overturn the veto. The legislation would ban religious organizations not legally recognized in 1982. It would severely restrict the day-to-day activities of other religious organizations, including Roman Catholics and Baptists. The law would give full rights to religions that have existed for at least 50 years in more than half of Russia's oblasts, including Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. According to Professor Lehmann, the law would have the greatest impact on Evangelical Christian groups, currently the most visible religious organization and those requiring the most active level of participation from their members." The research was supported by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Council for Eurasian and Eastern European Research. 9.17.97 19,178