May 10, 2017

Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe

3. Religious beliefs

The vast majority of Central and Eastern Europeans express belief in God. More than eight-in-ten adults in most of the 18 countries surveyed say they believe in God, including majorities in seven countries who say they are “absolutely certain” in their belief. While people across the region are somewhat less likely to express belief in God than are residents of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, the gap is strikingly small between these two highly religious regions and a part of the world that was recently under the influence of the officially atheistic Soviet Union.

In many Central and Eastern European countries, majorities also say they believe in heaven, hell, miracles, fate and the existence of the soul. Moreover, the prevailing opinion among respondents in most countries is that their holy book (whether the Bible, Quran or Torah) is the word of God, though responses are more mixed on whether its language should be taken literally, word for word.

Most religiously affiliated respondents in the region do not take exclusivist views of their religion. Fewer than half of Orthodox Christians or Catholics in most countries surveyed say their religion is the one true faith that leads to eternal life in heaven.

On balance, Catholics are more likely than Orthodox Christians to say they believe in heaven and hell, beliefs commonly associated with Christianity. But Orthodox Christians are more likely than Catholics to believe in the evil eye and magic, sorcery or witchcraft, phenomena not typically linked with Christianity.

Overall, women in Central and Eastern Europe tend to display higher levels of religious belief than men by several measures. And religiously affiliated adults with less education are more likely than those with a college degree to say that their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven.

Belief in God widespread, but many are less than certain

Across the 18 Central and Eastern European countries included in the current survey, the median share of people who say they believe in God is 86%, similar to the 89% of people in the U.S. who say they believe in “God or a universal spirit.” Belief in God is even more widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, which have median shares of 98% and 99%, respectively.

Still, large majorities of adults in nearly every country surveyed in Central and Eastern Europe say they believe in God, including more than nine-in-ten in the Orthodox-majority countries of Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Romania.

Estonia and the Czech Republic, meanwhile, fall at the other end of the spectrum – just 44% of Estonians and 29% of Czechs say they believe in God. In both of these countries, substantial shares of adults (45% in Estonia and 72% in the Czech Republic) describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Across the region, Orthodox Christians are about as likely as Catholics to say they believe in God. Religiously unaffiliated adults are less likely to believe in God, yet in some countries a substantial portion of religious “nones” do express this belief. In Latvia and Croatia, for example, roughly one-in-five religiously unaffiliated adults (22% in both countries) say they believe in God.

Women are more likely than men to say they believe in God. In Estonia, for example, roughly half (53%) of women say they believe in God, compared with about a third of men (34%).

Not all of those who say they believe in God are sure about it. In more than half of the countries surveyed, respondents who say they believe in God are more likely, when asked a follow-up question, to say they are “fairly certain,” “not too certain” or “not at all certain” about this than to say they are “absolutely certain.” For example, 25% of all Russian adults say they are absolutely certain that God exists, compared with 38% who are fairly certain and 10% who believe in God but are not certain.

Across the 18 countries surveyed, the median share of those who say they believe in God with absolute certainty is 40%, compared with a corresponding rate of 89% in sub-Saharan Africa. In the U.S., 63% of adults say they are absolutely certain in their belief in God.

Among the Central and Eastern European countries surveyed, Armenia (79%) and Georgia (73%) have the highest percentages of adults who are certain about God’s existence. In Estonia and the Czech Republic, on the other hand, just 13% of adults say they are “absolutely certain” about their belief in God; two-thirds of Czechs (66%) do not believe in God at all.

Catholics more likely than Orthodox Christians to believe in heaven and hell

Fewer adults throughout the region say they believe in heaven and hell than say they believe in God. Still, roughly half or more across most countries surveyed say they believe in heaven. On balance, Central and Eastern Europeans are less likely to say they believe in hell than heaven. (A similar pattern – that is, more widespread belief in heaven than in hell – also exists in the U.S.)

Overall, across the region, Catholics are more likely than Orthodox Christians to believe in heaven or hell. Across the countries surveyed, the median shares of Catholics who believe in heaven and hell are 78% and 66%, respectively. For Orthodox Christians, the corresponding figures are 61% and 58%.

Far fewer religiously unaffiliated people believe in heaven and hell. For example, about one-in-ten religious “nones” in Russia believe in heaven (11%) and hell (12%), compared with 60% among Orthodox Christians in Russia who believe in heaven and 58% who believe in hell.

Majorities in most of the region believe in miracles, fate and existence of the soul

Belief in fate and the existence of the soul are quite common in the countries surveyed. Overall, somewhat fewer adults say they believe in miracles, but, still, in most of the countries surveyed, roughly half or more say they believe in miracles.

Even many religiously unaffiliated adults express belief in these supernatural phenomena. In Latvia, for example, 60% of unaffiliated adults say they believe in fate (i.e., that the course of one’s life is largely or wholly preordained), while 54% say they believe in miracles and 62% believe in the existence of the soul. And in the Czech Republic, 32% of religious “nones” believe in fate, while 27% believe in miracles and 30% in the existence of the soul.

Belief in miracles is less widespread in these countries than in some other regions where Pew Research Center has asked this question. Across the 18 countries surveyed in Central and Eastern Europe, the median share of adults who say they believe in miracles is 60%, which is lower than the corresponding figures in Latin America (91%), sub-Saharan Africa (74%) and the U.S. (79% as of 2007).26

As is true for many other aspects of religious belief, women across the region are more likely than men to believe in the existence of the soul, miracles and fate. Orthodox Christians and Catholics are about equally likely to say they believe in these things.

Differing views on whether Bible is the word of God, should be taken literally

The survey asked respondents whether they believe their religion’s holy book is the word of God or was written by men (and is not the word of God). Majorities of respondents in half of the 18 countries surveyed believe their holy book, whether the Bible (for Christians), the Quran (for Muslims) or the Torah (for Jews), is the word of God, including roughly seven-in-ten or more in Georgia, Romania, Moldova and Bosnia.27

Most people in the Czech Republic (65%) and Estonia (58%) take the opposite position, saying the Bible was written by men. And Serbians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Latvians are about evenly split on this question. Overall, the median share of adults across the countries surveyed who say their holy book is the word of God is 53%, lower than the share of people in sub-Saharan Africa (97%), Latin America (86%) and the U.S. (60%) who say their holy book is the word of God.

Women are more likely than men to believe that scripture is the word of God. People without a college education also are more likely to say this.

Believers in divine authorship, however, are not of one mind about how to interpret their holy books. Some believe scripture should be taken literally, word for word; others say that not everything should be taken literally.

Generally, people living in Orthodox-majority countries are more likely than those living in Catholic-majority countries to say the Bible should be understood literally, word for word. Fewer than a quarter say this in each of the Catholic countries surveyed: Poland (22%), Croatia (21%), Hungary (21%) and Lithuania (12%).

Muslim respondents are more likely to say the Quran should be taken literally than Christians are to say the same about the Bible. In Bosnia, for example, 63% of Muslims feel this way, compared with 41% of Catholics and 23% of Orthodox Christians.

Range of views on religious exclusivism

Two questions gauged the prevalence of religious exclusivism in the region. Respondents who are affiliated with a religion were asked which of the following statements more closely matches their view: “Mine is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven,” or “Many religions can lead to eternal life in heaven.”

In just three countries – Georgia (77%), Armenia (73%) and Moldova (58%) – do majorities of affiliated adults convey the view that their religion is the one true path to heaven. A median of 35% of religiously affiliated adults in the region take this position, similar to the 27% of religiously affiliated U.S. adults who say theirs is the one true faith.

Affiliated respondents were also asked if they believe that “only one true way” exists to interpret their own religion’s teachings, or whether multiple interpretations exist. Again, in only three countries – Armenia (67%), Georgia (66%) and Bosnia (64%) – do majorities take the view that there is only one correct interpretation.

Older respondents (that is, those ages 50 or older) and those with less than a college education are more likely than others to express the idea that their particular religion is the only pathway to heaven.

While women in the region express higher levels of religious belief on other questions, they do not necessarily hold more exclusivist views about religion. In the vast majority of countries surveyed, women and men generally answer these questions in similar ways.

Belief in evil eye common in some countries

The survey also finds that many respondents across the region hold beliefs not typically associated with Abrahamic religions, such as that people are reincarnated; that magic, sorcery or witchcraft can influence people’s lives; and the that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone (i.e. the “evil eye”).

In several of the 18 countries surveyed, majorities say they believe in the evil eye, with Greeks and Latvians (66% each) most likely to express this view. The median share of Central and Eastern Europeans who believe in the evil eye is 48%. By comparison, medians of 46% in Latin America and 39% in sub-Saharan Africa, two regions where indigenous religions have had a broad impact on the respective cultures, believe in the evil eye.

In almost every country in the new survey fewer respondents say they believe in witchcraft or reincarnation. Still, considerable shares across the region express these beliefs, including 44% in Russia who believe in magic, witchcraft or sorcery, and 36% in Bulgaria who say they believe in reincarnation – a concept more closely associated with Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism than with Christianity.

More women than men believe in the evil eye, witchcraft and reincarnation. And on balance, adults under 50 are more likely than their elders to say they believe in reincarnation. For example, in Latvia, 46% of adults under 50 say they believe in reincarnation, compared with 31% of those 50 and over.

Overall, more Orthodox Christians than Catholics say they believe in the evil eye and sorcery, though across the region there are generally few significant differences between Catholics and Orthodox Christians when it comes to views of reincarnation.

  1. In the U.S., respondents were asked whether they completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree or completely disagree with the statement, “Miracles still occur today as in ancient times.” The figure shown combines “completely agree” and “mostly agree.”
  2. Religiously unaffiliated people and people belonging to other religious groups were asked about the Bible.