Religious Landscape of Ukraine Discussed at Columbia University's Harriman Institute

October 10, 2019
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Recent changes in Ukraine's religious landscape have attracted the attention of religious scholars from around the world. The roundtable “Mapping Religion in Contemporary Ukraine” at Columbia’s Harriman Institute discussed the potential dangers of increased intra-confessional competition, the possible consequences of Ukraine's acquisition of a Tomos (a decree of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine) for religious communities and the state, and related issues.

The event was part of the 24th Annual World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN), held in early May 2019 at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in New York. Among the participants were a number of leading scholars, including Jose Casanova, who is a renowned American sociologist of religion, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University (Washington, DC), and head of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Politics. HURI’s MAPA project was represented by Professor Serhii Plokhii, project director; Viktoria Sereda, project fellow; and Kostyantyn Bondarenko, project manager.

serhii plokhiiLeading the round table, Plokhii presented the historical background of the recent religious changes. Bondarenko outlined the basic structure of the MAPA program and its key modules. He demonstrated how it can be used for exploration of religious, economic, historical, political, and social transformations within Ukraine, stressing that MAPA’s web map applications can serve as research tools for scholars, as well as a teaching device for educators.

Viktoriya Sereda noted that the recent comparative study “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe” (Pew Research Center, 2017) describes Ukraine as a predominantly Orthodox country whereas Casanova maintains that Ukraine has a very diverse religious landscape. To address this paradox, scholars can use the new "Religious Revolution" module in MAPA to explore changes in the religious landscape of Ukrainian society between 2013 and 2019. The module maps data about different dimensions of religious activity: belonging, practicing, and believing.

Viktoriya SeredaSereda assessed religious homogeneity by looking at maps presenting the percentage of respondents who considered themselves part of a specific denomination and the proportion belonging to each confession/denomination. According to her analysis, the maps showed that the population of western Ukraine is much more religiously defined than in the east, and, at the same time, only a few regions throughout Ukraine have a homogenous religious landscape. This supports the thesis that Ukraine is a religiously pluralistic society. The maps also indicate that Ukraine is a religiously tolerant society with over 72% supporting the statement “any religion that teaches good leads people to the salvation” and less than 20% agreeing that “only their religion has the truth.”

The data also show that many Ukrainians embrace religion as an element of their identity or group belonging but are not highly observant: Only 11% said they attend church/mosque/synagogue/house of prayer once a week or more often, and another 11% said they attend once a month. A majority (55%) attend exclusively for important holidays or religious ceremonies. Only Galicia and Transcarpathia deviate from this pattern, demonstrating much higher frequencies.

The new MAPA module can help researchers address questions such as:

  • Why didn’t Petro Poroshenko’s direct – and popular – effort in attaining the Tomos translate into electoral support?
  • How did the Tomos affect people’s readiness to change their confessional belonging?
  • What caused an acceleration in parish transfers from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU)?

Jose CasanovaCasanova outlined the recent shifts in power relations and tensions within the global Orthodox community that altered Ukraine’s chances to receive autocephaly. He describe the pressures put on the Ecumenical Patriarch by both the Russian Orthodox Church and Erdogan government, and later, by the Poroshenko government and possibly the USA. Internally, nearly 20 million people in Ukraine supported the creation of the new, independent Orthodox church in Ukraine – more people than the population of any Orthodox country except Russia.

He also stressed that recent trends in Ukrainian Orthodoxy are very important for the global Orthodox community. A pluralistic Orthodox Church that recognizes the validity of other confessions and co-exists in peace is a desirable model for the world. Ukraine has shown great potential in building this model already and is likely to be an example for other Orthodox countries. Another important facet of Ukrainian Orthodoxy is limited state influence and more control at the regional level. In the discussion, Sereda stressed the importance of understanding how Ukrainian society has changed since the Euromaidan in order to see its regional and local specificity.

Tymofiy BrikTymofiy Brik (Kyiv School of Economics) spoke about the extent to which religion mitigates the stress and uncertainty citizens experience during economic and political transition. One theory suggests religious people are more likely to think positively about reforms and politics than their non-religious counterparts because religious ideologies provide a sense of confidence and predictability. The religious market theory posits that it’s not the worldview but the resources, social ties, and support offered by religious organization that leave religious people feeling more secure.

Brik drew attention to the question of intra-confessional competition, which has become more complex since the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gained autocephaly. His preliminary analysis of data from polling stations and media reports showed that recent changes in the religious sphere triggered by the Tomos should not increase inter-confessional tensions and can be interpreted in line with the religious market theory. Furthermore, the granting of autocephaly had only regional influence on elections.

As a whole, these discussions raised and tried to offer answers to the question, “Will Ukraine retain interfaith tolerance, a vital basis for democratic development, in the years ahead?”