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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The place of religion in the perception of the meaning of life: Russian and Ukrainian context

Parashchevin Maksym

PhD in Sociology

Senior Scientific Associate, Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

02232, Ukraine, Kiev, Shelkovichnaya Street 12, office #312

Other publications by this author








Abstract: gThe subject of this research is the role of religion in determination of the meaning of life of the modern believers in Russia and Ukraine. Religion, and Christianity in particular, has always been (and should be) the source of the meaning of life for its followers. The realization of such sense-making and sense-transmitting function by religion is an important condition of social importance and impact of religion. In modern societies, the scales of the social role of religion are not evident and are subjected to discussion. A comprehensive analysis of involvement of religion into the social processes and public consciousness is necessary for a more precise understanding of functionality of religion for modern societies. One of the possible features of such analysis is the assessment of religion’s involvement into conceptual structures of mass consciousness. The conclusion is made that the ability of Orthodoxy to become a real alternative to the dominant in modern societies “Western” values is significantly limited, because the values transmitted by Orthodoxy (particularly the orientation towards connection of the life values with the transcendent source) do not find public response. It is demonstrated that for the majority of Russian and Ukrainian believers, the religion ceased to be the foundation of conceptual structure. This, in turn, alongside the low level of spirituality, familiarization with the Orthodox dogma and readiness to independently form the meanings of own religion and include the elements from other religions and secular ideologies into these meanings, extremely limits the orientation towards the meanings and values transmitted by the Church.


religion, social functions of religion, Orthodoxy, meaning of life, Ukraine, Russia, spiritual crisis of society, specificities of perception of the meanings, values, wholeness of perception of the meaning

In recent years the question has emerged on the spiritual crisis of societies that are built on the Western model, as well as the need of finding the individual path of development for the non-Western societies. [see example 1;2]. One of the main alternatives in both, Russia and Ukraine, is the return to religious spirituality, primarily the one the conductor is of which is Orthodoxy [see example 3]. But at the same time, the detail that is being ignored is that religiousness of population of the post-Soviet countries can significantly differ from the one it should be if it is based on the essence Christian doctrine. The character of belief can (and should) significantly affect the daily behavior; and thus, there may also be exaggerated expectations that activation of the church-religious life, which took place after the collapse of USSR along with the focus on religion will become the factor that

would end the spiritual crisis. In order to assess the potential of religion’s impact upon society, the indexes of religious practices alone (church attendance, frequency of prayers, etc.) are not enough. It is necessary to have a thorough and comprehensive analysis of peculiarities of the modern mass Christian religiousness in its relation to the social behavior, as well as the ideas that can influence such behavior. In other words, it is essential to analyze the connection between religiousness and the world of values, norms, perceptions, and opinions. After all, the religion is associated with carrying out of whole number of functions: worldview, integrative, identifying, cultural-transmitting, etc. As such, it is necessary to determine how capable it is to perform these functions in the modern world. Another substantial indicator of the significance of religion in the individual’s worldview is its ability to perform the function of creation and transmission of meanings, including the meaning of life as such.

The question of meaning of life exists on different levels: in form of philosophical reflection, as well as average consciousness. Naturally, the understanding of this meaning can be approached from various points of view. It can be considered as if prewritten, predetermined by the higher powers (fate), or can be considered a rather subjective notion, formed by the individual based on their own moral beliefs. Therefore, the meaning of life can be associated with various components of life: family, work, morality, actions, or creativity. Religion has been one of the principal elements of conceptual structure of identity throughout the entire history. It is fairly logical, considering the fact that the meaning of life as such must be connected to something that to some extent goes beyond the life itself. In other words, the meaning of life cannot be the life itself or all of the processes associated therewith (otherwise, the question of meaning of life itself becomes meaningless; to say “we live for the sake of living” would merely

be statement of fact, and in no way the revelation of its meaning). And what could possibly be higher than the connection with the Divine, with the transcendent?

Over centuries, the religious meanings were dominant in people’s consciousness and everyday life (determination of the proper behavior and life goals at times reached meticulous regulation), as well as on philosophical level (determination of the general meanings of existence of human and society). However, the modernization processes of the XIX and XX centuries made certain adjustments, which led to the significant shift from religious meanings to secular. In both, the Western society, as well as Soviet society, the religion was put on the back burner, losing its positions in all spheres of human life, including the perceptions of life itself.

Individuals, as well as societies as a whole, were more and more oriented towards the rational ways of cognition of the world and themselves. But rationality has never received a total victory. Somewhat because it sets its own boundaries, requires proof, substantiation, and verification. Nevertheless, any person (scientific researcher or an ordinary individual) sooner or later faces a situation in which it is impossible to verify or prove anything. And then, he is forced to rely on faith, expectations, irrationality. The irrational, to a greater or lesser extent, has always been present in worldview, ideas, and behavior. Therefore, the question arises, whether or not the religion (as one of the main forms of irrational perception of the world) is currently capable of performing the sense-creative and sense-transmitting functions. Indeed, the proof is that we can observe the presence of religious beliefs among population of various countries, and their scale is not diminishing to say the least. But in the countries that chose modernization according to the Western European model, we can clearly observe the change in the character and content of such religiousness. It became more individualistic, more synthetic, or rather

syncretic (when the believers of one religion include into their religious ideas the conceptual structures of other religions, even the ones that contradict the meanings of the basic religion; for example, the Christian often share the Eastern doctrines on reincarnation). In political discourse of the countries of Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Slavic post-Soviet countries, dominates the appeal to common good, human rights, attainment of high living standards, support of the effective healthcare system, struggle against crime, rather than adherence to the religious commandments or meanings transmitted by religion. Whereas in medieval Europe and Rus’, practically externally transmitted meanings were related to religious meanings. The economic discourse is completely deprived of religious connotations.

Therefore, the status of religion in conceptual fields of a modern man requires a more detailed analysis, using the specific empirical material in order not to place excessive hopes upon religion from the perspective of its abilities to affect wide masses, and thus, the hope that it can place a barrier in the way of materialistic nonspirituality. In this article the author examines the question of the current role of religion (namely Christianity) as the source of transcendent meanings, as well as the source and guardian of “highest” values and meanings for the population of Russia and Ukraine.

From the perspective of Christianity, the meaning of life is determined by God and the path to Him, namely becoming one with God and taking on His likeness. Thus in the “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights” passed at the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2008 its stated that “Christianity testifies that the earthly life,

valuable in itself, attains the fullness and absolute meaning in the prospect of eternal life. Therefore, the priority should be not the desire to protect the earthly life at all cost, but the desire to arrange in such way that a man in cooperation with God could prepare his soul for eternity” [4]. In the course of lectures “Orthodox Anthropology”, priest A. Lorgus states that “if we will search for meaning of life inside life, then we will have to look for it in earthly values, even if they are spiritual, intellectual, and will never be able to principally change the situation. But if we say that the meaning of life and creation of men lies in God and beyond human, then we can see prospects that can truly help understand and arrange the entire human life” [5].

For the purpose of verifying whether or not the ideas of modern believers correspond with the aforesaid ideas, the author refers to the data acquired from the mass representative surveys of Russian and Ukrainian population, performed within the framework of the comparative project International Social Survey Program (ISSP) in 2008-2009. Data summary of 40 countries is taken from the website of the project issp.org. In Ukraine, the survey was conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) during October 10-20 of 2008; 2,036 people were randomly polled, which demographically and by level of education and regional parameters represented adult population of 18 years of age and above, permanently residing in Ukraine. In Russia, the survey was conducted by Levada Center during January 2-26 of 2009; the poll was conducted on 1,015 people, representing adult population of 16 years of age and above, according to nationwide multilevel stratified random selection.

This immediately raises the question of how relevant and representative can this data be, considering the amount of time that has passed since then. In addition to that, these were not regular years, as they were turbulent and tense, and Ukraine

and Russia to various degrees experienced a crisis; and it was namely the crisis situation that have always been the catalysts for outbursts of religiousness. But there are also much more recent direct and indirect data that allows the presupposition that there are no substantial changes in the question of the place of religion in the consciousness of Russians and Ukrainians. As to Russia, we can first refer to the results of the April 2013 poll by “FOMnibus” (1,500 Russian citizens were polled aged 18 above; the survey was conducted using the method of interviews by place of residence in 43 subjects of the Russian Federation, 100 towns and cities; the statistical margin of error does not exceed 3.6% [poll information can be obtained at http://fom.ru/obshchestvo/10953]). In answering the question “What is the primary benefit of your faith?”, only 21% of the respondents selected the answer “Endows life with meaning and purpose” [6]. In addition to that, an indirect index supporting the stability of the place of religion in the sense-making structure of consciousness can be the stability of the valuation of the vital importance of religion. Here we can refer to the results of the Levada Center survey in February of 2016. In this survey, to the question of “What role does religion play in your life?”, only 6% of respondents answered “extremely important”, 28% answered “fairly important”, 40% answered “not that important”, and 22% answered “does not play any role”. If this data is compared to the spread of answers to a similar question asked in the preceding years, we will see that since September of 2007 there were practically no changes in the subjective importance of religion among Russian people [7].

As to Ukraine, we can refer to the data of the monitoring research of the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, which has been conducted on the regular bases since 1994. Particularly, during 2002-2014 the respondents were offered to estimate the importance of their personal participation

in religious life, and throughout this period there have been no substantial changes in the spread of responses. More precisely, the portion of those who selected the answer “extremely important” varied between 11-19%, and the portion of those who selected “rather important” varied between 21-29% [8, p. 139]. Another survey in the aforementioned research pertained to the perception of respondents towards which factors influence the integration of population (the question was formulated as “What in your opinion unites people in our society?”), where one of the proposed factors was religion (confession). And in this case there have also been no noticeable changes in many years. More specifically, during 2002-2015 the portion of respondents that have selected this answer varies between 10-19% [9, p. 586]. Regular assessments of the religiousness of the population of Ukraine are also conducted by the Ukrainian Research Organization “Razumkov Center”. Since 2000 their surveys included the question “How important is religion to you?” The portion of respondents that selected the versions of answers “extremely important” and “rather important” in 2016 consisted of 57%, while in the 2013 survey it consisted of 63, and 72% in 2010 [10, p. 28]. The “Razumkov Center” surveys also included a question regarding raising which qualities in children should be prioritized (the question was formulated as “Here is the list of qualities that can be instilled in children. Which ones, if any, are the most important?”). Such quality as religiousness was selected by 17% of respondents in 2005, 2010, and 2013, and 18% in 2016 [10, p. 28].

Thus we see that a whole number of basic indexes of religion in the conceptual structure of public consciousness throughout the years since the ISSP surveys remains fairly stable. This allows us to believe that the results of the surveys on connection between religion and public perception of the meaning of

life of these countries are also fairly demonstrative of the state of this issue at this time.

Thus, in the ISSP surveys the respondents were offered to determine to what extent they agree with the statement that life has the meaning only because God exists. The general indexes in both, Ukraine and Russia, turned out to be rather low. In particular, among Ukrainian respondents, complete or predominant agreement with such thesis was expressed by just under 1/3 (32%), and another 34% disagreed, while 22% partially agreed, and partially disagreed. Among Russian respondents, the portion of those who agreed was 21%, with 36% disagreeing, and those who are torn between agreeing and disagreeing – 19% [See Table 1].

Table 1

Ukraine (Year 2008, N=2032) Russia (Year 2009, N=1015)
Agree* 32 21

Partially agree and partially


22 19
Disagree** 34 36
Unsure 12 24

*The portions of those who chose the answer “Absolutely agree” and “Mostly agree” are combined

** The portions of those who chose the answer “Rather disagree” and “Completely disagree” are combined

It is understandable that these correlations can seem somewhat incorrect, since they mix the opinions of religious and nonreligious people, those that believe in the existence of God, and those who do not have that faith or are unsure (though this data does reflect the general situation of the potential influence of religion in the society, since this influence can be exerted not only upon believers, but also nonbelievers). Thus it is necessary to separately examine the spread of opinions specifically within the groups of believers and nonbelievers. To separate the respondents into groups of believers and nonbelievers the following question was used: “Which one of the following statements best describes your relation to God today and in the past?”, with the possible answers of “I do not believe in God now, nor have I ever believed”, “I do not believe in God now, but I used to”, “I believe in God now, but I did not always”, and “I believe in God now and always have”. To the category of nonbelievers were allocated the respondents who have selected first or second answer, and the category of believers were those who selected the third or answer.

In this case it becomes evident that view of God as the source of the meaning of life is not a fact that is tightly associated with acceptance or rejection of the notion of God’s existence. Also, not all nonbelievers expressed a clear disagreement with association of meaning of life and God: among Ukrainian respondents there were 81% of such people, while among Russians only 56% (Table 2).

Table 2

Percentage of answer to the question “Do you agree or disagree with the notion that life has meaning only because God exists?” among believers and non-believers in %

Ukraine 2008 Russia 2009
Non-believers (N=215) Believers (n=1486) Non-believers (n=133) Believers (n=563)
Agree* 4 41 12 30

Partially agree and partially disagree

7 24 8 21
Disagree** 81 26 56 29
Unsure 8 9 24 20

*The portions of those who chose the answer “Absolutely agree” and “Mostly agree” are combined

** The portions of those who chose the answer “Rather disagree” and “Completely disagree” are combined

The explanation of such paradoxical situation can be different: ambivalence of orientation with regards to anti-religiousness, ambiguous understanding of the symbolic generalization of the “meaning of life”, as well as the acknowledgment that there is no meaning of life (“without God the life has no meaning; if I do not believe, I acknowledge that my life is meaningless”).

It is interesting to note that in the group of those who claimed about their faith in God, the distribution of answers does not drastically differ from the aforementioned distribution of answers among the population as a whole. Namely, an absolute or prevailing agreement was expressed by 41% of the Ukrainian respondents and 30% of the Russian respondents, while approximately a quarter of the believers in both countries expressed a complete of prevailing disagreement [see Table 2]. Virtually the same seems the correlation between the agreeing, disagreeing, and uncertain, if take into account Christians only, rather than all believers in God.

The interpretation of these data is also quite ambiguous. On one hand, such indexes among the believers cam be considered fairly low. As we mentioned earlier, in the dominant in our countries Christianity, is clearly formulated the idea the a man is created by God and throughout his entire life has to struggle with all possible temptations, follow God, and pursue His plan. Thus, the meaning of life must be determined through God. And it seems that certainly not everyone who identifies themselves as believers are ready to accept this dogma. The cause of this can lie in the poor familiarity of believers with the concept of the religious doctrine, the supporters of which they consider themselves to be; or their personal choice to determine which part of the doctrine they are ready to accept, adhering to its postulates in building their life, and which to ignore. In other words, they have an arbitrary approach towards the independent interpretation of the fundamental dogmas of their religion.

On the other hand, those who chose the answer “agree as much as disagree” also can be added to those who orient themselves towards God in determination of the meaning of life. After all, even though to a certain extent, they did agree with the proposed thesis. And thus, the portion of those who completely or partially

associate the meaning of life with God will consist of 65% among Ukrainian believers, and 51% among Russian believers. Such index is fairly weighty due to the specificities of social environment, and particularly, full domination of the secular components of life, including the distribution of information by mass media and advertisement, which in no way ties the meaning of life to the transcendent, and on the contrary, attempts to establish an idea that we should live here and now. Despite all these, more than half of the believers, at least on ideological level, consider religion as the standard of the meaning of life. At the same time, both, Ukraine and Russia in such case do not significantly differ from majority of the European countries. Particularly, if we take into account the entire population (believers and nonbelievers), the leaders in recognition of God’s presence as the meaning of life, among 25 European countries participated in the similar survey of the project ISSP, are the following: Portugal (40% of those who agree with such postulate), Italy (39%), Slovakia (36%), Poland (35%), and Ireland (34%). If we consider only those who declare their faith in God, the list of leaders will remain mostly the same except with slight change in their “positions”. For example, Slovakia will hold the first place (52% of those who agree that they find the meaning of life in presence of God), then comes Italy (47%), Portugal (47%), Ireland (42%), and Ukraine (41%); and Russia will be somewhere in the middle of such ranked list [See Table 3].

Table 3

Percentage of those who agree with the statement that life has meaning only because God exists (European countries) in %

% of all respondents % responders believing in God
Austria 17 39
Belgium 10 23
Great Britain 23 40
Germany 17 32
Denmark 12 27
Ireland 34 42
Spain 21 29
Italy 39 47
Cyprus 21 25
Latvia 13 24
Netherlands 17 38
Norway 9 23
Poland 35 41
Portugal 40 47
Slovakia 36 52
Slovenia 13 26
Hungary 12 20
Finland 12 28
France 16 41
Croatia 24 31
Czech Republic 8 31
Switzerland 19 33
Sweden 8 27
Russia 21 30
Ukraine 32 41

We can see that the indexes of orientation towards God as the source of the meaning of life in all countries in the above table cannot be considered as high and that the formally highly religious Ukraine and Russia do not significantly differ from the secular and materialistic West.

Since the question of the religious identification itself, as well as the view and perception of a certain religion is fairly complex and difficult to operationalize in mass surveys, there can be doubts with regards to the formulation of the question used in this survey. Perhaps such formulation is incorrect or clear enough for the respondents; perhaps, insufficiently capable of “capturing” the fine fabric of religious meanings, and thus the portion of “affirmative” answers is lower than it should be? It is hard to agree with such presupposition, considering that there are many non-European countries where such formulation did not pose any noticeable difficulties. For example, among Turkish respondents, 92% of believers agreed with such formulation of question, while among Filipinos and South Africans that

portion was comprised of 75%, and 71% among Dominicans. Thus, we are likely observing an actual limited significance of religion in the system of conceptual identification.

In addition to the view of the meaning of life as something that is inseparable from the existence of God, it would be interesting to examine whether or not such belief is complete and unambiguous. If we approach it strictly, then we can require that those who associate the meaning of life with existence of God would reject absence of meaning of life and the idea of personal choice of the purpose of their own life. If we examine the issue from this point of view, we would see that such logic in Ukraine and Russia is not always the case. In particular, of those who have declared their faith in God, while at the same time agreed with the connection between meaning of life and God, 13% in Ukraine and 12% in Russia also agreed with the notion that life has no meaning; another 14% in both countries partially agreed with such thesis. If we also compare the answers with regards to association of meaning of life and God with the answers on the self-determination of meaning of people’s individual lives, we would see that 69% of Russian believers and 55% of Ukrainian believers agree with both theses (See Table 4).

Table 4

Indexes of agreement with the notion that life has no certain purpose and that an individual determines the their own purpose, among respondents that agreed with the interconnection between meaning of live and God in %

*The portions of those who chose the answer “Absolutely agree” and “Mostly agree” are combined

** The portions of those who chose the answer “Rather disagree” and “Completely disagree” are combined

Such position is controversial, since if based on the Christian doctrine, the individual cannot determine the purpose of their own life, for this purpose is already set for them by God. If a man acknowledges the existence of God in a way that is presented by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, than he a priori cannot determine the purpose of his own life. Even taking into consideration the postulate on the freedom of will, the latter gives the man the right to choose the good or the

bad, to follow God or Satan, but certainly not the right to determine the purpose of life. But as we can see, for majority of believers there is no such contradiction, and they base themselves on rather anthropocentric positions.

However, if we try to further restrict the requirements and examine the intersection of all three positions (“God provides the purpose of life”, “life has no purpose”, “the purpose of life is determined by each individual”), we will see that out of those believers who support the thesis of the transcendent source of the meaning of life, only 5% of Russians and 9% of Ukrainians hold this position as unambiguous (where other versions of the meaning of life are completely rejected). The largest portions however (48% among Russians and 38% among Ukrainians), combine the perception of conditionality of the meaning of life with existence of God, as well as the belief that everyone determines the purpose of their own life. At the same time, 8% of the corresponding group of Russian and 10% of the corresponding group of Ukrainians also agreed with the divine source of such purpose, with the personal choice over their purpose, and the absence of purpose altogether. In other words, religious identification is not necessarily manifested in the strength of the conceptual structure, and leaves a vast field for personal interpretations and projections.

The presented analysis forces us to critically treat the potential of Orthodoxy in Ukraine and Russia with regards to their ability to become a real alternative to the dominating complex of values of the Western societies. For majority of even believers religion has for the most part ceased to be the foundation of the conceptual structure. The modern Christians independently form the purpose in their religion, are ready to include the conceptual elements from other religions and secular ideologies, and barely orient themselves towards the concepts transmitted by the religion in their everyday life. As Holger Kusse formulates it: “self-

actualization of an individual in the eternity, although still remains possible, is no longer a requirement in the life of a person and the society” [11].

At the same time, since religious self-identification remains at a very high level, it would be wrong to claim that religion for Russians and Ukrainians became some sort of ritualized formality that has absolutely no significance in social interaction. Its direct influence is certainly rather low, but at the same time, we can presuppose that there is some latent effect, though its influence is not directly recognized or articulated, it is still present as a deep value, a certain archetype of consciousness, which in extreme circumstances can rapidly actualize, increasing the function of some secular factors, while obstructing the function of others. This is the point where we can remember those changes in the public presentation of religiousness that took place in Ukraine over the last two years. In particular, the multi-year monitoring research conducted by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine revealed that the lowest level of religious self-identification, religious practices, and association of religiousness and diverse values took place in the Eastern Ukraine. But after the beginning of the armed conflict in Donbass, the accent on the Orthodoxy of the population of this region rapidly increased, and in the consciousness of the local population one of the important factors of resistance is the resistance on religious grounds (protection from the threat to Orthodoxy). In other words, under normal circumstances the religious beliefs were almost unnoticeable, while in the extreme circumstances they have boldly protruded to the surface. Correspondingly, the social potential of religion in Ukraine and Russia is not nullified, although its manifestation significantly depends on the surrounding circumstances, on specific configuration of the sociopolitical interactions. This rather confirms the transformation of the religiousness itself (which from the perspective of its traditional understanding is assessed as a drop or decrease). And these changes in the religiousness should be considered in the analysis of the social role of the religion and in attempts to form forecasts regarding this role in the future.

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