Thursday | 14 November, 2013

Attitudes towards atheists in the South Caucasus

After just over seventy years of formal state atheism during the Soviet Union, attitudes towards relationships with atheists are generally negative in the South Caucasus. Most people in Armenia and Georgia (and lesser in Azerbaijan) consider themselves to be religious, and the predominant religions in these countries (Georgian Orthodoxy and the Armenian Apostolic faith, respectively) are strongly connected to each country’s national identity. In addition to the usual questions on religiosity, the 2012 Caucasus Barometer (CB) included two questions on attitudes towards atheism for the first time– one concerning personal relationships and family (attitudes towards marrying atheists), and another on professional relationships (business with atheists). Comparing these attitudes provides a deeper understanding of attitudes towards atheism.

The WIN-Gallup 2012 Religiosity Index asked, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons or a convinced atheist?” With a global average of 59% who call themselves religious, Armenia is in the top ten most religious countries by declared level of religious belief, with 92% considering themselves religious (with a further 3% non-religious, 2% convinced atheists and 2% unsure). 84% of Georgians say the same (12% non-religious, 1% convinced atheists and 3% unsure). Much fewer Azerbaijanis consider themselves religious (44%) and 51% say they are non-religious (0% convinced atheists and 5% unsure). The 2012 CB also shows that a majority of people in all three countries of the South Caucasus consider religion to be important in their daily lives (although attendance of religious services is much lower). South Caucasians thus appear to have more of a subjective attachment to religion.

The Helsinki Committee’s 2010 Study on Freedom of Religion in Armenia noted that, “Nationalist ideas began to replace the old Soviet ideology, and the traditional church was often equated to national identity”. Accordingly, the special roles of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia and Georgian Orthodox Church in Georgia were recognized by each state through signed concordats in 2007 and 2002, respectively. For some, atheism is thus a rejection of these established churches which are viewed as important elements of national identity. Though the relationship between the State and the CMB (Caucasian Muslim Board) in Azerbaijan is more complex, Islam similarly plays a crucial cultural part in Azerbaijani national identity.

The numbers of and exposure to atheists are negligible in the South Caucasus. In the 2012 CB, 4% of Armenians 0.2% in Azerbaijan and 0.7% in Georgia said they had no religion. However, being irreligious, indifferent and atheist are not synonymous. Regarding contact, the majority of people in all three countries say they have not had any contact with atheists. Interestingly, Azerbaijanis appear to have the most contact with atheists on a regular basis (10% on a daily basis).

There are overwhelmingly negative attitudes to marriage with atheists in all three countries. Georgians show the highest level of uncertainty (15%). Armenians have the most negative attitudes to this idea (77% object overall), while Azerbaijanis are slightly more tolerant when it comes to having an atheist in the family.

However, people have more accepting attitudes towards doing business with atheists. This may indicate a tendency in the South Caucasus to object to more personal relationships with atheists, while being more accepting of professional relationships

Negative attitudes towards atheists (despite having almost no contact with them), are widespread across the South Caucasus. Despite their subjective attachment to their religions, people in the South Caucasus perceive religious belief as a desirable quality in business partners and spouses, though it is more significant in a personal relationship such as the latter. Although there is a notable difference in the declared religiosity between Azerbaijanis, on the one hand, and Armenians and Georgians on the other, all three groups have overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards atheists. Georgians are the most uncertain on their attitudes towards business and marriage with atheists, whilst Azerbaijanis are most uncertain about their contact with atheists.

As one interviewee from the Helsinki Foundation’s study said, “I have a positive attitude towards the [Armenian Apostolic] Church because it was an institution created by Armenian people, rather than imposed on us by anyone from above.” This quote illustrates post-Soviet perceptions of religious identities well – Soviet atheism being perceived as an imposition from above and abroad, in contrast to the traditional religious beliefs of the peoples of the South Caucasus.

Attitudes towards atheism is one of many complex and interesting topics in the South Caucasus which would benefit from further study. What do you think are possible causes for the negative attitudes shown? Explore further by downloading any of the Caucasus Barometer datasets here.