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 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.
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.