Why did the Atheist-Communist Soviet Union Fail to Eliminate Religion?

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Under the communism of the Soviet Union, Russia’s religious landscape consisted of a severely repressed Russian Orthodox Church and a heavily promoted “scientific-atheism” (1). The Communist Party (CP) wished to eliminate religion from Russia entirely and this cascaded into the destruction of churches, temples, and mosques, the execution of religious leaders, and the spreading of atheistic and anti-religious propaganda. In light of these measures, one would have expected religion’s elimination although, as we shall see, the facts of history present us with a very different scenario.

The Communist Party and State Regulation of Religion

Participation in religion is strongly affected by state regulation which reflected in the sharp decline in church attendance across Soviet Russia (2). Numerous means exist for how a state can regulate religion within its borders. The state can take to taxing religious organizations and/or establishing civic laws favouring certain religious organizations or some other worldview. The state might choose to ban religion, religious groups, practices, etc. and confiscate property. There is also the extreme of imprisoning and/or executing religious persons. Such avenues were pursued by the CP which privileged the ideology of scientific-atheism at the expense of religion. The Soviet Union was clearly unlike what most Westerners today experience and often take for granted. In the United Kingdom, for example, the religious market is based upon freedom. Such a market is competitive because it allows the existence of multiple religions, worldviews, and beliefs. No single religion, organization, or group can be said to own the religious market and citizens are free to choose. In this market, new and alternative religious movements continue to grow, in most cases unimpeded. However, under the Tsarist and communist Russian regimes, these freedoms were severely restricted. Prior to the revolution and the CP’s rule, Tsarist policies favoured the Russian Orthodox Church and they banned many small religious sects and cults, only for the CP to later establish a militant atheistic substitution for religion.

From Tsarist Rule to Communism and Militant Atheism

Russia was a far way from any sense of peace prior to the revolution of 1917. Millions of people had become disillusioned with their political and cultural traditions, thus making them susceptible to the promises of a new socialist utopia (3). When the Communists subsequently took control of the state, the Russian Orthodox Church came under their control and its property became their own. This allowed the CP enormous influence: clergy were selected according to CP criteria, admissions and curriculum in seminaries were dictated by the state, some clergy and bishops became responsible for informing the KGB of religious activities, and some leaders in the church joined the League of Militant Atheists to become atheist proselytizers. Emelian Yaroslavsky, the President of the League of Militant Atheists, claimed religion had not been superseded because humanity was insufficiently scientific. He made promises that the CP was the ideal choice for overcoming this hurdle and, with the financial assistance of the state, the League of Militant Atheists strategized to secularize Russian society by 1937 (4). The group grew rapidly, claiming just under six million members. There is good reason to suspect these numbers were exaggerated given the CP had only 1.8 million members at this time. Very unlikely it is that a radical atheist group burgeoned to three times the size of the ruling, domineering CP. Nonetheless, the League of Militant Atheists planned to create one million atheist cells throughout the country to reach rural citizens they claimed were ignorant of atheist science.

The CP left few stones unturned in its attempt to eliminate religion. There was the threat of execution or the sentencing to decades of hard labour, both of which provided Russians with an incentive to turn away from religious belief and affiliation. Violent precedent had already been set following the revolution when the Bolsheviks turned on religious institutions, clerics, churches, and monasteries. Church property was seized and clergy, monks, and nuns were often killed in the process. Over subsequent decades atheistic and anti-religious propaganda promoted religious ignorance and spreading false information concerning religious activities (5). The League of Militant Atheists, for example, aware of the role icons (symbols that believers keep in their homes and pray to daily) in the Russian Orthodox tradition invented falsehoods to have them destroyed. It claimed that syphilis was being spread throughout the countryside through the kissing of icons (6). Propaganda was also to be spread atheism through as many other channels as possible. Committees were responsible for promoting courses, lectures, speeches, publications, movies, theater, and radio broadcasts to spread scientific-atheism. The Ministry of Culture was to plan for anti-religious films, the airing of radio broadcasts of scientific-atheist speeches and discussions, and to provide lecturers with atheistic albums and diapositives. The All-Union Society for the Propagation of Political and Scientific Knowledge was to manage the publishing of a monthly journal called Science and Religion. Goslitizdat were to take charge of publishing large editions of atheistic literature of an artistic nature. Children were also pulled into the regime’s strategies. Youth groups were responsible for the atheistic education of the young and school children would sometimes have the homework task of trying to convert a family member to atheism.

A further way to strangle the life from religion was to confiscate property and prevent worshipers from access to their sacred space. Churches were closed and converted to communist offices. The Petersburg Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan was refashioned into the Museum of the History of Religion and of Atheism. Thousands of churches were destroyed and their materials publicly used for socialist society. According to Powell, in 1916 there were 54000 churches in Russia yet by 1966 there were just 7500 (7). This had a devastating impact on religion. Being prevented to their locations of worship and religious services, the Russian people lost significant amounts of religious knowledge and familiarity with church ritual and doctrine (8). However, counter-productively, rather than destroying religion, the state’s open hatred proved a major factor in its failure to convert many Russians to atheism, especially under a regime that had destroyed symbols historically revered by most of the population. Religious persecution and the killing of religious believers ended when World War II began. State attention turned elsewhere and religious persecution was put on temporary hold. Persecution did continue post World War II but in a less violent form, such as in social sanctions and a renewed effort to offer religious believers an atheistic alternative.

The Failure to Destroy Religion

Religion proved far more durable than the CP and the League of Militant Atheists expected, case in point being the results from the 1937 census that included a question on religion (9). The results of this census were both humiliating and disappointing to the League of Militant Atheists which disbanded merely four years later. The survey put religious believers at 56% of the population and although this indeed reflected a drop in religious adherence it was ultimately deemed by the CP to be unsuccessful (10). Religious survey questions were never asked in subsequent censuses, perhaps due to the huge disappointment stemming from expectations that the people would jump to abandon religion to embrace scientific-atheism. The League of Militant Atheists were confronted with the need of explaining why religion persisted despite their predictions and efforts. It resorted to arguing that rather than religion being a manifestation of social inequality, it was because of religion itself that communism failed to attain perfect social justice. Essentially religion was now seen as a cause of social problems, not as a symptom. This motivated Yaroslavsky’s subsequent call for the extermination of hundreds of religious leaders. Further, although many Russians left the Russian Orthodox Church they did not necessarily abandon religion. In many instances, small proselytizing groups still survived as they continued to seek converts while remaining cognizant of the dangers of religious expression. These groups had become accustomed to repression as even under the Tsarist regime they had been banned in favour of the dominance and promotion of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the mid to later part of the twentieth century new religions, such as charismatic sects, the Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, penetrated into Russia and although the Russian Orthodox Church declined under communism, Protestants and various Christian sects slowly grew. From 1900 to 1970, non-Orthodox Christians (excluding Roman Catholics) went from 11% to 31% of the Russian population (11). Essentially by having undermined the Russian Orthodox Church, the CP had planted the seeds of religious pluralism, leading to sects flourishing during and after the fall of the Soviet Union. The end of communism witnessed resurgent religious revivals throughout Russia.

Why did the Soviet Union Fail to Eliminate Religion?

Although up until the 1970s the Soviet economy met success across industrial growth, science, military, and technological advancements, the failure of their political and economic system is a major reason scientific atheism never replaced religion (12). The failure to sustain a viable political and economic system offset chances of sustaining committed believers to communist ideology. The CP also underestimated religion for it assumed that religion would lose its validity in the face of technological and scientific progress. This did not play out as expected largely because the scientific atheists did not understand the nature of religious belief and the many reasons people held to them. One of the arguments the soviet atheists increasingly presented post World War II was that atheism is proven true because God is invisible and remains unseen. Although this might seem compelling to atheists, most religious believers do not find this to be a defeater of their religious views. It was not therefore a particularly impressive argument or claim when the astronaut Yuri Gagarin reported not to have seen God when he was in space. Sociologist Paul Froese explains that the,

“[S]cientific atheists did not recognize the nonempirical character of religious concepts and stories. In most cases, atheist proselytizers had little or no knowledge of actual religious doctrine. In fact, a visitor to the Soviet Union in the 1960s reported that “no atheist ringleader has ever dared to allow those under him to study the Bible, even for the purpose of spying out the enemy’s territory in order to more easily conquer it” (Bourdeaux 1965:125). Under these conditions, atheist recruiters were largely ignorant of the nonempirical tenets of religious belief, which led them to only attack the supernatural using empirical arguments” (13).

There was also a lack of interest from professional scientists in the domain of scientific-atheism, no doubt contributing to the CP’s failure to eliminate religion. These scientists did not have much to say about religion and instead engaged in physics and chemistry. They seldom accepted funding to conduct work on the science of atheism and very few registered at the Institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Also few dissertations were written and defended on scientific-atheism, thus producing intellectual poverty and engagement which suggests the anti-religious university and educational programmes had limited influence (14). A further consequence was the production of atheists who knew very little about religion or science. These atheists did an ineffective job of promoting and imparting information on scientific-atheism, which came over as ignorant and often amusing to others. Students or members of audiences would bring up contentious points such as recent discoveries in physics being incompatible with materialism, which could not be sufficiently answered by the lecturer. This failure of effective response made atheist lecturers look particularly foolish in light of the CP’s rhetoric of religion being unscientific and atheism scientific.

This contributed to scientific atheists failing to provide a compelling alternative to religion. They could not construct a strong case for atheism yet demanded an unquestioning faith in it without any real evidence (15). It was not only that they failed to make a case but the scientific atheists did not allow much room for open discussion of concerns, suggesting an insecurity over their own doctrine.

In the end, that religion survived the rule and fall of the Soviet Union is fascinating. The CP and the atheists of Russia had numerous opportunities to eliminate religion yet they failed to do so. Atheist activities and programmes were well financed while religious believers and institutions were severely oppressed and persecuted. The religious were murdered or imprisoned and had their places of worship destroyed, yet atheists built monuments affirming their ideology. Anti-religious rhetoric and scientific-atheism also faired far better given they were incorporated across multiple levels of society. This rhetoric and ideology were forced into media, institutions of higher learning, scientific programmes, into schools, the workplace, and across urban and rural communities. But despite the broad distribution of such ideology these efforts were undermined. Religion proved far more resilient than expected, the scientific atheists failed to make their case and looked foolish as a result, they misunderstood religious beliefs, and presented alternatives that confused many Russians and that were unwanted. In short, scientific-atheism had failed to engage the hearts and minds of the people, which is what has traditionally been a major pull to religion. The state’s ideology was forced on the people through official channels, which few would deem an appropriate recipe for capturing hearts and minds. Successful religions that inspire and captivate people are able to adapt to their social contexts and address pressing issues. In such cases, followers are allowed to ask questions and engage in dialogue, which under the CP was disallowed, thus suggesting a frail ideological system that could face no criticism.

References

1. Blakeley, Thomas. 1964. “Scientific Atheism: An Introduction.” Studies in Soviet Thought 4(4):277-295; Gill, Anthony. 1998. Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Froese, Paul. 2004. “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43(1):35-50.

2. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 41.

3. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 37.

4. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 37.

5. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 40.

6. Peris, Daniel. 1998. Storming the heavens: The Soviet league of the militant godless. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 85.

7. Powell, D. E. 1975. Antireligious propaganda in the Soviet Union: A study of mass persuasion. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 41.

8. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 42.

9. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 44-45.

10. Corley, Felis. 1996. Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader. London: McMillian Press. p. 76.

11. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 38-39.

12. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 46.

13. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 47.

14. Bociurkiw, Bohdan., and Strong, John. 1975. Religion and atheism in the USSR and eastern Europe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 157.

15. Froese, Paul. 2004. Ibid. p. 47.

4 comments

  1. Interesting points, secularism has destroyed much of the religious foundation in non-communist societies.
    We can’t ignore that The Russian Federation has labelled Non-Orthodox Religions as Extremist, banned them, taken property, imprisoned the followers. So governments still feel the need to restrict faith when practised, in the west it isn’t necessary because few practice their faith today.

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