Soviet atheism

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The brutal proponent of atheism Joseph Stalin.

Soviet atheism refers to the Soviet Union's policy of eliminating religion in the Communist state.

Militant atheism and the Soviet Union

See also: Militant atheism and the Soviet Union and Militant atheism

The persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union was the result of the violently atheist Soviet regime. In the first five years after the October Revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were murdered, many on the orders of Leon Trotsky. When Joseph Stalin came to power in 1927, he ordered his secret police, under Genrikh Yagoda to intensify persecution of Christians. In the next few years, 50,000 clergy were murdered, many were tortured, including crucifixion. "Russia turned red with the blood of martyrs", said Father Gleb Yakunin of the Russian Orthodox Church.[1] According to Orthodox Church sources, as many as fifty million Orthodox believers may have died in the twentieth century, mainly from persecution by Communists.[2]

In addition, in the atheistic and Communist Soviet Union, 44 anti-religious museums were opened and the largest was the 'The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism' in Leningrad’s Kazan cathedral.[3] Despite intense effort by the atheistic leaders of the Soviet Union, their efforts were not effective in converting the masses to atheism.[4]

Soviet atheism: Tactics and strategies

Advancing on the already atheist doctrine of Karl Marx, the power hungry atheist Soviet Union leaders brutally suppressed practiced religion in Communist society and engaged in forced atheist indoctrination in the USSR which the people often rejected. The atheism in Communist regimes has been and continues to be militant atheism and various acts of repression including the razing of thousands of religious buildings and the killing, imprisoning, and oppression of religious leaders and believers.[5]

In the atheistic and Communist Soviet Union, 44 anti-religious museums were opened and the largest was the 'The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism' in Leningrad’s Kazan cathedral.[6] Despite intense effort by the atheistic leaders of the Soviet Union, their efforts were not effective in converting the masses to atheism.[7][8]

Atheist indoctrination in the Soviet Union and its limited effectiveness

See also: Atheist indoctrination and Persecution of Christians in the USSR and Militant atheism and Atheistic communism and torture

The above photograph shows the Russian Nikolai Khmara, a new Baptist convert in the Soviet Union, after his arrest by the KGB. He was tortured to death and his tongue cut out.[9] See: Atheistic communism and torture

Paul Froese in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion indicated:

Nevertheless, Yaroslavsky set out to demonstrate the League’s achievements by including a religious question in the 1937 Soviet census. The results were disastrous to the future of the League of Militant Atheists, which was disbanded in 1941, and religious survey questions never reappeared in subsequent Soviet censuses. Although no detailed results from the 1937 census can be reported because data analysis was quickly aborted, Soviet documents indicate that just over 56 percent of the population admitted to being religious believers (Corley 1996:76; Fletcher 1981:211). Yaroslavsky also ambiguously maintained that most (around two-thirds) of the religious believers resided in rural areas (Pospielovsky 1987:65). These crude results indicate a dramatic drop in religiosity when one considers that in 1900 nearly 100 percent of the people that lived in regions that would eventually constitute the Soviet Union were religious believers (see Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson 1980). Regardless, Yaroslavsky and Stalin viewed the number of atheist converts (even with probable inflation) as unsuccessful (Pospielovsky 1987:65).

The findings were disappointing because the “science” of atheism had predicted a different outcome. Communists expected individuals to abandon religion with fervor. As it turns out, Russians did leave the Russian Orthodox Church in droves but did not abandon religion at the same rate.

In 1900, non-Orthodox Christian groups represented around 10 percent of the Russian population (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson 2001). These groups included Baptists, Evangelicals, Flagellants, Mennonites, Old Believers, Pentecostals, and Tolstoyans, to name a few that were most visible at the beginning of the 20th century (Corley 1996). By mid century and toward the end of the Soviet era, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and various “charismatic” sects entered the religious landscape. Quite interestingly, data confirm that while membership in the Russian Orthodox Church rapidly declined under communism, Protestants and various Christian sects slowly proselytized new members (see Figure 1). From 1900 to 1970, the percent of non-Orthodox Christians (not including Roman Catholics) went from 11 to 31 percent of the Russian population...

Soviet society clearly contained numerous incentives to relinquish religious belief and membership. First and foremost, the costs of religious belief and membership were extremely high because, in many instances, religious individuals could be executed or sentenced to decades of hard labor. Religious groups were the victims of extreme violence immediately following the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the Civil War that followed the Revolution, Bolsheviks targeted Orthodox churches, monasteries, and clerics as potential sources of anti-religious activity. Church property was seized and religious leaders, monks, and nuns were often killed in the process. The terror of the Civil War sometimes spun out of control as murderous gangs took advantage of the melee: “in many cases the tortures, murders and vandalism were the autonomous initiative of local anarchistic bands of army and naval deserters calling themselves Bolsheviks” (Pospielovsky 1988:1).

More systematic religious persecution began in the 1930s and reemerged periodically according to the whims of Soviet leadership. Anti-religious propaganda grew in the 1920s but the unfavorable results of the 1937 census marked a turning point in Soviet religious policy. Because religion was thought to be the result of social inequality and an opiate of the oppressed masses, the League of Militant Atheists was in a bind to explain the endurance of religion within a socialist utopia. Therefore, “they made a tactical move of proclaiming religion as a cause and not merely the symptom of social problems... religious practices became the scapegoat of the Soviet ideological machine, they became the only readily admissible reason for the failure of the complete re-education of the masses” (Pospielovsky 1987:26). According to this argument, Communist society did not secularize because religious believers prevented communism from attaining perfect social justice, which, in turn, would effortlessly secularize society. To end this cycle of religion, Yaroslavsky declared that “several hundred reactionary zealots of religion” needed to be exterminated (Pospielovsky 1987:65).

The failure of scientific atheism in Russia is interesting because it had every advantage. First, the Soviet government generously financed atheists while brutally suppressing religious advocates. For this reason, scientific atheism should be considered the equivalent of a religious monopoly. Second, scientific atheism was promoted throughout Soviet Russia in schools, workplaces, and the community.

Finally, scientific atheism offered rituals, ceremonies, and the promise of a utopian society as a direct alternative to religious offerings. The most generous estimates of atheistic belief show that less than one-quarter of Russians were atheists and this number dramatically drops to around 5 percent of the population after the fall of communism. In other words, scientific atheism was surprisingly unsuccessful when one considers all its competitive advantages.[10]

After the fall of the Soviet Union there was a religious resurgence (see: Collapse of atheism in the former Soviet Union).

Effects of Soviet atheism

By forcing atheism upon its people, the Soviet Union further promoted its brutal policies. It provided a way to implement "social darwinism" on the people of the USSR.

Soviet atheism still stands as a vivid example of how harmful an explicit rejection of religion and God can be to a society.

Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was asked to account for the great tragedies that occurred under the brutal communist regime he and fellow citizens suffered under.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stated:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: 'Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.'

Since then I have spend well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: 'Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.' [11]

Collapse of atheism in the former Soviet Union

See also: Collapse of atheism in the former Soviet Union

A Soviet propaganda poster disseminated in the Bezbozhnik (Atheist) magazine depicting Jesus being dumped from a wheelbarrow by an industrial worker as well as a smashed church bell; the text advocates Industrialisation Day as an alternative replacement to the Christian Transfiguration Day. see: Militant atheism

According to the University of Cambridge, historically, the "most notable spread of atheism was achieved through the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which brought the Marxist-Leninists to power."[12] Vitalij Lazarʹevič Ginzburg, a Soviet physicist, wrote that the "Bolshevik communists were not merely atheists but, according to Lenin's terminology, militant atheists."[13] However, prior to this, the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution established an atheist state, with the official ideology being the Cult of Reason; during this time thousands of believers were suppressed and executed by the guillotine.[14]

In 2003, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard published a paper by Assaf Moghadam entitled A Global Resurgence of Religion? which declared:

As the indications leave little doubt, Russia is showing clear signs of a religious resurgence. In fact, all seven criteria by which change in religious behavior and values are measured here confirmed that Russia is experiencing what could be called a religious revival. Since 1970, the nonreligious/atheist population has been on steady decline, from 52% in 1970 to 33% in 2000. Further, the percentage of this population is projected to decrease even further, possibly reaching the 20% mark in 2025. Between 1990 and 1997, belief in God has risen from 35% to a whopping 60%, while belief in the importance of God has climbed to 43% in 1997, up from 25% in 1990. More people have been raised religious in Russia in 1997 (20%) than at the beginning of the decade (18%), and 8.39% more Russians believed religion to be important toward the end of the 1990s, when compared to 1990. “Comfort in Religion” has also sharply increased within this time period, from less than 27% to over 46%. Finally, more and more Russians attend church services more regularly in 1997 than they did in 1990.

In the three Eastern European countries that were included in the WVS survey on belief in God, a drastic rise could be witnessed of respondents who answered this question in the affirmative. In Hungary, the percentage of believers in God jumped from 44% to 58% from 1981 to 1990, even prior to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. In Belarus, the number of people who believe in God nearly doubled over the course of the 1990s, from 36% to 68%, while in Latvia this figure almost quadrupled, from 18% to 67% in the same time period. Similar trends held true when it came to the importance of God, where there was a sharp rise in all three countries.[15]

Christianity Today indicated in 2017:

“The comeback of religion in a region once dominated by atheist regimes is striking,” states Pew in its latest report. Today, only 14 percent of the region’s population identify as atheists, agnostics, or “nones.” By comparison, 57 percent identify as Orthodox, and another 18 percent as Catholics.

In a massive study based on face-to-face interviews with 25,000 adults in 18 countries, Pew examined how national and religious identities have converged over the decades in Central and Eastern Europe. The result is one of the most thorough accountings of what Orthodox Christians (and their neighbors) believe and do.[16]

Pew Research indicated in a 2017 article entitled Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe:

In many Central and Eastern European countries, religion and national identity are closely entwined. This is true in former communist states, such as the Russian Federation and Poland, where majorities say that being Orthodox or Catholic is important to being “truly Russian” or “truly Polish.” It is also the case in Greece, where the church played a central role in Greece’s successful struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire and where today three-quarters of the public (76%) says that being Orthodox is important to being “truly Greek.”

Many people in the region embrace religion as an element of national belonging even though they are not highly observant. Relatively few Orthodox or Catholic adults in Central and Eastern Europe say they regularly attend worship services, pray often or consider religion central to their lives. For example, a median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across the region say they go to church on a weekly basis.

Indeed, compared with many populations Pew Research Center previously has surveyed – from the United States to Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa – Central and Eastern Europeans display relatively low levels of religious observance.

Nonetheless, the comeback of religion in a region once dominated by atheist regimes is striking – particularly in some historically Orthodox countries, where levels of religious affiliation have risen substantially in recent decades.[17]

Persistence of religion in the atheistic Soviet Union

See also: Atheists and the endurance of religion and Atheism and women and Communism and religious persecution

Gene Zubovich wrote at the online academic journal Religion & Politics concerning the former Soviet Union:

Despite the public spectacle and the very real repression of the Orthodox Church, however, religious belief and practice remained a part of everyday life and officials often tolerated religious practices, especially in the countryside. As Smolkin shows, even rank-and-file communists struggled with managing religious questions in family life. “What should a Leninist do if his family is still religious, does not permit taking down the icons, takes children to church, and so on,” a party member asked a Soviet newspaper’s advice column. The response “suggested a softer and more gradual approach to family disagreements over religion,” Smolkin writes. “Rather than break with his family, a Leninist should strive to enlighten.” It was common for male party members to marry religious women, the columnist noted, and they should be patient with their families.[18]

See also

Recommend reading

  • Dimitry Pospielovsky, (December, 1987), A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Antireligious Policies, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 0312381328
  • Dimitry Pospielovsky, (November, 1987), Soviet Antireligious Campaigns and Persecutions (History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice and the Believers, Vol 2), Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 0312009054
  • Dimitry Pospielovsky, (August, 1988), Soviet Studies on the Church and the Believer's Response to Atheism: A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice and the Believers, Vol 3, Palgrave Macmillan, hardcover: ISBN 0312012918, paperback edition: ISBN 0312012926

External links


  1. Ostling, Richard N. (December 4, 1989). "Cross meets Kremlin: Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II". Time. Time magazine website.
  2. Moore, Rev. Fr. Raphael (October 1999). "In memory of the 50 million victims of the Orthodox Christian Holocaust", Spiritual Nourishment for the Soul, Serfes, Rev. Archimandrite Nektarios, compiler.
  3. Humphrey (December 16, 2008). "Merry Anti-Christmas!" Quodlibeta.
  4. Multiple references:
  8. Double references:
  9. Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed by Paul Froese, Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion
  10. Humber, Paul G. (October 1987). "Stalin's brutal faith". Acts and Facts, vol. 16, no. 10. Retrieved from the Institute for Creation Research website on May 22, 2015.
  11. Investigating atheism: Marxism. University of Cambridge (2008). Retrieved on July 17, 2014. “The most notable spread of atheism was achieved through the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which brought the Marxist-Leninists to power. For the first time in history, atheism thus became the official ideology of a state.”
  12. Vitalij Lazarʹevič Ginzburg (2009). On Superconductivity and Superfluidity: A Scientific Autobiography. Springer Science+Business Media, 161. Retrieved on July 17, 2014. “The Bolshevik communists were not merely atheists but, according to Lenin's terminology, militant atheists.” 
  13. Multiple references:
    James Adair (2007). Christianity: The eBook. JBE Online Books, 461. Retrieved on July 18, 2014. “Although the Civil Constitution called for religious liberty, which was extended to Jews as well as Christians, many revolutionaries pushed for the establishment of a new state religion, either the Cult of Reason (atheists) or the Cult of the Supreme Being (Deists). Changes to the calendar eliminated references to Christian holidays, and even the ancient seven-day week, and a list of officially recognized saints included such famous thinkers such as Socrates, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A period of political persecution, often with religious overtones, broke out, known as the Reign of Terror. Thousands of people were executed by the guillotine, including many of the original leaders of the French Revolution.” 
    William Belsham (1801). Memoirs of the Reign of George III. to the Session of Parliament ending A.D. 1793, Volume 5. G.G. & J. Robinson, 105–6. Retrieved on July 18, 2014. “In allusion to the monstrous transactions of this portentous period, it has been eloquently and energetically observed, 'that the reign of atheism in France was avowed the reign of terror. In the full madness of their career, in the highest climax of their horrors, they shut up the temples of God, abolished His worship, and proclaimed death to be an eternal sleep:—in the very centre of Christendom, Revelation underwent a total eclipse, while atheism, performing on a darkened theatre its strange and fearful tragedy, confounded the first elements of society, blended every age, rank, and sex, indiscriminate proscription and massacre, and convulsed all Europe to its centre, that the imperishable memorial of these events might teach the last generations of mankind to consider religion as the pillar of society, the parent of social order, and the safe-guard of nations.'
    "It is wonderful that, amid the horrors of this dismal period, while 'the death dance of democratic revolution' was still in rapid movement, among the tears of affliction, and the cries of despair, 'the masque, the song, the theatric scene, the buffoon laughter, went on as regularly as in the gay hour of festive peace.'”
    William Kilpatrick (2012). Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Ignatius Press, 57. Retrieved on July 18, 2014. “Actually, it's helpful to think in terms of two Enlightenments: the Enlightenment that cut itself off from God. The former led to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. The latter led to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the suppression of church by state, and the godless philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche and their offspring—National Socialism and communism. More recently the abandonment of God has led to the regime of cultural relativism that regards rights as arbitrary constructions.
    "It's this second Enlightenment tradition that Cardinal Ratzinger referred to when he wrote, 'The radical detachment of the Enlightenment philosophy from its roots ultimately leads it to dispense with man.' Actually this transition happened not 'ultimately' but almost immediately. The first instance occurred when Enlightenment worship of abstract 'reason' and 'liberty' degenerated quickly into the mass murders committed during the antireligious Reign of Terror in France. 'Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name', said Madam Rolande as she faced the statue of Liberty in the Place de la Revolution movements before her death at the guillotine. She was one of the early victims of a succession of secular systems based on rootless notions of 'liberty', 'equality', and 'reason'.
    "As many historians have pointed out, the atheist regimes of modern times are guilty of far more crimes than any committed in the name of religion. Communist governments alone were guilty of more than one hundred million murders, most of them committed against their own people.”
  14. A Global Resurgence of Religion? by Assaf Moghadam, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University
  15. Pew: Here’s How Badly Soviet Atheism Failed in Europe. Christianity Today, 2017
  16. Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe, Pew Research, 2017
  17. Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Back Again by Gene Zubovich, Religion & Politics, 2018