Paul Froese’s book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (University of California Press, 2008), is an insightful exploration of the most massive atheism campaign in human history. Froese, a professor of sociology at Baylor University (Waco, Texas), has done careful research on this topic and his writing style makes this study a “good read.” I was struck by one of the endorsements on the back cover of the book, an endorsement by the well-known Catholic sociologist and novelist Andrew Greeley. He pointed out: “The story of the survival of religion in the Soviet Union is one of the great surprises of the end of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is so surprising that many social scientists wrote it off, attributed it to cultural nationalism, or ignored it. They assumed that religion simply was a temporary reprieve and would shortly succumb to ‘secularization.’ Professor Froese demolishes this assumption.”
The first paragraph of the book clearly articulates the focus of this study and it deserves to be quoted here: “It is easier to invoke God than to get rid of him. This is one simple yet important conclusion that we can draw from the prolonged and often vicious experiment to eradicate religion from Soviet society. Communist leaders in the Soviet Union attempted something never considered by earlier rulers, be they
Froese sets the context for his study by highlighting the fact that the best international data on religion reveals that atheism is quite rare in even the most modern societies and that religious faith is currently thriving in many different forms around the world. It would seem evident, from his perspective, that the idea of God is a fundamental cultural element common to all modern societies, despite the angry counterclaims of small numbers of atheists. The Communist leaders attempted to ignore this basic fact by developing a plot to kill God.
This radical experiment that began in Russia in 1917, an experiment that required the abandonment of religiosity and spirituality, was nothing less than an effort to reshape the inner lives of millions of people. The failure of Marxist-Leninists to truly understand human nature and human need – in other words, their false anthropology, lead to an enormous and devastating social experiment unlike any other in human history.
The Soviet Atheist Alternative
Beginning immediately after the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, Communist Party leaders implemented a plan to convince the Russian people that they were better off without religion in their lives. Through the creation of educational programs, propaganda campaigns, and newly established atheist ceremonies and rituals modeled after religious practices, Party leaders were confident that Soviet citizens would soon understand that the idea of God was not necessary for living happy and fulfilled lives.
At first, they focused on undermining the traditional religious culture of the past thousand years by blaming religion, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, for the injustices and oppression of the Romanov tsars. But it soon became necessary, as Froese carefully traces, for Party leaders to create an atheist alternative to religion. In hopes of undermining religion, “the Soviet regime made itself into a kind of antichurch with atheist schools and meetinghouses, antireligious proselytizers, and a clearly defined atheist moral worldview called ‘scientific atheism’” (p. 5). For Marxist revolutionaries, the total destruction of religion was ideologically crucial to build a utopian socialist state.
Creating the Atheist Soviet Man was much more difficult than the Communists expected. Secularized education by the League of Militant Atheists soon proved to be inadequate, so Party leaders created weddings, baptisms, confirmations, funerals and holidays all cradled in atheist symbolism and language. Soon Soviet texts and ceremonies were developed that depicted Marx, Lenin
To the Marxist revolutionaries who established authoritarian top-down rule in the Soviet Union, a pattern well established in Russia’s painful history, religious beliefs were patently false. They believed that human behavior, earthy rewards and history were controlled by economic relations, not by God – and in this they had absolute faith. Professor Froese argues – and I agree — they were, in fact, religious fanatics!