My last two “Reflections on Russia” discussed the insights in Paul Froese’s book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (University of California Press, 2008), focusing first on the revolutionary basis upon which Communist Party leaders attempted to eradicate religion and then, secondly, the human costs associated with this radical policy of aggressive secularization. As often happens in life, decisions can have unintended consequences and this is clearly the case when Communism imploded and the Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991.
The Failed Atheist Crusade
During the seventy years of the USSR, the Communist Party sought to both shut off the religious supply and reduce the demand for religion – it was a two-prong strategy designed to deal with both supply and demand. While they failed to complete the total secularization of Soviet society, they did diminish the power of traditional religious institutions, cut church attendance dramatically, significantly reduce the activities of religious groups, and decrease the number of individuals affiliated with religious institutions.
When forced to choose between religious commitment and acceptance by Soviet officials, most Russians openly discarded their religious identities out of fear of ridicule or loss of employment, but many secretly retained their religious beliefs. “Scientific atheism” failed to gain many committed followers and decades of Communist propaganda and atheist education had little lasting effect on the belief systems of most people in the USSR. In 1970, polling data indicated that twenty-three percent of the Russian population declared themselves to be atheists; twenty years later, the number was six percent and, in 2000, only five percent. It was a failed crusade!
It is important to note that what is true in Russia is also true worldwide. As Froese points out, less than one percent of the world is atheist. Secular humanism has simply failed to satisfy humanity and this is “surely part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and 16,000,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention” (p. 128).
The Communist Party’s violent campaign against religion damaged its image as a friend of the ordinary Soviet citizen – the Party was not a “liberating force,” but a force that used coercion against its own people. Marxism-Leninism simply failed to engage the hearts and minds of Russians and offered nothing worthy of their faith.
When Mikhail Gorbachev officially severed the link between Marxism-Leninism and atheism and introduced freedom of religion in the USSR in 1988, it is fascinating to see how Communist Party policies resulted in consequences they never anticipated. Froese summarized the unintended consequences of “the plot to kill God” in this way: “The end of Soviet Communism provided two basic circumstances theoretically ideal for religious growth: millions of religiously unaffiliated individuals and a free religious environment where no one religious group enjoys political favoritism” (p. 147). By intentionally increasing religious ignorance of Christian theology and traditions by persecuting the churches and severely limiting their religious activities, the Party provided local and foreign religious activists with millions of eager converts!
In the early 1990s, Russians flocked to churches and the interest in religion was extraordinary. Religion, the “forbidden fruit,” was now an object of great interest to many Russians. I remember attending an Orthodox Easter service in Nizhni Novgorod in 1992 with students and faculty from the state university where Marge and I were teaching on sabbatical. The church was filled to capacity with hundreds of people outside trying to push their way in. Many had never been inside a church before and now they were anxious to find out what religion was all about.
By 1995, over 3,200 Western missionaries were in Russia and more than 80 missionary organizations had formed a network called CoMission to take advantage of this opportunity to spread the Gospel to a “godless Russia.” Sadly, many Western missionaries did little to familiarize themselves with Russian history and culture and few attempted to reach out to the Orthodox community. This created great tensions between Protestants and Orthodox, who were fearful of this “foreign invasion” that threatened their efforts to rebuild their own church after decades of persecution.
The “window of opportunity” that opened up in Russia with the 1988 law on religious freedom did not stay open very long. The fascination with religion lasted for only a brief period of time and then a preoccupation with materialism swept the country. The freedom for new religious organizations to operate in Russia also was significantly reduced within ten years as well.
It is not surprising that Orthodox leaders opposed this massive influx of foreign missionaries and pressured government leaders to restrict their activities. Boris Yeltsin, for example, developed close ties with Orthodox leaders to help distance his government from its Soviet past and atheist legacy. Affiliation with Russian Orthodox Church leaders gave his government the legitimacy that Yeltsin desired. His advisers were eager to grant the church special status and privileges and Orthodox leaders gladly accepted these offers.
As Russia struggles with the difficult question of how the state and church should be related, those of us in the West need to remember that it took the United States over 150 years and many Supreme Court decisions to settle these issues and come to agreement on the separation of church and state – a decision few other nations have followed. I hope Russians will resist the choice of going back to a state-sponsored religion. Research data makes it clear: state-supported religions produce populations that rarely go to church or express strong religious beliefs. The result could be more destructive of religion’s role in Russia than the Communist Party’s folly of trying to “kill God.”