Thursday, November 12, 2009
Giving Atheism a Bad Name
How do you know you’ve had a Revolution with a capital “R?” I’d say when your new government overturns 800 years of Christianity or so and makes a cult of atheism. Worse than that, you know you've had a serious cultural event when you've turned atheism into a sort of mirror image of the very theology it hopes to elude. (For analogous American trends, See James Wood's recent article in the 31 August 2009 New Yorker: "God In the Quad: A Done Defends the Supreme Being from the New Atheists").
How atheism established itself—even in the context of political and economic upheaval—is a mystery to me. Apparently Russian revolutionaries took their Marxism seriously. Religion was the opiate of the masses, a symptom of the false consciousness that covered over class oppression and obscured the true economic and political interests of the working classes. Even so, a political party has to have a very low regard for the notion of democracy to dethrone a common religion. (It was actually illegal for an atheist to sit in the British Parliament right up through most of the nineteenth century--See Walter Arnstein’s excellent monograph on the subject, the Bradlaugh Case--and few if any self-professed atheists could win any significant election in America today.
Evidently Russia’s official religion, Orthodoxy, was so corrupted by its contact with autocracy and aristocracy that it had lost much of its charm even for Russian peasants. Perhaps Russian peasant cared more about occupying church lands than they did about following church doctrine. Part of the issue is that the Russian peasants were never as Christian as they were sometimes made out to be. Although Christianity has reemerged in the wreckage of communism, historians such as Bruce Lincoln have argued that Russian peasants were as polytheistic or pagan or superstitious as they were Christian. Without literacy, and without educated priests in their midst, peasant understanding of Christian dogma was extremely fragile.
In any event, Soviet atheism quickly became an oppressive force. The religious were scorned and marginalized if not harassed. Were Soviet atheists as intolerant and oppressive as Western Christians continue to be in countries like America? It seems hard to imagine that this could be possible. It’s a tragedy really, since the novel phenomena of overt agnosticism, deism, and atheism had traditionally been allied to the Enlightenment principles like toleration, openness, free inquiry, skepticism, and equality. In fact, the word “freethinker” was a synonym for agnosticism throughout the nineteenth century. And atheism had no history—except perhaps in the French Revolution—of torture, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and warfare, as Christianity and theism in general had.
Yet somehow the Soviet Union managed to do the impossible by giving atheism a bad name. The great experiment in mental freedom was, alas, a failure. Perhaps the problem was that communism became a religion itself. Perhaps people are doomed to some form of religion—the real Original Sin--regardless of their aspirations.