The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization

December 18, 2008

According to a new generation of self-avowed atheists such as Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, religion is inherently violent, irrational and reactionary. Only Enlightenment atheism, so the argument goes, can secure tolerance and peaceful coexistence among diverse nations and cultures. Paul Froese's book The Plot to Kill God undermines some of the key presuppositions and conclusions of this sort of militant atheism. Based on a rigorous sociological examination of the Soviet experience of secularism, the book documents the violence of atheistic science and the endurance of religious faith within the soulless Soviet state. In the process, the author challenges and refutes a number of theories that have pervaded the social study of religion since Marx, Freud and Weber.

Froese's focus for studying the forced secularisation in the former Soviet Union is a set of hypotheses that informed Soviet policy on religion, eg, various demand-side and supply-side factors that Communist Party leaders and officials used to explain and to change religious ideas and practices. The results that emerge from testing theoretical perspectives in the light of empirical realities are astonishing.

Firstly, both Marx and Lenin claimed that religious institutions codify and perpetuate power relations and exploitative class structures that constrict the freedom of individuals. As a result, in the 1920s and 1930s Soviet authorities proceeded to close or to destroy around 90 per cent of all church buildings and to eliminate religious figures from public life through arrests, imprisonment and executions: more than 100,000 clergymen were executed between 1937 and 1941. This policy of systematic repression pushed religion underground, but Christians and Muslims both continued to worship. Even a secular state as powerful and totalitarian as the Leninist and Stalinist Soviet Union proved unable to annihilate traditional, organised religion.

Secondly, Marx and Lenin believed that religion thrives on ignorance and a lack of self-awareness and that faith declines with education and modernisation. Once it was clear that coercion and repression had failed to eradicate faith, successive Soviet leaders, from Khrushchev in the 1960s to Andropov in the early 1980s, sought to suppress religiosity through a combination of educational policies (especially the propagation of scientific atheism) and economic reforms (above all, the remodelling of productive and social relations). However, this strategy did not yield the desired results, not least because the positivism of atheistic science and functionalist economics could not cater to the universal human desire for rituals and worship, as Durkheim had argued.

The demand for worship and ceremony is the third factor that explains the persistence of religion despite state secularism. In response, the Soviet authorities attempted to establish a rival quasi-religion centred on a personality cult, state celebrations that mimicked religious practices and a host of institutions such as the Communist Party and the League of Militant Atheists to replace the Church.

However, pace Durkheim, those who had religious faith preferred the Christian (and Muslim) original to the secular simulacrum. Not even severe punishment or social stigma could deter believers. Secularism failed to stave off the demand for religion.

Froese's study of the relentless war on religion waged by the Soviet system underscores the violence of atheism and shows that forced secularisation was little more than will-to-power, masquerading as emancipation and liberation. Interestingly, his research also provides some empirical evidence for humanity's natural orientation towards the supernatural.

As such, this book is of great interest to theologians and anthropologists, as well as sociologists and historians of religion. The author's balanced approach and nuanced arguments represent a refreshing antidote to the increasingly shrill claims of contemporary militant atheism.

The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization

By Paul Froese
University of California Press
264pp
£32.95 and £12.95
ISBN 9780520255289 and 5296
Published 22 August 2008

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