anti-religion campaigns of Richard Dawkins and co. seem like a modern
phenomenon, very much a 21st century internet sort-of thing. But, like pretty
much every social trend, it’s all been done before, with the same arguments and
counter-arguments regurgitated, and on numerous occasions.
vicious and sustained of these campaigns began around a century ago, part of a
huge social experiment in state atheism that is largely forgotten or ignored.
Although I know that the people who create our curriculums would prefer to skip
over the complete failure of the utopian regimes that cast such a long shadow
over the 20th century (the body count was only 100 million or so, and it was so
long ago after all) I confess I am always a little taken aback whenever I
discover how little otherwise well-educated people know about that grand
experiment in human misery.
for generations on the left, God was generally viewed as an obstacle to
progress, and religious faith a superstition to be liberated from — Marx’s
“opium of the people” and all that. Recently, however, I was chatting with a
smart young man who described himself as a socialist, and he had no idea that
the USSR had repressed religion throughout its existence. But then, he was
under 40, couldn’t remember the Cold War, and his generation’s Left has grown
exquisitely sensitive to religion (or at least the most intolerant forms of one
religion in particular).
So it’s all
gone down the memory hole. And not only here, but also in Russia, the erstwhile
ground zero of state atheism. Following the collapse of the USSR, the Orthodox
Church quickly re-established itself as a powerful influence on society,
priests took to blessing tanks and missiles (although the Church recently moved
to limit this) and an ex-KGB agent named Vladimir Putin became president and
subsequently declared himself a defender of Christian values against the malign
influence of the decadent, secular West.
world of aggressive and at times extremely violent atheism was very real, and I
think we should not only remember it, but seek to understand it. A new book,
Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda by Roland Elliott Brown, is
helpful in that regard. A combination of primer on the history of Soviet state
atheism and art book collecting insulting caricatures of deities and their
earthly representatives, it vividly captures a sustained, blasphemous, mocking,
abusive intolerance so vicious that the so-called New Atheists of the mid-2000s
come off like Keith Harris and Orville in comparison.
even Marx seems like a bit of a softy next to his disciples, although this
could very well be down to the fact that he never wielded power and so enjoyed
the luxury of not having to apply any of his dictums to reality. Thus, while
his snappy “opium of the people” line is certainly contemptuous and dismissive,
it can also (as Brown points out) be read as empathetic to believers without
too much of a stretch. Life is just so hard for the poor masses that they
simply have to spiritually anaesthetize themselves to get through the day.
contrast was much harsher, regarding religion as a vice to be stamped out. “All
religious ideas…. Are an abomination,” he wrote to Maxim Gorky, and he also
wrote of “purging the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects” a trope reflected
by a propaganda artist in a poster depicting a spider with a priest’s head
crawling over an icon in the company of other vermin, accompanied by the
slogan: “All this filth and vileness is subject to extermination in accordance
with any conscientious sanitary standard. Godless people, fight for this
Lenin’s language was breathtaking in its violence, so his actual violence was
also breathtaking in its violence. Priests were shot, churches, mosques and
temples demolished, relics desecrated (supposedly incorruptible saints were
dragged from their tombs to prove that they did decompose after all), believers
were persecuted and ever more severe restrictions were placed on religious
organizations under his rule.
also waged war on minds; Godless Utopia captures the visual element of these
propaganda campaigns strongly. God, Buddha, a cyclopean Jehovah and Allah were
all fair game, as were corpulent priests, bearded Mullahs and ignorant peasants
(although interestingly artists tended to avoid drawing Mohammed). The regime
trolled believers by transforming cathedrals into museums of atheism; the
grandiose Kazan Cathedral in central Saint Petersburg served this purpose for
almost sixty years until reverting to its original purpose in the early 90s.
hostility to religion was a feature and not a bug of the regime, of course, as
the Bolsheviks, possessing their own Millenarian faith (and soon to be in
possession of their own incorruptible saint) would brook no rivals. Thus
atheist propaganda remained a constant throughout the USSR’s existence,
tapering off a bit when Stalin quasi-rehabilitated the Orthodox Church to boost
patriotism in World War II, then flaring up again when Khruschev went back to
basics following his denunciation of his predecessor in 1956. After Yuri
Gagarin’s trip into space, cosmonauts became a regular feature of atheist
propaganda, freshening up the hackneyed anticlerical tropes.
poster (an image of which I supplied to the publisher of my first book as inspiration
for the cover), a beaming cosmonaut floating in space looks out at the viewer
and declares “There is no God!” However, although the cosmonaut-atheism
subgenre of propaganda was clearly intended to elevate science and rationality
over faith in the unseen, the trope demonstrates a literalness that would give
any snake tickling fundamentalist in rural Appalachia a run for his money. The
Russian word for sky also means heaven, and since the spacemen never saw God
while floating in “heaven” well — there you have it. And so it carried on,
until Gorbachev loosened the screws and there was an explosion in belief, both
traditional and otherwise, which continues to this day.
nothing like this in the West of course, although there were always celebrity
atheists, from A.J. Ayer to Frank Zappa, who were not shy of taking a pop at
God. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, just as religion staged a comeback in
Russia, and came crashing into the mainstream consciousness courtesy of the
9/11 bombers and the overtly religious George W. Bush, so atheism became a pop
culture phenomenon as a small but briefly influential group of
author-entrepreneurs tapped into contemporary anxieties to produce bestselling
books attacking religion. But the moment passed; after all, the case against
God was laid out long ago, and there was nowhere particularly new that even a
brilliant writer such as Christopher Hitchens could take it. And so the
arguments grew stale. What, after all, could the sequel to something like God
is not Great ever have been?
the limits of negation are also captured in Godless Utopia. Fifty, sixty years
in and the propagandists of the USSR were still banging on about the
rubbishness of religion and rotten priests misleading naive believers; until
the atheist clubs themselves grew so moribund that they, too, became an object
of satire for propaganda artists.
State, being an empire of boredom, would keep pushing godlessness even when it
got really boring, but selling unbelief without an inspiring alternative is a
tougher sell in the free marketplace of ideas, as evidenced by the declining
attendance at the terminally anodyne atheist Sunday Services, or the
non-appearance of Alain de Botton’s £1 million atheist temple in London, proposed
with much fanfare but then quickly forgotten due to a no doubt monumental lack
of interest. “Satanist” cosplayers in the US are trying to add some spice, but
“how we trolled the residents of Arkansas with a Baphomet statue” is a joke
that does not get better with repeated tellings.
the lesson of the USSR seems to be that relentlessly insulting believers and
harping on about godlessness just isn’t a very good strategy for spreading
unbelief. I feel confident predicting that a half naked Boris Johnson plunging
into a hole in the ice to purify his soul, moobs and all, is a sight we are
unlikely to see any time soon; yet at the start of 2018 Russians were recently
treated to the spectacle of their president doing just that.
In the West
we have found that a broad indifference at the government level, combined with
ever increasing levels of comfort and meaningless distraction for the
population, plus a steady diet of scandal involving religious organizations in
the press, is about all you need to raise Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long,
withdrawing roar” to deafening levels. In Ireland the church’s collapse has
been rapid and spectacular, while in the US church attendance is also in
decline, and even those mega churches enjoying high attendance deliver a message
so spiritually attenuated that it can be hard to distinguish between a sermon
and a Ted talk.
it’s not all that simple. Russia may have experienced a resurgence in the
influence of the Church in the post-communist era, but the same cannot be said
of East Germany or the Czech Republic. And as for the US, Ross Douthat provides
an interesting counter narrative regarding the onset of rapid secularisation,
while, on a recent trip to New York City, I was most struck by Kanye West’s
sudden takeover of Times Square with the simple message: “Jesus is King”.
while the Western state may have adopted an attitude of “mostly harmless” (as
Douglas Adams would have put it) towards religion, and Russia has adopted an
attitude of “socially useful”, I do wonder where we will be a few decades from
now. Will the marriage between Putin’s state and the church lead to a backlash
and a resurgence of strident unbelief in Russia? Will our own weird nether
world of no existential purpose whatsoever lead to a flourishing of
compensatory quasi-religions based around Woke puritanism or Thunbergian
apocalypticism that will wage war on more traditional beliefs, only to be
replaced in turn when they grow old and decrepit? I have no idea. I’m just glad
I’m old enough to remember the dying gasps of one millenarian belief system and
the intolerance it spawned so I can more easily stay alert to signs of similar
tendencies in others.
Headline: Communism’s war on Christianity and Islam
Source: The Unherd