November 16: Atheism and Communism

US Recognizes USSR (1933):
Atheism and Communism

It was on this date, November 16, 1933, that the United States recognized the Soviet Union when President Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the USSR — sixteen years after the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union, so the popular story goes, was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. This is circumstantially true, but a complete story would show that the Soviet state was set up to be a quasi-religion itself.

Since before the 1917 Revolution, and especially after the U.S. recognized the fait accompli of the Soviet Union, the charges have been (a) that Communist Russia killed millions because their leaders had no religion (were Atheist), and (b) that Atheism leads to Communism. Are these charges true?

There are multiple answers, but the question itself rests on a misunderstanding of Atheism. Atheism is not an ideology or belief system; in fact, Atheism is simply an absence of belief in a God or gods: Atheism is to religion as “bald” is to hair color. Atheism does not lead to Communism anymore than disbelieving in Santa Claus leads anybody to steal toys from kids. Atheism isn’t about believing something: it’s about doubting something.

It is true that the Bolsheviks discouraged religious worship, closed some churches and stole church property and wealth. One might wonder why the churches were so wealthy and the people so poor but, again, a complete story would show that the Russian Orthodox Church was the confidante of and collaborator with a corrupt and repressive Russian monarchy. The religious hierarchy cared less for the Russian peasantry than for power and money. When the revolution was complete, the revolutionist Reds had to put the clerical-monarchist Whites in their place. Religion could not be allowed to compete with the Soviet state for citizen loyalty. The new government accomplished this by instituting strict church-state separation. The policy involved some killing, imprisonment and exile of recalcitrant clerics. These were tragic, but religious apologists vastly overstate the numbers.

Yes, the Soviet leaders — Lenin (1917-1924), Stalin (1924-1953), Malenkov (1953-1955?), Khrushchev (1955?-1964), Brezhnev (1964-1982), Andropov (1982-1984), Chernenko (1984-1985), and even Gorbachev (1985-1989) — were Atheists. But even in the darkest days under Stalin (who murdered no more than 700,000, not the millions often claimed by anti-Communist, Christian apologists) his motivation did not spring from a hatred of religion or a dogmatic Atheism (indeed, Stalin reopened many Orthodox churches). Atheism is not a good organizing ideology to begin with; religion is much better at that. Stalin was a Soviet first, an Atheist only incidentally.

But isn’t it true that Stalin’s Atheism set him free to murder hundreds of thousands, without fear of consequences, here or hereafter? This idea makes three errors: first it erroneously assumes that “mass murderer” is the natural, unchurched state of humanity. Second, it discounts the corrupting influence of Communist ideology, and, for that matter, statist and militarist power in the hands of a paranoid despot (and how can a despot afford not to be forever looking over his shoulder?). Finally, it conveniently overlooks the mass murders committed by Christians throughout European history: Manicheans, Arians, Waldensians, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, Beguines, Bogomils, Beghards, Lollards, Moors, Hussites, Huguenots, Protestants by Catholics, Catholics by Protestants, and, of course, Jews. One might ask, if they are so morally superior, what set Christians free to murder so many?

Granted, the tu quoque (“but so do you!”) argument isn’t to the point, so let’s put it this way: religion, especially Christianity, tells us that it’s better than Atheism. If that is true, then how do Christians explain the Russian Orthodox Church siding with the oppressive Tsars, against the people? The fact is, Atheism is not opposed to religion, per se, but is at best (or at worst) indifferent to religion. It does not follow that Atheism leads to Communism, anymore than that Atheism leads to brutality and repression, or moral degradation, or fluoridated water.

Besides, states do not have “morality” — they have interests. So it was not immoral or “wrong” for the secular US government to recognize the secular Soviet government on this date in 1933. Interests are a firmer basis for international actions than ideology or religion. Religion and ideology both can turn morality on its head: Communist or Christian, doing what you are told, no matter what is right, is immoral. Morality resides in doing what is right, no matter what you are told.

Originally published November 2003.

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Posted in History, Politics, Religion

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John Mill

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