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A mighty fortress: why does religious belief always survive when states try to stamp it out?

When Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the Soviet Union celebrated a world with "no God". Credit: Flickr/Google Images

When Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the Soviet Union celebrated a world with "no God". Credit: Flickr/Google Images

January 8, 2018   4 mins

Civilisations have tried, at various times in history, to legislate religious belief out of society.

In one of 2017’s best efforts to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series Living With the Gods, the episode Living With No God  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gg8t7 explored some of these authoritarian approaches to religion.

Throughout the series, MacGregor examines historical moments through the story behind artefacts, and in this short broadcast looks first at a clock in the British Museum which shows the reorganisation of time developed by the French Republic, referencing the beginning of the calendar with Year One while the rest of the world was using 1792. The new regime had rejected Catholicism completely, including its dominance of the way people marked time.

The new world order was about reason and logic. There was no room for the fairytales of faith. As MacGregor notes, the compulsory secularism of the regime was short-lived:

It turned out that, while people had disliked the wealth and power of the church, they had not been unduly concerned by any irrational aspects of its teaching and, above all, they had cherished its role as the place where the community gathered and as the organiser of festivals and rituals which reaffirmed, not so much an abstract idea as the community itself and its continuity across time. It was the practice rather than the beliefs of the church which had shaped society and, without a church, who was going to bury the dead?


Old habits die hard, and our desire to mark special moments has been a common tension when people try to transition away from religious tradition.

My Lithuanian friend Alina, 42, grew up under Communism. Now working in a supermarket and living in a suburb near London’s Heathrow Airport with her husband and three children, she remembers times in her own childhood in Vilnius when she noticed her parents’ generation struggling to embrace a secular approach when marking major life events:

My uncle was a member of the Communist Party, in a pretty high position, and when my grandma passed away many people from the Party attended the funeral. My aunt was not happy because at the beginning of the procession a wooden cross was carried. She was panicking and crying, worried about what the Party officials would think of them. 

It was a big commotion: ‘Who did that? What will happen to us?’ I was only 11 so I don’t know what happened but there was talk of my uncle being demoted because there was no room for God in the regime.

These days, of course, when people – particularly in developed countries where social pressure to conform to a religious tradition may not be so strong – voluntarily decide to reject religious belief, there are lots of ways weddings, funerals and the arrival of new babies can be marked (https://humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/). It’s certainly completely possible to mark life events without a religious tradition. But when secularism is imposed by a totalitarian regime, we seem to be reluctant to embrace it fully, however terrifying the consequences.

MacGregor finds that even when we are confronted by empirical evidence through scientific study, we seem to hedge our bets and hold out for something immaterial

As MacGregor finds when looking at the Russian Communist attempts to wrest outer space from the myths of the sages, some of us resist pressure to relinquish faith.

Lithuanian Alina remembers the way belief was mocked:

Believing in God was a joke, like the time when Yuri Gagarin went into space and then the Soviets said ‘he flew around the earth and found there is no God’.

Looking at this moment in more detail, MacGregor finds that even when we are confronted by empirical evidence through scientific study, we seem to hedge our bets and hold out for something immaterial.

He discusses with the philosopher AC Grayling the effect of educational progress on our need for religion. Grayling suggests:

The less that people understand about science – the bigger the gap between our disciplined empirical investigation of the world and our incomprehension of it – the easier it is for people to reach for the sort of faith based explanation. This is because human beings like narrative. They want a beginning, a middle and an end. They want an explanation. They want closure.

But, even having considered Grayling’s argument, MacGregor concludes, based on the historical experiences of France and Russia:

It became clear in both instances that the key question was not the truth or otherwise of the propositions that the churches taught but the social engagement with the practices around them and, in both cases, the replacement festivals and celebrations failed to meet the deeper emotional needs of the community.

I’d go further. I think MacGregor’s notion of a “social, not an intellectual, inheritance” describes in sociological terms the importance of religion but doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the spiritual significance.

A large crowd of worshippers attend Sunday morning Mass at Westminster Cathedral, in central London this morning.

Our human need to mark moments and milestones is universal but, for millions of people, faith is more than that. For many, there is a pull towards belief in the supernatural, and to mystical experiences which do not seem to be explicable in scientific terms.

We’ve recently seen a story of just this, elsewhere on the BBC. At the end of November, the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu was interviewed for BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show. Years previously, he had dramatically cut up his clerical collar during the programme as a protest at Mugabe’s leadership of Zimbabwe.

Speaking about his recent intercession for Zimbabwe’s future, Sentamu told Marr that he had lit a candle because, during a sleepless night of prayer, he “almost heard a little voice saying ‘light a candle’ “. He did so, twice.

For many people, there’s something more going on than a need to mark moments or a desire to retain social customs. We know that it’s perfectly possible to find non-religious ways to manage social relationships, family life and celebrations, when secularism is not imposed under duress. It isn’t just about that.

For many people, there’s something more going on than a need to mark moments or a desire to retain social customs… They continue to need to reach for something beyond themselves

And to reduce our understanding of religious belief to intellectual or social histories, important though these are, denies the depth of connection between millions of people and something immaterial.

Despite the best efforts of some, progress in economic and scientific terms does not appear to lead to secularism as an inevitability. Many people continue to need to reach for something beyond themselves.

Perhaps that’s why we find it so difficult to get rid of God.


Katie leads Faith Research Centre at ComRes, helping public, private, non-profit, academic and media clients to gather data and insights about religion and belief, and worships at Riverside Vineyard Church.


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