November 25, 2019

The anti-religion campaigns of Richard Dawkins and co. seem like a modern phenomenon, very much a 21st century internet sort-of thing. But if you do a little digging you will find that there is in fact not much that is new under the sun, and that the same arguments and counter-arguments have been regurgitated before, and on numerous occasions.

The most 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.

In fact, 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.

Images such as this, issued in 1924, were used to portray the churches as backwards and rapacious. The text reads: “God the Father: You’ve let me down, my minions. I’m ashamed to be seen on Earth now!”

But that 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.

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In fact, 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.

Lenin by 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 standard!”

“Cultural Goods”, from 1984. “Under the shop window this weasel/Has set himself up nicely/There’s a foolish fashion that means/They’ll snap his junk right up.”

But if 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.

The regime 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.

“A prison for heart and mind”, unknown year

This 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.

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In one 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.

There was 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?

“There is no God”, from 1975

Interestingly, 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.

The Soviet 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.

In fact, 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.

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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.

“God’s slaves/Masters of life”, from 1940

And yet, 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”.

However, 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.