Has atheism killed Russia? I suspect there’s a strong case to be made for the claim. Back in early 2005, Nicholas Eberstadt detailed Russia’s demographic death-spiral in “Russia, the Sick Man of Europe.” Europe’s fertility rates are low. Japan’s are lower. But Russia takes the cake, combining basement level fertility rates with a high, largely alcohol-induced death rate. Russians have long loved vodka, of course. Yet from the late Soviet era to the present, the Russian thirst for vodka has climbed at an unprecedented rate.
If religion is the opium of the people, vodka is the religion of this atheist nation. Vodka may explain the Russian death rate, but what explains the vodka? Spiritual emptiness is the answer. Along with the vodka, ethnic nationalism and sheer bigotry step in to fill the void. Yet none of this works very well.
As I understand it, evangelical groups entered Russia shortly after communism’s collapse, with mixed results. In any case (again, if memory serves), the Russian Orthodox Church arranged a ban on foreign religious groups. Yet the Russian Orthodox church had been largely stripped of strength under communism. It became a weak, place-holding, perk-loving bureaucratic club, not a vital faith. So in the wake of communism’s collapse, little beyond vodka has poured into the vacuum at the center of Russia’s soul.
Our modern battle between religion and secularism is generally posed as a choice between the left-liberal secularism of Europe (and parts of “blue” America), on the one hand, and “red” American religiosity on the other. The Russian case needs to become part of this debate.
Conservatives like George Weigel (The Cube and the Cathedral), Claire Berlinski (Menace in Europe), and Mark Steyn (America Alone) argue that Europe is being slowly killed off by its secularism. These authors root demographic decline, and the reluctance to stand up to Islamist foes, in a secular presentism, unconcerned with the existence or fate of future generations. I think Weigel, Berlinski, and Steyn have got a point, but it can certainly be debated.
Take a look at Russia, however, and you see a country with decades more experience of atheism than Western Europe, and a far more advanced case of demographic decline. To be sure, there are plenty of confounding factors that need to be acknowledged and accounted for. But as a candidate for the case that atheism has serious real-world costs, Russia is at the top of the list.
(For more on Russia’s demographic and spiritual crisis see David Satter’s excellent 2003 article from The National Interest “A low dishonest decadence–Letter from Moscow.”)