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Deadly Atheism?


Stanley, while the Soviet Union boasted more than a few deadly atheists, I don’t think the broader argument that atheism “killed Russia” holds up. Communism was, of course, enormously destructive, but that’s a different topic.

Let’s start the best way, with a drink, specifically vodka. That Russia has a vodka problem is undeniable, but it has had so since at least the mid-19th Century. That’s when the Czarist authorities essentially took over the trade (it was a huge revenue raiser for Imperial Russia, just as it was for the Soviet Union). As for widespread drunkeness, a quick glance at contemporary 19th Century accounts will show that Holy Mother Russia was a binge drinker: that’s why the incoming Bolsheviks spent so much time on temperance education.

Then let’s look at atheism in the USSR. Certainly the state was atheist, often aggressively so, but that is not the same as saying that the people were. For obvious reasons, trustworthy numbers are difficult to come by, and they weren’t static over the whole period, but there’s a case for saying that there was no time that fewer than one-third of the Soviet population considered themselves to be religious. It’s also worth adding that for a considerable number of true believers Communism itself was effectively a ‘religious’ belief. 

For what it’s worh the vast number (north of three quarters) of Russians today describe themselves as Russian Orthodox, although this is often just a cultural marker (much like the Church of England, perhaps).

Then we should examine the death toll “from vodka” today. The numbers are appalling and appear to be rising, but they must be seen in the context of a health and welfare system that has largely collapsed. The idea that Russians are drinking themselves to death is too much of an over-simplification, and, given the country’s history, the idea that they took to spirits to fill some imagined spiritual vacuum doesn’t really hold up. If you want a quick over-simplification, many Soviets drank because there was not much else to do. Jobs were undemanding and unrewarding, and alternative entertainment opportunities were hard to come by. Imagine being stuck in some Siberian Kolkhoz. What are you going to do?  Stare out at the the snow? Slump in your hut? Drink yourself into oblivion? Polish your tractor? Those are bleak choices, but I think I know what I’d go for.  

As for the idea that Europe is being “killed off” by its secularism, that does not wash at all. As Mark Steyn, for example, notes in his book (it’s easily the best of the three you allude to, incidentally), birth rates are falling dramatically across the whole planet for reasons associated with modernity, welfare statism etc. His key argument is that they are falling less rapidly in (some) Muslim states and communities than in many other parts of the world. What counts, he argues, is who is left standing at the end.

None of this is to deny that atheism came with costs. Name me a belief-system that doesn’t however.