There is an issue brought out by Richard Dawkins in his TLS review of Hitchens’ book, God is not Great, that I think needs further scrutiny.
It has to do with these lines:
Another deeply evil man, Joseph Stalin, was probably an atheist but, again, he didn’t do evil because he was an atheist, any more than he, or Hitler, or Saddam Hussein, did evil because they had moustaches. Hitchens is especially good on the idiotic challenge “Stalin and Hitler were atheists, what d’you say to that?” – doubtless after plenty of practice. Stalin, Hitler and the others may not have been religious themselves, but they understood the ingrained religiosity of their subjects, and exploited it gratefully. Hitchens makes the point only briefly in the book, but he has enlarged upon it in later speeches and interviews:
For hundreds of years, millions of Russians had been told the head of state should be a man close to God, the Czar, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as absolute despot. If you’re Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t exploit the pool of servility and docility that’s ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity.
I think it’s easy to cloud the issue of the Soviet Unions attempts to destroy religion. I believe a certain apologia is manifesting itself to hold Stalin and Lenin apart from their anti-religious, atheistic, over reliance on science world views. It has been some what popular to call the communism of the Soviet Union a “religion”. It is stated as fact in some circles, and is called such in Sam Harris’, The End of Faith.
As Paul Gabel states:
While Vladimir Lenin was languishing in Europe waiting for revolution, he championed freedom of religious expression in Russia. But when he took power in November 1917, he reverted to the Marxist imperative of destruction of all religious faith — whether institutional or psychological. Marxist theory predicted that the end of class warfare would automatically lead to collapse of the class-based superstructure of religion, and Leon Trotsky held that the superstitious Russian muzhik was on the verge of atheism already — all that was needed for the whole rotting corpse to collapse was a good shove (like murdering Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon). But Lenin knew that the task would not be easy.
Stalin (Lenin’s mouthpiece), after Lenin’s death, and became the leader of the Soviet Union, set out to disentangle Leon Trotsky’s effort to try for a more democratic system.
As Robert Conquest points out:
In 1925 Stalin was able to arrange for Leon Trotsky to be removed from the government. Some of Trotsky’s supporters pleaded with him to organize a military coup. As commissar of war Trotsky was in a good position to arrange this. However, Trotsky rejected the idea and instead resigned his post.
With the decline of Trotsky, Joseph Stalin felt strong enough to stop sharing power with Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev. Stalin now began to attack Trotsky’s belief in the need for world revolution.
The policies set forth against the Russian Orthodox Church went much further.
As Austin Cline states:
In a campaign marked by shifts of tactics, alternating between conciliation and persecution, and armed uprisings led by monks and abbots, the Buddhist church was removed progressively from public administration, was subjected to confiscatory taxes, was forbidden to teach children, and was prohibited from recruiting new monks or replacing living buddhas. The campaign’s timing matched the phases of Josef Stalin’s persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1938 - amid official fears that the church and monasteries were likely to cooperate with the Japanese, who were promoting a pan-Mongol puppet state - the remaining monasteries were dissolved, their property was seized, and their monks were secularized.
What followed were attempts reconcile the situation, mainly for propaganda purposes to bolster the red army.
As pointed out by John Anderson:
One feature of official policies confirmed in some of the documents reproduced here relates to the obsessive concern with control over religious bodies, especially after 1943 when it was recognized that the complete elimination of institutional religion was not practicable. The security services, local commissioners for religious affairs, and committees attached to local soviets played a key role in collecting detailed statistics on the activities of religious bodies. Not only was information kept on the number of baptisms, weddings and funerals, but often official reports could tell you the age, profession and gender of whole communities. Various reports of this type are to be found here, my favourite being that produced by the Moscow religious affairs commissioner in January 1965 who knew that in five Moscow churches during Epiphany a total of 182 000 litres of holy water had been distributed (p. 247). And such detailed analysis was taking place into the late 1980s.
Overall the book provides a fascinating insight into the official mentality and its obsessive concern with maintaining control over religious bodies.
I close then with Paul Gabel:
If faith is inherent in the human condition, then the Bolsheviks were doomed from the start, for their goal was not just the physical destruction of church buildings or the legal destruction of religious institutions, but the emptying of minds of even the possibility of religious thought or emotion. Marx, Engels, and Lenin, of course, rejected the premise of a religious human nature, arguing that ever since separate social and economic classes emerged, religion had become nothing but a tool of the ruling class. The Bolshevik rejection of innateness is what led them on their hopeless quest.
Five years after the Communists lost control of greater Russia — after decades of antireligious parades, endless propaganda, and cruel persecution — Russian Orthodoxy still claims (at least nominally) almost 72 percent of the population and “no religious affiliation” claims less than 19 percent9, which is roughly the figure in America, where no such antireligious crusade occurred. That tells us something significant about the religious nature of our natures.
In fact, it would appear, a great deal of the policies put in place were “anti-religious” for many reasons. This was the thrust of what can be considered Atheism in the Soviet Union. Mustaches not withstanding.