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The War on Religion

Author:  Paul Kengor Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His books include God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004), The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007), and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007).

As Mikhail Gorbachev aptly stated, the Soviet communist state carried out a comprehensive “war on religion.” 1 He lamented that the Bolsheviks, his predecessors, even after the civil war ended in the early 1920s, during a time of “peace,” had “continued to tear down churches, arrest clergymen, and destroy them. This was no longer understandable or justifiable. Atheism took rather savage forms in our country at that time.” 2

The Soviet Union, reflective of the communist world as a whole, was openly hostile to religion and officially atheist; it was not irreligious or unreligious, with no stance on religion, but took the position that there was no God. Moreover, that atheism translated into a form of vicious anti-religion that included a systematic, often brutal campaign to eliminate belief. This began from the outset of the Soviet communist state and still continues in various forms in communist countries to this day, from China to North Korea to Cuba.

Communist Teaching

The roots of this hatred and intolerance of religion lie in the essence of communist ideology. Marx dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses,” and opined that, “Communism begins where atheism begins.” 3 Speaking on behalf of the Bolsheviks in his famous October 2, 1920 speech, Lenin stated matter-of-factly: “We do not believe in God.” Lenin insisted that “all worship of a divinity is a necrophilia.” 4 He wrote in a November 1913 letter that “any religious idea, any idea of any God at all, any flirtation even with a God is the most inexpressible foulness … the most dangerous foulness, the most shameful ‘infection.’” James Thrower of the University of Virginia (a Russia scholar and also a translator) says that in this letter the type of “infection” Lenin was referring to was venereal disease. 5

“There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” wrote Lenin in a letter to Maxim Gorky in January 1913. 6 On December 25, 1919, Christmas Day, Comrade Lenin issued the following order, in his own writing: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday] would be stupid—the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.” 7 Under Lenin, this was not an isolated occurrence.

Along with Trotsky, Lenin became involved in the creation of groups with names like the Society of the Godless, also known as the League of the Militant Godless, which was responsible for the dissemination of anti-religious propaganda in the USSR. 8 This institutionalized bigotry continued to thrive under Lenin’s disciples, most notably Stalin, and even under more benign leaders like Nikita Khrushchev.

This atheism was endemic to the communist experiment. Even those communists unable to secure political power—and thus lacking the ability to persecute believers—still did their best to persecute the teachings of organized religion and ridicule the idea of the existence of God. Even in America, it was no surprise to stroll by a city newsstand and catch bold front-page headlines like this in the Daily Worker, the communist organ published by CPUSA: “THERE IS NO GOD.” 9 Communists were proud of their atheism, and militant about it.

Equal Opportunity Discriminator

This armed assault on religious faith was aimed not just at Christians—Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox—but against Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faiths. 10 For every Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary, there was a Cardinal Wyszynski in Poland, a Richard Wurmbrand in Romania, a Natan Sharansky or Walter Ciszek in Russia, a Vasyl Velychkovsky or Severian Baranyk or Zenobius Kovalyk in the Ukraine, a Moaddedi clan in Afghanistan, a Lutheran or Methodist missionary or follower of the Dalai Lama in China, a jailed nun in Cuba, or a Buddhist monk forced to renounce his vows in Cambodia. Whether the despot was Fidel Castro or Pol Pot or Stalin, the sentiment was the same: “Religion is poison,” as Mao Tse-Tung was said to have stated. Wherever they went, from East to West, from Africa to Asia, from Phnom Penh to St. Petersburg, communists pursued an all-out assault on religion. Communists quibbled over the details of how to implement Marx’s vision, but they were unanimous in one thing: religion was the enemy, a rival to Marxist mind control, and it had to be vanquished regardless of costs and difficulties.

Moscow was the source and summit for much of this effort. Yet, Soviet apparatchiks sought to replicate the campaign through their eager comrades atop leadership posts elsewhere. The repression took place, in varying degrees, throughout Eastern Europe. For example, communist anti-religious indoctrination of school children was especially rigorous in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Czechoslovakia was infamous for this form of atheism.

Among the most religiously repressive nations in the communist empire was Romania. There, the hatred of religion was evident through the extraordinary means employed to try to banish it.