Sunday, March 10, 2013

Was the Soviet Union atheistic?

Karen Jacoby, author of the recent biography of Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic, was interviewed in Five Books. The entire interview is worthwhile but especially her comments about the trope that the misdeeds of the Soviet Union and other secular regimes somehow discredit atheism, materialism and rationalism. [Emphasis is mine]:
Question: What do you think about the critique of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, not necessarily the book by him you’ve chosen, but God is Not Great, for example – that they put too much blame on religion? I’m in China right now, you’ve got a lot of friends in Russia, what about this argument that countries that have really embraced atheism have seen some of the worst excesses of human nature? Even if you don’t believe in God, don’t the teachings of, say, Christianity – for example loving your neighbour as yourself – help make the world a better place?
Ms Jacoby: Yeah, right. That’s why everybody was so tolerant in 16th and 17th century England, because they were Christians. I’m really glad you asked that question. The idea that some of the worst things happened under countries that were officially atheist, well firstly, lots of people never embraced atheism. The salient point about the Soviet Union, like Hitler’s Germany (which was not officially atheist), is that when secular ideology is treated as something that cannot be challenged and that need not be proven, then it becomes a religion. Stalinist Communism was every bit as much a religion as Roman Catholicism at the height of the Inquisition. Why? It was a religion because its tenets could not be challenged. And if they contradicted the laws of nature, they couldn’t be challenged either. An entire generation of Soviet biologists and agronomists were destroyed because Stalin had a favourite biologist named Lysenko, and Lysenko’s basic belief was – and this went right along with Communist ideology – that you could change species by changing their behaviour, in other words a new Soviet man, or a new Soviet cow, could be made genetically different by the teachings you gave them. Scientists who said no – and everything we know and have proved about science including Mendelian genetics says that it is not true – went to the gulags and were killed. Soviet science was two generations behind the West when it emerged from this era in the mid-1960s. So what I say is that in fact what is often used as proof that religion is good is proof that religion is bad, because religion doesn’t have to call itself Christianity, or have Yahweh or Jesus as its idol, it can have secular idols. The characteristic of a religion is that no evidence-based challenge is allowed. Soviet Communism fit that model perfectly, and as soon as evidence-based challenge was allowed, it took just 30 years to collapse, which may seem long, but as historical time goes is not long at all. 

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