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  • The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization
  • Shoshana Keller
The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization. By Paul Froese. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 264 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

Sociologists rarely get an opportunity to test their theories in the field, and Paul Froese of Baylor University wryly comments, "I expect this is a welcome blessing for most of the population" (p. 38). The rise and fall of that great sociopolitical experiment known as the Soviet Union does provide a venue for such testing, in which Froese applies sociological theories of religion to what he calls the "Soviet Secularization Experiment" to see how well they hold up. The results for the theories are mixed, although this approach does provide some valuable insights into how the religious landscape of the USSR developed. It also raises serious questions, at least in the mind of this historian, about the limits of theoretical modeling for understanding specific societies.

The book examines six assertions about the relationship between religion and society: modern scientific knowledge undermines religious belief (Karl Marx); rituals are powerful because of the "collective effervescence" they generate, not because they really connect with the supernatural (Emile Durkheim); religious participation is based on rational calculations of social and/or otherworldly reward (Max Weber; Rodney Starke and Roger Finke); religion is dependent on state support and can be determined by the state (Lev Trotsky); and religious institutions are subject to market forces (Adam Smith). Froese tests these assertions through a chronological survey of Soviet efforts to make the entire population of the former Russian Empire scientific atheists or, when that failed early on, to disrupt the supply of religious institutions and the demand for them. He concludes with a brief chapter on the post-Soviet situation and a meditation on the apparent inseparability of politics and religion.

The USSR contained dozens of religions and hundreds of sects. Froese, who draws on mostly English-language secondary sources for his data, confines his analysis to various forms of Christianity and to Central [End Page 544] Asian Islam, on which there has been a recent spate of publishing. Two central points of comparison in the study are the respective fates of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), predominant in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and the Roman Catholic Church, predominant in Lithuania. The Bolsheviks aimed their fiercest assaults against the ROC, which was their rival not so much for political legitimacy as for fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world and humanity. Within weeks of seizing power in October 1917, Vladimir Lenin stripped the church of all state political and financial support. The Communist Party's Union of Militant Godless conducted enthusiastic antireligious propaganda, based on the premise that teaching basic science and demonstrating that faith in God, saints, and miraculous icons was illusory would be sufficient to destroy Orthodoxy. Simultaneously, the party built up an alternate body of "scientific atheist" ritual ("Octoberings" in place of christenings, public processions with red banners and portraits of the leaders in place of holy icons) and belief about the ultimate future of humanity. These actions directly implemented the theories of Trotsky, Marx, and Durkheim.

By the late 1920s it became clear that destroying religion was not so easy. The central factor in the turn to open violence was the ascent of Joseph Stalin, who subordinated the entire revolution to his economic program and need for absolute obedience. Over the next ten years the Soviet state imprisoned and murdered thousands of priests, monks, and nuns; burned icons; and seized church buildings and valuables. The government imposed heavy social and economic penalties on churchgoers, everything from job loss to public humiliation, imprisonment, or death. The supply of and demand for Orthodox education for children all but disappeared, as parents would not endanger their children's futures by seeking out the few teachers who survived. A rational actor, assessing the social rewards of participation in the ROC, could only conclude that there were none.

Despite the combination of persuasion and violence, the party failed to destroy either the ROC as an institution or popular belief in its tenets. Indeed...


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pp. 544-547
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