USSR State Atheism & the New Atheists.


There is no avoiding the conclusion that those holding to the atheistic worldview have been responsible for mass violence and moral abominations in our recent 20th century. This is an outgrowth of state atheism, the subject of an up and coming documentary called Martyred in the USSR. State atheism is a term that applies to governmental authorities who are explicitly either antireligious, antitheistic or promotes atheism. This government opposes any form of religious institutional power and influence in all aspects of public and political life. It also delves into the personal lives of its people with intent to combat any form of religion that might exist there. These acts are well documented from places such as Revolutionary France & Mexico to early 20th century Marxist-Leninist states, as well as the Soviet era (1922–1991). These governments favourably promoted atheism over religion, and often with extreme violence that resulted in the loss of lives numbering in the millions.

For just shy of 70 long years the Soviet Union and its authorities, with their ideology of Marxism-Leninism, violently suppressed Christianity. They emphasized the destruction of all forms of religious beliefs and practices; a persecution that took various forms when the religious were persecuted, imprisoned, and executed. Schools and educational institutions became breeding pits for atheistic propaganda that ridiculed religion, and many sacred religious structures such as temples, mosques, and churches were destroyed. Peter Hitchens, brother of the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, had experienced and witnessed life under this regime. He writes that “Soviet power had taken on the responsibilities of God, but its commandments were very different. In fact, Soviet Communism used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as Western atheism does today” (1).

Much of modern day New Atheism, as Hitchens notes, appears to be eerily similar to the totalitarian ideology of the Soviets. Evidence for this is abundant within New Atheist literature that maintains contempt for anything religious. Peter’s brother Christopher,  with much malice, claims that “religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right” (2). It is this nastiness, argues Peter, that could have unfortunate consequences:

“I think most of them don’t know what they are doing, and one of the purposes of my book [The Rage Against God] is to point out to those of them who are perhaps open to any kind of persuasion the dangers of what it is that they are pursuing. The profoundly intolerant, and in effect totalitarian nature of the programme that they are beginning to set up. You see this all the time in the rage against God of the New Atheists. They’re angry, they’re angry with something” (3).

As Peter would be well aware of, no-one is arguing that atheists are immoral creatures, or that they cannot act morally. Rather, what one wishes to point out is that fundamentalist atheists like Christopher Hitchens could further promote and actualize human misery and suffering.

Recent history testifies to the number of fallen Christians at the hands of the atheistic Soviet authorities that is estimated to be between 12 and 20 million (4). However, despite this deliberate effort on the part of the Soviet authorities to squelch and obliterate religion within their borders, these religious beliefs and practices still enjoyed a majority share of the population (5) which highlighted their failure to eradicate religion. However, this form of militant atheism had at its center the ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This godless system promoted the idea that atheists by nature were more righteous and honourable than the religious, and that its leaders were of the highest value and importance. However, much like contemporary atheists today, the Soviets recognized their atheism as the only scientific truth, and any criticism was forcefully outlawed (5). Criticism was seen to be an obstacle for the construction of a communist society (6).

Inevitably the majority of religious citizens found themselves directly exposed to anti-religious propaganda in their educational institutions, as well as via laws and regulations. Many Christians in the years following World War 2 were forcefully sent to mental hospitals and institutions while others were imprisoned. If they refused to join the military they would also face imprisonment as well as denied parental rights (7). Even though the Soviets never outright banned personal religious beliefs this was changed when Lenin rose to power, and by those who would follow on from him. Thus replacing everything religious became the main ideological purpose for Lenin and his Soviet state. Peter Hitchens was well aware of the harsh implications such a system would produce, and he likewise paints a bleak prospect for England: “I also concluded that a society which was de-Christianised would also face such problems, because I have seen public discourtesy and incivility spreading rapidly in Britain” (8). This “incivility” would seem to result from a denial of England’s rich Christian roots, as the prominent atheist philosopher Jürgen Habermas noted:

“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk” (9).

Although Habermas is brutally honest here this comes like a toothache to the New Atheists. The New Atheists have made it apparent that they view the Bible, and sometimes the Bible believer, as immoral, backwards, and barbaric. The Bible, they argue, is anything but a worthy guide manual. But, as Habermas noted, no-one can deny that Christianity has brought much benefit to humanity just as the Christian cannot deny that it has likewise been abused.

However, the persecution of Christians under the Soviet Union remained unrelenting. Many priests were forcefully sent to mental hospitals, prisons and labour camps, subjected to various forms of torture, and executed. Many Christians, as well as those of other religious faiths, were experimented on through mind control experimentation with the goal of getting them to relinquish their religious beliefs (10). Many Orthodox bishops, and priests were executed, numbering 28 and 1200 respectively. Others can be considered more fortunate by only being kicked out of the country. Peter Harris argues that “The atrocities committed against Christians, Jews and Muslims on Stalin’s orders are well-documented. With the exception of the years 1941-53, the forcible secularisation of believers was usual Soviet policy. With specific reference to Stalin’s premiership, during the late Twenties churches were closed with considerable violence meted out to those who tried to preserve their places of worship. A second wave of arrests of clerics and closures of churches occurred during the Great Purge of 1936-9. Prison camps in the Soviet ‘Gulag’ were nothing more than places where prisoners were worked to death” (11).

New Atheists routinely deny this link connecting their ideology to the acts of Soviets. Richard Dawkins, for example, claims that “What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does” (12).

In response political commentator Dinesh D’Souza argues “that murderous regimes, whether Christian or atheist, are generally seeking to strengthen their position. But if Christian regimes are held responsible for their crimes committed in the name of Christianity, then atheist regimes should be held accountable for their crimes committed in the name of atheism. And who can deny that Stalin and Mao, not to mention Pol Pot and a host of others, all committed atrocities in the name of a Communist ideology that was explicitly atheistic? Who can dispute that they did their bloody deeds by claiming to be establishing a new man and a religion-free utopia? These were mass murders performed with atheism as a central part of their ideological inspiration, they were not mass murders done by people who simply happened to be atheist” (13).

Atheists like Stalin viewed themselves as no longer being morally accountable to God or any other form of ultimate authority. If there is no God, then there cannot be any judgment after death. In an often quoted passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book, we can agree with his logic that “If God does not exist then everything is permissible.” The logic  follows since if God does not exist then there are no binding moral laws. This allows room for the evil intended to act out their deeds.

However, being well aware of the contemporary atheist’s attempt to severe this connection, Peter Hitchens argues that they “cannot honestly disown it.” One may also argue that those atheists who are quick to point out the bad deeds done in the name of religion need to also take ownership of the abuse done in ideologies that were explicitly atheistic. Atheist writer John Steinrucken agrees with Hitchens that “secular attempts for utopia, when actually put to the test, have not merely come to naught. Attempts during those two centuries to put into practice utopian visions have caused huge sufferings” (14).


1. Hitchens, P. 2010. In the Soviet suburbs of Hell and the blasted avenues of Mogadishu, I saw what our society could become. Available.

2. Hitchens, C. Christopher Hitchens – Religion. Available.

3. Hitchens, P. How Atheism Lead Me to Faith. Available.

4. Nelson, J. Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality.

5. Froese, P. 2004. Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia. Available.

6. Peris, D. Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless. & Pospielovsky, D. History of the Orthodox Church in the History of Russia.

7. Lyudmila Alexeeva, Memorial Page.

8. Hitchens, P. 2010. Rage Against God. p. 166.

9. Habermas, J. 2006. Time of Transitions. p. 150-151.

10. Father Arseny. 1998. Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. p. 6.

11. Harris, P. Dawkins and the Abuse of History. Available.

12. Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. p. 309.

13. D’Souza, D. 2010. Answering Atheist’s Arguments Regarding Wars. Available.

14. Steinrucken, J. 2010. Secularism’s Ongoing Debt to Christianity. Available.


6 responses to “USSR State Atheism & the New Atheists.

  1. Great post, James (as usual). By way of example, recently Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience, in a debate with a Christian Theist (I forget who) was forced to admit that he thought that morals should be decided by society. But the question then immediately arises, Which society? Nazi Germany? The Amish? North Korea? How do we choose between them?
    BTW, hats off to Boris for a brilliant, thoughtful, well-researched and non-personal response. Not.

  2. Morals are decided by society – that is why different societies have different morals. It is not that long ago that slavery was disputed in a war.

    • I don’t subscribe to one particular theory of moral philosophy. I think morality is far too complex to be pigeonholed by our current knowledge. I was simply pointing out to Mark, that in the real world, societies do decide moral values. Many societies have been/are based purely on religious moral absolutism. So to expand on Mark’s argument of “which society” – I would ask: how do we choose which religious society we should follow?

      Christians (and many other religions) are quite eager to claim a monopoly on absolute morality. But when atheists point out the immorality of Mosaic Law, we are told that we have to reinterpret the Bible according to the culture and the time in which it was written. But isn’t that just moral relativism?

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