Thursday, December 18, 2014

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: Atheism and Orthodoxy in Modern Russia

In this talk I propose to outline the history of atheism in Russia during the last hundred years. I will start by considering the kind of atheism present in Russia before the Revolution. Then I will say something about the development of atheism during the Soviet period. And finally I will conclude with some observations concerning the nature of Russian post-Soviet atheism.

I should like to begin with the following questions. How did it happen that the country known as ‘Holy Russia’, with such a long history of Orthodox Christianity, was in a very short period of time turned by the Bolsheviks into ‘the first atheist state in the world’? How was it possible that the very same people who were taught religion in secondary schools in the 1910s with their own hands destroyed churches and burned holy icons in the 1920s? What is the explanation of the fact that the Orthodox Church, which was so powerful in the Russian Empire, was almost reduced to zero by its former members?

I should say at once that I cannot interpret what happened in Russia in 1917 as an accident, the seizure of power by a small group of villains. Rather I perceive in the Russian revolution the ultimate outcome of the processes which were going on within the pre-revolutionary society and so, to a considerable extent, within the Russian Church (as there was no separation between Church and society).

I would claim that the Russian revolution was the offspring of both the Russian monarchy and the Church. The roots of the post-revolutionary atheism should be looked for in pre-revolutionary Russian society and in the Church.

It has been said that Russia was baptized but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.

But on the eve of the revolution it became more and more clear that atheism had also invaded the mass of ordinary people. Berdyaev wrote at that time that the simple Russian baba, who was supposed to be religious, was no longer a reality but a myth: she had become a nihilist and an atheist. I would like to quote some more from what this great Russian philosopher wrote in 1917, several months before the October revolution:

“The Russian nation always considered itself to be Christian. Many Russian thinkers and artists were even inclined to regard it as a nation which is Christian par excellence. The Slavophiles thought that Russian people live by the Orthodox faith, which is the only true faith containing the entire truth… Dostoevsky preached that. The Russian nation is a bearer of God… But, it was here that revolution broke out, and it…revealed a spiritual emptiness in Russian people.

Read the rest here.

This is a rather thought provoking piece originally from 2001. It was recently reposted on a Catholic blog and I think it worth some sober reflection.

1 comment:

Triggstar said...

In 2001 Hilarion was an Archimandrite, not even a Bishop.

The next year, 2002, after his episcopal consecration, he came to London, and on the instructions of the present Patriarch - Kirill was then Head of the Department of External Church Relations - Hilarion proceeded to foment division within the Diocese of Sourozh which resulted in a formal split four years later. The real reason behind Hilarion's action was a desire to see the missionary diocese of Sourozh, with its open spirit, turned into a Russian nationalist ghetto, mainly for ethnic Russians. That aim has, unfortunately, been largely achieved. If Russian Orthodoxy is now what Patriarch Kirill wishes it to be, then there will be another uprising against the Church and a further and even more terrible persecution awaiting it.