Communism and Religion

I’m sure this is a rehash of the “Stalin/Mao was an atheist” argument (which is awkward coming from a fellow atheist), but what’s the motivation that communists or any sort of dictatorial tyrant has in oppressing religion? Trying to impose an absolute will? Trying to keep people ignorant to any potential “higher powers” other than the state? Is it some sort of more general premise of ruling that we just don’t see as much in other forms of government?

Posted: August 8th 2008


Not sure why this is a question to ask an atheist rather than a historian…

In the soviet case, religion was repressed after the revolution because it was an existing power structure, and those who had seized control didn’t want any competition.

“I am the one in charge” tends to run up against “god tells us what to do”. You can see a similar dynamic in Iran right now – there’s a president but his power is limited because a lot of things are really run by the religious leaders.

I don’t know enough about the history of communist china to have an opinion there, except to note that asian concepts of religion tend to be fairly different from western ones.

Posted: August 28th 2008

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George Locke

My understanding of this issue is that fascist governments (including those who call themselves communist) declare received morality bunk and substitute Big Brother instead. For communist states, traditional morality is protrayed as a means for the bourgeois to oppress the proletariat. Clearly, state control of morality is a powerful tool for manipulating the public. Religion is a force standing in the way of this transformation.

Feel free to put a plus one on the side of religion versus atheism if you feel like it. Of course, secular organizations are also opposed by the state for the same reason.

Posted: August 10th 2008

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SmartLX www

Two big reasons at least, specific to communist states. That covers Stalin and Mao.

  1. Communism has an extremely strict ideology, and strives to imprint it on citizens. Every major religion has its own ideology, and none of them are entirely compatible with that of communism. Therefore all religions capable of garnering a decent following are competition. No dictator would put up with that.
  2. Marx said that religion is the opiate of the people. He saw it as a painkiller, a drug they needed to make their oppression bearable. Once the new system was in place, the idea went, the people would no longer need religion. At present, based on this idea, the persistence of religion among the populace of these countries is an indicator to the authorities and to the world that communism has not produced a happy ending. Its very presence is bad PR.

There is also the idea of substituting the ruler for gods (as in North Korea where schoolchildren effectively pray to Kim Jong-Il’s late father), but that falls under the category of personality cults and may be a different kettle of fish.

Posted: August 9th 2008

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brian thomson www

I would be wary of generalising about all dictators, though I think that you’re on the right track with the idea of religion as a threat to power. The drive to centralise power, and make the State central to all aspects of life, is what we call Totalitarianism.

Religious apologists like to point out that Stalin and Mao were atheist, and attacked religion, but that’s missing the point somewhat. It’s not just religion that suffers in those circumstances: a free press also threatens the regime, and is suppressed accordingly. Under a Totalitarian regime, anything or anyone who puts out a message that deviates from State policy is a threat to be neutralised.

Sometimes, instead of being destroyed, the Press is co-opted by the regime – something we see more in modern Totalitarian regimes. Similarly, religious leaders have been known to co-operate to avoid suppression. The Nazi powers negotiated the Reichskonkordat with the Vatican in 1933, under which the Catholic Church agreed not to interfere in government. The Church also benefited from this arrangement: priests were exempted from conscription, and the vaults under the Vatican are full of the fine art that they were able to acquire, from Jewish interests, during the War.

Posted: August 9th 2008

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