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State atheism has been defined by David Kowalewski as the official "promotion of atheism" by a government, typically by active suppression of religious freedom and practice.[1]

As a strict rule (a period in Revolutionary France being a possible exception), only Marxist governments have ever sought to promote atheism as a public norm, and as a rule in accordance with the doctrine of dialectical materialism. State atheism may include active opposition to religion, and persecution of religious institutions, leaders and believers. However, whether such persecution was truly motivated by atheism is disputed by others.[2][3] The Soviet Union had a long history of state atheism,[4] in which social success largely required individuals to reject theism and stay away from churches; this attitude was especially militant under Joseph Stalin.[5][6][7] The Soviet Union attempted to suppress religion over wide areas of its influence, including places like central Asia.[8] The Socialist People's Republic of Albania under Enver Hoxha went so far as to officially ban the practice of every religion.[9]


During the French Revolution, for the first time in history, a society delved into the prospect of an atheist state.[10] After the Revolution, Jacques Hébert, a radical revolutionary journalist, and Anacharsis Cloots, a politician, had successfully campaigned for the proclamation of the antitheistic Cult of Reason, which was adopted by the French Republic on November 10, 1793, though abandoned May 7, 1794 in favor its deistic replacement the Cult of the Supreme Being.[11] Cloots maintained that Reason and Truth were "supremely intolerant" and that the daylight of atheism would make the lesser lights of religious night disappear.[11] The state then further pushed its campaign of dechristianization,[12] which included removal and destruction of religious objects from places of worship and the transformation of churches into "Temples of the Goddess of Reason", culminating in a celebration of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral.[13][14][15]

Counterrevolution against the anticlerical aspects of the Revolution led to a civil war in the Vendée where republicans suppressed the Catholic and royalist uprising in what some call the first modern genocide.[10][16]

Unlike later establishments of anti-theism by Socialist governments, the French Revolutionary experiment was short (7 months), incomplete and inconsistent.[12] Although brief, the French experiment was particularly notable for the influence upon atheists Ludwig Feuerbach (who called religion an opiate before Marx[17]), Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.[10] Using the ideas of Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, Socialist governments later treated religious believers as subversives or abnormal, often relegated to psychiatric hospitals and reeducation.[10]

Religion under Socialist governments

By 1970 all 22 nations of central and eastern Europe which were behind the Iron Curtain were de jure Atheistic, promoting it, ideologically linked to it and opposed on principal to all religion.[18] Socialist governments elsewhere took similar approaches.

According to Karl Marx the founder of Marxism, religion is a tool utilized by the ruling classes whereby the masses can briefly relieve their suffering via the act of experiencing religious emotions. It is in the interest of the ruling classes to instill in the masses the religious conviction that their current suffering will lead to eventual happiness. Therefore, as long as the public believes in religion, they will not attempt to make any genuine effort to understand and overcome the real source of their suffering, which in Marx's opinion was their non-Communist economic system.[19] Marx saw religion as the "opium of the people" in the sense that it was used to control the masses. Critics argue that this has motivated certain Socialist governments to curtail religious practice or seek to suppress religion because they considered it a suppressive, subversive set of guidelines, and thereby attached the charge of sedition to certain religions.

However, Richard Dawkins argues that Stalin's "atrocities" were influenced not by atheism but by their dogmatic Marxism,[2] saying that while Stalin and Mao happened to be atheists, they did not do their deeds in the name of atheism.[3] In response to this, Christian writer Dinesh D'Souza argued that Communism was an explicitly atheist ideology.[20]

Enver Hoxha's regime in Albania set out to abolish all religion with the intention of making the country officially atheistic: Article 37 of the Albanian constitution of 1976 stated that "The State recognizes no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people."[21]


The modern Albanian state since declaring Independence in 1912 from the Ottoman Empire, and achieving international recognition a year later, has never declared an official religion while upholding that no religion is part of Albanian national identity. After political stabilization in 1920s and 1930s the Albanian Monarchy in a series of reforms towards the development of the country stipulated that the state should be neutral in matters of religion, with no official religion and free exercise of religion for all faiths. Neither in government nor in the school system should favor be shown to any one faith over another.[22] In 1923, following the 11-point government program, the Albanian Muslim congress, convened in the capital, decided to break with the Caliphate, established a new form of prayer (standing, instead of the traditional salat ritual), banished polygamy and the mandatory use of the veil (hijab) by women in public, which had all been forced on the urban population by the Ottoman Turks during the occupation.[23] In 1929 the Albanian Orthodox Church was declared autocephalous.[24]

Following the reforms, religious schools were closed throughout the country and religious institutions, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, were nationalized.[22]

The trend toward state atheism in Albania was taken to an extreme during the totalitarian regime installed after WWII, when religions, identified as imports foreign to Albanian culture, were banned altogether.[25] This policy contributed in producing a nonreligious majority in the population.

The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1945 nationalized most property of religious institutions, including the estates of monasteries, orders, and dioceses. By May 1967, religious institutions had relinquished all 2,169 churches, mosques, cloisters, and shrines, many of which were converted into cultural centers for young people. Many Muslim imams and Orthodox priests renounced their "parasitic" past. More than 200 clerics of various faiths were imprisoned, others were forced to seek work in either industry or agriculture. As the literary monthly "Nëndori" reported the event, the youth had thus "created the first atheist nation in the world." From year 1967 to the end of the totalitarian regime, religious practices were banned and the country was proclaimed officially atheist, marking an event that happened for the first time in world history. Albanians born during the regime were never indoctrinated into, nor taught about religion, so they grew up to become atheists. .

Article 37 of the Albanian Constitution of 1976 stipulated, "The State recognizes no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people."[26]

The article was interpreted by Danes as violating The United Nations Charter (chapter 9, article 55) which declares that religious freedom is an inalienable human right. The first time that the question came before the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights at Geneva was as late as 7 March 1983. A delegation from Denmark got its protest over Albania's violation of religious liberty placed on the agenda of the thirty-ninth meeting of the commission, item 25, reading, "Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.", and on 20 July 1984 a member of the Danish Parliament inserted an article in one of Denmark's major newspapers protesting the violation of religious freedom in Albania.

Despite these moves by the Danes, according to the official Albanian state stance, religion served anti-Albanian interests, thus the prohibition of religious propaganda was not in any case seen as a violation of human rights, but as a necessary measure to protect human rights within the country and its culture.

Old non-institutional pagan practices in rural areas, which were seen as identifying with the national culture, were left intact. As a result, the current Albanian state has now recognized the old pagan festivals as national holidays, like the solar Summer Day festival (Albanian: Dita e Verës) held yearly throughout the country on March 14 (national date) to 21, reaching the vernal equinox.

The Soviet Union

State atheism in the Soviet Union was known as "gosateizm,[27] and was based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. As the founder of the Soviet state V. I. Lenin put it:

"Religion is the opium of the people": this saying is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.[28]

Marxism-Leninism has consistently advocated the control, suppression, and, ultimately, the elimination of religious beliefs. Within about a year of the revolution the state expropriated all church property, including the churches themselves, and in the period from 1922 to 1926, 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests were killed (a much greater number was subjected to persecution).[29]

In the 1920s and 1930s, such organizations as the League of the Militant Godless ridiculed all religions and harassed believers. Atheism was propagated through schools, communist organizations (such as the Young Pioneer Organization), and the media. Though Lenin originally introduced the Gregorian calendar to the Soviets subsequent efforts to re-organise the week for the purposes of improving worker productivity with the introduction of the Soviet revolutionary calendar had a side-effect that a "holiday will seldom fall on Sunday" [30]

Although all religions were persecuted,[29] the regime's efforts to eradicate religion, however, varied over the years with respect to particular religions, and were affected by higher state interests. Official policies and practices not only varied with time but also in their application from one nationality and one religion to another. Although all Soviet leaders had the same long-range goal of developing a cohesive Soviet people, they pursued different policies to achieve it. For the Soviet regime, the questions of nationality and religion were always closely linked. Not surprisingly, therefore, the attitude toward religion also varied from a total ban on some religions to official support of others.

Most seminaries were closed, publication of religious writing was banned.[29] The Russian Orthodox Church, which had 54,000 parishes before World War I, was reduced to 500 by 1940.[29] Although the great majority of Russia was Christian, according to the CIA Factbook, only 17 to 22 percent of the population is now Christian.[31]

The People's Republic of China

The People's Republic of China was established in 1949 and since then the government has been officially atheist.[32][33] For much of its early history maintained a hostile attitude toward religion which was seen as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism. Houses of worship, including temples, mosques, and churches, were converted into non-religious buildings for secular use.

In the early years of the People's Republic, religious belief or practice was often discouraged because it was regarded by the government as backward and superstitious and because some Communist leaders, ranging from Vladimir Lenin to Mao Zedong, had been critical of religious institutions. During the Cultural Revolution, religion was condemned as feudalistic and thousands of religious buildings were looted and destroyed.

This attitude, however, relaxed considerably in the late 1970s, with the end of the Cultural Revolution. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guaranteed "freedom of religion" with a number of restrictions. Since the mid-1990s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

The Communist Party has said that religious belief and membership are incompatible. Party membership is a necessity for many high level careers and posts. That along with other official hostility makes statistical reporting on religious membership difficult. There are five recognized religions by the state: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam,Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity.[34]

Most people report no organized religious affiliation; however, people with a belief in folk traditions and non-religious spiritual beliefs, such as ancestor veneration and feng shui, along with informal ties to local temples and unofficial house churches number in the hundreds of millions. The United States Department of State, in its annual report on International Religious Freedom,[35] gives possibly the most reliable statistics about organized religions. In 2007 it reported the following (citing the Government's 1997 report on Religious Freedom and 2005 White Paper on religion):[36]

  • Buddhists 8%. According to other sources at least 50% and possibly as high as 91%.[37][38]
  • Taoists, unknown as a percentage partly because it is fused along with Confucianism and Buddhism. According to some sources it's at least 30%.[39][40]
  • Muslims, 1.5%, with more than 45,000 Imams. Other estimates state at least 2%.
  • Christians, Protestants at least 2%. Catholics, about 1.5%. Total Christians according to 2008 different polls: 4%.

It should be noted, however, that statistics relating to Buddhism and religious Taoism are to some degree incomparable with statistics for Islam and Christianity. This is due to the traditional Chinese belief system which blends Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, so that a person who follows a traditional belief system would not necessarily identify him- or herself as either Buddhist or Taoist, despite attending Buddhist or Taoist places of worship.

Journalist David Aikman writes that the majority of Chinese have lost faith in Communism because the Marxist philosophy is chained to “the iron ball of state atheism, [which] has left it in a moral wasteland”.[41]

Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge

Though the constitution of Democratic Kampuchea guaranteed the right to worship according to any religion and the right not to worship according to any religion, it also provided that "Reactionary religions which are detrimental to Democratic Kampuchea and Kampuchean people are absolutely forbidden."[42] The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, suppressed Cambodia's Buddhists: monks were defrocked; temples and artifacts, including statues of Buddha, were destroyed; and people praying or expressing other religious sentiments were often killed. The Christian and Muslim communities were among the most persecuted, as well. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was completely razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as an abomination. Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.[43][44] Forty-eight percent of Cambodia's Christians were killed because of their religion.[45]

Mongolian People's Republic

In 1936, and especially after Japanese encroachments had given the Soviets enough reason to deploy Soviet troops in Mongolia in 1937, a whole-scale attack on the Buddhist faith began. At the same time, Soviet-style purges took place in the Communist Party and in the Mongolian army. Mongolia's leader at that time was Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a follower of Joseph Stalin who emulated many of the policies Stalin had implemented in the Soviet Union. The purges lead to the almost complete eradiction of Lamaism in the country, and cost an estimated 30,000-35,000 lives.


Originally more tolerant of religion, after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuba began arresting many believers and shutting down religious schools, its prisons since the 1960s being filled with clergy.[46][46] Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has amended its statutes to declare itself a "secular state" rather than atheistic but, as a practical matter, it continues to harshly repress believers.[46][46]

North Korea

North Korea exercises total control over its citizens, mandating both state atheism and a cult of personality around its leader.[47]

Continuing state atheism

While much of Socialism is now defunct, the remaining Socialist states of China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba, despite some economic liberalization, continue to persecute the religious.[46] In addition to overt persecution, these states also seek to control religion by forcing upon the people state sanctioned churches, essentially attempting to make the churches tools of the state.[46]

Legacy of state atheism

With the exception of Poland, state atheism resulted in a decline in religious practice.[48] Author Niels Christian Nielsen has observed that The post-Soviet population in areas which were formerly predominantly Orthodox are now "nearly illiterate regarding religion", almost completely lacking the intellectual or philosophical aspects of their faith and having almost no knowledge of other faiths.[49] The Czech Republic and Estonia, both formerly practitioners of state atheism, are today some of the least religious areas of the planet. Only 19% of Czechs, and 16% of Estonians believe in a God, though at least one in two believes there is "some sort of spirit or life force."[50]

See also


  1. Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR: Characteristics and Consequences, David Kowalewski, Russian Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 426-441, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Editors and Board of Trustees of the Russian Review
  2. 2.0 2.1 Dawkins (2006):Ch.7
  3. 3.0 3.1 Interview with Richard Dawkins conducted by Stephen Sackur for BBC News 24’s HardTalk programme, July 24, 2007. [1]
  4. Greeley (2003).
  5. Pospielovsky (1998):257.
  6. Miner (2003):70.
  7. Davies (1996):962.
  8. Pipes (1989):55.
  9. Elsie (2000):18.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 McGrath (2006):46.
  11. 11.0 11.1 McGrath (2006).
  12. 12.0 12.1 McGrath (2006):45. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "McGrath2006p45" defined multiple times with different content
  13. Latreille, A. FRENCH REVOLUTION, New Catholic Encyclopedia v. 5, pp. 972-973 (Second Ed. 2002 Thompson/Gale) ISBN 0-7876-4004-2
  14. SPIELVOGEL, Jackson Western Civilization: Combined Volume p. 549, 2005 Thomson Wadsworth
  15. Tallet (1991):1
  16. Jonassohn, Kurt and Karin Solveig Bjeornson Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations p. 208, 1998, Transaction Publishers, ISBN 0765804174.
  17. Luo, Zhufeng Religion under socialism in China, p. 151, M.E. Sharpe 1991
  18. Haynes, Jeff Routldge Handbook of Religion & Politics, p. 183, Taylor and Francis 2009
  19. Marx (1844).
  20. Vox Day (Theodore Beale), "Dinesh D'Souza Interview," Vox Populi, October 29, 2007
  22. 22.0 22.1 Jacques (1995)
  23. Albania dispatch. Time magazine, April 14, 1923.
  24. ALBANIA: Swiss Laws, Greek Patriarch. Time magazine. April 15, 1929.
  25. Representations of Place: Albania, Derek R. Hall, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 165, No. 2, The Changing Meaning of Place in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: Commodification, Perception and Environment (Jul., 1999), pp. 161-172, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
  28. Lenin, V. I.. "About the attitude of the working party toward the religion.". Collected works, v. 17, p.41. Retrieved 2006-09-09. 
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Country Studies: Russia-The Russian Orthodox Church U.S. Library of Congress, Accessed Apr. 3, 2008
  30. "Staggerers Unstaggered". Time magazine. December 7, 1931.,9171,930406,00.html. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  31. Cole, Ethan Gorbachev Dispels 'Closet Christian' Rumors; Says He is Atheist Christian Post Reporter, Mar. 24, 2008
  32. Xie, Zhibin, Religious diversity and public religion in China, p.145, Ashgate Publishing 2006
  33. Tyler, Christian Wild West China, p. 259, Rutgers Univ. Press 2004
  34. "White Paper--Freedom of Religious Belief in China". Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America. October 1997. Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  35. "Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom". U.S.Department of State. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  36. "International Religious Freedom Report 2007 — China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau)". U.S.Department of State. 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  37. Gach (2002):35
  38. Buddhists around the world.
  39. Rebirth of Taoism fills spiritual void in rush to consumerism. South China morning Post. April 30, 2007. republished by
  40. Yenni Kwok. How Now Tao?. 27 April 2007. Asia Sentinal
  41. Aikman, David The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness p. 167, 2008 Tyndale House Publishers
  42. Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979),
  43. Pol Pot - MSN Encarta
  44. Cambodia - Society under the Angkar
  45. Rusija tibet tibetas spain russia maskva moscow komunizmas comunismo Lietuva Lithuania genocide communism genocidas holocaust holokaustas stalin lenin marx marksizmas partija ...
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 46.3 46.4 46.5 Hertzke (2006):43
  47. Hertzke (2006):44
  48. Atkin, Nicholas, Priests, Prelates and People, p. 273, Oxford Univ. Press 2003
  49. Nielsen, Niels Christian, Jr., Christianity After Communism, p. 77-78, Westview Press 1998
  50. "Social values, Science and Technology" (PDF). Eurobarometer. June 2005. Retrieved 2006-12-19. 


External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at State atheism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.