Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Are New Atheists also Militant Atheists ?

New Atheist blogs correctly dismiss 'militant atheist' as a pejorative label used to silence assertive atheists, but they do so without explaining the origin of the term or refuting the association.  Here I consider if the term is justified.

Bezbozhnik magazine. 

League of Militant Atheists
"It is our duty to destroy every religious world-concept... If the destruction of ten million human beings, as happened in the last war, should be necessary for the triumph of one definite class, then that must be done and it will be done." - Yemelyan Yaroslavsky

Key members of the League began their careers as editors and contributors to the widely read Bezbozhnik ('Godless') satirical magazine published in the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1941.
In 1925 the Bezbozhnik merged with it's sister publication Bezbozhnik u Stanka ('The Godless at the work-bench') and the Society of Friends of the Godless to form the All-Union League of the Godless. The ruling Party conferred full power upon the society in 1929 to conduct antireligious campaigns to eliminate religion from the country. The group was renamed to The Union of Belligerent (or Militant) Atheists. Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, the former editor of the Bezbozhnik, became it's leader.

Despite it's name the League was primarily driven by intellectuals who sought a cultural transformation from religious ideology to Marxist materialism. Yaroslavsky believed religion would not naturally wither away even as the superiority of the communist system become self-evident and so must be actively fought.  He identified six key strategic areas: science, control of the schools, mockery, propaganda, feminism and intolerance.

"God will fall under the weight of science." - Bezbozhnik u stanka, 1926
The League believed a scientific approach to the world would inevitably destroy the religious world view. Considerable resources were spent promoting the narrative that science brings knowledge and liberation while religion is antagonistic towards progress and stems from ignorance. A typical example is an article published by Bezbozhnik contrasting the effectiveness of prayer on crop growth to the effectiveness of modern machinery introduced by the Soviet system. Grants were available through the Anti-religious Scientific loan scheme to any scientist willing to lecture and publish anti-religious papers. Various scientific institutions were established throughout the union to promote atheism and science. Religions themselves were analysed from scientific standpoints and comparisons were drawn to the pre-Christian pagan cults to prove the senselessness of belief in God.

"The schoolmasters who believe (in God) are an absurd contradiction" - Lounatcharsky
The League believed control of the schools an essential weapon in the war against religion. School teachers were seen as the 'fundamental cultural force in the Soviet campaign' whose purpose was to expedite the cultural transformation to atheist materialism. Christian teachers who remained at their posts by fortunate circumstances were forbidden to teach religion and subjected continual espionage by the secret police. Anti-religious instruction was incorporated into all lessons and schools were expected to conduct experiments in 'anti-religious activity' with results published in regional journals so the League could evaluate and spread the most effective techniques.

One teacher described her method:  "My aim is so to educate the anti-religious children, that they may become conscious and well-trained assailants in the fight against religion, at school, at home and in the street. The work begins with the children nine years of age. Stories are told to them with this object. The talks consist in putting them in the presence of a practical problem in the fight against religion After an address (of this kind) I have asked the children if they would like to fight against religion. Immediately they suggested talking among other groups about what they had just heard, insisting at home on the abolition of crucifixes, persuading other children to imitate them, writing anti religious posters and putting them up in various places."

"And we can now proudly say without the slightest exaggeration that except for Soviet Russia there is not a single country in which there is complete equality between men and women and in which women are not placed in a degraded position, which is particularly felt in everyday family life." - Lenin. 
Women earned special attention by being the single largest body of believers. Militant Atheist publications like Bezbozhnik argued religion limited women by forcing them into unhappy marriages and denying them both education and the satisfaction of meaningful work. Their ignorance and unhappiness in turn made them easy prey to religious superstition. The atheist controlled press frequently ran "life stories" featuring heroines who resisted religious traditions by fleeing their husbands to work in a factory and found new meaning in their lives through working for the motherland.

Propaganda and Mockery and Intolerance

The League trained a large number of antireligious propagandists and printed masses of antireligious literature which frequently mocked religious belief. Religious symbols were forcibly removed from private homes and churches were closed through intimidation and brute force. Children were taught intolerance towards religious belief was a duty for all loyal citizens.

Comparison with New Atheism

It cannot be denied the propaganda activities of the League of Militant Atheists has a strong family resemblance to New Atheism. New Atheists do believe science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, that a scientific worldview will destroy religion, that religion does oppress women, that control of the schools is essential and that mockery of religious belief is justified.

This shouldn't surprise us as these are common strategies for cultural transformation. Christians too colonize schools, control the press through censorship, demonize their enemies and evangelize through propaganda (indeed the word propaganda originally meant evangelisation, to propagate the faith). The resemblance between communism as a 'secular faith' and Christianity, especially Catholicism, is often remarked upon.

But the differences between New Atheism and the League of Militant Atheists are vast. Generalizing about atheism is difficult, but the representative New Atheist is a bourgeois liberal who supports progressive politics through the principles of constitutional government and human rights. Disagreements arise over the scope of church and state separation, not the demolition of church and state. Nor do New Atheists struggle to replace individual rights with collectivized ethics or campaign to teach atheism in schools. The strongest rhetoric of Richard Dawkins does not question the right to religious belief or private worship, only it's privilege in the public square.

For conservatives with their ingrained fear of the state, the league of militant atheists represents a warning from the past and a sign of how things may go. Their fears are unfounded. New Atheism is, at best, an single issue movement (when it's adherents recognize they are a movement at all) with no unifying political or economic ideology. What organization there is, exists as organic social media communities that function more as support groups than militant organizations.

New Atheism is essentially a repeat of the 19th century darwinian cultural wars, not the 20th century Bolshevik revolution. Rhetoric may be strong but calling a person foolish is hardly the same as calling for their execution. Comparisons between the two are unfounded.
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