Perhaps the most significant religious revolution of modern history was the Bolshevik Revolution, which occurred a century ago this month on Nov. 7, 1917, in Russia. Although generally not regarded as “religious,” that communist political, social and cultural revolution was intimately connected to an equally significant atheistic revolution.
At first glance, the Bolshevik Revolution had absolutely nothing religious about it — but, paradoxically, that’s why it was so religiously significant. Atheism was certainly not created by the Bolsheviks, but they did create the first officially atheist regime in world history. Bolshevism was also “evangelistic” in its godlessness, attempting to spread atheism worldwide through the doctrines and propaganda of the international Communist Party.
The Bolsheviks weren’t merely atheists but militant atheists, who created a state that was actively anti-religious in all of its policies. It’s one thing to have a state that’s indifferent to religion. It’s quite another when the state officially forbids religion, brutally persecuting religious believers and practitioners. The Bolsheviks were intent on destroying religion partly because it represented a rival ideology and power-base to the totalitarian state that — quite mistakenly — they believed would usher in a secular earthly paradise.
The Bolshevik Revolution had both an immediate, direct impact on religion in Russia and a longer-term indirect impact on religion everywhere communist tyranny was eventually established. Most dramatically, the Soviet Union eventually established domination over almost all countries in Eastern Europe with Eastern (Greek) Orthodox majorities. Eastern Orthodoxy thus suffered an age of spiritual captivity — a kind of new Babylonian captivity — with only the Orthodox in Greece and the Orthodox immigrants in Western Europe and the United States surviving unscathed.
Persecution of religion didn’t merely forbid public religious speech and practice. Priests, monks, nuns and outspokenly religious laypeople were declared enemies of the state — systematically rounded up, sent to concentration camps or mental institutions, sometimes even executed merely for believing in God and talking about him to others. Millions of Christians were persecuted and killed by communist Russia. A few, like the deeply spiritual Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), managed to escape to the West.
Persecution of religion became a “cultural revolution” with the intentional destruction or secularization of religious architecture and art, most notably the 1931 destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which was rebuilt in 2000 as a cultural triumph of living orthodoxy over dead communism. A common leftist ploy — perhaps now manifesting itself in the United States — was to rename cities and streets with new, ideologically acceptable names. Hence, St. Petersburg became Leningrad in 1924. (Lenin’s tomb in Red Square served as an atheistic reliquary and pilgrimage site of the revolution.)
As the communist revolution spread throughout the world, it became an equal-opportunity persecutor, violently attempting to destroy Islam in Central Asia, Confucianism and Taoism in China and Buddhism in China, Southeast Asia and Mongolia. Most horrific was the bloody persecution and mass murder of Tibetan monks and nuns during the communist Chinese conquest of that country in 1950. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have died.
The left engaged in the greatest act of cultural vandalism and spiritual genocide in human history — not as the free choice of people deciding to abandon their faith but as an act of brutal tyranny to suppress and destroy freedom of mind and spirit.
In contemporary America, the growing influence of the atheist left is another important indirect outgrowth of the Bolshevik atheist revolution. For the past several decades, one of the goals of some on the political-cultural left has been to limit religious ideas and practices in the public sphere. For certain leftists — including the militant anti-theists of the New Atheist movement — the incremental long-term political goal is the removal of all religious belief from politics, education and culture through the systematic restriction of religious belief and activity to the realm of the purely personal. For many on the left today, religion is not only irrational but the major impediment to implementing their ideal social order. In this, elements of the American left simply continue the anti-religious campaign begun by Bolshevik revolutionaries a century ago.
Possibly the most remarkable characteristic of world communism’s atheist revolution is how manifestly it has failed. Somehow, after nearly four generations of state-sponsored oppression, religion not only survived but is experiencing revival in every state where communism has failed. The most widespread, century-long global attempt to remove religion from all spheres of life has foundered just as dramatically as communist political and economic policies did.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.