Lately, religious freedom has become a matter of intense debate in the United States. The easy assumption that has existed throughout most of American history, that religion is a good thing that benefits society as a whole, is no longer so widely accepted. And so believers increasingly must justify the protection of religious associations to skeptical fellow citizens.
One key argument is that religious associations provide a necessary check on totalitarianism. Religious associations offer competing sources of loyalty and identity that prevent the state from arrogating too much power, and that allow citizens, through joint action, to resist tyranny. We tend to forget how much religion, and particularly Christianity, figured in the downfall of Communism. That was certainly true in places like Poland, but it was also true, though to a lesser extent, in the Soviet Union itself. A recent book from the Northern Illinois University Press, The Dangerous God: Christianity and the Soviet Experiment, describes the role of Christianity in the culture of dissidents in the Soviet Union. The editor is Dominic Erdozain (King’s College London). Here is the publisher’s description:
At the heart of the Soviet experiment was a belief in the impermanence of the human spirit: souls could be engineered; conscience could be destroyed. The project was, in many ways, chillingly successful. But the ultimate failure of a totalitarian regime to fulfill its ambitions for social and spiritual mastery had roots deeper than the deficiencies of the Soviet leadership or the chaos of a “command” economy. Beneath the rhetoric of scientific communism was a culture of intellectual and cultural dissidence, which may be regarded as the “prehistory of perestroika.” This volume explores the contribution of Christian thought and belief to this culture of dissent and survival, showing how religious and secular streams of resistance joined in an unexpected and powerful partnership.
The essays in The Dangerous God seek to shed light on the dynamic and subversive capacities of religious faith in a context of brutal oppression, while acknowledging the often-collusive relationship between clerical elites and the Soviet authorities. Against the Marxist notion of the “ideological” function of religion, the authors set the example of people for whom faith was more than an opiate; against an enduring mythology of secularization, they propose the centrality of religious faith in the intellectual, political, and cultural life of the late modern era. This volume will appeal to specialists on religion in Soviet history as well as those interested in the history of religion under totalitarian regimes.