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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beware of False Believers

The collapse of Soviet communism created a peculiar ideological vacuum. The entire system of values that had been drummed into the popular consciousness disappeared. These values were based on the so-called "scientific-materialist worldview," a crucial component of which was atheism. Countless statements and acts of vandalism were committed against the Church and believers. Outstanding monuments of Russian culture were desecrated and destroyed in the fight against the "opiate of the people." The concept itself was an enormously primitive interpretation of certain ideas of Marx concerning the essence and origin of religion.

By contrast, religious confessions in Russia today, especially Orthodoxy, have close to carte blanche. Many churches destroyed under Soviet rule are now being restored, new ones are being built, church schools are being set up, and heretofore unobtainable religious books and pamphlets are available everywhere. It would seem that historical justice had prevailed. The reality, however, is not so simple.

For one thing, religion and everything connected with it is invariably equated with spirituality, while nonreligion is equated with nonspirituality. Without denying the link between religion and spirituality, one should nevertheless note that spirituality is a function not only of religion, but of science, education and culture. The depth of a person's spiritual world can hardly be defined by his or her religiousness, and even less by purely outward displays of faith which may be little more than a response to the fashion. A person's spiritual growth depends largely on the breadth of his knowledge and the variety of his interests, on subtleties of feeling and emotion and moral behavior. Moreover, morality is not necessarily based entirely on religion. Atheists are not necessarily immoral people, just as official believers are not always moral people.

One of the bases of contemporary society is the principle of freedom of worship: that is, the freedom to choose any confession or to choose none. It would be more accurate to refer to those who reject all religious teachings and authorities not as atheists, but as free-thinkers.

Free-thinkers have reasonable doubts about dogmatic teachings; they strive to expose the logical contradictions that are inherent in man's intellect and as deeply rooted as religion itself. It is no accident that Christian theologians today, given modern knowledge of the world and man, are compelled to resort to more flexible, often allegorical interpretations of canonical Biblical texts.

Another problem associated with the rebirth of religious faith in Russia is that church and state are separated by law and that various confessions have equal rights. Recent behavior, however, suggests that both these principles are being violated. First, political officials at all levels seem to be jockeying with each other for the right to participate in religious celebrations and ceremonies. This looks fairly strange and ridiculous, especially given that not too long ago these same people were either indifferent to or frankly critical of religion.

Second, when top government officials identify Russia with Orthodoxy, this raises the legitimate question: Doesn't Russia have many confessions, Orthodoxy being just one of these, albeit the largest at this point? This looks like an attempt to return to the pre-Soviet past. But the past is irretrievable, and flat-footed attempts to resurrect it cannot but fail. To entirely restore Orthodoxy to its former position is just as impossible as reviving the second component of the famous ideological troika under the tsars: "orthodoxy, autocracy, narodnost," or nationality. One can understand the motivations of politicians seeking new ideological and moral buttresses in exchange for the old system of values, but one cannot call such behavior sensible or relevant to the interests and needs of modernizing the country. Moreover, these frequent displays of Orthodox fervor, so obviously done for effect and the camera, may ultimately give new impetus to Russia's second-largest confession, Islam, which for many reasons is more deeply rooted in the consciousness and way of life of its adherents.

Instead of consolidating the state system, Russia's leaders may find that they have unwittingly unravelled it by encouraging a confrontation between the traditional Russian religions -- Orthodoxy and the religions of most of the non-Russian population -- and Islam. Already complex relations between various nationalities may be aggravated by religious differences.

A few weeks ago, NTV's popular political satire "Kukly" portrayed Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov sitting in his office under a portrait of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and castigating an underling on the phone. The mayor was insisting that, despite all the work involved in getting Red Square ready for the Nov. 7 revolutionary holiday, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior would have to be torn down since people cared about their health and there weren't anywhere near enough swimming pools in the city.

This sketch reflects the unsinkability of the old Soviet-style "strong master," regardless of the political situation, and the readiness of many functionaries to worship or curse whomever and whatever, so long as it coincides with the current ideological fashion and helps one hang on to power.

Therefore, if the Russian government truly aspires to revive spirituality and to consolidate the state system, it would do well to eschew the ludicrous displays of sham religiousness and to act instead in a professional, humane and moral manner on a constant basis. As for who believes in what god, this is a profoundly personal matter that each of us must decide for ourselves -- even those of us who are temporarily invested with the authority of the state.

Konstantin Zuyev is a senior researcher at the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.