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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A 'Bah, Humbug' From Atheists

An ocean away, the traditional holiday debate rages: Have shopping malls and iPods taken the Christ out of Christmas?

But if you ask Alexander Nikonov, the less Christ in Christmas, the better.

"Religion divides people. The task of Soviet society was to carry out a policy that made it as improper to talk about religion as about salaries or syphilitics," Nikonov said. "Every religion makes a claim to have the absolute truth, and when you have the truth, you can do anything, including kill."

While murderous priests and syphilis discussion circles are not a national problem, Nikonov has no mixed feelings when it comes to Christmas.

"On the official, governmental level, the holiday shouldn't exist," he said.

In another country, he might have added, "Bah, humbug."

Nikonov is not an average Christmas skeptic. He's part of the anti-Christmas elite. As head of the Moscow Atheistic Society, Nikonov kicked up a storm in November when he asked the Constitutional Court to remove the word "God" from the national anthem, saying it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. For him and other nonbelievers, official recognition of the Jan. 7 Orthodox Christmas, which started in 1990, is just as bad.

"We can't fail to see how one of the so-called traditional religions -- in other words, Orthodoxy -- is making a claim with the gracious agreement of the authorities to a monopoly on Russia's civic life and culture," said Valery Kuvakin, professor of philosophy at Moscow State University and president of the Russian Humanistic Society. "This is why, in violation of the Constitution, the official Christmas holiday was introduced as a day off."

If the willingness to complain about a day off is a sign of principle, Kuvakin clearly believes what he says. He stressed, however, that he did not begrudge believers their beliefs.

"I think it's fine when Christians celebrate the day, believing that Christ was born on this day (in fact no one knows)," Kuvakin said by e-mail. "I bear no ill will toward these people, but for me personally it's one of the manifestations of THE TYRANNY OF IGNORANCE."

The emphasis is his.

Kuvakin and Nikonov are clearly in the minority -- and not just in resenting days off. Since the Soviet collapse, the percentage of Russians defining themselves as Russian Orthodox has climbed drastically, from 31 percent in 1991 to 59 percent this year, according to polls by the Levada Center.

Exactly what that self-definition means is open to dispute. Only a fraction of those calling themselves Orthodox attend church regularly and, as with Christians worldwide, Christmas and Easter are the most common times they do so. About 3 million Russians attended Orthodox Christmas services in 2004, including 118,500 Muscovites, according to state figures.

Skeptics say that packed churches are more about diversion than salvation.

"In little towns the numbers are higher, but there are fewer worldly forms of entertainment there than in the major cities," Mikhail Yeliseikin, who manages the web site Atheism.ru, said by e-mail. "Following 'the path of the cross' is a way to pass the time 'meaningfully.'"

Though Yeliseikin has no Christmas plans himself -- "asking an atheist how he'll spend Christmas is like asking him how he'll spend his next day off," he said -- the occasion will keep him busy on Jan. 8 as he collects church attendance statistics for his web site.

The irony of an atheist busy with church matters is hardly a rare one. A tour of Yeliseikin's site and related ones such as Ateist.ru and Ateism.ru shows a community as obsessed with religion as the population of a monastery -- if considerably less respectful. The theme of Christmas provoked readers of www.ateism.ru to write semi-scholarly articles tying Christmas traditions to ancient pagan festivals and jokes about Jesus walking into a bar.

Nikonov said there was a long Russian tradition of poking fun at religion.

"In Russian folk tales, the priest is always a negative character -- sneaky, fat, greedy, vicious," Nikonov said. "Our great poet Pushkin wrote 'The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda.' The tale has a cheery, happy ending: The priest is killed."

But the good old days of priest-murder tales may be gone forever, Nikonov said, as the government seeks to use Orthodoxy as a unifying national idea.

"Now, on state television you see all the government bureaucrats crossing themselves. It's open propaganda for religion," Nikonov said. "Even in official events like the president's speech to the Federation Council, the patriarch sits up front and the other religious leaders have to sit in the back. It's a way of showing that all the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

If the holiday plight of local atheists were not dire enough, even Western Christmas is making headway here, as some Russians begin to celebrate on Dec. 25 and keep the party going for two solid weeks.

Even Yeliseikin was planning a big 25th. "I'm going to celebrate Western Christmas as the day before a great atheist holiday -- the seventh anniversary of the launch of the Scientific Atheism web site," he said.

Somewhere, Karl Marx smiled.