State atheism is a popular term used for a government that is either antireligious, antitheistic or promotes atheism. In contrast, a secular state purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion. State atheism may refer to a government's anti-clericalism, which opposes religious institutional power and influence in all aspects of public and political life, including the involvement of religion in the everyday life of the citizen.
- Human rights
- Communist states
- Soviet Union
- Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge
- North Korea
State promotion of atheism as a public norm first came to prominence in Revolutionary France (1789–1799). Revolutionary Mexico followed similar policies from 1917, as did Marxist–Leninist states. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1917–1991) and the Soviet Union (1922–1991) had a long history of state atheism, whereby those seeking social success generally had to profess atheism and to stay away from houses of worship; this trend became especially militant during the middle Stalinist era from 1929 to 1939. The Soviet Union attempted to suppress public religious expression over wide areas of its influence, including places such as central Asia.
The United States and other secular states have used international treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to campaign for freedom of religion within politically repressive governments.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is designed to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In 1993, the UN's human rights committee declared that article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief." The committee further stated that "the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views." Signatories to the convention are barred from "the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers" to recant their beliefs or convert. Despite this, as of 2003 minority religions were still being persecuted in many parts of the world.
Theodore Roosevelt condemned the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, establishing a history of U.S. presidents commenting on the internal religious liberty of foreign countries. In Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address, he outlined Four Freedoms, including Freedom of worship, that would be foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and future U.S. diplomatic efforts. Jimmy Carter asked Deng Xiaoping to improve religious freedom in China, and Ronald Reagan told US Embassy staff in Moscow to help Jews harassed by the Soviet authorities. Bill Clinton established the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, in order to use diplomacy to promote religious liberty in repressive states.
A communist state, in popular usage, is a state with a form of government characterized by one-party rule or dominant-party rule of a communist party and a professed allegiance to a Leninist or Marxist–Leninist communist ideology as the guiding principle of the state. The founder and primary theorist of Marxism, the nineteenth-century German sociologist Karl Marx, had an ambivalent attitude toward religion, viewing it primarily as "the opium of the people" that had been used by the ruling classes to give the working classes false hope for millennia, whilst at the same time recognizing it as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions. In the Marxist–Leninist interpretation of Marxist theory, developed primarily by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, religion is seen as negative to human development, and communist states that follow a Marxist–Leninist variant are atheistic and explicitly antireligious. Lenin states:
Religion is the opiate of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.
Although Marx and Lenin were both atheists, several religious communist groups exist, including Christian communists.
Julian Baggini devotes a chapter of his book Atheism A Very Short Introduction to discussion of 20th century political systems, including communism and political repression in the Soviet Union. Baggini argues that "Soviet communism, with its active oppression of religion, is a distortion of original Marxist communism, which did not advocate oppression of the religious." Baggini goes on to argue that "Fundamentalism is a danger in any belief system" and that "Atheism's most authentic political expression... takes the form of state secularism, not state atheism."
State atheism was an official policy in the Soviet Union and other Marxist–Leninist states. The Soviet Union used the term gosateizm, a syllabic abbreviation of "state" (gosudarstvo) and "atheism" (ateizm), to refer to a policy of expropriation of religious property, publication of information against religion and the official promotion of anti-religious materials in the education system. Governments that have implemented official policies of anti-clericalism oppose religious institutional power and influence in all aspects of public and political life, including the involvement of religion in the everyday life of the citizen.
After the Russian Civil War, anti religious movements in the Soviet Union (gosateizm) attempted to stop the spread of religious beliefs and remove "prerevolutionary remnants". The Bolsheviks were particularly hostile toward the Russian Orthodox Church (which supported the White Movement during the Russian Civil War) and saw it as a supporter of Tsarist autocracy. During a process of collectivization of land, Orthodox priests distributed pamphlets declaring that the Soviet regime was the Antichrist coming to place “the Devil’s mark” on the peasants, and encouraged them to resist the government. Political repression was widespread in the Soviet Union, and while religious persecution was applied to most religions, the regime's anti-religious campaigns were often directed against specific religions based on state interests, that varied over time. The attitude in the Soviet Union toward religion varied from a total ban on some religions to official support of others.
From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, such organizations as the League of Militant Atheists ridiculed all religions and harassed believers. Anti-religious and atheistic propaganda was implemented into every portion of soviet life: in schools, communist organizations such as the Young Pioneer Organization, and the media. Though Lenin originally introduced the Gregorian calendar to the Soviets, subsequent efforts to reorganise the week to improve worker productivity saw the introduction of the Soviet calendar, which had the side-effect that a "holiday will seldom fall on Sunday".
Within about a year of the revolution, the state expropriated all church property, including the churches themselves, and in the period from 1922 to 1926, 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests were killed (a much greater number was subjected to persecution). Most seminaries were closed, and publication of religious writing was banned. The Russian Orthodox Church, which had 54,000 parishes before World War I, was reduced to 500 by 1940. A meeting of the Antireligious Commission of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) that occurred on 23 May 1929 estimated the portion of believers in the USSR at 80 percent, though this percentage may be understated to prove the successfulness of the struggle with religion.
Despite the Soviet Union's attempts to eliminate religion, other former USSR and anti-religious nations, such as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia have high religious populations. Author Niels Christian Nielsen has written that the post-Soviet population in areas which were formerly predominantly Orthodox are now "nearly illiterate regarding religion", almost completely lacking the intellectual or philosophical aspects of their faith and having almost no knowledge of other faiths. Nonetheless, their knowledge of their faith and the faith of others notwithstanding, many post-Soviet populations have a large presence of religious followers.
Today in the Russian Federation, approximately 100 million citizens consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, amounting to 70% of the population, although the Church claims a membership of 80 million. According to the CIA Factbook, however, only 17% to 22% of the population is now Christian. According to a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 63% of respondents considered themselves Russian Orthodox, 6% of respondents considered themselves Muslim and less than 1% considered themselves either Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. Another 12% said they believe in God, but did not practice any religion, and 16% said they are non-believers. In Ukraine, 96.1% of the Ukrainian population is Christian. In Lithuania, the only Catholic country which was once a Soviet republic, a 2005 report stated that 79% of Lithuanians belonged to the Roman Catholic Church.
Religion in Albania was subordinated to the interest of nationalism during periods of national revival, when it was identified as foreign predation to Albanian culture. During the late nineteenth century, and also when Albania became a state, religions were suppressed in order to better unify Albanians. This nationalism was also used to justify the communist stance of state atheism from 1967 to 1991. The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1945 nationalized most property of religious institutions, including the estates of mosques, monasteries, orders, and dioceses. Many clergy and believers were tried and some were executed. All foreign Roman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns were expelled in 1946.
Religious communities or branches that had their headquarters outside the country, such as the Jesuit and Franciscan orders, were henceforth ordered to terminate their activities in Albania. Religious institutions were forbidden to have anything to do with the education of the young, because that had been made the exclusive province of the state. All religious communities were prohibited from owning real estate and from operating philanthropic and welfare institutions and hospitals. Although there were tactical variations in Enver Hoxha's approach to each of the major denominations, his overarching objective was the eventual destruction of all organized religion in Albania. Between 1945 and 1953, the number of priests was reduced drastically and the number of Roman Catholic churches was decreased from 253 to 100, and all Catholics were stigmatized as fascists.
The campaign against religion peaked in the 1960s. Beginning in 1967 the Albanian authorities began a campaign to eliminate religious life in Albania. Despite complaints, even by APL members, all churches, mosques, monasteries, and other religious institutions were either closed down or converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, or workshops by the end of 1967. By May 1967, religious institutions had been forced to relinquish all 2,169 churches, mosques, cloisters, and shrines in Albania, many of which were converted into cultural centers for young people. As the literary monthly Nendori reported the event, the youth had thus "created the first atheist nation in the world."
Clerics were publicly vilified and humiliated, their vestments taken and desecrated. More than 200 clerics of various faiths were imprisoned, others were forced to seek work in either industry or agriculture, and some were executed or starved to death. The cloister of the Franciscan order in Shkodër was set on fire, which resulted in the death of four elderly monks.
Article 37 of the Albanian Constitution of 1976 stipulated, "The state recognizes no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.", and the penal code of 1977 imposed prison sentences of three to ten years for "religious propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature." A new decree that in effect targeted Albanians with Muslim and Christian names, stipulating that citizens whose names did not conform to "the political, ideological, or moral standards of the state" were to change them. It was also decreed that towns and villages with religious names must be renamed. Hoxha's brutal antireligious campaign succeeded in eradicating formal worship, but some Albanians continued to practice their faith clandestinely, risking severe punishment. Individuals caught with Bibles, Qurans, icons, or other religious objects faced long prison sentences. Religious weddings were prohibited.
Parents were afraid to pass on their faith, for fear that their children would tell others. Officials tried to entrap practicing Christians and Muslims during religious fasts, such as Lent and Ramadan, by distributing dairy products and other forbidden foods in school and at work, and then publicly denouncing those who refused the food. Those clergy who conducted secret services were incarcerated. Catholic priest Shtjefen Kurti had been executed for secretly baptizing a child in Shkodër in 1972.
The article was interpreted by Danes as violating The United Nations Charter (chapter 9, article 55) which declares that religious freedom is an inalienable human right. The first time that the question came before the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights at Geneva was as late as 7 March 1983. A delegation from Denmark got its protest over Albania's violation of religious liberty placed on the agenda of the thirty-ninth meeting of the commission, item 25, reading, "Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.", and on 20 July 1984 a member of the Danish Parliament inserted an article into one of Denmark's major newspapers protesting the violation of religious freedom in Albania.
The 1998 Constitution of Albania defined the country as a parliamentary republic, and established personal and political rights and freedoms, including protection against coercion in matters of religious belief. Albania is a member state of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and 2011 census found that 58.79% of Albanians adhere to Islam, making it the largest religion in the country. The majority of Albanian Muslims are secular Sunni with a significant Bektashi Shia minority. Christianity is practiced by 16.99% of the population, making it the 2nd largest religion in the country. The remaining population is either irreligious or belongs to other religious groups. Before World War II, there was given a distribution of 70% Muslims, 20% Eastern Orthodox, and 10% Roman Catholics. Today, Gallup Global Reports 2010 shows that religion plays a role in the lives of 39% of Albanians, and ranks Albania the thirteenth least religious country in the world. The U.S. state department reports that in 2013, "There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice."
Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge, under its policy of state atheism, actively persecuted Buddhists during their reign from 1975 to 1979. Buddhist institutions and temples were destroyed and Buddhist monks and teachers were killed in large numbers. A third of the nation's monasteries were destroyed along with numerous holy texts and items of high artistic quality. 25,000 Buddhist monks were massacred by the regime. The persecution was undertaken because Pol Pot believed that Buddhism was "a decadent affectation". He sought to eliminate Buddhism's 1,500-year-old mark on Cambodia.
Religion was also banned, and the repression of adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism was extensive. And according to Ben Kiernan, the "fiercest extermination campaign was directed against the ethnic Cham Muslim minority".
Traditionally, a large segment of the Chinese population took part in Chinese folk religions and Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism had played a significant role in the everyday lives of ordinary people. After the 1949 Chinese Revolution, China began a period of rule by the Communist Party of China. For much of its early history, that government maintained under Marxist thought that religion would ultimately disappear, and characterized it as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism.
During the Cultural Revolution, student vigilantes known as Red Guards converted religious buildings for secular use or destroyed them. This attitude, however, relaxed considerably in the late 1970s, with the reform and opening up period. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guaranteed freedom of religion with a number of restrictions. Since then, there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
The Communist Party has said that religious belief and membership are incompatible. However, the state is not allowed to force ordinary citizens to become atheists. China's five officially sanctioned religious organizations are the Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. These groups are afforded a degree protection, but are subject to restrictions and controls under the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Unregistered religious groups face varying degrees of harassment. The constitution permits what is called "normal religious activities," so long as they do not involve the use of religion to "engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious organizations and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign dominance.”
Article 36 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China of 1982 specifies that:
Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
Most people report no organized religious affiliation; however, people with a belief in folk traditions and spiritual beliefs, such as ancestor veneration and feng shui, along with informal ties to local temples and unofficial house churches number in the hundreds of millions. The United States Department of State, in its annual report on International Religious Freedom, provides statistics about organized religions. In 2007 it reported the following (citing the Government's 1997 report on Religious Freedom and 2005 White Paper on religion):
Statistics relating to Buddhism and religious Taoism are to some degree incomparable with statistics for Islam and Christianity. This is due to the traditional Chinese belief system which blends Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, so that a person who follows a traditional belief system would not necessarily identify him- or herself as exclusively Buddhist or Taoist, despite attending Buddhist or Taoist places of worship. According to Peter Ng, Professor of the Department of Religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as of 2002, 95% of Chinese were religious in some way if religion is considered to include traditional folk practices such as burning incense for gods or ancestors at life-cycle or seasonal festivals, fortune telling and related customary practices.
The U.S. State Department has designated China as a “country of particular concern” since 1999, in part, due to the scenario of Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. Freedom House classifies Tibet and Xinjiang as regions of particular repression of religion, due to concerns of separatist activity. Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief says that China's actions against the Uighurs are "a major problem". The Chinese government has protested the report, saying the country has "ample" religious freedom.
In August 1960, several bishops signed a joint pastoral letter condemning communism and declaring it incompatible with Catholicism, and calling on Catholics to reject it. Fidel Castro gave a four-hour long speech the next day, condemning priests who serve "great wealth" and using fears of Falangist influence in order to attack Spanish born priests, declaring "There is no doubt that Franco has a sizeable group of fascist priests in Cuba."
Originally more tolerant of religion, the Cuban government began arresting many believers and shutting down religious schools after the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1961 The Cuban government confiscated Catholic schools, including the Jesuit school that Fidel Castro had attended. In 1965 it exiled two hundred priests.
In 1976 the Constitution of Cuba added a clause stating that the "socialist state...bases its activity on, and educates the people in, the scientific materialist concept of the universe". In 1992, the Dissolution of the Soviet Union lead the country to declare itself a secular state, and Catholic groups have worked to advance the Cuban thaw. In January 1998, Pope John Paul II paid a historic visit to the island, invited by the Cuban government and the Catholic Church in Cuba. The pope criticized the US embargo during his visit. Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012 and Pope Francis visited Cuba in 2015.
Although the North Korean constitution states that freedom of religion is permitted, free religious activities no longer exist in North Korea, because the government sponsors religious groups only to create an illusion of religious freedom. After 1,500 churches were destroyed during the rule of Kim Il Sung from 1948 to 1994, three churches were built in Pyongyang to deflect human rights criticism.
The North Korean government promotes the cult of personality of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, described as a political religion, as well as the Juche ideology, based on Korean ultranationalism, which calls on people to "avoid spiritual deference to outside influences", which was interpreted as including religion originating outside of Korea.
North Korea has been designated a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department since 2001 due to its religious freedom violations. Cardinal Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk has said that, "There's no knowledge of priests surviving persecution that came in the late forties, when 166 priests and religious were killed or kidnapped," which includes the Roman Catholic bishop of Pyongyang, Francis Hong Yong-ho. On November 2013, the repression against religious people led to the public execution of 80 people, some of them for possessing Bibles.