The New Humanism


Freedom From Gods

Yakov Shapiro

What can Humanists Learn from the Soviet Experience.

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by Yakov Shapiro

"People weren’t taught to think for themselves. In fact, independent thinking was treated as a form of mental illness.

When I recall growing up in Soviet Russia, one of the more puzzling experiences was a curious mixture of communist indoctrination and a rational, scientific worldview. Someone who grew up in North America may find it hard to imagine, but there was no real "question of God," no religious education, no evangelical preachers on TV, no Christmas carols or Easter holidays. Of course, there were churches—beautiful, golden onion domes, majestic cathedrals built in the Renaissance days of Peter the Great. This was part of our past shrouded in the mists of time. But for a typical Moscow kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there was hardly any religious connotation to them. Many were architectural museums; the second biggest cathedral in Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) housed a museum of atheism and medieval torture! The few functional ones were simply curiosities, as were the people going into them—a strange mixture of silent monks and elderly ladies whispering to themselves.

The situation changed in the 1970s with the rise of the Soviet dissident movement, Andrei Sakharov's humanist stance against Soviet military expansionism, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's works being copied on unknown typewriters and re-written by hand. There was a faint but real opportunity to escape the Iron Curtain forever. I was one of a crowd of young people gathering in front of the Moscow synagogue on High Holidays, with the naïve but infectious idea of "safety in numbers." And still, there was no question of God in my mind; my motivation was entirely secular—learning the forbidden Hebrew language, the history of my people—a real teenage rebellion all the more justified because my Soviet passport was stamped, "A Jew." What did it mean? And why was I not allowed to enter University or a medical college because of it?

Science education in Soviet schools was superb. In spite of ever-present ideological brainwashing, the 10 years of primary school covered the equivalent of first-year University courses in math, physics, chemistry, biology, evolutionary science. It was a rationalist thinker's dream—free, secular, humanist-based education grounded in evolutionary theory and taught to every child literally from kindergarten. The values of universal equality, basic human rights, freedom from oppression, and friendship among all races and cultures were preached just like Biblical studies at a Sunday school. Of course, there were biases (aptly satirized in Star Trek by having Mr. Chekov constantly exaggerate Russian achievements), but these were mainly limited to the superiority of Russian science and Marxist-Leninist ideology—the perpetual "us against them." And religion was definitely part of "them"—silly grandmother's fairytales or worse, capitalist-driven means of social control, "the opium for the people".

So what was the outcome of the Soviet massive social experiment? In 2001, only 10 years after the fall of the Soviet empire, just over 5 percent of Russia's population saw themselves as atheists, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia survey (2nd edition). The Russian Orthodox Church had become a symbol of the resurging nationalist dream, and government officials routinely attended public prayer meetings. Today, religious schools are part of the educational system across the country just as they had been before the 1917 October revolution. What went wrong?

One answer may lie with the fact that the entire Soviet experience was based on forcible indoctrination. It was a deeply Orwellian doublespeak—professing universal human rights while repressing and killing millions in the Gulag. Three generations lived in utter fear for their lives despite the daily slogans of the Soviet system being the most humane society on Earth. One might argue along with Alexander Yakovlev that the Communist regime, which professed both atheism and secular humanism, managed to exterminate more of its fellow citizens than both the World Wars combined. But the real state ideology was the cult of the leaders, and Marxist-Leninist philosophy promulgated with religion-like zeal. Stalin's category of "the enemies of the people" created an out-group who were "non-believers" in the ideals of socialism, often unintentional dissidents who were dehumanized in mock trials and eliminated just as efficiently as Jews were in Nazi Germany.

A backlash against the Soviet regime was coming, and the atheist worldview became one of its victims. We could say that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. But how can we blame them? Hundreds of millions were brainwashed to follow the Party line, akin to the big show of voting in a single party system. There was no debate, no alternatives to choose from; people weren't taught to think for themselves. In fact, independent thinking was treated as a form of mental illness; the USSR has a dubious distinction of creating the diagnosis of "sluggish schizophrenia," a psychiatric illness defined as disagreeing with the postulates of Marxist-Leninist philosophy and the dictates of the Soviet state.

My own decision to leave USSR in 1979 was a leap of faith, so to speak, based on my disillusionment in the system I grew up in and a blind belief that things would be different on the other side. I had no justification for this stance then, but I was fortunate enough to come to Canada, study psychiatry, and help other disillusioned people learn to think for themselves. Ironically, what sustained me were the same principles of atheistic humanism that I was raised with—my firm belief we are the masters of our own destiny and that people have to be able to choose their worldviews rationally and freely, rather than be indoctrinated or forced into them.

Yet, I had to struggle to come to terms with my Soviet past. Do I discard rational inquiry as a method because it was subverted to serve one of the bloodiest dictatorships in human history? How can I trust Humanist values once I have seen horrible lies concealed behind attractive slogans? Is it possible that we really need gods to tame our "animal nature"? In time, I have come to understand that the real evils of my heritage were not godlessness or rational thought, but a ruthless quest for power achieved by dehumanizing and persecuting those opposing it. The Soviet system demanded blind faith in its goals and justified any means for achieving them, as expressed in Stalin's favourite saying: "When you cut the forest—chips fly."

The lessons from Soviet Russia apply directly to the current atheism vs. religion debate. The measure of true confidence in our views is in restraining from the impulse to "convert" others as a dictatorship or theocracy would. The strength of the Humanist position is in maintaining a rational debate and inviting others to criticize or share in our views, just as Darwinians did in advancing evolutionary theory. We may want to define success not in fighting more battles in order to "win," but in the process of the dialogue itself, which will validate the more fundamentally sound position because more and more facts will be found to support it. Genuine disagreement coupled with tolerance for each other as human beings fosters common ties among us.

The fact that I may find someone's ideology disagreeable should not serve as a justification to condemn them based on my particular mix of emotions and beliefs. The critical factor has to be evidence of harm to others, violations of basic human rights driven by the ideology in question. If someone wants to believe the Earth is 5,000 years old, they are distorting reality to accommodate their worldview, and yet they have the right to do so. But if the same someone decides to blow up alleged infidels in fulfillment of "the word of God"—that is a different story altogether. The line between respecting and condemning someone's actions has to be drawn when they disregard the wellbeing of others, not based on their personal beliefs alone.

The other part of the answer is the discipline of introspection, the process of fostering self-observation and self-awareness, turning the lens of critical thinking on ourselves. As a psychotherapist, I am brought into daily contact with people's prejudices and my own emotional reactions to them. Part of the psychotherapist's training is to observe these reactions within myself and restrain from imposing my views on others, even if I am convinced that I am "right." The goal is to understand why we hold on to our beliefs and why we react the way we do, to explore the process together in a collaborative dialogue. Fariborz Amini beautifully made this point in his 1996 paper, "The purpose is not to 'neutralize' the response, nor to re-enact the original pattern, but to take part in the melody so the piece can be gradually directed to a different ending." In doing so, each one of us can gain a better understanding of our strengths and limitations, and learn to move beyond them. Attempting to fight faith with reason is bound to fail unless we go to the source—the person's need to create soothing fantasies and hide behind them.

It's even more important to avoid the temptation of replacing "heavenly authority" with a social one—going on a crusade by any other name. We can make an effort to appreciate the richness and beauty of various worldviews without xenophobic categories of race, nationality, or exclusive faith-based beliefs. Contrary to the widespread notion of atheism and secular humanism as faiths by another name, one critical difference is the position of Socratic debate, an open invitation to explore the pros and cons of divergent philosophies, including our own. We don't want to brainwash others into blindly agreeing with our position because it is "right," as a religious fundamentalist would. Our task is to formulate a consistent view of the world without relying on Santa-like God fables, and invite others to share in it freely. A true measure of the Humanist approach is in how much it fosters curiosity and open debate among people with different worldviews while preserving concern for each other as human beings. Attempting to pressure others to see things our way won't work, as the Soviet experience demonstrates so well.

Photo credit: Yakov Shapiro

Comments (now closed)


26 Feb 2010 · 17:10 EST

I think Soviets overemphasized science. While accomplishments of science in understanding nature are outstanding, science isn't very helpful when it comes to deciding what is ethical and what isn't. For example, science does not provide sufficient information to choose between utilitarianism and nihilism. This leads me to my second point: when it comes to ethics, apparently, most people want to be guided - for example, by religious leaders.


19 Mar 2010 · 21:07 EST

The example you give of evidence of harm to others -- "someone decides to blow up alleged infidels" -- is so extreme that no one could argue this is harm. But what about more subtle forms of harm to others? I see Christians as teaching innocent children that they are bad people just for having been born (in accordance with their belief in "original sin") and telling those children that because they are bad, they must beg for forgiveness from "God". Do ou believe that this is sufficient "evidence of harm to others" to serve as a justification to condemn them? For me, it is.


23 Apr 2010 · 17:46 EST

Does religion have to be the enemy of humanism though? By which I mean the psychological opposite, where one cannot exist in the presence of the other. I think that there are several religions that expressly say that God is a personal introspective quest. For reading I'd suggest Autobiography of A Yogi. Scientific religion, now that's something you don't have to believe in, but can build personal proof for.

Zin : LUMI

18 May 2010 · 06:12 EST

Until my recent move to Tel Aviv, Israel, I spent the past year in China. The Chinese had a similar experience as you've describe where religion and most of their culture and spirituality was wiped under communist rule. However, about two years ago, "Qing-Min Jie" or Ancestral Worship Day was allowed once again and millions flocked to cemeteries around the country with incense and offerings to Buddhist/Taoist/Pagan Deities and of course their late loved ones. Some even carried entire roasted pigs up mountains. I guess my point is. The mad dash of Ancestral Worship Day has little to do with religion but more to do with identity and a connection to one's roots. Carrying pigs up a mountain cemetery as offering for a dead great grandfather seems illogical and senseless to me, and many in my generation would be too lazy to even light a stick of incense. But I grew up in Taiwan... where I was basically allowed to do, think, and say whatever the heck I wanted. From my humble opinion, anything new or once forbidden makes an exciting form of expression to those who came out of a closed society. Thanks for a banter inspiring article.


13 Jun 2010 · 12:17 EST

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line divid- ing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago The dialogue between Those with Reason and Science and Logic and good will on their side and those with Delusional Teapot in the Universe Logic and Bombs on their side does not end up in harmony, teapot gets cracked more and more and so forth.... {PS:I would like to reply to WB Religions do not teach anything, human beings invented them because they are the ones with imagination, remember? By the way, "Ethics" can't be thought.}