28 April 2008

Mailbag

Devoted reader Paul, who has a history of asking interesting questions, unwittingly opened a can of worms a few posts ago, and instead of replying with the world's longest comment, I decided to make a post about it.

Paul writes, re: the Orthodox tradition of greeting people on/after Easter with "Christ is risen!":

"Interesting -- do (the remaining) hard-core communists have a different response to the greeting? E.g. 'Christ is risen!' 'No he isn't, dialectical materialism is!' Or something of that order?"

That's an interesting question.

Hard-core communists do exist, and probably form the most significant political minority in Russia. The ones I know are mostly elderly people, many of whom grew up in the Pioneers and the Komsomol before becoming Party members. That's not to say that they're communist purely by way of indoctrination – for most of them, their lives were materially better before perestroika came along and introduced them to a total collapse of their ideological system; the very worst of the bread lines; oligarchs and Mafiosi; and eventually a wealth gap that for the first time separated huge, visible chunks of society, rather than just distancing the very top layer of Party apparatchiki from the ordinary folks. Perestroika also freed them of their right to an apartment, yearly vacations on the Black Sea, free health care, their grandchildren's guarantee of a job after finishing college, etc. Furthermore, pensioners now tend to receive about enough money per month to cover their electric and gas bills, and that's it. Naturally, that's extra tough for people who grew up believing the state would always, at least in some sense, take care of them.

So while these people are in some ways very ideologically Communist, vocal atheism doesn't tend to be one of them. I can think of three reasons for that. First, the regime had already softened toward religion by the time they were old enough to be conscious of such things.

Second, religion has much less of a foothold here, and without the feeling that society is telling them they ought to be religious, the non-religious, unsurprisingly, have much less of a problem with religion. One friend told me that, while he doesn't believe in God, he answers his friends' Easter greetings with a polite "He is risen, indeed!" I can imagine the same guy in America feeling the need to state his position on religion in reply to an Easter greeting, lest his zealous friends take him for a Christian and start inviting him to youth retreats. The Orthodox don't really do evangelism, so a polite attitude toward religion is, in that sense, safe.

Third, many Western atheists tend to be vocally anti-religion because they dislike the things they see religion doing to society. For these old communists, religion is the least of their societal woes; they tend to focus much more on the horrors they've seen capitalism inflict. A common theme of their laments, for example, is how "people have changed" since perestroika. Everyone is chasing after money all the time, people have become crueler toward each other and less neighborly. (In that sense, maybe Paul's suggested answer to the Easter greeting is appropriate, but maybe it would be more like, "He is risen indeed! And so is dialectical materialism!") In the old days, you could always get your neighbors to help you out; now, everything is done through bribes and "connections." The difference between getting your neighbors to help you out and having "connections" is fine-grained; I think it has to do with perceived fairness. Getting your plumbing fixed first because you live next to Vanya the Plumber isn't seen as unfair; the guy who has to wait longer to get his plumbing fixed probably lives next to Sasha the Electrician. But these days you need connections in high places, and those are perceived as less egalitarian.

A lot of them seem to adopt a philosophical attitude toward religion; one elderly guy I know explained that religion "is not for us. It's nice, but after you've spent your whole life being told there's no God, you can't really turn yourself around and become devout. I go to church sometimes, believe whatever I manage to believe, but really, the whole thing is just not for my generation." On the other hand, old women comprise like 90% of the church-going population, so I suppose it depends on the person.

At any rate, the short answer is that the overt hostility of the "culture war" between the religious and the secular we see in the U.S. (and maybe in 1917 Russia, when one could, perhaps, imagine a young Marxist saying, 'No he isn't!') seems to be totally nonexistent in contemporary Russia.

4 comments:

Paul said...

Wow, thanks so much for the answer -- very fascinating! I'd meant it as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I was curious given that as a vocal Western atheist myself, I'd be annoyed if I were expected to respond to something like that, and wondered what I would respond (I'd probably just quietly respond in the correct way, quiet and polite sort of chap I am, at least most of the time).

I think you're right in that the reason I would (at least want to) react that way is because I 'dislike the things [I] see religion doing to society' -- if religion weren't such an active force I probably wouldn't mind so much. Though it's odd to think of Russia as a place where religion is less powerful, since I simultaneously have this (stereotypical?) image of Russia where saints' cults and similar 'medieval' religious behaviour are still alive, at least in some (more rural?) areas. (Though in terms of the emotional investment and devotion that is involved I suppose it's not much different from evangelical Christianity -- the main difference to my mind being the latter simply being presented in post-Reformation terms.)

DK said...

This is very interesting. How do religious people of non-Christian faiths (insofar as you know) respond? They might not feel 'threatened' by the greeting for the same reason you say atheists don't. But I could imagine that they also don't want to express something contrary to their own faiths.

Leslie said...

Interesting question, Dan! I don't know, although it's something that one ought to run into around here at least occasionally. I will ask and see if anyone I know has ever had it happen to them.

Celine said...

Very intersesting story indeed! I enjoyed reading it, and can't wait for the answers to the question about other religions... So go to it, Leslie ;-)