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Despite official scorn, interest in religion rises in Soviet Union

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 1984


The father had misgivings about the activity held at his son's school one evening. His son said that some pupils had read excerpts from a book ridiculing the Bible. Others then performed skits about drunken monks. The activity was an ''atheist evening,'' held at a school in Lithuania, a predominantly Roman Catholic Soviet republic.

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It was not that the father objected to the disparagement of religion. Rather, he was concerned that the event would serve to stir up interest in the subject.

''Why,'' he asked, ''do we not wait patiently for the natural demise of the church?''

The reply, given in a recent issue of the newspaper Teachers' Gazette, was that religion is not ''voluntarily losing its position.'' Moreover, the newspaper said, because ''we cannot hope that religious beliefs are dying a natural death, we must struggle with religion today. . . .''

Indeed, it appears that the struggle is being waged with increasing vigor these days.

Despite major government efforts, a number of Soviet youth apparently continue to be drawn toward religious faith.

At a Russian Orthodox church on the outskirts of Moscow on an early winter Sunday, for example, a number of young people found the church so crowded there was no seating available. They vowed to return another day.

A young man, a Russian, says, ''The church is not dying out. It is growing.''

One sign of the government's alarm has been a spate of articles decrying the influence of religion on the nation's young people, in the military, in the Young Communist League, and in various Soviet republics.

Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, declared it was ''imperative to carry out more active propaganda of scientific-materialist opinion, pay more attention to atheist education. . . .'' Without providing numbers, it said surveys had revealed that a significant proportion of the population still held religious beliefs.

Usually, the government estimates the proportion of religious believers in the population at between 10 and 12 percent. Even that figure is probably higher than the early luminaries of the Communist Party envisioned.

Lenin wrote in 1905 that religion ''is the opium of the people. Religion is a kind of spiritual gin in which the slaves of capital drown their human shape and their claims to any decent human life.''

Early revolutionaries held that religion would ebb away as communism, which met all the material and spiritual needs of the populace, took its place. Accordingly, the Communist leadership has come to see religion as one of the barometers of the success of communism. And they have created numerous regulations that restrict religious practices.

Every church must register with the government and gain official approval to hold services. Small, informal group meetings in homes are outlawed.

Baptisms and church weddings, while permitted, have no legal status. Many parents try to draw a minimum of attention to the ritual and hold no celebrations.