Despite official scorn, interest in religion rises in Soviet Union

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.

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.

But the most strenous efforts are directed toward depriving the church of future believers, through indoctrination of all Soviet young people in atheism. Any sort of organized religious instruction for children, such as Sunday schools , is strictly prohibited. But the state does require courses in ''scientific atheism'' in high school and college curriculums.

''Since religion is separated from the school,'' explains Yuri Smirnov, a spokesman for the government's religious affairs committee, ''that means, of course, that it must be an atheistic education.''

In an interview with a Communist Party publication, Soviet Minister of Education M. A. Prokofiev said, ''The development of atheist convictions and views, of an irreconcilable attitude toward religious ideology and religious morals, is a most important, integral part of the work of general secondary schools in forming a communist outlook on the part of students.''

The party and its various affiliated organizations (such as the Young Communist League) do not stop there: They have entire departments specifically charged with producing atheistic propaganda and agitation. Atheism is promoted in newspapers, radio, television, at workplaces, in schools and youth organizations, and through public lectures.

Nevertheless, the first secretary of the Moscow Young Communist League told a recent gathering: ''The atheist education of the young needs to be considerably improved. The effectiveness of atheistic propaganda remains insufficient.''

He revealed that some league members are baptizing their children. The number , he said, has remained constant over the past three years.

Communist of the Armed Forces, the political journal of the Soviet military, complained of religious observance in the military.

The magazine reported that some soldiers are carrying prayer books while in uniform. Others, it said, had objected to carrying arms on religious grounds and had worked out arrangements with commanding officers so they could avoid doing so.

Officers, the magazine said, should not enter into such collaborations. There was a need, it concluded, to actively discourage religious belief by recruits.

Pravda has also listed specific regions where concern over religion is greatest. These include the Russian cities of Ryazan and Vladimir, Lvov in the Ukraine, and the republics of Lithuania (which is near the border with Catholic Poland), Turkmenia (a heavily Muslim area on the border with Iran and Afghanistan), and Armenia. (Armenians claim their nation was the world's first to officially proclaim itself a Christian state.)

The government's concern over religion is more than ideological: It clearly has a political dimension.

Pravda has charged that the West is trying to ''unite people of the same belief and prompt them to get involved in a process of destabilizing socialism by exploiting their religious feelings and giving them an anti-Soviet, nationalist direction.''

Mr. Smirnov says, ''All of our enemies try to turn ideological opposition into political opposition. And we have no political opposition in this country.''

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