AFTER 70 years of militant atheism and religious persecution in the Soviet Union, Moscow is taking a more neutral official position on religion - which may result in greater religious freedom in the USSR. One reason is economics: Religious repression makes many Russians unhappy, and Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't need any more friction from his labor force in trying to carry out perestroika.
But much of the change is due to a new interest in spiritual and biblical matters. Stories about a religious revival in Russia constantly recycle in the West. But there's now abundant evidence of such a revival. In the past two years some 2,000 churches have reopened. New Bible translations are sanctioned in Armenia and Georgia. Two weeks ago 30,000 Ukrainian Catholics marched in Lvov seeking official status. The Orthodox church in Moscow itself has seen an increase in devout younger priests more interested in understanding the Gospels than in seeking church hierarchy positions. In the Danilov monastery outside Moscow there are many young faces - not just the stereotypical graybeards.
The strategy behind a neutral position derives from Soviet atheists who feel that, without persecution, left to itself, religion will die off. Religion is only a temporary refuge for those hostile to the state (as in Poland); the absurdity of faith in things not seen will become self-evident when religion is allowed - so goes the reasoning.
The reasoning rings hollow. What about Soviet intellectuals now interested in examining the Bible? After years of dry, ``objective'' proletarian theory they find themselves fascinated by the richness of little documents like the 23rd Psalm.
China, even after Tiananmen Square, still allows faith-groups to meet. Recent reports indicate that meetings in Beijing are so large today that such groups fill auditoriums. Chinese Bibles are still being printed. People are driven to seek meaning regardless of circumstances.
A deep religiosity has always stirred within the Russian soul. More freedom for it is fine with us. Monitoring of religious persecution in the USSR should continue.