Matthew Henderson

college station, tx

Book Review: The Plot to Kill God

Apr 27, 2016

In his book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization, author Paul Froese explains the aims of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party regarding the destruction of religious faith, and reveals their utter failure in attaining that goal. He begins by examining a set of six assertions, developed by a number of philosophers and upheld by Soviet secularist proponents, regarding the nature and origin of religious belief. Each of these assertions are examined in the first chapter, which lays the theoretical groundwork for the reader to better understand the historical record of Soviet attempts to develop supporting policies, whose results were believed would approach a completely atheist state. According to Froese, “the Secularization Experiment tested the extent to which religious vitality or decline are a product of ignorance, ritual activity, social institutions, social rewards, salvation incentives, and church-state relationships” (24).

In the following chapters, Froese documents some of the important policies, historical events, and records pertaining to the Communist goal of eradicating religious belief within the Soviet Union. He begins by discussing the often militant nature of the Communist party’s scientific atheism, and provides specific examples of how the platform of atheism was advanced by the state. There is ample documented discussion of the substantial widespread and long-ranging difficulties inflicted on Christian believers by Soviet authorities. According to Froese, this “repression, at the very least, rid religious groups of [what he terms] free riders… [and any individuals] who remained openly religious in the Soviet system demonstrated that their commitment to their faith did not depend on social rewards” (32). Persecutions ranged from significant social pressures, to imprisonment, commitment to psychiatric wards, and even death. If it weren’t for the inhumane cruelty of the Communist leaders, Froese’s readers might even find themselves amused at times by their various futile attempts to destroy religious faith. For instance, in their effort to remove all public religious observance, Soviet leaders are depicted as virtually compelled to establish an alternative set of new traditions comprised of purely secular rituals — more evidence of their deep misunderstanding about the nature of genuine Christian faith.

A number of important observations are also presented regarding the Islamic faith under Communist rule. He reveals that “many Muslim leaders viewed participation in Communist and even atheist organizations as a way to strengthen Muslim power” (95), and “[i]n many bizarre instances, self-identified Muslims publicly advocated atheism” (111). This was possible in part because of “specific religious rules that allow Muslims to abandon activities in religiously hostile environments” (110). The result was that while “Soviet Communism began its occupancy in many Christian regions by actively assaulting the local churches and religious leaders… within Central Asia, Soviet Communists first appealed to the interests of Muslims before later attacking their traditional religious institutions under the banner of modernization” (100).

Froese is a good writer who presents this very broad and difficult subject with clarity in an interesting way. This important work is academic in nature, and does demand an elevated level of resolve and attention from the reader to complete. However, the payoff in usable knowledge is well worth the effort. Froese’s conclusion about the Soviet experiment in secularization is that ultimately the “data highlight[s] the failure of scientific atheism to establish committed followers. In other words, atheist education and propaganda had no lasting effect on the belief systems of most Communist citizens” (126). In support of this conclusion, the author gives a great deal of convincing, well-researched evidence through documented sources, and includes a number of useful tables, charts and graphs. Of final note, The Plot to Kill God was recognized by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) with their 2009 Distinguished Book Award, and would be a valuable addition to any library.

The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization. By Paul Froese. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 248 pp. Hardcover.