Religious Monopolies versus Pluralism in the Post-Soviet Era

Paul Froese

As Muslims and Christians in the former Soviet Union jockey to influence state policy, one finds that traditionally dominant groups are successfully regaining their previously favored status. Political actors seeking to distinguish themselves from the antireligious policies of the Soviet Union have generally favored religious groups that claim a connection to the regional ethnic and national identity. The result is a reemergence of repressive religious policies that tend to favor one religious group.

Repressive Religious Policies: Some Less and Some More

As might be expected, the least religiously restrictive regions of the former Soviet Union are also the ones that are the most pluralistic. Estonia and Latvia do little to regulate their religious markets, and both countries have no clear majority religion. A statistical analysis of the different regions of the former Soviet Union confirms this trend—regions with the most repressive religious policies tend to contain the most religiously homogeneous populations. (The correlation between levels of regulation and levels of pluralism for all the countries in my sample is – .671.) The regulation of minority religions provides significant advantages to majority religions. The relationship between religious regulation and the growth of a majority religion is highly correlated. (The correlation between regulation and the growth of majority religions is strong –.588.) Countries with more religious restrictions tend to have more rapidly growing majority religions.

Regulation clearly works to the advantage of dominant religious groups. Through the regulation of smaller religious groups, dominant religions can better exploit the opportunities left by the collapse of their powerful atheist competitor. In the end, the seemingly strange reemergence of monopoly churches has occurred not through religious innovation but through political favoritism.

If traditional patterns of religious dominance fully reestablish themselves, we can expect a religious landscape that appears eerily similar to that of pre-Communist times. Current increases in religious diversity will fall, and the religious vitality of the immediate post-Communist era will similarly decay as the peoples of the former Soviet Union return to their past religious-ethnic identities.

Monopoly Religions

Monopoly religions do not occur without state assistance. Although certain religious traditions may have historical connections to ethnic or national identities, state intervention is necessary to ensure that these religious traditions hold their decided advantage over all others. Because monopoly religions tend to be propped up by states, they often become inactive and generate little religious turnover. The religious monopolies of the former Soviet Union are surprisingly vigorous, however, gaining thousands of new members, flying in the face of the label “lazy monopoly.” Monopolies around the former Soviet regions have been able to grow so impressively because of the religious vacuum generated by 70 years of intense religious repression.

The Persistence of Faith Despite Repression

One of the surprises of the post-Communist world is how deeply religious, national, and ethnic identities were embedded in the psyches of Soviet citizens. Why did decades of reeducation, propaganda, forced migration, industrialization, and urbanization do so little to dispel the nineteenth-century identities of the Soviet public? Perhaps the Communist Party simply tried too hard. In the case of religion, Soviet leaders did not just want to diminish the role of religion in people’s lives; they also hoped to eradicate all references to religion from the social world. This proved impossible. Religion was too ingrained in the fabric of society to be washed away by an oppressive government. Perhaps the Soviet government’s failure to erase religion revealed the importance of religion in ways that previously had been hidden. Although individuals throughout the Soviet Union were not exceptionally religious by world standards, forced secularization exposed the many religious rituals, beliefs, and customs that surrounded their lives.

Atheist AgitationCounterproductive

The forced promotion of scientific atheism actually kept religious ideas and symbols at the forefront of Soviet society. To dispel religious beliefs, Communist Party officials created a public discourse concerning the falsity of religion that may have unwittingly kept religious ideas alive. Metropolitan [now Patriarch] Kirill describes an instance of Soviet propagandists attempting to utilize a monastery as an atheist museum; he writes that the museum guide “tried to persuade the group that the magnificence of the church was created not because of but in spite of Christianity, which she maintained did not allow architects and icon painters to express themselves fully. But speaking about the architecture and icons, she willy-nilly spoke about the Gospel, and what she said and the icons and the architecture themselves came out as a witness to Christ—and that witness was so much more powerful than…scientific atheism!”1

While keeping religion at arm’s length, Soviet officials also kept religion in view through an incessant negativity about the religious past. Traditional pre-Communist patterns of religiosity indicate that most individuals took their religious identities and beliefs for granted, but Soviet rule forced citizens to evaluate the substance of their beliefs in new ways. Atheist propagandists seemed to have erred by calling attention to religious concepts and identities that were in many ways forgotten.

Separation from religion may make individuals long for it more passionately. Religious vigor responds to religious promotion, but the Soviet case demonstrates that religious curiosity and concern also responds to anti-religious pressure. State-supported religions tend to produce populations that rarely go to church or express strong religious beliefs.2

In many ways, Soviet elites already had their own religion—scientific atheism—and they were unwilling to compromise it. A firm and unrelenting faith in the evil of religion led Soviet leaders to commit vast resources and exert violent efforts to destroy religion, even as these efforts proved counterproductive. Paradoxically, the fervor with which Soviets attacked religion may have indirectly conveyed the importance of religion. Subsequently, religion continued to play an active role in Soviet society through antireligious propaganda, covert religious activity, and religious opposition to Soviet rule.

Religious Monopolies and Religious Repression – Hand in Hand

The new religious monopolies of the post-Soviet Union will not inspire spiritual vitality in their population, but this is not their main goal. Instead, these religious organizations seek political favoritism and will achieve it through their willingness to trade on their historical connection to national identities in the pre-Soviet era.

Cross-cultural research on religious regulation indicates that whenever religious freedom is available, multiple religious traditions tend to flourish. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke note that “in complex societies, the range of possible religious choices is usually very substantial, but even in preliterate groups, religious factions are common and new religious movements often arise.”3 This indicates that no one religion can fully meet the religious demands of a population, and religious homogeneity only appears to exist when religious diversity is legally and socially repressed.4 Taken together, the ubiquity of belief in God around the world combined with enormous diversity in religious traditions suggest that a basic demand for a religious worldview is universal, yet no singular religious doctrine can satisfy everyone.

The Idea of a Caring God

What is it about the idea of God that is so universal and seemingly important? In his analysis of the religious revivals in post-Communist Russia, Andrew Greeley found that belief in a caring God was more predictive of religious participation than whether an individual attended church as a child, was married to a religious person, or had a religious experience.5 This finding demonstrates that the idea of a caring God is one of the most appealing aspects of religion. In our research on religious devotion, my colleague Christopher Bader and I have also found that individuals attend church to the extent that they believe God is a caring and personally engaged being.6 Our research suggests that individuals are drawn to religion out of a desire for a personal relationship with the supernatural. The idea of a caring God not only presents a picture of the universe as meaningful and ultimately fair but also as loving and concerned with the individual. This key aspect of religion cannot be replicated in secular terms.

Although belief in God appears to motivate individuals differently at its most extreme, this belief can inspire individuals to risk their lives. There is something universal about its appeal. By killing the idea of God, Communist Party officials abandoned one of the essential objects of human faith. Soviet thinkers failed to comprehend the power of the idea of God and misguidedly dismissed supernatural concepts as insignificant when, in fact, this idea can inspire and legitimate a wide variety of worldviews.

Church-State Symbiosis

In the post-Communist world political actors seek to establish social and institutional ties that will solidify their hold on power. Religious groups offer something attractive to new political leaders—legitimacy. In turn, political elites can offer favored status to loyal religious groups. This relationship explains the emergence of religious monopolies that rely on government support and regulation of religious competition.

Politicians across the former Soviet Union have tended to foster mutually beneficial relationships with religions that enjoyed favored status in pre-Communist times. These religions have a historic connection to national and ethnic identities, and leaders seeking to strengthen a shared national character often invoke the collective memory of past national glory. President Yeltsin very quickly developed ties to the Russian Orthodox Church not only to distance himself from Soviet Communism but also to exhibit his core Russian identity. In a regional analysis of religious freedom throughout the newly created Russian Federation, my colleague Christopher Marsh and I found that local governments that were more efficient and organized tended to enact laws that greatly favor the Russian Orthodox Church.7 The most effective political actors in Russia have similarly pursued a close relationship with the Orthodox Church in the hope of fostering a strong religio-national identity that further legitimizes their power.

Similarly, although Central Asia is predominantly run by former Communist elites, these individuals were quick to remind the public of their Muslim identities. In turn, these political leaders favor Islamic groups that were closely tied to the Communist Party. This approach has led to unrest and rebellion as outside Muslim groups jockey for political power and religious dominance. Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, no single Muslim group can claim exclusive ties to newly emerging national identities. Therefore, established political actors and emerging religious leaders in Central Asia fight over what it means to be Muslim.

When asked why, as an atheist, he writes so much about religion, Salman Rushdie stated that quite naturally, “atheists are obsessed with God.”8 Marxist-Leninists certainly were. Ironically, their obsession with atheism led them to pay too much attention to God. Contemporary social sciences are obsessed with the idea of secularization. The secularization thesis indicates that religion will die out as the world modernizes, but there seems little evidence to support this general hypothesis.

The Soviet regime turned religion into a political enemy through its own fixation with destroying the idea of God. For Marxist-Leninists, it was not enough simply to weaken religious markets; they also wanted their citizenry to be convinced atheists. But in this task they attempted the impossible. First, the idea of God was simply too ubiquitous to erase. The concept of a transcendent God had been used by Russians, Lithuanians, Uzbeks, and other Soviet peoples for centuries to explain their way of life, their conceptions of social justice, their relationships to one another, and their individual purposes and dreams. The historical development of Christianity and Islam throughout the lands that were to become the Soviet Union infused these cultures with the idea of God at every level of social life. Second, the idea of God was too psychologically ingrained to erase. Ancient symbols of God permeated churches, homes, and public spaces.

Religion – An Enduring Reality

Around the world, religious expression is by no means monolithic; it takes numerous forms, and religious commitment varies greatly in its level of intensity. Western Europe, the United States, Communist China, and the Soviet Union all attest to radically differing religious cultures and levels of secularization. However, religious faith endures in all of these societies, and the idea of God in all its multiple forms is one of the most shared beliefs in the entire world.9 Regardless of whether one considers the idea of God a nightmare or a dream in today’s world, God remains a persistent and significant aspect of the human experience. F


1“Gospel and Culture” in Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia, ed. by John Witte and Michael Bourdeaux (New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 70.

2Rodney Stark and Laurence R. Iannacone, “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the ‘Secularization’ of Europe,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (No. 3, 1994), 230-52.

3Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 114.

4Stark and Iannaccone, “Supply-Side”; Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 1987); Stephen R. Warner, “Work in the Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 98 (No. 5, 1993), 1044-93.

5Andrew Greeley, Religion at the End of the Second Millennium (London: Transaction Publishers, 2003).

6Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, “God in America: Why Theology is Not Just the Concern of Philosophers,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2007).

7Christopher Marsh and Paul Froese, “The State of Freedom in Russia: A Regional Analysis of Freedom of Religion, Media, and Markets,” Religion, State and Society 32 (No. 2, 2004), 137-49.

8Salman Rushdie interview with Bill Moyers, 23 June 2006. See transcript at

9Puppa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Edited excerpts published with permission from Paul Froese, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization. © 2008 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.

Paul Froese is associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.