Atheists Unite Against Clericalism
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
The growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church has led some atheists to band together to defend the once-official ideology and warn of what they call a threat of clericalism.
One of the groupís organizers, human rights activist Lev Levinson, said Monday that the first major act of the Moscow Society of Atheists would be to send an open letter to President Vladimir Putin protesting the mention of God in the new lyrics of the national anthem.
"ĎA native land protected by Godí?" Levinson said by telephone, questioning a line in the anthem. "It is not up to the state to establish whether God exists."
Levinson, who made a name for himself as a defender of freedom of conscience, said the organization was formed several months ago and has about a dozen members, including prominent physicist Vitaly Ginsburg. It is chaired by actor and magician Yury Gorny. "Essentially, it is an anti-clerical society," Levinson said.
The group opposes the churchís increasing involvement in state affairs over the past decade. Among the atheistsí particular concerns are the governmentís tolerance of Orthodox priests in the army, the blessing of government buildings by priests and the teaching of religious courses in state-run educational institutions. "We are witnessing a broadscale offensive against the secular state," Levinson said.
Putin on Tuesday awarded state medals to dozens of Russian Orthodox priests and praised clerics for helping to "return moral foundations to our nation," The Associated Press reported.
"The understanding and constructive dialogue of the Church and the state serve shared purposes: The creation of moral wealth and well-being of Russia," Putin was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass.
He expressed gratitude to Patriarch Alexy II and praised the churchís attempts "to consolidate civil peace and interdenominational accord, and the consistent position of the church on many key international and internal political problems," the news agency said.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a Moscow Patriarchate official responsible for relations with political parties and public organizations, said he considers the formation of the Moscow Society of Atheists to be part of a broader problem gripping the country.
"There is a new wave of godlessness among a certain group of Russian intellectuals" that dislikes seeing "its position of spiritual leadership decrease as the churchís influence grows," Chaplin said.
He defended the Church, saying that its status in Russia differed little from that of other churches in the West.
"Even in countries where the theory of separation between church and state is executed in its most complete form Ö there are chaplains in the army and forms of state support for certain religious groups," the archpriest said. "Any movement in the same direction in Russia leads to accusations that we are building a clerical state."
Zinovy Kogan, president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, was more phlegmatic about the group.
"It looks like a protest against the excessive zealousness of our neophytes and bureaucrats," he said. "If such a protest takes place, it should be taken into account. After all, everything comes from God, including atheists."