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Why did both communist people and Communist states oppose religion so much, sometimes with violence and arson. There are many other secular non-Communist states in the world that do not have such a strong hatred of and opposition to religion. They neither oppose nor support religion, and do not use extreme practices to try to eliminate it.

Communist states, particularly the Soviet Union, had tried to eradicate every bit of religion that had existed since their revolutions. China's Cultural Revolution had also attempted to eliminate remnants of traditional and capitalist elements, including historic artifacts, but also religious and cultural sites.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, during its demolition in 1931: enter image description here

Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda: enter image description here

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    Probably an oversimplification, but historically, "the church" was often a huge political foe (still is in many parts of the world). Communism "works better" when there's only one political party in charge.
    – user1530
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 1:40
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    They oppose church. And of course there's even christian communism. I suggest reading Wikipedia. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 21:55
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    Karl Marx called religion "opium for the people", so for system based on marxism religion could be legalization of drugs.
    – convert
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 15:31
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    @convert, no, it was Ilf+Petrov who did (indirectly and ironically, of course). Marx called it opium of the people, a big difference.
    – Zeus
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 0:50
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    @convert that's a Leninist misinterpretation of Karl Marx's quote. That sentence came at the end of a longer characterization of religion as a coping mechanism. The Leninists usually dropped the beginning of the quote to make it sound like Marx believed that religion was a type of poison (rather than a coping mechanism) "for the (poor) people."
    – wrod
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 2:20

7 Answers 7

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One aspect not explicitly mentioned by the others, and why a country like the People's Republic of China is still wary of religion it doesn't control even though it has strayed quite far from dogmatic Marxism:

The Church power is a power that is not within the control of the state or the Party. It is perceived as competing, and therefore a threat to any totalitarian regime.

For the same reason, organisations like traditional scouting are also distrusted or outright banned in totalitarian regimes: the Party provides its own mass association for kids to bond and explore nature, controlled by the Party. For example, the Freie Deutsche Jugend had this role in East Germany (it is now a tiny fringe organisation, that somehow did not get disbanded like the others). Similarly, the communists had mass organisations for sport, work (labour unions), and even allotment gardeners, all under the control of the Party.

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    "Traditional scouts" are just an element of Anglo-american system of power to the extent they participate in state ceremonies in the USA. They're as integrated into power structure as Hitler Jugend or Young Pioneers.
    – alamar
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 12:25
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    @alamar That is a controversial statement. I am not a fan of the scouts at all and there is much in scouting I dislike, but as far as I have observed scouting in The Netherlands, there is less politics in it than in the party-aligned mass movements you are referring to.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 15:56
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    Interestingly the two largest scouts organizations in Germany are aligned with christian churches: catholic de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Pfadfinderschaft_Sankt_Georg and protestant de.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 16:09
  • With the Bund der Pfadfinderinnen und Pfadfinder, the Bund Deutscher PfadfinderInnen and the Ring deutscher Pfadfinder*innenverbände they do split like socialist splinter parties or protestant churches. It looks like being religion is a requirement? That would make it even more suspect for communists, I don't see a single secular, liberal, or socialist one.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 13:34
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    @gerrit: AFAIK a socialist scouts organization would have the difficulty that the international scouts organization requires its members to be unpolitical. They have no such requirement on confession. BTW, according to Wikipedia there's also a de.wikipedia.org/wiki/… What I find most astonishing here is that scouts organizations which come from a paramilitary tradition have attached to the churches, and at least the German protestant churches have a sound connection to the peace movement and anti-military tradition... Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 15:42
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TL;DR

  1. The key founders of Russian Communism have openly declared that the Marxism and religion are „incompatible“. Namely, Marxism has declared the lines of conduct which are opposite to Orthodox Christianity, the most popular religion of the Russia;
  2. Marxism, at least, as it has been understood by Russian Bolsheviks, was a dogmatic, non-scientific belief, hence, a direct competitor to many world's religions of the time.
  3. The Russian Orthodox Church has been adopted by KGB during the times of WWII, when it became apparent that Marxist ideology is not sufficient for controlling the masses.

Yielding the Floor to an Ideologist

First, a note on terminology.
Below, the quotes mistakenly (or deliberately) mix two terms: Marxism (an ideology) and Communism/Socialism (a ruling regime, or a type of a government). The question also contains this mistake. Communism (a regime) can't oppose religion in general, but Marxism (an ideology) can.

Nikolai Bukharin, one of the key ideologists of Russian Communism and prolific author on „revolutionary theory“, wrote in his book, The ABC of Communism (1919):

Chapter 11: Communism and Religion
§ 89. Why religion and communism are incompatible

Many weak-kneed communists reason as follows: 'Religion does not prevent my being a communist. I believe both in God and in communism. My faith in God does not hinder me from fighting for the cause of the proletarian revolution.'

This train of thought is radically false. Religion and communism are incompatible, both theoretically and practically.

In practice, no less than in theory, communism is incompatible with religious faith. The tactic of the Communist Party prescribes for the members of the party definite lines of conduct. The moral code of every religion in like manner prescribes for the faithful some definite line of conduct.

marxists.org


Competition

As I mention in another answer, Marxism is an ideology of class supremacy. Proletariat supposed to be the "master class", while others are "lower" ones.

However, the majority of proletarians were not familiar with Marxist ideology. There was also no goal to teach them with the details of Marxism. As a result, the vast majority of them simply believed that Marxism is right without knowing Marxist ideas in any depth, just the same way as in Tsarist Russia they believed in Christianity while sincerely thinking that Jesus Christ was a Russian, not to mention the deeper aspects of Christianity.

So, there was no place for two competing ideologies, equivalent to each other in most aspects, as it was understood by the overwhelming majority of the population.


Adoption by KGB

However, in 1940s the Stalin's regime has decided that suppressing the religion is not effective:

After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort.Wikipedia

By the last years of the Soviet Union,

"Not a single candidate for the office of bishop or any other high-ranking office, much less a member of Holy Synod, went through without confirmation by the Central Committee of the CPSU and the KGB" — Wikipedia

Nowadays, the KGB officer codename "Mikhailov" is allegedly the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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    Great answer, but why do you often start your answers with "TL;DR" ? What does that mean?
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 7:34
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    @Bregalad TL;DR stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read". I used it in meaning, "here's a short answer if you don't want to read the full one which is really long". Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 13:04
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    @bytebuster Wow. Why don't you just say "summary" or something like that?
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 18:49
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    @Bregalad Well, because "Summary" does not assume an indirect apology for writing a lengthy answer that could probably be reduced without losing content, and someone may think I'm too lazy to make an effort to. :-) Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 19:08
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    @Bregalad He did, effectively. "TL;DR" at this point has entered the English language to the point where you can find it not only in dictionaries, but in books and newspapers and even the Oxford English Dictionary considers it not slang but "informal."
    – cjs
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 11:12
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I do not know for China but in Russia Orthodox Christianity had long tradition of supporting monarchism, schauvinism, anti-semitism, nationalism etc.

It was one of the leading sources of inspiration for pogroms, persecution and forced assimiliation of ethnic minorities crushing on the workers protests etc.

Every worker's protests were crushed with mounted thugs, often, cossacks, with whips and icons.

Black hundreds rallies: enter image description here

enter image description here

Persecution of the Jews was also justified with religious motifs and the priests very oftern made hate speach declarations against not only Jews, but also against Ukrainians, Poles etc.

It was more or less consensus among the left at the beginning of XXth century that religion brings in inter-ethnic strife and represents danger to the inter-ethnic peace in Russia.

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    This does not seem to attempt answering the question, why the Kommunist regimes opposed religion. Also, schauvinism and anti-semitism seem to be common attributes of both communist and tsarist regimes of the Russia. Following the logic of this answer, they supposed to be loyal allies. Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 21:06
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    @bytebuster by the time when anti-semitism and nationalism infiltrated the soviet ideology persecution of religion had been already over. Return of nationalism was accompanyed with rising the influence of the church.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 5:04
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    @bytebuster where and by whom were the pogroms? Was it following Soviet ideology? It is known that the Whites did much more pogroms than the Reds. These pogroms could be a sound motivation for persecution of religion by the government by the way (along with the instituted death penalty for active anti-semitism in the criminal code).
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 7:06
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    @bytebuster indeed. And that article is about pogroms in Russian Empire (the quoted paragraph speaks about the period 1881-1917) where the authorities were both anti-semitic and agressively Christian.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 7:33
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    @bytebuster what should I read in the footnotes? The section «1917-22» says the Bolshevik government persecuted the anti-semites and stopped pogroms.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 7:53
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Just so it's said, in Marxist philosophy religion is generally viewed as a soporific: something which lulls to masses into believing they will be rewarded in the next life if they work hard and follow the rules in this Life. Since Marxism aims at waking people up — making them realize the exploited condition of their lives in the here and now — they tend to see religion as a hinderance. Marxism isn't anti-religious per se, much less anti-spiritual or anti-theistic, but it opposes any theology that tries to wish away the suffering of the laboring class, because such theology undercuts the Marxist trajectory.

There are and have been many religious groups that have promoted and worked for Marxist principles. Such groups simply reach for eternal salvation through social progress.

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I think people seem to forget that socialist regimes are not always hostile to religion and sometimes form alliances with religious socialists. The USSR recognized Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi due to his own ideology that was a form of state socialism tied to Islam. People seem to forget that throughout a lot of history in Europe & certain parts of Asia, religion was used as a tool of power and a way to get wealthy easily or have a higher societal position by using a God as a tool for political accession. In France before the French Revolution, for example, clergy were members of the First Estate that could levy a ten percent tax on the peasants 'in the name of God' whenever they feel like it before doing whatever they want with the money. Then, you have the entirety of feudalism where kings ruled due to the 'divine right of kings'.

From a Marxist and European socialist perspective, religion is often used as a tool of feudalists, capitalists, and enemies of the proletariat to gain wealth and power over the common worker. Positions also would depend on whether you believed in the 'correct faith' or not. In most authoritarian socialist states, any worker or member of the community could work their way up to a higher position in society (and at least in theory, the state is supposed to be a temporary means to an end to protect from capitalist counter-revolutionaries and guide people towards a stateless, moneyless society that would be achieved once society became advanced enough & the state would naturally erode away or be dealt with in a final revolution). So, a lot of the animosity to religion was due to it being connected to classist systems at various points in history and its use frequently as a way to maintain classist systems generally opposed to what socialist states aim to accomplish: a stateless, moneyless society that is supposed to form after the defeat of capitalism and other anti-socialist systems.

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    A good answer, but I think you could better emphasise that through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period various churches were political systems within themselves that had enormous power, often as much or more as the nominal governments in any particular area of Europe. That started to fade somewhat with the Enlightenment, but even so, religious establishments still continued to have a fair amount of political power.
    – cjs
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 11:05
  • Socialism is not Communism. The question is about Communist regimes. Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 15:48
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    There were no communist regimes. They all only hoped to implement communism in some distance future.
    – alamar
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 16:45
  • @alamar there were no full communist regimes, but people seem to forget as I explained in a former answer that in some forms of socialism, Communism is a process. These regimes were apart of what some were called the lower stage of communism: forms of socialism that hope to advance enough society and scientifically to the point where things like a state and money are no longer required.
    – Tyler Mc
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 18:29
  • The real difference is ones which tried to suppress all non-government capital and employment, versus ones which didn't
    – alamar
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 18:51
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I do not know if it must always be this way but in Soviet system Atheism was an important part of the Communism ideology. The vision was that people will work for free because they enjoy working, it is interesting to work, because an attractive work is important part of self-realization, work is where you communicate with other people the most, hence the work is the important part of the meaning of life. This somewhat clashes with religions that may not be very against the hard work yet put completely different reasons for living. Soviets published many books for teenagers where this disagreement is addressed (atheistic propaganda was mainstream).

It was never obvious who will motivate people working in non-creative professions, but some Soviet science fiction (like Andromeda Nebula by I.Yefremov) describe the society where people swap the professions every few years, doing tasks nobody particularly likes in shifts and find creative and interesting aspects in professions that are generally not seen as very creative. Also, it was expected that the amount of boring work will decline with the advance of technology.

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Since communism is based on the theory by Marx, it is called opium of the people and drugs are ilegal in most states. So forbiding religion in this context could be seen just as forbiding an other drug. In this context it is more important how people in countries like USSR and China understood that statement and not what Marx really meaned.

In countries like USSR, China and specially North Korea there was and sometimes still is the cult of personality, where the first communist leader of the country is seen as some kind of god. This is defenetly not compatible with the most religions specialy Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam.

Also at least at some early stage it seems that Lenin was not really wanting to forbid religion, religion should just be kept out of the state as can be read in his work from 1905.

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    opium in this context means "painkiller". Also Marx said "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. " Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 22:50
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    If we want to understand what Marx really meant we need to analyze his texts in context of his time and HIS culture. Marx neither lived in China nor was a Chinese, so intepreting this metaphor in context of Chinese bitter experience with Opium Wars is just plainly invalid. I would expect that Chinese communists would understand this invalidity. Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 12:12
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    This seems to drastically misplace Marx. Marx specifically prescribed a sequential model of history, where Communism follows Industrialization. Russia didn't even qualify for Communism, it was still feudal, and China was even less relevant. But the question is specifically about Russia and China, so an answer needs to reference later communists. Lenin would work; he is a key contributor to the rejection of the sequential model.
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 10:33
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    @MSalters Russia was already a major industrial power back, and defiintely not feudal for 40 years. USSR was feudal.
    – alamar
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 11:56
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    Tell that to kolkhoz members who could not move without getting an approval of their village hall.
    – alamar
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 14:35

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