State atheism is the official promotion of atheism by a government, sometimes combined with active suppression of religious freedom and practice. In contrast, a secular state purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion. State atheism may refer to a government's anti-clericalism, which opposes religious institutional power and influence in all aspects of public and political life, including the involvement of religion in the everyday life of the citizen.
State promotion of atheism as a public norm was first practiced during a brief period in Revolutionary France. Since then, such a policy was repeated only in Revolutionary Mexico and some Marxist-Leninist states. The Soviet Union had a long history of state atheism, in which social success largely required individuals to profess atheism and stay away from houses of worship; this attitude was especially militant during the middle Stalinist era from 1929–1939. The Soviet Union attempted to suppress public religious expression over wide areas of its influence, including places such as central Asia.
During the French Revolution French society considered the prospect of an atheist state. After the Revolution, Jacques Hébert, a radical revolutionary journalist, and Anacharsis Cloots, a politician, both anticlerical and atheist, had successfully campaigned for the proclamation of the atheistic Cult of Reason, which was adopted by the French Republic on November 10, 1793, though abandoned May 7, 1794 in favor of its deistic replacement as the state religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being.
Cloots maintained that "Reason" and "Truth" were "supremely intolerant" and that the daylight of atheism would make the lesser lights of religious night disappear. The state then further pushed its campaign of dechristianization, which included removal and destruction of religious objects from places of worship and the transformation of churches into "Temples of the Goddess of Reason", culminating in a celebration of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Counterrevolution against the persecution rooted in the anticlerical aspects of the Revolution led to a war in the Vendée region where republicans suppressed the Catholic and royalist uprising in what some call "the first modern genocide", (a term some historians reject).
Unlike later establishments of anti-theism by communist regimes, the French Revolutionary experiment was short (7 months), incomplete and inconsistent. Although brief, the French experiment was particularly notable for the influence upon atheists Ludwig Feuerbach (who called religion an opiate before Marx), Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Using the ideas of Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, "communist" regimes later treated religious believers as subversives or abnormal, sometimes relegated to psychiatric hospitals and reeducation.
Articles 3, 5, 24, 27, and 130 of the The Mexican Constitution of 1917 as originally enacted were anticlerical and enormously restricted religious freedoms. At first the anticlerical provisions were only sporadically enforced, but when President Plutarco Elías Calles took office, he enforced the provisions strictly. Calles’ Mexico has been characterized as an atheist state and his program as being one to eradicate religion in Mexico.
All religions had their properties appropriated, and these became part of government wealth. There was a forced expulsion of foreign clergy and the seizure of Church properties. Article 27 prohibited any future acquisition of such property by the churches, and prohibited religious corporations and ministers from establishing or directing primary schools. This second prohibition was sometimes interpreted to mean that the Church could not give religious instruction to children within the churches on Sundays, seen as destroying the ability of Catholics to be educated in their own religion.
The Constitution of 1917 also closed and forbade the existence of monastic orders (article 5), forbade any religious activity outside of church buildings (now owned by the government), and mandated that such religious activity would be overseen by the government (article 24).
On June 14, 1926, President Calles enacted an anticlerical legislation known formally as The Law Reforming the Penal Code and unofficially as the Calles Law. His anti-Catholic actions included outlawing religious orders, depriving the Church of property rights and depriving the clergy of civil liberties, including their right to trial by jury (in cases involving anti-clerical laws) and the right to vote. Catholic antipathy towards Calles was enhanced because of his vocal atheism. He was also a Freemason. Regarding this period, recent President Vicente Fox stated, "After 1917, Mexico was led by anti-Catholic Freemasons who tried to evoke the anticlerical spirit of popular indigenous President Benito Juárez of the 1880s. But the military dictators of the 1920s were a more savage lot than Juarez." 
Due to the strict enforcement of anti-clerical laws, people in strongly Catholic areas, especially the states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Colima and Michoacán, began to oppose him, and this opposition led to the Cristero War from 1926 to 1929, which was characterized by brutal atrocities by both sides. Some Cristeros applied terrorist tactics, while the Mexican government persecuted the clergy, killing suspected Cristeros and supporters and often retaliating against innocent individuals. On May 28, 1926, Calles was awarded a medal of merit from the head of Mexico's Scottish rite of Freemasonry for his actions against the Catholics.
A truce was negotiated with the assistance of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow. Calles, however, did not abide by the terms of the truce – in violation of its terms, he had approximately 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros shot, frequently in their homes in front of their spouses and children. Particularly offensive to Catholics after the supposed truce was Calles' insistence on a complete state monopoly on education, suppressing all Catholic education and introducing "socialist" education in its place: "We must enter and take possession of the mind of childhood, the mind of youth.". The persecution continued as Calles maintained control under his Maximato and did not relent until 1940, when President Manuel Ávila Camacho, a believing Catholic, took office. This attempt to indoctrinate the youth in atheism was begun in 1934 by amending Article 3 to the Mexican Constitution to eradicate religion by mandating "socialist education", which "in addition to removing all religious doctrine" would "combat fanaticism and prejudices", "build[ing] in the youth a rational and exact concept of the universe and of social life". In 1946 this "socialist education" was removed from the constitution and the document returned to the less egregious generalized secular education. The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. Where there were 4,500 priests operating within the country before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion, and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.
A communist state, in popular usage, is a state with a form of government characterized by single-party rule or dominant-party rule of a communist party and a professed allegiance to a Leninist or Marxist–Leninist communist ideology as the guiding principle of the state. The founder and primary theorist of Marxism, the Nineteenth-century German sociologist Karl Marx, had an ambivalent attitude to religion, viewing it primarily as "the opium of the people" that had been used by the ruling classes to give the working classes false hope for millennia, whilst at the same time recognizing it as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions. In the Marxist–Leninist interpretation of Marxist theory, developed primarily by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, religion is seen as negative to human development, and communist states that follow a Marxist–Leninist variant are atheistic and explicitly antireligious. Lenin states:
|“||Religion is the opiate of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.||”|
State atheism in Albania was taken to an extreme during the totalitarian regime installed after World War II, when religions, identified as imports foreign to Albanian culture, were banned altogether. The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1945 nationalized most property of religious institutions, including the estates of monasteries, orders, and dioceses. Many clergy and believers were tried, tortured, and executed. All foreign Roman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns were expelled in 1946.
Religious communities or branches that had their headquarters outside the country, such as the Jesuit and Franciscan orders, were henceforth ordered to terminate their activities in Albania. Religious institutions were forbidden to have anything to do with the education of the young, because that had been made the exclusive province of the state. All religious communities were prohibited from owning real estate and from operating philanthropic and welfare institutions and hospitals. Although there were tactical variations in Enver Hoxha's approach to each of the major denominations, his overarching objective was the eventual destruction of all organized religion in Albania. Between 1945 and 1953, the number of priests was reduced drastically and the number of Roman Catholic churches was decreased from 253 to 100, and all Catholics were stigmatized as fascists.
The campaign against religion peaked in the 1960s. Beginning in 1967 the Albanian authorities began a violent campaign to try to eliminate religious life in Albania. Despite complaints, even by APL members, all churches, mosques, monasteries, and other religious institutions were either closed down or converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, or workshops by the end of 1967. By May 1967, religious institutions had been forced to relinquish all 2,169 churches, mosques, cloisters, and shrines in Albania, many of which were converted into cultural centers for young people. As the literary monthly Nendori reported the event, the youth had thus "created the first atheist nation in the world."
The clergy were publicly vilified and humiliated, their vestments taken and desecrated. More than 200 clerics of various faiths were imprisoned, others were forced to seek work in either industry or agriculture, and some were executed or starved to death. The cloister of the Franciscan order in Shkodër was set on fire, which resulted in the death of four elderly monks.
Article 37 of the Albanian Constitution of 1976 stipulated, "The state recognizes no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.", and the penal code of 1977 imposed prison sentences of three to ten years for "religious propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature." A new decree that in effect targeted Albanians with Muslim and Christian names stipulated that citizens whose names did not conform to "the political, ideological, or moral standards of the state" were to change them. It was also decreed that towns and villages with religious names must be renamed. Hoxha's brutal antireligious campaign succeeded in eradicating formal worship, but some Albanians continued to practice their faith clandestinely, risking severe punishment. Individuals caught with Bibles, icons, or other religious objects faced long prison sentences. Religious weddings were prohibited.
Parents were afraid to pass on their faith, for fear that their children would tell others. Officials tried to entrap practicing Christians and Muslims during religious fasts, such as Lent and Ramadan, by distributing dairy products and other forbidden foods in school and at work, and then publicly denouncing those who refused the food, and clergy who conducted secret services were incarcerated. Catholic priest Shtjefen Kurti had been executed for secretly baptizing a child in Shkodër in 1972.
The article was interpreted by Danes as violating The United Nations Charter (chapter 9, article 55) which declares that religious freedom is an inalienable human right. The first time that the question came before the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights at Geneva was as late as 7 March 1983. A delegation from Denmark got its protest over Albania's violation of religious liberty placed on the agenda of the thirty-ninth meeting of the commission, item 25, reading, "Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.", and on 20 July 1984 a member of the Danish Parliament inserted an article in one of Denmark's major newspapers protesting the violation of religious freedom in Albania.
Traditionally, a large segment of Chinese population occasionally resorted to Buddhist temples and Buddhism has had a significant role in the everyday life of ordinary people. After the 1949 Chinese Revolution, China began a period of rule by the Communist Party of China. For much of its early history, that government maintained under Marxist thought that religion would ultimately disappear, and characterized it as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism.
During the Cultural Revolution, student vigilantes known as Red Guards converted religious buildings for secular use or destroyed them. This attitude, however, relaxed considerably in the late 1970s, with the reform and opening up period. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guaranteed freedom of religion with a number of restrictions. Since then, there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
The Communist Party has said that religious belief and membership are incompatible. However, the state is not allowed to force ordinary citizens to become atheists. There are five religions recognized by the state: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity. (However, Chinese state Catholicism is not allowed to be affiliated in any way with Rome, and state Protestantism is similarly not allowed to be affiliated with Protestant churches abroad.) The state even promotes "normal" religious activity (i.e., not using mosques as a platform to preach jihad against the state) as a force for the stability of China.
Most people report no organized religious affiliation; however, people with a belief in folk traditions and spiritual beliefs, such as ancestor veneration and feng shui, along with informal ties to local temples and unofficial house churches number in the hundreds of millions. The United States Department of State, in its annual report on International Religious Freedom, provides statistics about organized religions. In 2007 it reported the following (citing the Government's 1997 report on Religious Freedom and 2005 White Paper on religion):
- Buddhists 8%.
- Taoists, unknown as a percentage partly because it is fused along with Confucianism and Buddhism.
- Muslims, 1%, with more than 20,000 Imams. Other estimates state at least 1%.
- Christians, Protestants at least 3%. Catholics, about 1.5%.
Statistics relating to Buddhism and religious Taoism are to some degree incomparable with statistics for Islam and Christianity. This is due to the traditional Chinese belief system which blends Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, so that a person who follows a traditional belief system would not necessarily identify him- or herself as exclusively Buddhist or Taoist, despite attending Buddhist or Taoist places of worship. According to Peter Ng, Professor of the Department of Religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as of 2002, 95% of Chinese were religious in some way if religion is considered to include traditional folk practices such as burning incense for gods or ancestors at life-cycle or seasonal festivals, fortune telling and related customary practices.
Originally more tolerant of religion, Cuba began arresting many believers and shutting down religious schools after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, its prisons since the 1960s being filled with clergy. In 1961 The Cuban government confiscated Catholic schools, including the Jesuit school Fidel Castro had attended. In 1965 it exiled two hundred priests.
The Communist Party of Cuba defines one of its aims as "the gradual overcoming of religious beliefs by materialistic scientific propaganda and the cultural advancement of the workers." From 1976 to 1992, the Constitution of Cuba contained a clause stating that the "socialist state...bases its activity on, and educates the people in, the scientific materialist concept of the universe". In 1992, the Communist Party of Cuba has allowed religious believers to join. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has amended its statutes to declare itself a "secular state" rather than atheistic.
State atheism in the Soviet Union (gosateizm) attempted to stop the spread of religious beliefs as well as remove "prerevolutionary remnants". Although all religions were persecuted, the regime's efforts to eradicate religion, however, varied over the years with respect to particular religions, and were affected by higher state interests. Official policies and practices not only varied with time, but also in their application from one nationality and one religion to another. Nationality and religion were always closely linked, and the attitude toward religion varied from a total ban on some religions to official support of others.
From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, such organizations as the League of the Militant Godless ridiculed all religions and harassed believers. Anti-religious and atheistic propaganda was implemented into every portion of soviet life: in schools, communist organizations such as the Young Pioneer Organization, and the media. Though Lenin originally introduced the Gregorian calendar to the Soviets, subsequent efforts to reorganise the week to improve worker productivity saw the introduction of the Soviet calendar, which had the side-effect that a "holiday will seldom fall on Sunday".
Within about a year of the revolution, the state expropriated all church property, including the churches themselves, and in the period from 1922 to 1926, 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests were killed (a much greater number was subjected to persecution). Most seminaries were closed, and publication of religious writing was banned. The Russian Orthodox Church, which had 54,000 parishes before World War I, was reduced to 500 by 1940. A meeting of the Antireligious Commission of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) that occurred on 23 May 1929 estimated the portion of believers in the USSR at 80 percent, though this percentage may be understated to prove the successfulness of the struggle with religion. Today, approximately 100 million citizens consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, amounting to 70% of population, although the Church claims a membership of 80 million. According to the CIA Factbook, however, only 17% to 22% of the population is now Christian.
Despite the Soviet Union's attempts to eliminate religion, other former USSR and anti-religious nations, such as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Moldova, Albania, and Georgia have high religious populations. Author Niels Christian Nielsen has written that the post-Soviet population in areas which were formerly predominantly Orthodox are now "nearly illiterate regarding religion", almost completely lacking the intellectual or philosophical aspects of their faith and having almost no knowledge of other faiths. Nonetheless, their knowledge of their faith and the faith of others notwithstanding, many post-Soviet populations have a large presence of religious followers.
Today in the Russian Federation, approximately 100 million citizens consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, amounting to 70% of population, although the Church claims a membership of 80 million. According to a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 63% of respondents considered themselves Russian Orthodox, 6% of respondents considered themselves Muslim and less than 1% considered themselves either Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. Another 12% said they believe in God, but did not practice any religion, and 16% said they are non-believers. In Ukraine, 96.1% of the Ukrainian population is Christian. In Lithuania, the only Catholic country which was once a Soviet republic, a 2005 report stated that 79% of Lithuanians belonged to the Roman Catholic Church.
North Korea's government exercises virtual total control over society and imposes the cult of personality of Kim Jung Il and Kim Il Sung, described as a political religion. Their ideology has been described as "state-sanctioned atheism". Although the North Korean constitution states that freedom of religion is permitted, free religious activities no longer exist in North Korea, as the government sponsors religious groups only to create an illusion of religious freedom. Cardinal Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk has said that, "There's no knowledge of priests surviving persecution that came in the late forties, when 166 priests and religious were killed or kidnapped." which includes the Roman Catholic bishop of Pyongyang, Francis Hong Yong-ho. The Juche ideology, based on Korean ultranationalism, calls on people to "avoid spiritual deference to outside influences", which was interpreted as including religion originating outside of Korea.
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