Staunton, October 29 – At a time when religious organizations are seeking an ever greater role in Russia’s public life and when clashes among them are increasingly frequent, Russia’s atheist community has formed a new public movement to defend secularism, a principle enshrined in the Russian Constitution but increasingly ignored by the powers that be.
This week, a group of Russian atheists came together to form the Sanity Public Foundation, the primary goal of which is to organize demonstrations “in support and defense of the secular character of the Russian state in correspondence with the 14th paragraph of the Constitution of the Russian Federation (http://www.atheistcampaign.ru/).
The members of the initiative group declared that they cannot remain silent about “the violation of the principles of a secular state,” including the overly close ties between the state and religious groups, budget funds being used for religious purposes, religious instruction in the schools, religious censorship, and “the de facto introduction of shariat law in particular regions.”
“Russia is a secular state and it must remain such,” they continue, asserting that “we are certain that legality and agreement in society, the basis of which is a legal state and its basic law, the Constitution of the Russian Federation, is much more important than the dogmas of particular religions.”
“Our task is to initiate a public discussion about the level of clericalization of society,” the organizers say. “To achieve this we want with the assistance of the attraction of public attention to the clear violations of the principles of secularism in the country and with actions directed at the popularization of alternatives to a religious worldview.”
At the same time, the organizers of this foundation insist, “we are not positioning ourselves as fighters with religion, religious organizations, or believers. Rather, we only want to dispel the existing stereotypes and support somewhat shaky principles of a secular state in Russia.”
The group’s first action, the announcement says, “will be the continuation of the international Atheist Bus Campaign,” a measure that under Russian conditions will involve driving cars through the streets of Moscow with both “the slogans of the Western campaign and others in support of the Constitution of Russia.”
The claims of religious leaders in the Russian Federation notwithstanding, a significant portion of the Russian population consists of non-believers and, if polls are to be believed, an even larger share supports in principle the idea of a secular state. But except for a few human and legal rights groups, this large group of people has had no one to speak on its behalf.
With the creation of Sanity, this group may have acquired a voice and the Constitutional mandate for secularism a defender, something that can only be welcomed given the way in which the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups in its wake have sought to undermine that principle.
But at the same time, there is one troubling aspect of the emergence of this group. Its members are avowedly atheist, something that will reinforce the view of many Russians and especially many believers that secularism is nothing more than a cover for the promotion of atheism, something they had too much experience with in Soviet times.
If Sanity attracts support from believers who are also concerned about the threats to a secular state and hence to the Russian Constitution, then it is likely to become an important participant in public debates about where Russia should be going. But if it does not, it is likely to remain marginal or even become counterproductive as a straw man religious groups can use.