An Orthodox Cleric Tells of His Conversion to Atheism

Aleksandr Osipov, Letter to the Editor: A Rejection of Religion Is the Only True Path. December 6, 1959


Original Source: Pravda, 6 December 1959, p. 4.

Yes, I, a professor of Old Testament Scripture and classical Hebrew at Leningrad’s Orthodox theological academy and seminary, former assistant to the rector of those institutions, master of divinity and archpriest, have broken with the church and with religion. I have publicly professed my consistent atheism, to which I attained through study and science after a great and protracted inner struggle and a re-examination of my world outlook. I have quit a world that I now perceive to be a world of illusions, of estrangement from reality, and often of knowing deception in the name of personal enrichment; I have left this world in my 48th year, during 25 of which I occupied intermediate-rank posts in the Orthodox Church.

I left knowing from the experience of former pupils of mine who had quit-the priest Darmanskii and the archpriest Kuzin, who had once been called good and worthy pastors but were vilified after they had left, the one all but called a thief and the other labeled insane-that malevolent badgering was in store for me as well. I know that to nullify the impact of my departure, those same individuals who spoke of me as a beloved professor and homilist and as a considerate person will now take to traducing me.

How did I arrive at my decision? Briefly, though honest study of the Bible from an historical and critical standpoint; through a searching study of the history of religions; through observation of the development of the natural sciences; through practical acquaintance with the utter abomination of the capitalist world and with the role, sometimes squalid, sometimes infamous, that religion plays there; through the study of Marxism-Leninism and its philosophy; and, finally, through our very Soviet reality, which beckons impellingly to the paths it has taken, the only right ones.

All this together developed in me the deep-seated conviction that there is neither a God nor any spiritual ‘other world” whatever, and that all religion is an illusory, contrived reflection in human consciousness of nature’s still-unfathomed secrets, the laws of social relations and the psychological and physiological peculiarities of people themselves. By sustaining people’s hope in the grace of a nonexistent God, his saints and angels, religion deceives man, diverting him from the business of life into the world of make-believe, substituting for practically useful activity inane “exercises” for the salvation of the soul, such as fasting, prayer, the performance of rituals, oblations, etc.

A little about myself. I am not of the clerical caste. My mother worked as a proofreader in a Tallinn publishing house. We were poor, but she did her utmost to see to it that I received an education, and I was graduated from the gymnasium with honors. A conventional kind of faith marked our family, going no further than church attendance on holidays and the observance of the customary rituals.

In 1928 a branch of the Russian Students’ Christian Movement (R.S.C.M.) of Paris opened in Tallinn. This was a religious and philosophical organization of emigres, and it attracted not only student circles. I was drawn into it by fellow-students at the school who had joined a group studying the history of Russia and the Russian church. I entered the organization mistrustfully, but later I was carried away. I began to study the problems of religion. I was intrigued.

Our mentors carefully pointed all the work in such a manner that all questions were related to religion. Religion, God and faith ended up as the alpha and omega of being, permeating life itself and all its manifestations. All this gradually took effect and instilled idealist views in me. Paris, with American assistance, supplied us with appropriate literature. These writings had a great deal to say about Russia, but about a Russia allegedly martyred, retarded, thrown back by communism from the avenues of progress and knowledge virtually to the epoch of primeval savagery. Emigre professors–Berdiaev, Zenkovskii, Vysheslavtsev, Il’iny and others–instructed us in the same vein. In a short time I had become a popular lecturer for young people in the local movement. Then the archpriest I. Ia. Bogoiavlenskii suggested that I give some thought to studying for the priesthood. He also promised me a scholarship.

My mother said to me: “I don’t want you to reproach me later on with having prodded you into something. It’s your life and work; you decide.” Thanks be to her for that! I have no one to blame for my choice, or for my involved fate. I went into it myself.

What made me decide to do it? (Until then I had dreamed of becoming a geologist or a writer.) I had my own arguments “for” and ‘against.” What I cherished most in the world was the hope of living a useful life, and we were told that a pastor was the dispenser of good, the comforter of the forlorn and the grieving, a teacher of good morals and the upright life.

What were the arguments “against”? The first thing that disconcerted me when I thought about it was-the cassock! I ingenuously confided this thought to the confessor and heard arguments about respect for traditions and about not alienating from the church the untutored who live more by customary observances than by thinking things out.

My second reservation was the divine service and the banal patter of Orthodox prayer. Having come to believe seriously in the philosophy of the existence of God and in the reality of the other, spiritual world, and finding the discourses of theologians and church historians interesting reading, I could not but feel the deep cleavage between the philosophy of the church and its practice. Really, if God is all-good, omnipresent, holy and kind, and gave his son that the world might be saved, then why must the “Lord’s prayer” be rendered hundreds of times over? Why repeat “Lord have mercy!” hundreds of ties, why read aloud the “canons’ and “rules” as though they were magical incantations? The church exacted hour after hour for prayer. They were recited out of habit, with no mind to the words. They were used in a deliberate effort to “predispose,’ to “kindle the soul.” And all this was considered redeeming and necessary. But for whom? For God? Nonsense I -unless he was obtuse and vain and enjoyed obeisance and being humored by those beneath him. For people? But life provided evidence at every turn that when people stepped outside the temple or their homes after an hour’s mumbled prayers, they reverted to abusing and blaspheming one another, having left the entire husk of fine words inside the threshold, as it were. Furthermore, a man good in his own right remains good even without ‘feats of prayer,” while an evil man remains evil.

What of the religious service itself? Who needs these ritual turnings and bowings, the gestures, the raising aloft of the arms, the cheap effects? God? But in that case he is simply a lover of cheap pageantry in which performances are arranged by acrobats and sleight-of-hand artists. People? Yes, people, they say! It puts them in the right frame of mind, acts as an anodyne, induces a mood. For what? Does this window-dressing really have an effect on souls? How often did I hear people say even in those years that all the histrionics of the services merely distracted them from the prayers, and that they preferred going to church on working days, when everything was simpler and poorer. And the bishops’ services! To whom do they pray there? To God? No! In those services God is each time supposed to receive three swings of the thurible and the bishop nine! Before each “holy mystery of the body and blood of Christ” three swings, and for the bishop or patriarch nine. A kind of paean of obsequiousness raised to the status of solemn religious ceremony.

Such were my reservations. And I took them to my confessor at the time. With reference to the bishops’ services, he told me that he himself disliked them and that they were an ugly legacy of Byzantium in the churches. As for the general services, I was once again told: “People are used to this. It’s in their flesh and blood. It’s become routine. People stand in church anyway, without meditating on the essence of what is going on. In their artlessness they believe God wants it that way. You mustn’t shatter their faith. Humble yourself! Don’t be too sophisticated!’ And I humbled myself.

So, telling myself that I had obviously not yet matured to an understanding of the things that were distressing me, I said: “So be it!” From that time forward they took special notice of me in the R.S.C.M. I began to make speeches and write articles for the press; I was on the staff of the magazine Orthodox Conversationalist. By 1940 I had published several small books and pamphlets and some threescore articles, sermons and notes. A very wise man, Master of Divinity Bogoiavlenskii, took to guiding my reading. In addition to theology he recommended that I read popular science literature and fiction. “A man who is a pastor should be broadly educated. Then he can gratify the needs of both the ordinary man and the intellectual!” I thank him for that. It helped me amass knowledge that subsequently served me in good stead when it came to revising all the fundamentals of my religious and philosophical worldview.

In January 1931, I became a student in the Orthodox department of the theology faculty at Tartu University. I rented a room from a local deaconess in a house tenanted by clergymen. It was there that I first came to know the horrid world of the clerical caste, with all its paltriness, and its shabby range of interests and its petty, seething passions. How is it that this did not destroy my faith? Seasoned R.S.C.M. lecturers, aware that we young people would sooner or later perceive how wide was the divergence between the teachings of the church and their implementation in life, assiduously inculcated in us the notion, developed by the bourgeois philosopher Berdiaev, of the worthiness of Christianity and the unworthiness of Christians-that is, that the faith itself should not be judged by the actions of believers. Now, retorting to this assertion, I ask: In what, then, does religion’s truth on earth consist? Any cause, after all, must be vindicated by practice, else it is not a cause, not a doctrine but a mirage, nothing! But to the youthful student of those years, Berdiaev’s argument seemed forceful. Upon my graduation from the university I wrote a dissertation and was awarded the degree of master of divinity.

As early as 1932 I and a group of other students broke with the R.S.C.M. Its leader in the Baltic area, I. A. Lagovskii, had begun to pursue an active anti-Soviet policy and to recruit militants and political propagandists from among the membership, and I did not want to be an enemy of my country. I was a graduate student at the university at the time we parted company.

My work at the university lasted a year and a half. My gradual weaning from faith was initiated in this same period. Engaged in the study of the Bible, I first of all ran up against the problem of the so-called divine inspiration of the Bible. Leningrad seminarians will, I think, recall how often I would say in lectures and when teaching class: ‘According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church,’ or “Orthodox theology holds.” I did this in every case where I could not inwardly agree with the teaching that, in my capacity as professor at an Orthodox school, I was obliged to explain and illuminate for the students. Well, it was during this early period, when I was engaged in independent study of the problems of Biblical criticism, that I saw from the arguments and findings of true science that the Bible had been compiled gradually, had developed as the historical life of the Hebrew people unfolded century after century, and that the individual books had by no means been written by the authors to whom tradition ascribed them. I saw that the Bible-undoubtedly a monument of ancient literature essential to historical scholarship contained an intricate interweaving of myths and tales of the ancient East, chronicle and folklore legends, images out of ancient literature and poetry, magical incantations of the age of human savagery-that it had nothing to do, in short, with divine revelation on earth.

The flowering of nationalism that began in Estonia in 1936 drove me to forsake the university. I was assigned a Russian parish in Tallinn, gave instruction in private Russian theological courses and continued to write and publish, but in my soul dwelt a profound dissatisfaction.

And then the Great Patriotic War began. A year in the Soviet Army, demobilization and work as a priest in Perm. At the war’s end I was transferred to liberated Tallinn. In 1946 I learned of the pending opening of the Leningrad Theological Academy. By autumn I was in Leningrad to begin work as professor in the department of Old Testament Scripture. I was furthermore entrusted with the position of assistant to the rector (pro-rector) of the academy.

I was pro-rector for three years and acting rector for one. I saw plenty of the inertia, narrow-mindedness and obtuseness of the caste clergy, and I desired to bring up the future ministers of the church as persons of all-round development, far removed from superstitious fanaticism, preceptors of a good, active life and a wholesome morality. When I was there the students went to the theater, regular showings of motion pictures were arranged, the reading of imaginative literature was encouraged, and lectures on problems of political and general interest, as well as question and answer evenings, were held.

Much unpleasantness resulted. I was told I was following too secular a line, laying too little stress on fasting and vigils. The students must in effect be absorbed solely in patristic literature and must be, like the notorious “church fathers,’ abreast of the cultural and scientific development of the first five centuries A.D. I tendered my resignation as pro-rector.

I have failed to note that when I returned to liberated Tallinn I was unable to find my family. Intimidated by fascist propaganda, and having been falsely told I was dead, my wife left for Germany, taking our two daughters with her. I later learned that she had divorced me, remarried and taken my children overseas. In 1951 I married a second time. For this I was called upon to endure a good many rebukes from the fanatics. There were church leaders who seriously told me: “What need have you to get married? Live with whomever you like. You’re not an old man, after all. They’ll forgive you for doing it, as long as it’s done without any fuss. But don’t run afoul of the canons.’ But I wanted to be aboveboard in my personal life too, and not add myself to the number of those heroes of sordid affairs with mistresses in which the clerical milieu is so ‘rich.’ The patriarch apparently understood this. I submitted a petition that I be defrocked. Alas, not even that relieved me of the cassock. Reluctant to give others the cue by unfrocking me, the patriarch chose to leave me in the academy as a professor, wearing the cassock but ‘under an everlasting ban against the performance of church services.’ was to continue, when lecturing, to bear this yoke of backwardness and retrogression.

Meanwhile I lived through yet another stage of my development. Besides my own subject, in the school years of 1948-1949 and 1949-1950 I taught a course in the history of religion that it had been decided to introduce at the academy. My work on the history of religion led me much farther than the pious Orthodox “pseudoscience’ I was expected to teach with the aim of castigating and exposing godlessness, as Metropolitan Gregory, who introduced the course, put it.

A penetrating, genuinely scientific study of comparative religion furnished the atheism that had been arising in me for many years with its final missing link. Everything fell into place for me. The world of religion confronted me as a unitary process of the development of superstitions and spurious concepts, the mirroring of mundane relations in the empty heavens, where there is no place for any higher spiritual powers.

From the ‘Sacred Mysteries’ the roots stretched back to the savage blood sacrifices of a number of primitive peoples. Clerics1 and archpriests were seen to be brothers to the shamans; sacred writ became conclusively the instrument and advocate of the slave-holding code, and God became in his relation to the faithful the celestial reflection of a species of universal slave-holding ideal under which all are forever slaves, usually sinful ones. And Satan himself was seen to be not the enemy of God but at best God’s placeman, entrusted with particularly delicate punitive missions.

In 1955-1956 I was pressed into service as scholarly editor of a new edition of the Bible and of a separate New Testament with the Book of Psalms. I found working on the Bible attractive, but I was oppressed by the awareness that the edition would be used not in critical, scientific historical studies but as a means of religious propaganda and for stupefying human souls.

During that same period I published in the journal of the Moscow Patriarchy a number of articles in defense of peace, a cause ever near and dear to me. Soon I had to drop this work, however, since what was demanded of me was a maximum of bold unctuousness, for which I have little aptitude.

My resolve to break with religion kept growing and taking shape. Why had I not left the academy some years back? The formation of my worldview had proceeded stage by stage. I did not subdue overnight the veneration of a nonexistent, abstract and generalized morality that religion preaches. Later I had hoped for a long time that I might be of some benefit to people by using my influence in the education of pastors for the church After all, the church did exist and believers did attend; when these pastors spoke about faith, at least they would not preach the crass superstitions of fanaticism.

With every passing year, however, I grew more and more convinced that my decision had been incorrect. In the background behind those who tried to be the kind of people I wanted them to be, and trading on their good qualities, was a comfortable establishment of thousands of grubby drones. And in the face of the general regressive tendency given to the entire educational process in divinity schools, my efforts to be the bearer and teacher of progressive science and culture proved no more than helping to turn the wheels of the mill that was grinding out the message of obscurantism and backwardness. My mind recoiled when the “learned councils’ at the academy sifted through degree dissertations such as the ‘work’ ‘On Evil Spirits’ (a dissertation by Mironov), for example, which stated that the Devil still shows himself this day, not, however, with horns and hoofs but rather in the guise of a handsome naked man with bronze face and body.

I began to realize more and more clearly that only a total break with religion could reconcile me with my conscience and entitle me to regard myself as an honest man. Furthermore I kept thinking: Didn’t you teach openly? Didn’t you preach to all? And do you now think you can take your leave of the church like a snake crawling off? That would be dishonorable. You must have the courage to announce your decision to people just as plainly and openly as you preached, plainly and openly, what you recognized to be erroneous and fallacious. If you were able to teach, you should be able to expose what you taught.

One seemingly trivial experience set me thinking. It happened the morning of Sept. 7. I had come to the academy to supervise examinations, and when I entered the room where they were to be held, Docent Miroliubov, a very fine person with a naive, childlike faith, was engaged in a conversation with one of the teachers about newspaper articles on religion. The academy’s pro-rector, Professor Pariiskii, approached. Miroliubov asked him: “Should we discuss such articles with the students?’ Pariiskii replied sharply, raising his voice: ‘Under no circumstances. I’ve issued instructions to the library not to put newspapers and magazines containing such articles on the shelves. There is no reason to discuss that filth. It should be ignored as if it did not exist.’ Miroliubov: “What if questions are asked? After all, there are purely scientific points in them. Pariiskii: “There’s no science in them.’

Docent Archpriest Speranskii, the rector, came up and said: “But it isn’t only polemic heat that you find. There are some very serious articles that draw on science.’ Pariiskii exploded, there’s no other word for it. “There isn’t a bit of science in them! What kind of science is it that puts forward first one theory and then another? There isn’t a bit of science!’ No one said a word. The rector moved off. To me it had become insufferably stifling, physically stifling, in this world of scholasticism for which science consists solely of ossified formulas of dogma and rules for swinging censers and genuflecting.

I began to seek a definite way out of this blind alley. On Dec. 2, I officially notified the rector of the academy that I was discontinuing my instruction in the academy. I handed him a letter in which I gave my precise reasons for quitting the church agency and requested that the letter be read aloud to my former fellow-teachers and to the students who had studied under me.

Source: Current Digest of the Soviet Press. Vol. XI, No. 4 (1959), pp. 12-14.

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