A group of scientists and human rights activists has established the Moscow Society of Atheists in order to revive an ideology that has gone out of fashion here during a decade of post-communist life.

The society has been set up to defend Russia against what its members see as the threat of clericalism as religion, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church, the country's main church, grows in influence.

One of the Society of Atheists' organizers, human rights activist Lev Levinson, told ENI that his organization's first major action would be to send an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, protesting against a mention of God in the new text of the Russian national anthem. Levinson said this was at odds with the constitution which proclaimed that Russia was a secular state.

Referring to a line of the anthem that states that "the native land [is] protected by God," Levinson said: "It is not up to the state to establish whether God exists or not."

Russia's new anthem is set to the music of the old Soviet anthem, and was the subject of intense debate here last year. Presumably anxious to avoid another debate over the wording, President Putin adopted, unilaterally by presidential decree, anew text for the anthem two days before New Year's Eve, when the anthem was given its premiere on national television.

In the new text, written by Sergei Mikhalkov, the same poet who wrote the words of the communist anthem in 1943, praise for Soviet pioneer Lenin and the Communist Party is replaced with praise for Russia as the "holy country."

Levinson, who has built a reputation as one of the most vocal defenders of freedom of conscience, told ENI that the Society of Atheists, set up by a group of students several months ago, was lodging an application for registration with Moscow city officials. The society has about a dozen members, including physicist Vitaly Ginsburg, and is chaired by actor and magician Yuri Gorny.

Levinson said that, according to opinion polls, slightly less than half of Russians were atheists. The society would defend their "widely violated rights", especially in the sphere of church-state relations, where religion, and primarily the Russian Orthodox Church, were playing an ever growing role. "Essentially, it is an anti-clerical society," he said of his group. "We are witnessing a large-scale offensive against the secular state," Levinson said.

The introduction of religion courses in state educational institutions, the blessing by priests of government offices—such as a public event several months ago when Patriarch Alexei II blessed the national Health Ministry—and the presence of Orthodox priests as chaplains in the army were "absolutely illegal and unconstitutional," he said.

Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading priest at the Russian Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchate overseeing relations with political parties and public organizations, told ENI that the establishment of the Society of Atheists was part of a broader trend, which he described as a "new wave of godlessness among a certain group of Russian intellectuals."

Some liberal intellectuals, he said, were finding it difficult to face up to the "downgrading of their position of spiritual leadership in the society against the backdrop of the church's growing influence."

"Even in countries where the theory of separation between church and state is executed in its most complete form, such as the USA and France, not to mention the European tradition, there are chaplains in the army and forms of state support for certain religious groups," Chaplin said, adding that it was wrong to suggest that this meant the church was building "a clerical state."

Zinovy Kogan, president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia (KEROOR) told ENI he smiled when he heard about the formation of the new society. Kogan said: "If such a protest takes place, it should be taken into account. After all, everything comes from God, including atheists."

Related Elsewhere:

Read more about Russian atheist reactions in "Backlash of faith shakes atheists" from The Observer and "Atheists Unite Against Clericalism" from The Moscow Times.

Previous Christianity Today stories about Russia include:

Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan. 11, 2001)

Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty? | Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000)

A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000)

Russia's minority churches welcome liberal ruling on religion law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999)

Stepping Back from Freedom | The new law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)

New Religion Law Fraught with Potential for Abuses | (Nov. 17, 1997)

Jehovah's Witness Verdict Stalled | (April 26, 1999)