Last fall I spent a day with church-going Christians in Sweden, a distinct minority these days.
I mentioned that although many Swedes had abandoned the church, their society continued to live off the moral capital accumulated during centuries of faith. Honesty, peacefulness, generosity, prudence, justice—the Vikings were not noted for such qualities before their conversion.
"What would Sweden look like if we used up our moral capital?" one woman asked. I recommended she visit Russia, the next stop on my trip, for an answer.
There, brilliant leaders with a thoroughly materialistic outlook on life set into motion an experiment on a huge scale. They shuttered 98 of every 100 churches and killed 42,000 priests. Some cathedrals they turned into museums of atheism; village churches they converted into apartments or barns.
An irony played itself out, though, as a society committed to social and economic justice accomplished just the opposite. "With the best of intentions, we ended up creating the greatest monstrosity the world has ever seen," a shaken editor of Pravda told me. Official archives detail the deaths of at least 25 million people at the hands of their own government. A massive economy collapsed of its own incompetence.
By many standards, Russia today finds itself among the world's developing nations. Russian men have a life expectancy of 59. The birth rate has fallen so precipitously that the U.N. is forecasting Russia's population may sink to only 55 million by 2055. Seventy percent of Russian marriages end in divorce, and, according to conservative estimates, the average woman has had four abortions.
Visitors today comment on the scarcity of smiles, rudeness on the subways, the fear of crime, the quantity of alcohol consumed. ...1
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