The Social Scientist Meets the ‘Believer:’ Discussions of God, the Afterlife, and Communism in the Mid-1960s

SLAVIC REVIEW 74.1 (2015): 79-103

Abstract: In this article Dobson uses the transcripts of interviews carried out under the auspices of the Institute of Scientific Atheism in the mid-sixties. Informants were asked about diverse aspects of their religious practice and belief, allowing scholars-both then and now- to consider the nature of Soviet ‘secularization.’ Following Charles Taylor, the author suggests that this was not simply ‘a story of loss, of subtraction,’ instead, informants’ rather heterodox conceptions of the afterlife indicate moments of individual creativity. In particular, Dobson finds that among the poor and marginalized, visions of the afterlife sometimes articulated a desire for social equality considered missing from Soviet society. Dobson also probes the Soviet state’s problematic dependency on atheism. The regime’s legitimacy rested on its claim to ensure progress and modernity, and religion-the epitome of backwardness-was a useful antithesis. The interview was a ritual that enacted the superiority of Soviet values (reason, rationality, and enlightenment). And yet the encounter between atheist-interviewer and ‘believer’ could often prove unpredictable, suggesting that the religion-atheism binary was in practice rather more brittle than the authorities might have hoped.”