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Smolkin-Rothrock: Religion binds social groups

By Sun Mengxi | 2015-08-04 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, a history professor at Wesleyan University

Followers of the Orthodox Church participate in activities for Easter Day in Moscow.


Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock is a history professor at Wesleyan University. Her research focuses on Russian and Soviet history, history of religion, secularism, atheism, ritual culture and social life. She is currently working on a book on Soviet atheism and socialist rituals.


Though many intellectuals have heralded the triumph of secularism, religious practice is still pervasive in society. It seems that modernistic dogmatism only serves to testify to the true strength and resilience of religions worldwide. In a recent interview with CSST, Dr. Smolkin-Rothrock shared her thoughts on the relationship between intellectuals and religions, the power of rituals in communal life, and the impact of the Orthodox Church on the formation of  Russian identity.

CSST: The field of religious studies, either as an independent discipline or as an interdisciplinary area, has matured in China and overseas since Mircea Eliade first laid its foundation. What kinds of roles should intellectuals play in the fate of religions and spiritual wellbeing of societies? 


Smolkin-Rothrock: There are multiple roles for intellectuals to play, and to some degree they are already playing those roles. First, there has to be real thought put into state policies. For places like institutes of religions, one thing they can do is to paint a more complex picture of religious life that problematizes simple solutions.

State policies toward religions tend to become problematic when they seem simple. Intellectuals can insure that complexity always remains part of the conversation. Second, intellectuals can play a role in preserving, and in some contexts, like Russia, reestablishing religious knowledge. For example, who can address questions like whether religion should be taught in school, or, if it should, how should it be taught—as history, theology, or something else? These questions can only be figured out by experts through dialogue and in an interdisciplinary way.

Perhaps this is my personal preference, but I think it is better for intellectuals to play the role of advisor rather than policymaker or politician because the world is much messier than ideas. Intellectuals can create tension so that decision-makers have a space to consider different positions. Intellectuals can help create a balance of power. There have to be some institutions and some groups of people who can question policies before and after they are implemented.

CSST: Based on your research on modern Eastern European history, what significance does Christianity, its rituals in particular, have in public and private life? 


Smolkin-Rothrock: The importance of rituals lies in their communal function, in linking individuals to communities, and, more generally, connecting individuals to something greater than themselves. For example, in a Christian context, for a long time, the priest was a communal figure who knew everyone, who baptized, married, and buried family members overtime. So there is a sense that the priest had a moral authority and authentic identity in the community. He was not merely a bureaucrat.

There are some kinds of personal connection between that ritual expert and the community. Then there’s the other side of it. What grounds the moral authority and power of the priest? That connects to the theology of that particular religious group. So, it’s probably not enough for just any well-respected member of the community to become endowed with sacred authority—to be a ritual expert. There has to be a connection between that priest, that ritual expert, with a greater system of values, whether that is Christianity and Christendom or Soviet socialism.
CSST: Can socialist rituals replace christian ones? 


Smolkin-Rothrock: In the Soviet Union, the ideological apparatus did create socialist rituals and implement them, including socialist weddings and socialist funerals. State committees discussed questions like: What do you say? How do you dress? How should space be arranged? How can rituals be made to have solemnity and some kind of power? So there were many people thinking about these questions, and in order for the socialist ritual project to have worked, I think two things needed to happen. First, there needed to be a much greater investment of resources to make these rituals attractive, to clean up cemeteries, to create ritual spaces, and so on. The Soviet ideological apparatus did do some of this, but it was not until the late 1970s that they really started to think about the actual material culture that accompanies these rituals.

I once interviewed one of the most prominent public atheists in the Soviet Union and corresponded with him for a long time. He was the head of the committee whose task was to create the socialist funeral. Their wedding ritual worked very well. Soviet people did it and Russian people still do it today. I don’t think most people even know that it is a Soviet thing. It is just how their parents did it, so they do it. What they do not realize is that their grandparents didn’t do it—and this is how you know a ritual works, when you forget that it was created. They go to all the monuments and patriotic sites in the city, and it’s just considered what you do. But this is not what people did in the 1950s. It really began in the 1970s. So there is a sense of continuity with the past. It just happens to be the Soviet past.

When I asked a Soviet atheist about funerals, he just shrugged. First of all, there is no comfort in the materialist version of death. The atheist version of death is not consoling to a family. Christianity tells you that there will be an afterlife, you will be reunited with your family, they are in heaven, and they are at peace.

The atheist said the dead are in the ground and will become part of the ecosystem. And that’s it. So the atheist said, basically, that you just have to be brave in face of death. But of course not everybody is brave. Some people want it to mean something other than that. That’s the first issue.

Second, when someone dies, there is a sense of chaos in the community—when a member of a community is gone, the community needs to reconfigure itself. In order to reconfigure itself, to close that gap that has opened up, the community participates in rituals. So this atheist says to me, look, even Leo Tolstoy, who was profoundly anti-Orthodox and was even anathemized by the Russian Orthodox Church, admitted the power of religious rituals. When his brother died and everybody was running around and nobody knew what to do or say, a priest came in and told everyone what to do, which created some kind of order out of this chaos so that the community could live through this moment and move on. Atheist ritual could not grapple with this aspect.

CSST: Are you suggesting that religions are irreplaceable?


Smolkin-Rothrock: Yes and No. Because so many people today live without religion. And “religion” can mean so many things, from the traditional groups to personal gods and New Age spirituality. I am not going to say religions are irreplaceable at a personal level. There are people living perfectly well without worrying about God. But I cannot think of a community that somehow managed to eradicate religion, loosely defined, and continued to function. By religion, I mean a system that brings a community together and offers some kind of transcendent meaning beyond this world. I am not sure whether it is irreplaceable. But it has not been effectively replaced on a communal level so far.

CSST: Can you tell us something about the influences of religions on modern Russia?


Smolkin-Rothrock:  The question is mainly about what Russian cultural policy should be, and Orthodoxy is undoubtedly central [to Russian national identity]. What the narrative put forward is that to be a member of the Russian nation is to see Orthodox values as the foundation of Russian culture. Now, it is a different question to ask how much influence Orthodoxy actually has in Russian society. I think it has an important role to play in the political culture. As for its role in people’s private lives and beliefs, it is a much more complicated picture.

The general picture in the polls is that when people are asked “are you Orthodox,” I think 80 percent of the respondents say “yes.” But when asked about whether they go to church at least once a month, suddenly that figure drops to under 10 percent. However, now there is a growing sense that Orthodoxy should be a more visible part of Russian culture. So, for example, many restaurants now offer special menus for the period of the Lenten fast. Orthodoxy is becoming an increasingly prominent part of Russian life.


Sun Mengxi is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.