Atheism (from the Greek α – negative prefix, θεός – God). Godlessness, the conviction that there is no God or supernatural or divine ground for nature and human life. In practice atheism rejects the need to bring individual and social life into conformity with the demands of religion.

Materialism as a philosophical school, in denying the existence of supernatural powers, encouraged atheism. The atheistic world view began to spread with the progress of natural science in the 17th–18th century and the increasing criticism of established religion and church authoritarianism. The French Encyclopedists, and later the German materialist philosophers, removed the spiritual and divine element from their theoretical speculations. Yet, not all of them were active atheists: some of them merely claimed that nothing could be known about God and remained indifferent to religion (agnosticism). Karl Marx's historical and dialectical materialism denied the existence of God, and his political program presupposed an atheistic world outlook.

Vladimir Lenin claimed that the struggle against religion was an integral part of the revolutionary transformation of the social order. He criticized the attempts of certain Social Democrats (see Russian Social Democratic Workers' party) to explain the phenomenon of religion by the theory of ‘god building’ and its various fideistic interpretations. Regarding religion as part of the superstructure built on the socioeconomic base, which undergoes dialectical changes, Marxist-Leninists (see Marxism-Leninism) assert that belief in God is incompatible with the development of socially productive relations under socialism and communism and that religion is a vestige of former social relations that interferes with the building of communism (‘religion is the opium of the people’). From the beginning active atheism was an important element of the Communist party program, and particularly of the program of the Bolsheviks. To be a militant atheist and unrelenting enemy of religion was one of the duties of a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

To magnify the role of the atheistic tradition in Russia and Ukraine, Bolshevik writers exploited the publications of certain journalists and scholars who were critical of religion or the church. In Ukraine the views of such literary figures as Ivan Kotliarevsky, Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Panas Myrny, Pavlo Hrabovsky, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, and Lesia Ukrainka, who were either indifferent to religion or positivistically inclined and critical of religious practices, have often been presented in a biased and even perverted manner. Works of Soviet Ukrainian scholars on atheism detected elements of atheism even in Hryhorii Skovoroda and the scientific speculations of certain teachers of the Kyivan Mohyla Academy, not to mention the writings of such Enlightenment thinkers as Yakiv Kozelsky and Semen Desnytsky.

In the 19th century a number of Ukrainian journalists and writers who were influenced by positivism and socialism (Mykhailo Drahomanov, Ivan Franko, Mykhailo Pavlyk) were proponents of secularism rather than atheism and criticized the church for supporting the ruling classes and the status quo. There was practically no organized and open atheism in Ukraine. Even the free thinker and agnostic Volodymyr Vynnychenko was tolerant towards religion. Only under the Soviet regime was atheism adopted as a scientific theory, and antireligious propaganda and the struggle against church organizations became an integral part of the government's program. The Soviet constitution recognized the fundamental right of each citizen to conduct antireligious propaganda and at the same time the right to practice his religious beliefs, but not the right to conduct religious propaganda (article 50 of the USSR Constitution of 1977 and of the 1978 Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic).

The principal authors of atheistic publications in Ukraine in the 1960s–1980s were Danylo Ostrianyn, Ye. Duluman, O. Onyshchenko, A. Yeryshev, B. Lobovyk, V. Voitko, and P. Yarotsky.

Ostrianyn, D. Relihiia ta ïï reaksiina sut’ (Kyiv 1955)
Ateïstychne vykhovannia (Kyiv 1956)
Iaroslavs’kyi, Ie. Bibliia dlia viruiuchykh i neviruiuchykh (Kyiv 1958)
Kafedra filosofiï L’vivs’koho derzhavnoho universytetu. Borot'ba materializmu proty idealizmu ta relihiï (Lviv 1964)
Narys istoriï filosofiï na Ukraïni (Kyiv 1966)
Voitko, V. Osnovy ateïzmu (Kyiv 1966)
Tancher, V. Osnovy naukovoho ateïzmu (Kyiv 1974)
Bociurkiw, B.; Strong, J. (eds). Religion and Atheism in the USSR and Eastern Europe (London 1975)

Vasyl Markus

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

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