This article appeared in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1996.
It accompanied a review of the 1995 version of the high-school textbook
Glencoe World Geography.
The Soviets thought that the peoples of the republics should be atheists, or nonbelievers, and closed down or destroyed many houses of worship. In 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed more religious freedom, people of all ages flocked to religious services. The religious revival has continued in the post-communist era.
Although the equating of "atheists" with "nonbelievers" isn't correct, the other claims are more or less true. The impression conveyed by the passage as a whole, however, is utterly false.
What has occurred in Russia (and in the states that Russia used to rule) is not simply a "religious revival" but an upwelling of many ideologies -- religious and otherwise -- which are filling the vacuum that was created when the all-pervasive ideology of Marxism-Leninism fell apart. This cultural phenomenon has been conspicuous for years, and it has included a great surge in supernaturalistic and occult attractions of all kinds, such as magical healing, witchcraft, vampirism, astrology, indigenous varieties of Christianity, exotic types of Christianity imported from the West, and enterprises based upon bizarre pseudosciences or invocations of "psychic powers."
By the early 1990s, articles published in the West told us how citizens of the Soviet states, in their quest for new beliefs and hopes, were turning to supernaturalism. By 1994, according to a BBC report, the most popular national television show in Russia was The Third Eye, which displayed the antics of wizards, fortune-tellers, vampire-banishers, curse-lifters and other adepts. The program had been conceived as a promotional gimmick, but its producers soon found that it commanded a huge audience because people took it seriously.
None of this is surprising. Similar phenomena have been seen many times before, in many places. Recall, for example, the effervescent proliferation of new cults in Japan after World War 2. When Japan's social order and its supporting ideology were dismantled, people needed to reorganize their lives around new beliefs and prospects; and many Japanese filled this need by embracing novel forms of mysticism and by joining cults. A similar thing seems to have happened in the United States during recent years, in conjunction with a widespread loss of faith in the ideological vision known as "the American dream." This loss of faith has been accompanied by a surge in cultism, pop religions, paperback mysticism, TV pseudoscience, New Age magic, and "psychic" nonsense.
To summarize: Glencoe's stuff about a "religious revival" is an exercise in distortion and selective omission, conveying an impression that is false. What has happened in the Soviet Union can be compared to cultural developments in our own country, but Glencoe's writers fail to make this connection.
Teachers who would like to learn about the situation in Russia and its erstwhile empire may consult: "Paranormal Pandemonium in the Soviet Union," by Paul Kurtz, in the Spring 1990 issue of Skeptical Inquirer; "Paranormal Beliefs in the USSR," by Dimitry Kanashkin, in the Summer 1991 issue of Skeptical Inquirer; and "Antiscience Trends in the U.S.S.R.," by Sergei Kapitza, in Scientific American for August 1991. Another useful source is the television program "Secrets of the Psychics," produced as a part of the Public Broadcasting System's Nova series. It was broadcast by PBS stations in October 1993.
William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.
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