Natalia Katasonova 2017-08-26
Opium of the People: a Drug or a Remedy?

Religion is something that requires volunteering and dedication to someone or something one believes in. Who does religion help? A person who is devoted. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) also require the same qualities, but they work for the outside world helping people of different statuses and occupations. NGOs are the concurrent that defines a huge part of our lives sometimes even without making us participate in it. An American professor David H. Smith has been studying human behavior in the matter of volunteering, altruism and devotion for more than fifty years and he is ready to prove that religion and NGOs are two sides of the same coin.



In your works you show that there is a strong connection between having a civil society and the number of religious people in a country. Russian civil society is quite weak, however Russians are rather religious people. How can you explain that?

Religion comes from their values and their beliefs, and there is not much to do with the organizations. In the Soviet Union everything had to be controlled by the party and that totally suppressed all kinds of associations, not only non-profit organizations. Since the transition and disintegration things are going up. Why the 50% of population still believe in god? Well, because that was passed on from mother to daughter to son and so forth. It is true in China, too. It has been an atheist country for a really long time and a lot of people believe in god. They may not tell it to you in the national survey because they are afraid. I’ve spent nine months in China, and when Chinese have big problems with health, or with a child or any other trouble, they go to a temple and they burn some incenses because they believe that this will help. Religion gives you hope


Do you personally think that it would help?

Yes, religion gives you hope. If you believe there is nothing after this life and this life is crappy, you have nothing at all. Marx said that religion is the opium of the people. Yes, but also makes them better people, makes them more altruistic. And if you’re getting old, and everything ages, and you’re dying, why not have some opium, take it as medicine? Helping people with religion, is that bad? Blaise Pascal, a famous French mathematician and philosopher, invented Pascal’s wager in which he said, “There may or not be any God, but in case there is, I want to believe because then I won’t be wrong”. It makes a kind of sense, except that I think God will know if you really believed at all.


Is it the same for you, do you believe in God?

I believe but not because of philosophy, I believe in it because that came into my life in a certain sense. I had a dog, and it was dying from kidney failure. I was an atheist at that time for 28 years but I went home, I called my mother and asked her to pray, my wife was an atheist too, but we started praying, and it was my mother’s belief that did it. I’m a scientist, I had to see that, my dog was there or almost there, I couldn’t feel his heart beating anymore, and he was lying on the floor… When we claimed that the dog was healed, the veterinary said it was a miracle dog. This was an atheist Jew, who was telling that to a veterinary. In English there is an aphorism “There are no atheists in foxholes”. When your life is on the line or something terrible is happening, you will believe. And I did.


Do you think that there is a connection between Christianity and volunteering?

The thing is that the more religious volunteer you do, which means you go to church and volunteer for it, the more secular, non-religious you do because you work the other way. You get a better heart for altruism, you want to serve God and help other people. The Golden Rule of every religion is do to others what you want them to do to you. Help other people as you’d like to be helped, it’s that simple. That is a part of our religion. And it doesn’t matter which religion you have, although some religions require more volunteering presence. Religion sets new values, motivations, goals and ethics. Motivations involve attitudes and values: if you are religious, you should care more about other people. You wouldn’t probably get into any religion unless you have some of these kinds of values. But once you’re there, religion accentuates, emphasizes and makes you think about them more, because you want to please God and get to heaven. It makes people better.


What do you think of the future of nonprofit organizations in Russia?

For me it depends on Putin. Anybody who wants to control everything doesn’t like associations because they can be opposition. He can just suppress them all, that’s what all the dictators did, either wiped down the associations or took them over, that is a standard practice. I wonder if Putin wants to do it, as I understand that the law has been passed to a little extreme and it affects a small proportion of associations, even HSE to have foreign funding. We live in a global world, globalization is chewing technology, beliefs, religion and business, so why there would not be globalization in the non-profit sector? Trying to fight every foreign influence in the non-profit area will never work, because we live in the global world. A lot depends on what he in particular does, if he starts to squeeze the rest of the non-profit sector in other way, which he might, things are going to get worse.


Do you think that current crisis is a chance for them to develop?

There are three biggest things in favor of the growth of the non-profit sector: a lot of people participating, mass education and democracy. Non-profit sector flourishes where it is democracy, I think you have a kind of democracy here that is working. What happened here in 1991 changed the whole structure of politics. But it has only been twenty-four years since that, whereas the USA has been a democratic state for over a hundred years. You have shorter time experiencing democracy than it has to be worked perfectly, so as time passes you may get more used to it, you may like it more and probably it will grow. Some aspects of freedom are catchy, you can do what you want, think what you want, say what you want.


Anybody who wants to control everything doesn’t like associations because they can be opposition

So you are saying that governmental policy and laws affect NGOs the most?

Laws and the enforcement of them, but the economics is the most important. Why did Soviet Union die? Because communism doesn’t work very well, look at Cuba. When the Chinese economic miracle stops being a miracle, it will be in big trouble, and the whole party system will be in big trouble. Most people like Putin and Xi Jinping as long as the economy works.

I figured out that the reason why Chinese — the whole country, not just a part of the state, are so interested in control and conforming. It is a huge population and a small amount of land to raise props, the only way that many people can survive is everybody does the right thing. Chinese are deadly afraid of chaos, way more than we are in America. They are so collective because that is how they can survive as a society, most of the Chinese I have met are not living for the party system and they are quite skeptical to the propaganda. They talk about it as you talk about this country’s propaganda.


How is religion or the third sector connected to the government?

The term “third sector” applied to the non-profit sector is en error. The first sector was family and house work, the second was government, the third was business, and the real fourth sector is a non-profit sector, but people use the wrong word, they just took the family for granted! I don’t like to use words “religion” and “church” meaning a sector. Nonprofit sector in the civil society.


It seems quite surprising that you’ve decided to visit all the most famous monasteries around Moscow.

In this country it turns out that a lot of the most artistic and interesting buildings are monasteries and churches. I always go to the big religious places, because people have been building churches for hundreds and sometimes a thousand years, they put their heart and life into it. Today I’ve been to Church of Christ the Savior, it’s not old, it’s very beautiful. I am a total tourist: I took a Moscow river trip last time I was here, I went to the Tretyakov and to the Pushkin, I like the Gallery of European and American Art.

One of the things I really liked was Novodevichiy cemetery, it’s the most artistic cemetery in the entire world: these statues and the bas-reliefs… It’s a whole different take on a cemetery, you see a cross, a slab, the names and that is art, it was quite interesting.

I do enjoy Moscow, even though St. Petersburg is better to look at, Moscow is better to live in. When I first came here I was a little afraid, because I had read spy books, I had seen different movies, I had read about the mafia and I was kind of worried. However, I haven’t seen any danger at all. In this country a lot of the most artistic buildings are monasteries and churches


As a scientist did you notice any interesting things, which attracted your attention in in Moscow?

It was interesting that very few people are wearing gloves, even when it’s cold. Another thing I’ve noticed is that very few people wear beards, I’ve counted around eleven beards in a thousand men. A lot of people in metro are playing with their smartphones, last time I was coming I was counting a bench and ten people have been playing with their smartphones. It probably has to deal with taking advantage of modern technology and linking your smartphone to the rest of the world. Everybody under thirty, 95% of people under thirty are listening to music or maybe an audiobook all the time. Some of these facts are amusing but they are all interesting to me, when you go to 82 countries, you’re always looking what is similar and what is different. I am always a scientist as well as a human being and observing things is totally a part of my personality.



Nowadays many people turn to religion only because of seeking hope. However, most of them do not understand that sometimes being a helping hand for others can be more uplifting than waiting for a supernatural force to change everything for the better.