Editor’s note: FFRF columnist James Haught died on July 23. We still have a bunch of pieces that Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out in the coming weeks.
Many people who reject supernatural Christianity nonetheless embrace Jesus’ message of compassion. Leo Tolstoy, who was born this week 195 years ago, carried this pattern to an extreme.
He renounced organized religion and was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church — yet he became almost a monk, living in service to others.
“I am convinced that the teaching of the church is in theory a crafty and evil lie, and in practice a concoction of gross superstition and witchcraft,” he remarked.
Regarded by some as the greatest novelist of all time, Tolstoy was born to wealth as a landed count who enjoyed the privileges of Russia’s aristocracy under the czars. He served as a military officer in the Crimean War, married a loving young wife, and fathered many children. His profoundly moving novels and short stories brought him fame and even greater wealth. Even his works of fiction contain some remarkably heretical passages.
“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges or beliefs,” he wrote in War and Peace, perhaps the most outstanding novel of all time. “This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless.”
Tolstoy was racked by growing moral pangs, mostly over the cruel inequality of Russian life. It distressed him to live in well-fed comfort while peasants half-starved. It troubled him that peasants were cannon fodder in wars, and that priests in ermine, gold and jewels were as parasitic as the nobles.
In his 40s, Tolstoy went through what biographer Nathan Dole called a “soul-storm,” a religious rebellion as sweeping as his fictional epics. Increasingly, he doubted Orthodox Christianity and despised its lofty power in Russia. He temporarily ceased writing fiction and produced nonconformist books such as Critique of Dogmatic Theology and My Confession. He declared that Jesus was only human, that miracles are not real, and that humanity does not survive death. He accused priests of perverting the humane message of Jesus into a ruthless vehicle of power. Tolstoy called the church an “impenetrable forest of stupidity” and a “conscious deception that serves as a means for one part of the people to govern the other.” “We have become so accustomed to the religious lie that surrounds us that we do not notice the atrocity, stupidity and cruelty with which the teaching of the Christian church is permeated,” he stated.
Ecclesiastical censors banned the publication of his works and ordered the manuscripts burned. But copies were smuggled out of Russia, printed abroad and returned to Russia, where they circulated clandestinely. Priests denounced Tolstoy as an “impious infidel” and demanded his imprisonment. However, his immense popularity made him untouchable.
Tolstoy became obsessed with assisting others. He dropped his noble title, wore peasant clothes, refused to let servants tend him, made his own boots, and worked in fields alongside laborers. He wanted to give away all his possessions, but his wife and children protested, so he signed over everything into their names. He ceased accepting money for his writing. When famine swept rural provinces, the czar and the Orthodox Church denied that it was occurring; Tolstoy organized mass feeding kitchens, for which he was rebuked from the nation’s pulpits. “Church teachings are but fiction; I have knowledge of their inanity,” he once aptly commented.
Tolstoy helped free “old believer” bishops who had been imprisoned for their religion. (“Old believers” were dissident Christians who refused to accept changes that the Russian Orthodox Church had imposed in the 17th century.) He also defended the persecuted Dukhobors, religious oddballs who removed their clothes and set fire to their homes as protests. He resumed accepting money for his books, but used the funds to help 8,000 Dukhobors move to Canada. Tolstoy’s ideal of simple, compassionate living attracted followers, who created their own communes. Some were jailed as dangerous radicals by priests and the czarist police for criticizing the Orthodox Church and refusing military service.
In 1901, patriarchs of the Holy Synod ordered priests to deny church rituals to the aging writer. They officially excommunicated him in a decree that stated:
He [Tolstoy] denies the living and personal God glorified in the Holy Trinity, Creator and Providence of the universe; he refutes Our Lord Jesus Christ, God made Man, Redeemer and Savior of the world, who suffered for us and for our salvation, and who has been raised from the dead; he refutes the Immaculate Conception of the human manifestation of Christ the Lord, and the virginity, before and after the Nativity, of Mary, Mother of God, most pure and eternally virgin; he does not believe in the life hereafter or in judgment after death; he refutes all the Mysteries of the Church and their beneficial effect; and, flaunting the most sacred articles of faith of the Orthodox community, he has not feared to mock the greatest of all mysteries: the Holy Eucharist.
The excommunication had little effect on Tolstoy, who continued writing. He said: “It is true, I deny an incomprehensible Trinity, and the fable regarding the fall of man, which is absurd in our day. It is true, I deny the sacrilegious story of a God born of a virgin to redeem the race.”
Tolstoy was severely affected by conflict with his wife over his desire for monkish poverty. Finally, at age 82, he left home to find a hermit-like refuge, but soon caught pneumonia and died.
“The Christian churches and Christianity have nothing in common save in name: they are utterly hostile opposites,” he once stated. “The churches are arrogance, violence, usurpation, rigidity, death; Christianity is humility, penitence, submissiveness, progress, life.”
Possibly the most towering literary giant of all time lived his life according to his precepts.