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40 Years Ago: Solzhenitsyn’s Prophetic Warning — and Meyer’s Counterpoint of Hope

Photo: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, by Bert Verhoeff for Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Forty years ago today, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn accepted the Templeton Prize, but immediately turned about and delivered a blistering, prophetic speech that you should take some time now to read. It’s fearless — he even goes so far as to denounce the year’s previous winner for appeasing Communism. That cannot have pleased his hosts.

East and West

His theme, on May 10, 1983, was that the East and the West had in their different ways surrendered disastrously to atheism. Stephen Meyer recalled the speech in his recent presentation at the Dallas Conference on Science and Faith. It’s up now on YouTube.

Meyer opened on what he called an “unapologetically somber note.” Why?

Because I think all of us have a sense that our culture is in some serious trouble and that, in many, many ways, the wheels are coming off. And it happens that this year is the 40th anniversary of a very significant speech that was given by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet dissident. And this was his famous “Men have forgotten God” speech. And in this speech he told the story of the words spreading across the Soviet Union, across Russia, Mother Russia, at the time of the Bolshevik takeover. And that the old people were telling him repeatedly, “These things are happening, these great disasters have befallen Russia, because men have forgotten God.” And this is a passage from his speech. “While I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen “Russia, men have forgotten God. That’s why this is happening.”

Now, we have many disasters befalling America, if we’re clear-eyed and honest with ourselves. We have a near epidemic level of teen suicide. We have an anxiety epidemic. We have mass shootings. We have family breakdown, out of wedlock births. We have a confusion about gender identity, even a fluidity idea that is resulting in medical mutilation of young people. Promiscuity, illegitimacy, abortion. It’s getting kind of depressing, I realize. But I could go on, and the crime waves, the fentanyl deaths. There are disasters befalling America. And the question I want to ask tonight is if these disasters, any of them, all of them, some of them, have something to do with our having forgotten God?

Encouragement to Share 

You would have to be willfully blind, or just stay far away from our major city centers, to miss some of the more obvious signs of the spiritual crisis. Watch the latest work published by our Emmy-nominated journalist colleague Jonathan Choe, documenting the chaos and despair among Seattle’s multiplying homeless population — the scenes of human beings writhing on the sidewalks from a combination of fentanyl and madness, against a backdrop of abandoned businesses, like something out of Dante’s Inferno. How can our leaders, and those who elect them, tolerate it? Solzhenitsyn knew.

Yet Meyer, the author of Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe, has encouragement to share. The history of science since Darwin has done much to corrode traditional faith, leaving us vulnerable to the hopelessness that plays out in numerous ways across our culture. But while the media keep the fact well hidden, the scientific basis for atheism has suffered major reversals. Meyer:

There is a tremendous change taking place in science and philosophy, and it’s taking place at the highest levels of scientific and philosophical discourse. It’s still controversial, it’s still contentious, but what’s driving it are major changes in philosophical thinking and also major discoveries that have been made in science. And I just want to tick off three with a brief description of each to get our conference going.

He describes three momentous discoveries:

The material universe had a beginning, the universe has been fine-tuned for life from the very beginning, and there is evidence of design in life, in particular the big infusions of digital information that have been infused into our biosphere since the beginning of the universe. One great historian of science says that the idea that God created the universe is a more respectable hypothesis today than any time in the last 100 years. In my book, I go a little further than that and say that the postulation of a transcendent, intelligent, and active creator, the kind of creator we find in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, provides the best overall explanation for biological and cosmological origins, where everything came from.

To Be Prepared, or Unprepared?

Of course, the hope is dependent on the willingness of each of us to see this scientific evidence for what it is. Citing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn stressed the need to be intellectually prepared to meet the challenge of atheism. That preparation requires a choice.

Dostoevsky warned that “great events could come upon us and catch us intellectually unprepared.” That is precisely what has happened. And he predicted that “the world will be saved only after it has been possessed by the demon of evil.” Whether it really will be saved we shall have to wait and see: this will depend on our conscience, on our spiritual lucidity, on our individual and combined efforts in the face of catastrophic circumstances. But it has already come to pass that the demon of evil, like a whirlwind, triumphantly circles all five continents of the earth.

We are witnesses to the devastation of the world, be it imposed or voluntarily undergone. The entire 20th century is being sucked into the vortex of atheism and self-destruction. This plunge into the abyss has aspects that are unquestionably global, dependent neither on political systems, nor on levels of economic and cultural development, nor yet on national peculiarities. And contemporary Europe, seemingly so unlike the Russia of 1913, is today on the verge of the same collapse, for all that it has been reached by a different route. Different parts of the world have followed different paths, but today they are all approaching the threshold of a common ruin.

Between Life and Death 

These words could have been written yesterday. I think Solzhenitsyn would have agreed that the choice — between life and death — lies with each of us. As he said 40 years ago today:

Instead of the ill-advised hopes of the last two centuries, which have reduced us to insignificance and brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death, we can only reach with determination for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently pushed away. If we did this our eyes could be opened to the errors of this unfortunate 20th century and our hands could be directed to set them right. There is nothing else to cling to, in the landslide: all the thinkers of the Enlightenment can give us nothing.

Our five continents are caught in a whirlwind. But it is during such trials that the highest gifts of the human spirit are manifested. If we perish and lose this world, the fault will be ours alone.

Find the remarkable text, “Acceptance Address by Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” at the website of the Templeton Prize.