Василина Орлова



Scientists' letter still around


Arguments swirl about the letter of the academicians of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The polemics which were evoked by the letter of the academicians to President Vladimir Putin against the clericalization of society have not quieted. It seems that indignation erupted after a long silence. Previously such widespread protests somehow did not arise; the often derisive tone when religion came up really can be bracketed.


The academicians, respected people, cannot be suspected of seeking publicity. Their authority even determines the scope of the verbal battle since in general the concern they expressed has already been heard in one or another form. What is this concern? First of all, dissatisfaction "with the penetration of the church into every sphere of public life," supported by an appeal to the constitution of the Russian federation , which proclaims the secular character of the state. Then the problem of religious education and the inclusion of theology in the list of academic specialties of the Supreme Accreditation Commission [VAK].


At this point a definite "leap" occurs. The inclusion of theology in VAK is viewed as nothing other than the attack of the church on the sphere of science proper, at a time when the Catholic church "has practically completely renounced interference in the affairs of science." In the letter it is stated that all achievements of modern science are based on a materialist view of the world, and regarding the religious profession of scholars are marshaled the words of American physicist Steven Weinberg:: "The experience of the scholar makes religious completed insubstantial. The majority of scholars whom I know do not think at all about this topic. They think so little about religion that they cannot even be considered active atheists." It would be possible to recall also other legendary expressions on this theme. LaPlace answered Napoleon's question about the place in his scientific system for God that he has no need for God in the hypothesis.


Thus "the monopoly of the materialist view of the world," against which the Russian Orthodox church speaks, which is stated in appropriate propositions of the documents of the World Russian People's Assembly, is, in the opinion of the academicians, the only worldview base on which scientific discoveries are possible.


And still the academicians' thinking is concentrated in the first place on the educational system. The fact that the church is engaged with the military chaplaincy is mentioned in passing, although this also evokes disapproval; but the greatest concern condenses around "Foundations of Orthodox culture" in the school curriculum. They cite the resolution of the assembly requesting "recognition of the culturological significance of the teaching of the foundations of Orthodox culture and ethics." The idea of the introduction of foundations of Orthodox culture, which the academicians equate to the Law of God, as a required subject in the schools is viewed as "Orthodox chauvinism." They also mention Masha Shraiber (true, without the surname, but as a certain generic school child Masha) and her request to the Ministry of Education on the basis that she does not want to study the theory of Darwin on the origin of species, and they mention the words of Patriarch Alexis II: "There will be no harm to a pupil if he knows the biblical teaching about the origin of the world. And if someone wants to believe that he has descended from monkeys, let him think it, but don't force it onto others." This obviously polemical passage finally met a half year later a response not only on the part of the news media but also by the scientific community itself: "Incidentally, to be precise, neither Darwin nor his followers ever maintained that man descended from monkeys. It is maintained only that monkeys and man have common ancestors."


Between "biblical teaching about the origins of the world" and "facts firmly established by contemporary astrophysics and cosmology," irreconcilable contradictions are perceived. In conclusion one more time it is stated that nobody is trampling upon faith because it is a matter of conscience and the convictions of the individual and nobody is trying to fight against religion as such, although the academicians cannot "remain indifferent when attempts are made to cast doubt on scientific Knowledge." Just so С Knowledge with a capital letter. Well this is clear. After all the chief method of the growth of knowledge with a small letter, practically final knowledge, is nothing other than Cartesian doubt.


The letter consisting of harsh expressions, as has already been said, evoked a flurry of debates about the relation of science and religion in the modern world. Patriarch Alexis II declared that "the church observes strictly the constitutional principle. The church does not interfere in the political life of the state and the state does not interfere in the church's life," but, he said, the church cannot be separated from society and the people. The patriarch's statement can hardly in fact "place a period" at the end of the argument as the advocates of "creeping clericalization" would wish (the expression of Viacheslav Glazychev's) as if the advocates can find the process named by such frightening words.


Earlier the Moscow patriarchate already thanked the academicians for initiating a broad discussion. As the vice-chairman of the Department for External Church Relations Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin suggested, for the church the letter became a kind of informational occasion in order to state its principled position on a number of questions. In Fr Vsevolod's opinion, in the course of discussion they have already managed to state that the church does not aspire to become a part of the state apparatus.


Assessments of the letter on the part of the Orthodox community have varied from the extremes of a grand "new totalitarianism" (Natalia Narochnitskaia) to a dry "imposition of the materialist understanding of the world" (Deacon Andrei Kuraev). The tone of many "responses to Chamberlain" breathes of intolerance, hostility, and anger. There also were among these responses quite unacceptable ones that reeked of something like the torture chambers of the inquisition, which only made difficult that dialogue between representatives of science, the church, and culture for which society had so hoped at the beginning of such a multifaceted polemic. The "People's Assembly" Orthodox movement and the "Center for national defense" organization sent to the Moscow prosecutor's office neither more nor less than a declaration for opening a criminal case against Academician Vitaly Ginsburg, one of the most prominent authors of the letter. Supposedly the academician was guilty of inciting religious strife. And the "United Russia" site "Russian project" made out of the image of the academician a collage; he was dressed in prison garb and wore the number of the beast. The "Orthodox community" by the hands of its especially zealous representatives practically smothered the hope for a constructive conversation. In seeing all of this one involuntarily thinks that you do not want to bump into these people in a dark alley, since they may be let into the schools.


But statements in support of the academicians also had a certain inadequacy. It is unknown whether the authors of the letter counted on such support. Thus, the coordinator Maria Arbatova accused the clergy of "impermissible PR" and called for substituting "sex education" for the discipline of "Foundations of Orthodox culture" in the secondary schools, which should teach youth to use contraceptives wisely for the benefit of the general demographic situation in the country.


The letter was supported by literally the entire flower of our rights defenders. The leader of the gay movement Nikolai Alekseev raised his voice in support, and Viacheslav Glazychev advanced the idea that the Public Chamber declared its protest against clericalization. The head of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, Rabbi Zinovii Kogan, however, did not support this idea. "The church is a part of society and thus to speak out on such vital questions is the church's sacred duty. I think that fear of God and love for traditions is what can unite Russia . I do not know of instances of interference by the church in governmental affairs," he said. And the cochairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia Nafigulla Ashirov, who once spoke out against the state symbol of Russia , in a letter to Patriarch Alexis II posed the question still more sharply: "Since when were representatives of RPTs in Russia given the prerogative and authority to decide the fate and future of other religions in the country?"


Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko also spoke out in support of the academicians' letter. Despite the fact that his words were rather restrained, they provoked a regular flood of dissatisfaction. This was connected with the fact that Fursenko often has taken an irreconcilable position with regard to the prospects for teaching foundations of Orthodox culture in the schools.


The famous scholar Professor Sergei Kapitsa declared: "With regard to religion, science is the next stage on the way to knowledge of the world, the transition from a mythological or mytho-poetic description of the world to a scientific one."


This week in Moscow roundtables have been held and the participants have discussed the mutual relations between science and religion; all over the Internet the letter is being discussed, and on "Living Journal" they are collecting signatures against the clericalization of society, and no end is in sight. The open letter to the president has decidedly not been closed.


Apparently, in the very near future we will hear something yet more interesting in the discussion. On the whole, the bitterness and the argumentation of both sides testify to the almost tragic impossibility of agreement; and this is a sign of the serious division of society. Let's admit that science has no need of God as a scientific hypothesis, supplementing its picture of the world, but is it possible to say the same about humanistic knowledge? (tr. by PDS, posted 10 August 2007)




Moskovskie novosti, 10 August 2007


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