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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > ex-Yugoslavia: a philosopher, a biologist and a mathematician (...)

ex-Yugoslavia: a philosopher, a biologist and a mathematician speak

Tuesday 12 October 2010, by siawi2

on the erosion of secularism

Seminar “threatening signs of fundamentalism – feminist and democratic answers”

Lecture, Jastrebac

Lino Veljak, philosopher

Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb

In the middle ages there was the principle of organic unity of state and church. This means that in one state there is no space, except in a ghetto, for other and different people. All those who live in the state in question belong to the state religion, whether it is Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Islam. The one and only truth applies to all levels of society, and it is this truth that the dominant church preaches and which is learnt in all the schools, for the few who have the privilege of getting education. For the others, for the common people, what the authorised holders of truth teach and preach seems to be the incontestable truth. In such a state, those who would support some other or different opinions would not have any possibility to survive, in the best case they would be persecuted, and much more often, burnt on the pyre as heretics and exposed to other forms of persecution. There have been here and there countries in which some minorities were tolerated, especially if those minorities were very different. This mainly pertains to the Jewish minority, but this tolerance was most of the time interrupted by persecutions and pogroms, and even in collective expulsions of people of a different faith. In any case, people of a different faith could not have civil rights or to be equal to the members of the dominant or official faith, not even in the most tolerant periods. Afterwards gradually began processes which resulted in a situation in which the desirable faith does not represent any more a necessary prerequisite for life in the state in question, and religious believes in an ever greater extent become a private thing for each person. It is not possible any more to persecute someone because of his/her religious believes. This is a long process, which begins in Western Europe with rationalism, intensifies with the Enlightenment, gets its political expression with the bourgeois revolution, especially in France, and ends with the establishment of a secular society and laic state. In the meantime this one and only dogmatic truth which is the basis of every organised religion begins to be put into question and different interpretations appear. In this process, those who were standing for different interpretations were not ending in prisons or on pyres any longer, as it used to be inevitably the case in the earlier period. And not only that: scepticism and agnosticism gradually appear or reappear since people cannot get the answer to some so-called final or last questions – such as questions about the highest being, about the origin of the world, about afterlife. No one can answer with certainty to such questions, and thereby the very dogmatic truth also loses its legitimacy. The rule that since the state and church order that it shall be in this way, and so all have to believe in this and cannot or do not dare to doubt in any way, is not valid any more. This gradually disappears, gradually vanishes. In the meantime, following the track of the mentioned agnosticism, also appears atheism, the conviction that it can be said with high likelihood or total certainty that the divine being does not exist, nor do forces and spheres which would surpass this empirical world accessible to us. In brief, there is no other world. The laic state – a state in which religion is the private thing of every person – is built on these premises. The church, no longer one but every possible religious community, is separated from the state and the state does not interfere in religious matters, except to the extent that this is necessary for the sake of preserving public order and peace. In this way, the so-called religious tolerance is established, religious tolerance which makes equality for all possible, in rights but also in duties towards the law. This applies to those who stand for atheism, agnosticism, this or that religion. The laic state is one of the results or the legal result of the process of secularisation, and the secular society is this society in which men and women are identified in their public activity by their religious believes or belonging. However, in a time when secular society is under threat, it becomes perfectly normal to ask unknown people whether they fast or whether they have made their first communion. Those are serious signs that the secular character of society is being put into question. And not to mention that religion, along with ethnic belonging, becomes one of the criteria for acceptance in public service, and even for getting jobs in private firms. This has been witnessed in the early nineties in Croatia, and in more recent time here as well, since DSS has assumed a significant role in the life of Serbia. Here are at work elements of desecularisation of society. In this matter, it must be said that the alternative to this clericalisation and desecularisation of state and society is not the establishment of an atheistic state as was the case in a pure form in the Albania of Enver Hoxha, nor the elevation of atheists to a higher rank in comparison to believers, but only the consistent insistence on the equality of all human beings, regardless of their religious orientation and spiritual choices. Publicly, we are citizens, and not members of a specific ethnic community or those who profess this or that king of religion, agnosticism, atheism or some other spiritual orientation.

When the threatening of the achievements of secularisation is discussed, that is when retraditionalisation and reclericalisation of society is discussed, it is fundamental to emphasise that it is a question of symphony or synthesis of church and state interests. It is the aspiration of churches to renew their power from the good old times, when the one and unique truth, as well as conservative-authoritarian forces in society wishing to get legitimate with the help of the church, existed. Here is a question of establishing, strengthening and consolidating power. This implies control and abolishment of everything opposing the monopole of power. It is not a question of some holy missions, nor of love for the people, but a question of power and interests.

Serbs in Croatia have to be orthodox, there are no more atheist Serbs. For such people there is no place in the government. The only non-governmental organisation in Croatia that gathers mainly non-religious people and asserts a non-religious view on the world is called “Protagora” – association for the protection of non-religious people and promotion of non-religious understandings of the world. This association opposes the growing clericalisation, especially in the sphere of education.
In Serbia after the October, 5th almost the whole DOS (Demokratska opozicija Srbije / Democratic Opposition of Serbia) began to vie with DSS (Demokratska stranka Srbije /Democratic Party of Serbia) for favour of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The process of strengthened clericalisation has been witnessed in all countries in transition including Albania, where every religion was forbidden. In those countries, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the beginning of the process of transition, the characteristic joining of conservative political forces with the dominant church took place. The latter gives legitimacy to those breaking down the so-called communism, and sometimes also gives legitimacy to those representing reformed communists, but under the condition that they return to the church its property and give material privileges. Hence, the church exchanges its support to the government or to the dominant section of the government for material privileges and influence in society. Churches in some way replace what the party used to represent before for the authoritarian structures of the population. The ones who, before, needed to listen to the communist party, now that there is no communist party, will not believe Koštunica but the church, the patriarch, the metropolitans. They are becoming the new spiritual authority for the authoritarian segment of the population. This is intensifying in a context of strengthening of fundamentalist tendencies in all churches, all religions. The beginning of strengthening of fundamentalism within the Catholic Church corresponds to pope John Paul II’s accession to power, and especially when he was replaced by the pope Benedict XVI, the former director of the commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In orthodoxy the same sort of fundamentalism comes with a theoretical basis from Greece and with a logistical basis from Moscow. This is de facto the same fundamentalism as the catholic one, but there is a disagreement over whether it will be Rome or Moscow, i.e. whether the Vatican or Moscow will be the centre. There is no disagreement over the other things, such as the role of women, reproduction rights, democratic freedom, human rights, etc. Why are we noticing this in Serbia only in the last eight years? Milošević i°the Serbian Orthodox Church and the latter gave him limited support, and on the other end he gave it limited space, he did not want to share power with the church. What happened in all Eastern European countries in the nineties happened only from 2001 onwards in Serbia because Milošević kept the church under control and did not let it develop all its ambitions. With the exception of Poland, it turned out that the attempt at clericalising these states and societies did not succeed anywhere. Poland to some extent represents an exception. In Russia, the situation is to some extent comparable to that in Poland – and what will happen in Serbia remains to be seen. In Western Europe, there are two states that, in terms of secularity, are far under the European average – orthodox Greece and catholic Ireland. Those are countries in which, not as much formally as factually, are visible elements of theocratic state and where secularity of society is not even close to the level which is characteristic for other countries of Western Europe.

Whether Serbia will become an orthodox jamahiriya – for what some prerequisites do exist, remain in the relatively tolerable frameworks of a semi-theocratic state or will begin to get closer to the standard of countries east or west of Serbia, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Austria or Slovenia, depends quite a lot on the skills of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Biljana Stojković, biologist

Belgrade Faculty of Biology

I would like to present some of my experiences which speak of the disruption of secularism in Serbia. First of all, I’m atheist and because I do not believe or because I criticise religion, some people automatically consider that I am intolerant and that I attack religious people and their beliefs. I do not think that way. I think in fact that religion and belief are a private thing for each person. I did not end up on the pyre probably because this state is still secular, but it does not mean that I will not end up this way one day, with the present state of things. There is a new, massive church in New Belgrade which wakes me up every morning and in the weekends. I experience this as an attack on my everyday life. Third thing, which indicates that secularism here is being repeatedly disturbed, is precisely the rejection of the Council of Europe Resolution 1580, which speaks of the dangers of introducing creationism in education. It is an excellent document, which deals with the attacks by religious fundamentalists on education. Its aim is not to put in question the rights to freedom of belief or a fight against religion, but to point out the tendency to present religion as science, and thus to point out the need to separate religion from science. Our representatives have not signed this resolution and this is a direct attack on the secular nature of our state. The ministry of education which belonged to DSS a few years ago did not want this document to be signed nor stated reasons about what was contentious in it.

I am atheist first and foremost because I do science. I know that science cannot prove the non-existence of god, but in the same time, no religion can show that god exists. I would like to refer to Bertrand Russell, famous philosopher and mathematician, and to what he said concerning the existence or non-existence of god. So, according to Russell, I could claim that there is a flying teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit. It is possible to believe in the assertion that this teapot exists and has its orbit around the sun. Insofar as I am cautious and say that this teapot is so small and tiny that it cannot be revealed even by our most powerful telescope, there is no way to prove that this teapot exists or does not exist. Therefore, you can prove that I am wrong only when I claim that this teapot does not exist. This is this religious trap facing science as well. If there are millions of proofs that evolution is a reality in nature, religious fundamentalists will tell you – “good, you’ve proved that there is evolution, but this doesn’t negate the existence of god.” This is an entity that you can neither refute nor prove, and you believe in it, it becomes a dogma. On the other hand, we know that there was a time when people did not anything about phenomena surrounding them, there were lots of gods. As scientific learning progressed, as people understood more and more phenomena, a reduction of the number of gods took place, until this number was cut down to one. Let us take any confession today: the notion of only one god or one entity is noticeable. This reduction of the number of gods with the progress of scientific learning leads me to the one and only logical conclusion: at one point, we will know so much, at least about this material world, that there will be no need for us to believe in such an entity. The needs why people believe are more of a psychological nature rather than of a materialistic one.
It should be added that religion is very adjustable. As we acquire new knowledge, religion adjusts to it. It is ready to adapt itself to everything, only insofar as the idea of God remains inviolable. The reason is clear. The idea is reduced to a personal god, so that everyone can experience such a god in very different ways.

What particularly worries me is the introduction of religion in schools through the front door. What is happening is quite horrendous, because it indoctrinates in this way future generations and push them in the direction in which our rulers and our church want to go. You all know how badly our children did in international tests. They are omniscient ignoramuses, who have absolutely useless knowledge. Those are St. Sava’s standards of education, by which only facts are actually memorised, whereas connecting them with logical thinking is not stimulated. The latter is the basis of science and scientific knowledge, and it is completely destimulated unstimulated here. Science creates free people, people who use logic, who are able to connect things around themselves, to form a judgment on political events, etc. Such personalities cannot be manipulated and blindly believe in leading figures. I am afraid that we are creating future generations who will be obedient masses and this is something which needs to be combated.
I would like to add that doing sciences does not necessarily exclude religiosity, but this is only one psychological aspect. For example, according to one research, in America there are 30% of religious scientists, but this neither burdens nor influences their work. Here, it is socially correct and very useful if the patriarch consecrates your scientific monograph. At my faculty, you have a consecrated, blessed monograph with photographs of the patriarch and the author on the first pages.

It is important to say that when children begin school, they have a bigger intelligence than when they finish the first form. This indicates that curiosity, thinking, logic and everything which favours the development of children’s intelligence is being killed in our schooling system.

What also upsets me is the construction of churches at every corner, whereas there is no day nurseries. The church, on the other hand, encourages procreation, while there is nowhere where you can leave your children for baby-sitting. I hope that this hypocrisy will one day implode in its own illogicalities.

Miodrag Kapetanović, mathematician

Institute for mathematics, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts

I will elaborate on Biljana’s remarks and try to illustrate my scepticism regarding the chances for religion to die away by an anecdote related to the famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr. He lived in a village and one day, acquaintances of his came to visit – when they saw on the house a horseshoe! Do you believe that horseshoe brings good luck, they asked, surprised. Absolutely not, said Bohr, where did you get this idea, this is pure superstition. But you keep it on the house, attacked the guests. Oh, that, it’s completely unimportant, said Bohr, it’s just because people say that a horseshoe also helps those who don’t believe!

Thus, faith is, in many aspects, very resistant. For this reason the attitude of society towards secularism is important for freedom of thought and development of science. But, judging by historical experience, mathematics is here the least under threat. Why is it like that – this cannot be answered with certainty, but it seems that it has to do with the nature of this science. On the one hand, from its very beginnings, mathematics has been having important applications. Thus, the old mathematical discipline geometry was at the beginning, as its name reveals, a set of practical methods to measure land, which was of course of great important in the fertile valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia. On the other hand, however, from this period dates the towering work “The Elements” by the Greek mathematician Euclid (ca. 300 B.C.), in which not only the accumulated geometric knowledge is systematised but also for the first time exposed in the form of strict proofs: all geometrical facts are inferred in a precise, unambiguous manner, from a small number of postulates chosen beforehand, which are considered basic and obvious truths. In this way geometry, and later all mathematics as well, became a model for all disciplines, when it comes to precise and strict proofs. All this continued in the Middle Ages, and then later (2+2 is always 4, isn’t it?!).

Things are significantly different when it comes to physics, the intimate friend of mathematics and to its development in the Middle Ages, when Europe witnessed domination by the Catholic Church and theology, so that even philosophy was dealt as the servant of theology (ancilla theologiae!). Scientific thinking could then develop only in close relation to theology, but on the other hand also in the form of re-examination of theological dogmas.

The perfect example for this is the so-called heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), according to which all planets uniformly move in elliptical orbits, the centre of which is the Sun. This essentially puts in question, or upside down, the Christian theological image of the world (for this reason one speaks of Copernican revolution), which, to put it simply, asserts the following: in the centre of everything is almighty God that created man on Earth in his own image and as the main object of his attention and favour. Thus, according to this, the Earth has to be the centre of the world, that is, of the universe. Although Copernicus himself did not bear the consequences of his theory, the Inquisition quickly understood the danger so that his follower Giordano Bruno paid his believes with his head, and Galileo ended up in lifelong custody. The development of natural sciences still basically followed its course unstopped. As an illustration of the completely transformed atmosphere that appeared as a consequence of the French revolution, we mention the witty statement of the great French scientist Laplace (P.S. Laplace, 1749-1827). Namely, he exposed in front of Napoleon his theory about the origin of the universe (known under the name of “Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis”) and proudly answered to the worried question of the Emperor “And where is God in this story?”: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Not everything goes simply and straightforwardly, though. For instance, the prevailing cosmological theory (physical theory on the origin of the universe), known as the big bang theory, claims that the universe grows, that it thus began from some initially very dense state, i.e. that it has its beginning. The church immediately tried to use this, claiming that if the world has a beginning, then it also has its creator! Of course, as in the case of creationism, this is a misuse of scientific concepts and facts and of placing them in a completely different context. It seems that there is no end to those attempts, and for this reason, opposition to such understandings has to be constant and resistant. In this regard, I am personally optimist, I think that the intellectual and political powers of the Serbian Orthodox Church are limited and that there is in the church a concealed anxiety that the current privileged position will not last long. What still gives strength to such a kind of clericalist pressure, it is unfortunately scientists and intellectuals in general. Namely, I am convinced that the number of educated people in Serbia who agree with Biljana is in no way small, but the number of those who are ready to decidedly defend their stances is not big. To be an opportunist, to avoid important topics – this is considered to be a kind of political wisdom.

Prepared by Snežana Tabački