Open letter to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir V. Putin from the Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Dear Mr. President:

We have watched with deepening concern the increasing clericalization of Russian society, the Church's infiltration of all areas of public life. The Constitution of the Russian Federation declares our country to be secular and separates the Church from the public education system. We address this letter to you as the holder of the highest office in this country and guarantor of the Constitutions basic principles.

In March of this year, the 9th World Russian National Council was held in Moscow. One of its resolutions caught our attention: On the development of a national system of religious education and science. It is a peculiar title. If religious education is an internal affair of the Russian Orthodox Church, then why should the Church concern itself with science? And would science be well served by such concern? The text of the resolution is unequivocal. The resolution calls for an appeal to the Russian federal government to include theology in the list of scholarly disciplines recognized by the State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles and to preserve theology as an independent scholarly field.

The Church's attempts to introduce theology to the list of government-recognized scholarly disciplines have a long history. Previously, however, the pressure exerted on the Academic Degrees and Titles Commission remained hidden from the public eye. Since the Council in March, the pressure is out in the open. But why is it that theology an assemblage of religious dogmasshould occupy a place among scientific disciplines? Scientific disciplines deal with facts, logic, and proofs, but not faith.

The Catholic Church, it should be noted, has almost completely renounced interfering with science (in 1992 the Church even recognized its fault in the Galileo affair and cleared his name). In conversation with V. I. Arnold (March 1998), Pope John Paul II recognized that science alone is able to determine the truth, whereas religion, in the words of the pontificate, sees itself as better suited to evaluate the possible uses of new discoveries. The Russian Orthodox Church holds a different view:

We need a dialogue between the government and society at large in order to end the monopoly of the materialist worldview that was created in the Soviet era. (From the resolution of the Council.)

All the achievements of science worldwide are based on a materialist view of the world. Modern science is simply not concerned with any other views. Steven Weinberg, the American physicist and Nobel Prize winner, put it aptly:

The experience of being a scientist makes religion seem fairly irrelevant. Most scientists I know simply don't think about it very much. They don't think about religion enough to qualify as practicing atheists. (New York Times, August 23, 2005)

So what are we being offered to replace the monopoly of a materialist worldview?

But let us come back to the Academic Degrees and Titles Commission. The incorporation of the Church into a government body is an obvious breach of the Constitution. The Church has already infiltrated the army and now the media broadcast the blessings of new military equipment (battleships and submarines are now required to be blessed which, alas! does not always help). Religious ceremonies attended by high government officials are also widely covered. These are all examples of the clericalization of this country.

The Councils abovementioned resolution contains another urgent call for the recognition of the cultural significance of Orthodox culture and ethics education in all schools and for the inclusion of this subject in the standard federal curriculum.

Church officials are calling on the government to make Introduction to Orthodox Culture a mandatory subject in all Russias schools. The idea has been in the works for some time. In Circular #5925, dated December 9th, 1999, addressed to all eparchial officials, Alexis II states that the task of spiritual and moral education will not be fulfilled if we fail to pay attention to the system of public education. The conclusion of the same document reads:

In case difficulties should arise teaching Introduction to Orthodox Beliefs, the subject should be called Introduction to Orthodox Culture, which the teachers and school principals raised in atheism will find more acceptable.

It follows from the quoted text that under the guise of Introduction to Orthodox Culture, we are going to have (in breach of the Constitution, once again) religious education.

Even if we assume that the course is truly about Orthodox culture, such a subject would still as has been said so many times be unacceptable in an ethnically and religiously diverse country. Nevertheless, the Council considers this subject necessary in our country, where Orthodox Christians, so they say, constitute an absolute majority. If you count all ethnically Russian atheists as Orthodox Christians, then they would indeed make up a majority. Without the atheists, alas, Orthodox Christians are in the minority. But that is not the point. Can we treat other religions with such disrespect? Is this not a form of Orthodox chauvinism? Church functionaries ought to take the time to consider whether such a policy will ultimately unite the country or lead to division.

In the European Union, where religious intolerance has already shown its colors, it has been recognized after much discussion that schools should teach a course in the history of the main monotheist religions. The main argument for such a course would be that teaching history and cultural heritage of other religions would promote understanding between members of different ethnic and religious groups. No one even thought of demanding the teaching of an Introduction to Catholic Culture. At last years Christmas Readings, Education Minister Andrey A. Fursenko announced the publication of the history of world religions textbook. The Orthodox lobby gave the announcement a hostile reception. Meanwhile the textbook, written by scholars of the History Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (the title is Religions of the World, to be used in grades 10 and 11), is a well-balanced account packed with information that any educated person should know.

And what do we have instead? A year ago, a St. Petersburg high-school student Masha and her dad went to court to demand that the high-school biology curriculum of outdated and erroneous Darwinism be replaced by the theory that man was created by a Divine force (creationism). Its an absurd situation: for some reason the courts must now decide whether the theory of evolution, which states that life emerged on Earth three billion years ago, is true, or whether the truth lies rather in the theory of creation, which, unlike the theory of evolution, does not present a single fact but states that life on Earth has existed for a few thousand years. It seems to be a question exclusively within the competence of science. Yet Masha and her dad received support from the Patriarch Alexis II who declared at the Christmas Educational Readings:

There is no harm in knowing the Bibles account of the origin of the world. If someone wants to think that they descend from apes, let them keep their view, but without imposing it on others.

But what will happen if school education gets deprived of elementary proofs, of basic logic, if the last remnants of critical thinking are eviscerated, and instead dogmas are learnt by rote would that do no harm either? By the way, to be precise, neither Darwin nor his successors have ever stated that man descended from the ape. They only stated that apes and humans have common ancestors. But it is not only Darwinism that the Church has problems with. For instance, how does the Bibles account of the origin of the world relate to the facts demonstrated by modern cosmology and astrophysics? What should be taught in school: these facts or the Bibles account of the world created in seven days?

To believe in God or not is a matter of each individuals conscience and convictions. We respect the feelings of religious people and our goal is not to fight religion. But we can not stand by when attempts are made to cast doubt on scientific knowledge, to extirpate the materialist worldview, to substitute the knowledge accumulated by science with faith. We shouldnt forget that the governments policy of innovative development can only be realized if schools and universities equip young people with the knowledge acquired by modern science. To this knowledge there is no alternative.

Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Translated from Russian by Dmitri Ponomarenko, Eugenia Simacheva and Robert Denis.

Published in Kentavr, No. 3, pp. 1-2 (a popular-science supplement to Novaya Gazeta).
[Russian version]