IHEU representatives at international conference in Russia

  • post Type / Members and partners
  • Date / 13 June 2007

Mikhail Bogoslovsky and Gennady Shevelev have issued a press release at the International Conference on “Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue” held in St. Petersburg on 1 June 2007.

Press Release of Representatives of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) at the International Conference “Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue”, St. Petersburg, 1 June 2007

Two public organizations authorized us to speak at this conference as representatives of the IHEU: the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the Russian Humanist Society [RHS]. They stand for humanism, but not simply humanism, but a secular, non-religious humanism. This means that these organizations defend the interests of a great many people in the world and Russia who have a non-religious world view. Inasmuch as this world view is one of the most important forms of culture, the participation of secular humanists in a dialogue of cultures, including within the framework of this conference, is completely natural.

Unfortunately, in today’s world secular humanism needs serious public protection. This was mentioned, for example, at the 1st Baltic Humanist Conference, “The State, Irreligiosity, and the Humanist Appeal” held in Stockholm last autumn. Among its 114 participants were representatives not only of those countries bordering the Baltic Sea but also Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Spain, and even Canada and Israel. This says how serious is the problem for which they met to discuss.

This is also quite relevant to present-day Russia. If before the 1990s our country (like the entire USSR) was a land of almost complete atheism, in the last decade and a half there have been attempts to give it the image of a deeply religious, basically Orthodox Christian, country. The commercialized mass media, especially television with channels which flow from year to year with a stream of religious propaganda, are especially used as an instrument to achieve this. A showy demonstration of religiosity by government leaders plays a significant role. This violates the RF “Freedom of Conscience” law according to which:

“Officials of bodies of state authority, other government agencies and local government bodies and also servicemen do not have the right to use their official position to form a particular attitude toward a religion”.

It is appropriate to mention the words of former President of France Jacque Chirac in this regard:

“We are obligated with renewed force to affirm the neutral and secular nature of the government service sector. Every government employee is prohibited from displaying his own faith or thoughts at work. This is the standard of our law so that not one Frenchman should suspect a representative of government authority of giving him preference or infringing on his rights on the basis of personal conviction”.

Although the people ironically calls such officials “candlesticks” a certain portion of the population, historically accustomed to demonstrate devotion to the current leaders in any event, is also quick to give the impression that it has come to believe in God.

Also of no little importance is that the Communists, who were zealous supporters of atheism and who forcefully spread it in the USSR, have gradually renounced their devotion to it.

Of course, one ought not think that there are no genuine believers in Russia. A person is guided not by reason alone but also by emotions, which are capable of giving rise to an irrational search even for those of the highest intellect. Secular humanists regard this with understanding, although they themselves have the strength of reason to restrain themselves from what the great American philosopher and humanist Paul Kurtz called “the transcendental temptation”. That is, the secular humanist’s attitude toward true believers is completely peaceloving, far from what the so-called “militant” atheists were and continue to be guided by.

Nevertheless, it very much troubles secular humanists that in present-day Russia essentially a forcible clericalization of society is occurring and a situation is quickly arising in which to admit one’s irreligiosity is becoming almost an immoral act. Many nonbelieving citizens prefer to conceal their irreligiosity, fearing not only scowls, but even direct damage to their welfare. The words “unbeliever”, “godless”, and “atheist” are almost gaining the meaning of swearwords. The Patriarch of the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] calls irreligious people “soulless” and “corrupted by atheism”. In one of the recent issues of “Zakon Bozh’ego [Divine Law]”, it says: “If individual atheists exist then they are…unhealthy deviations from the norm”. And the passage continues further in the spirit of the Middle Ages: “As the existence of idiots does not deny that Man is a rational creature so the existence of atheists does not disprove the fact of universality of religion”. Often nonreligious convictions are interpreted not as a separate kind of conviction, but as the absence of any.

Such an abnormal situation developed because the government is supporting the Church in every way, in violation of a provision of the Constitution about its secular nature. The “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” law singled out so-called “traditional” churches, which are granted significant economic advantages. And the authorities have selected one of them, the Russian Orthodox, as essentially a state church. Although representatives of the ROC have more than once declared that they will not interfere in government affairs in fact a merging of their interests is taking place. At times the impression is even created that they are operating to mutual benefit according to a plan worked out together to gradually turn Russia into a country of practically complete religiosity.

It seems that one of the main points of this plan is the insertion of the Church into government schools. Although according to the law the study of religion in these schools can only be done outside the curriculum program with the permission of the student and his parents, in reality there are many instances of violations of this restriction. The Ministry of Science and Education and also the government authorities in a number of regions are facilitating the promotion of religion in the schools.

As D. Burlaka, the rector of the Russian Christian Humanitarian Institute writes, Orthodoxy is planning “to win the battle for minds at the front of Russian education”. A religious subject, “Principles of Orthodox Culture [POC]”, which is actually a short course in theology, is being forced on the students to accomplish this. In a number of Russian regions this subject, which is suitable only for Sunday schools or private schools, has already been introduced by local authorities as a compulsory subject for all government schools where children from families with different philosophical convictions study, atheists as well as those belonging to various religious confessions.

The fact that government funds are being invested in the construction of religious structures is evidence of the clericalization of society. Without them the unprecedented boom in church construction that is being observed would be impossible. Hundreds of churches and dozens of monasteries are opened annually. At the same time, unlike some European countries, the Russian government does not give the slightest support to secular humanists.

Church publishing has practically already exceeded the pre-revolutionary level. Stories about Christianity are provided in the secular mass media, radio, television, newspapers and magazines, not from a neutral point of view but from a religious one, and have the nature of propaganda. Myths and religious legends are represented as reliable facts.

The ROC leadership has enmeshed all the Russian power structures, many government higher educational institutions, and even the Russian Academy of Sciences in a network of cooperation agreements.

A tradition of accompanying any public event with a religious (even Orthodox) ceremony is being quickly adopted.

In the recently adopted “Principles of the Social Concept of the ROC” this Church permitted itself to speak against freedom of conscience in Russia, declaring that the principle of freedom of conscience “is evidence of a collapse of the system of spiritual values, the loss of the trend toward salvation in a majority of the public…”. (Of course, by spiritual values the Church means only religious).

Under various pretexts a mistrust of reason is being expressed and science is being disparaged. Cosmonaut Vladimir Aksenov, the leader of the so-called “Spiritual Movement of Russia”, said that today materialist science is not capable of explaining the many processes and phenomena which exist in the world. Well now, science may not be everything, but in spite of its relative youth and in the face of the frantic opposition of the Church and idealistic ideology it has already done and is doing a great deal and will do even more in the future. But idealists, and especially clerics, have nothing to boast about here!

The fact testify to the assault on freedom of conscience in Russia that the publication of articles and books containing criticism of religion is practically prohibited. If before, in Soviet times, there existed a limitation on the propaganda of religious views – it was permitted only within religious organizations – now, just the reverse, a freethinking author cannot gain access to the mass media. Criticism of religion, and Orthodoxy in particular, is perceived as undermining the moral foundations of society and the state, and irreligiosity is identified with amorality. It is significant that only two of the dozens of atheist organizations in the RF have been able to officially register.

An interview with Metropolitan Kirill entitled “We Should Return to Instilling Values” in the 20 April 2007 issue of the newspaper Izvestiya contained statements with which it is impossible to agree.

Kirill tries to create the impression that the Church cares about the public interest and the welfare of the people. In fact under the cover of good words the ROC is concerned about strengthening its political influence in the country although it avoids in any way calling itself a party. The fact that according to the law every Church cleric has the right of an ordinary citizen to participate in political life and join any existing party is clearly not enough for the ROC. Its hierarchs address political questions not only personally but in the name of the entire faith, that is, they behave like party leaders. It can be said that now the ROC is only outwardly different than a political party.

Kirill says that the ROC has never had a conflict with the natural sciences, including the 19th century, which gave rise to Darwinism and Marxism. Possibly there was no open conflict and, moreover, there is none now, but internally this cannot fail to be since in principle religious idealism is incompatible with the natural sciences, which are based on materialism.

The assertion by Kirill that an enormous number of scientists are now believers is unproven. Who counted them? The suggestion of Academician V. L. Ginzburg to conduct a poll in the Russian Academy of Sciences has not been carried out. The cooperation agreement between the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the ROC is only evidence of the conformism of the RAS elite. The Church is passing this desired cooperation as actual and the venal mass media will help it by not permitting atheist scientists to speak in the mass media. (V. L. Ginzburg could get into the newspapers and television only after he became a Nobel laureate).

Kirill has put the ROC in the position of the main force which ought to return society to instilling moral values. In his words, it (the ROC) says: act, this is your field. But who says this? Yes, it does and the government officials who benefit singing along to this so that the religious morality of a fear of God and obedience are instilled in the people. Instilling citizenship and freedom of thought, which should only dominate in a democratic society, this is the business of families, government educational institutions, and other civilian institutions, but not at all of the Church whose morality is based on threats of divine punishment. Kirill unwittingly betrayed the real goal of forcing the instruction of POC on government schools when he said that it was in the instillation of a religious motivation in people. He repeats the words of a circular of the ROC Patriarch: “If difficulties are encountered in teaching ‘The Principles of Orthodox dogma’ call the course ‘Principles of Orthodox Culture'”. The essence does not change in the artful substitution of the name.

A religious system of values is hardly based on thinking, as Kirill states. Is thinking relevant if only an instinctive “fear of God” is instilled into one’s consciousness? On the contrary, a person is taught not to think independently but to submissively follow pseudo-values which are proclaimed by the Church and to the benefit of the authorities.

It has now become evident that it is only possible to resist assaults on freedom of thought by the combined efforts of scientists, sensible intellectuals, and all citizens of Russia, Europe, and the world who are free of religious preconceptions. A public organization, the Russian Humanist Society, was created for this purpose in Russia more than 10 years ago. One of its noble missions is to propagandize science, knowledge, and the true history of world religions, and to expose religious lies about science and the impersonation of it. This work has enormous importance for the coming generation. The Society publishes a quarterly journal, Zdravyy Smysl [Common Sense]. Articles are printed in it which are devoted to the defense of science and common sense and criticism of anti- and pseudoscientific concepts.

At the above conference in Stockholm the RHS delegation proposed including the following two demands in the final document:

a) government officials at all levels ought not ignore the constitutional requirements of their countries regarding the separation of church and state and government schools;

b) the mass media ought not to interpret freedom of speech as their right to refuse to publish materials that a church does not like.

Is a full intercultural dialogue possible in Russia and the world without observing these minimum conditions? We think that it is quite difficult without this.

Mikhail Bogoslovsky, Gennady Shevelev

Translated by Gary Goldberg

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