Social Aspects of the Science-Religion Dialogue in Post-Totalitarian Societies

Social Aspects of the Science-Religion Dialogue in Post-Totalitarian Societies

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Social aspects of the science- religion dialogue in post-totalitarian societies

1. Introduction

The dialogue between the two approaches to reality, embodied by modern science and religion, was never a purely academic question; it was relevant not only for the individual scientist but the whole academic community, and also has important consequences for the society as a whole.

In fact, most practising scientists seldom get involved in these problems. Modern scientific research is a demanding and competitive activity, so most young scientists are busy trying to learn the necessary methodology and achieve publishable results recognized and appreciated by their peers. Though many scientists are also religious, in some way or another, it seems that they manage to function satisfactorily in two parallel worlds, professional and deeper personal, either unaware of any conflicts between them, or unwilling or unable to resolve them rationally.

Nevertheless, a small minority feels a need to study these problems, either motivated by some external factors, or by their curiosity or by the fact that modern science – and I shall be talking from the standpoint of a physicist – has in many cases reached its limits, the points where non-scientific questions arise, as are the problems of epistemology, and also of the meaning, purpose and value of scientific results. The standard examples of the first are quantum physics and relativity, with their puzzling indeterminism and non-locality1, and the second group is dominated by the often urgent problems of ethics.

Though for an individual scientist this science-religion dialogue should primarily provide resolution of internal uncertainties, it soon becomes obvious that the social context also plays an important role. Not only are the scientific research and the position of a scientist strongly conditioned by external factors, including cultural tradition and mentality, but their interaction is reciprocal: Attitudes towards the science-religion relations have important influence on the society, and have often in history shaped social and political developments. And this process is still going on!

Of course, one usually considers here the negative examples of extreme, fundamentalist attitudes, i.e. fideism and scientism, but there are also positive cases where tolerant and argumentative approaches contribute to the advances of individual and common good.

This paper discusses some specific aspects of the science-religion dialogue in the context of a post-totalitarian society, as are the societies in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe after half a century of communist dictatorship, taking the situation in Croatia for a case study2. Though possibly of largely academic interest in a stable democratic environment, this problem here acquires vital importance for a number of reasons. One of them, for example, is the need to re-establish and reintegrate intellectual elites after their destruction by the totalitarian regimes, and I shall argue that in this destruction an important role was played by the imposed scientistic dogma. Understanding the causes and various methods of this process will help us to envisage the complex process of recovery, especially of the academic community, as well as its importance for the development of stable and prosperous democracies in the region.

2. The role of scientism in a totalitarian society

2.1 Science-religion pseudo-conflict: scientism and fideism
Though it is not the main topic of this paper, let us clarify that “scientific fundamentalism”, or scientism, is a specific ideological extension of science into the fields of philosophy and politics, which attributes unlimited powers to the human reason, when applied in the so-called “scientific method”. In its extreme form it eliminates not only religion and philosophy as false and irrelevant, but also all arts, literature, even “soft” sciences, like history, sociology, economics, that are not subject to experimentation and quantification3.

Of course, there are also totalitarian regimes based on another fundamentalism of religious origin, or fideism, where claims to absolute truth and justification of absolute power are based on religious teachings. Some Islamic regimes are such recent examples, where religious fundamentalism suppresses other aspects of human spirituality, but in certain historic periods this was also the case in Europe. Needless to say, just as in case of scientism, this is a false interpretation of religion, only a surrogate of true faith, however influential it could be.

Both scientism and fideism try to find their justification in the false idea of the inherent conflict between science and religion. Proper understanding of both can easily show, in spite of the complexity of their relationship, that these two are neither exclusive nor opposed, but instead complementary. The development of fideism and scientism, and their frequent conflicts were mistakenly considered to refer to the intrinsic incompatibilities of science and religion.

In the Western civilization, based on Judeo-Christian tradition, fideistic tendencies are quite isolated, even if they occasionally rise to the surface e.g. in the form of “scientific creationism”. Catholic Church, starting with the First Vatican Council (1869-70), and especially pope John Paul II made great efforts to clarify the relationship between religion and science, and establish a reasonable dialogue, promoting the idea of their compatibility. As pope John Paul II says in the first sentence of his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth…”4. I shall not elaborate here on this topic, though it will become obvious that I support the idea of compatibility and even complementarity of science and religion, and justify this by discussing the deviations due to the opposite approach. After all, the title of the paper announces the dialogue that would be impossible in the fundamentalist context.

Both fundamentalisms are characterized by intolerance, suppression of alternative thinking and desire for control and power. But the dominant form of fundamentalist thinking in Europe in the last century was scientism. More precisely, strong tendencies in the philosophy of the 19th century, materialism, positivism and ultimately scientism, provided the framework and intellectual justification for the three totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century – communism, fascism and nazism, with all their tragic consequences.

2.2 Totalitarian rule and the social structure
After a century dominated by two world wars, brief periods of right wing and long periods of left wing dictatorships, the region of Central and Eastern Europe is going through a painful process of recovery. This process is far more difficult and complex than was expected after the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989, leading to frequent frustrations and presenting many unexpected challenges. It is a process without a historical precedent – we still have to discover new ways to repair both material and mental damages that occurred in the past period. Therefore the precise diagnosis of the situation, of the key problems inherited from the past and still present, can give us necessary indications towards the solution – however demanding and of long-term character.

One of the main problems causing delays in the social transformation and democratisation of the post-totalitarian countries in Central and Eastern Europe is destruction of the institutions of civil society, and especially the destruction of the intellectual elites in the 20th century by the totalitarian regimes. They were either physical eliminated or, for almost half a century, completely controlled and manipulated by the power centres. This refers not only to the academic communities, but also to the economy, government, etc.

Even if some individuals managed to survive (not only physically!), the institutions – universities, academies, professional associations, political parties, chambers of commerce, cultural organizations, etc., were either closed or infiltrated and controlled by the Party and the State. One should also mention the attempted destruction of religious organizations, the persecution of priests and all religious persons.

The consequences for this region were, and still are disastrous. The recovery of post-totalitarian societies is slowed down and sometimes even reversed because of the lack of independent and capable individuals and institutions whose cooperative effort would build a tolerant and prosperous democratic society. Even when such individuals do exist they are often isolated and marginalized, with the resulting return of the “old” cadres and the revival of the old totalitarian mentality and behaviour.

All this occurs in the period of intense globalisation, presenting additional challenges to which the post-communist societies are unable to find adequate response.

In this paper I want to discuss why and how a totalitarian regime destroys intellectual elites and other independent social structures, where the suppression of spiritual, cultural religious identity is both the goal and the tool, and the specific role of scientism in this process /2/. I also want to point out special animosity of the totalitarian mentality towards family and religion, and the negative consequences of the scientistic approach in education. It is curious to analyse how scientism damaged even the normal development of science in Croatia.

Religion, and in particular organized religion, was always considered by totalitarian regimes as an especially dangerous enemy because it promotes certain principles,system of values and norms, and thus could limit the absolute power of the Party. And this was certainly a correct conclusion on their side. There are other similar “enemies” of the totalitarian rule: the family, professional or cultural organizations, academic institutions, in fact all structures organized to preserve individual and collective human rights on various levels, from the local community to the nation-state

The purpose of this analysis is to detect the specific problems arising when one wants to start a science-religion dialogue in a post-totalitarian environment, and gradually develop a common approach to this problem.

2.3 Totalitarian rule and intellectuals
The destruction of national elites in the totalitarian regimes was not accidental, but an intentional action of the Party, which tried in this way to suppress every criticism and independent thinking in the defence of its absolute power. The reason is obvious: Independent institutions and individuals with their competence and professional and moral responsibilities were a threat to the absolute power and monopoly of the Party, and had to be eliminated.

It is interesting to notice the similarities between the Communist and Nazi/Fascist aggressive attitudes towards intellectual elites, and in fact towards all independent social structures. The term Party can therefore denote any totalitarian power structure – either the Nazi or the Communist or the Fascist Party – any Party in the Orwellian sense, remembering that Orwell was the first to give a brilliant analysis of this phenomenon.

Immediately after World War II the victorious communist leaders in former Yugoslavia followed the radical view that the bourgeois class had to be destroyed, and they indeed started with “liquidations” of the «class enemies», «collaborators», «enemies of the people», etc. The result was the physical elimination of many intellectuals or their removal from the teaching and/or research positions.

Apart from physical persecution, “scientific fundamentalism” of the Marxist-Leninist model was used as an important instrument of repression of spiritual values and activities that were not in accordance with the official Party line, and for the elimination of critical thinking.

The «liquidations» continued until the new rulers realized that the country and their system could not function without qualified people, without the detested «bourgeois»; they were needed as some kind of “serfs”, and thus their lives were spared, but they were reduced to second-class citizens.

Therefore the next phase followed a more pragmatic Soviet approach. Because of specific needs in industrial and especially military development, “technical intelligentsia”, i.e. experts in «hard» sciences and engineering, were not only tolerated but some even enjoyed privileged status (provided they served well and abstained from politics). This division was obvious e.g. at the University of Zagreb and in the “independent” research institutes (analogous to the Soviet-style academies), where the Party exercised only loose (but sufficient) control over activities in science and engineering, This support and relatively tolerant atmosphere provided a (relatively brief) period of successful development of natural sciences in Croatia, with a number of independent-minded scientists of international reputation.

However, in politically more sensitive fields of social sciences and humanities the Party members absolutely dominated and various ideological committees constantly controlled and terrorized other scientists. But, even this was not enough, and it is here that the first dissonant sounds were heard. It is significant that the regime was occasionally criticized from inside and by the prominent intellectuals in the Party (members of «nomenklatura»!), not from the conservative or liberal side but from the extreme left position. This internal dissent was more dangerous than some external “bourgeois” criticism, which could be (and was) easily suppressed.

2.4 Self-management dogma
Scientism, as an ideological deformation of science, caused much damage even to the progress of science itself, and also created spirit of intellectual intolerance, which served as the justification for the totalitarian rule of the Party.

Together with other, e.g. economic problems, possible internal dissent was one of the reasons that led to the introduction of the specific– and most efficient – method of control, well-known as “self-management”, connected with the transformation of Yugoslav communism from the Soviet rigid model to the more flexible “permanent revolution” (or “controlled chaos”) system, similar to the Chinese one.

The trick was to install very elaborate and intentionally inefficient “democratic” procedures at all levels, with endless elections of representatives, meetings, discussions and decisions on trivial issues. This was, of course, all fake, because Party officials controlled absolutely all decisions of any importance. However, this “make-believe” democracy created continuous internal conflicts among the frustrated participants, which also led to the fragmentation of institutions, enterprises and other organizations into smaller “self-managing” units, also often mutually confronted. In this way “self-management” was destroying their organic unity. Needless to say, this was a disaster fo the structure and functioning of the university, and Croatian universities are still only loosely connected affiliations of almost independent faculties5. Of course, the main result was that the Party was now relieved of any responsibility and at the same time had absolute power.

2.5 Scientism against science: Science as the panacea
Now I come to the second dogma which contributed to the mental deformations in the scientific community, and which can be related to «scientism» in its radical version. This was the systematic misuse of the term science, its application to what was and what was not science: it was proclaimed that science could and should solve all the problems of the society, of the «working class», improve the standard of living, provide reduction of imports, etc., etc.

While most people probably were not even aware of the true situation (as happens in most societies!), I am convinced that the authors of this planned confusion intentionally suppressed the necessary (even if sometimes fuzzy!) distinctions between fundamental sciences, oriented basic research, applied research and development, the differences in their goals, methods, organization, planning, evaluation and, of course, their funding. Everything was “science”, even quality control in a production process, or simple technology transfer. Unfortunately, but understandably, in this obscure game politicians were able to find support and collaboration among some scientists, always prepared to accommodate and bend their ethical and professional principles.

One of the lasting consequences of this system, i.e. the combination of «self-management» and «scientism», was that the professional – institutional – responsibility disappeared because institutions had no adequate internal structure or power. Professional standards were neither stimulated nor required – the Party only needed political accommodation or passivity. This unfortunately «corrupted» large numbers of otherwise decent and correct scientists who accepted this deal offered by the Party – little or no work, no professional discipline or responsibility but, above all, no «dangerous» initiative or troublemaking.

2.6 Totalitarian rule and religion
Apart from brutal persecutions, the attack on religion was based on “dialectic materialism”, with its origin in scientism, and included the usual range of typical Marxist-Leninist ideological phraseology, e.g. “Science and religion are in conflict”, “Science has proved that there was no God”, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, etc., etc. This was the official doctrine imposed and taught at schools, repeated ad nauseam in the media, and it was dangerous to show any public sign of deviation from it.

Various religious communities reacted differently to the persecutions, which also differed in intensity, from the murder of hundreds of thousands of priests and faithful in the Soviet Union to the German extermination camps to the more sophisticated later methods of oppression. However, two things are relevant for further discussion.

First, the damage – both physical and mental – was enormous, both to the religious communities and their members, but also to the whole intellectual community and to the society. The brainwashing programme that lasted for so long left a lasting imprint on the mentality of the people, which is reinforced by the fact that it is still going on in the media and even at schools, though in a more sophisticated way. People instinctively opposed the Marxist-Leninist propaganda – after all, the population in Croatia declared themselves in 1991 more than 80% Catholic, but in spite of that their level of knowledge about religion as well as about science was (and still is) very poor. There was no alternative information available, no possibility for an honest discussion of the science-religion relations. All this emphasizes the need to repair this situation.

Second, the persecution failed to eliminate religion and destroy completely religious institutions, though to a large extent they were removed from their social functions. In fact, the goal of the regime in the later stage was not so much to destroy the religious organizations, churches, etc., but to isolate them from the flock and control their activities, and in several cases they succeeded. In fact, the price paid for the survival of the religious organizations was their passive role, abstention from many social activities, and this created a certain defensive mentality that is still present now when they (the hierarchy) have the necessary freedom of action, and are expected to contribute to the important social issues, such as the science-religion dialogue.

It is therefore indicative to see that this topic is still completely ignored by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Croatia, and even absent from the curricula of religious schools.

But due to the forced segregation of lay intellectuals according to their religious affiliation and their removal from their natural roles in the society, the society was losing their creative contributions in scientific research, education, arts and humanities, in economic activities, and finally in politics and government. This oppression also provoked waves of emigration, and the resulting “brain drain” impoverished the academic community.

3. Scientism and education

3.1 Education for the future and the values
The future of our society is based on education, with or without referring to the popular phrase “knowledge society”, but this education should be more than passive acquisition of skills. In other words, education is intrinsically connected to the system of values that has to complement the scientific content of the learning process. And this starts in the family, which is its most important, though not the only factor.

But the family is still under attack in the contemporary society6, even more dangerous and sophisticated than before, under different guises, and motivated by the same reason – the will of certain power centres to manipulate people, especially young people, for their financial gains. The method is not the physical oppression as before but the destruction of moral values and authority, all in the name of science, resulting – in the words of Pope John Paul II – in the «culture of death». At the same time, the old centres of power that survived the collapse of communism suddenly becoming promoters of the new «democratic» policies, successfully oppose the changes that would e.g. repair the existing anti-family legislation. On the contrary, bowing to the new global fashion and suggestions from their patrons in the global centres of power they try e.g. to introduce new unnatural forms of «family», thus putting the normal natural family at the disadvantage.

One of the main results of the attempted destruction of the family is the erosion of parental authority, and consequently all authority based on traditional values, on positive qualities like knowledge, character, love, etc. In education this creates immediate problems, because normal educational process requires continuous collaboration and synergy between three actors – the family, school and the social environment (including mass media, church structure like local parish, etc.) and if the children observe any discrepancy between them the education becomes impossible.

The problem namely arises whenever the three actors cannot agree on the accepted value system that should form the basis of education and do not define its ultimate goals, or when the agreement is only superficial, i.e. false. In the communist regime of the Soviet type the Party insisted on imposing a monolithic Marxist-Leninist, i.e. materialist and atheistic ideology on all society, especially at schools. This had a relative success, more in the former Soviet Union, less in other countries where tradition and other social forces (e.g. Catholic Church) resisted this process. However, there appeared another and more sophisticated solution that is now spreading even after the nominal elimination of the totalitarian control of the Party, and which again reflects scientistic ideas.

This new and often adopted approach is to separate the transmission of knowledge, or training for profession, from the more fundamental aspects of personality formation, i.e. the transmission of the moral and ethical values, which usually has the form of religious education. This separation is obviously impossible, both processes are linked and mutually conditioned, because there is no human activity that is value-free, and this is especially true in education. Even the basic pretext of separating description of reality from its ethical aspects imposes the well-defined philosophical scheme – relativism, and ultimately agnosticism in every aspect of relation to reality. And this is de facto the negation of education itself!

One can easily discover the hypocrisy of all such attempts. Namely, what usually happens is that traditional values – in the case of Central Europe or Europe in general this really means Judeo-Christian system of beliefs and values – is eliminated in the name of «scientific impartiality» or moral «neutrality», but immediately replaced by an ideological substitute, some new political or moral «correctness» (or in fact dictate) under the guise of «teaching for democracy» or «human rights» (defined by whom?), or some «multi-cultural» curriculum concocted from yoga, hedonism, ecology, etc. The only and real intention of this effort turns out in fact to be the suppression of the Judeo-Christian character of the school and the consequent changes in the character of the new generation.

In this example one can observe an intriguing cycle of scientistic and fideistic attitudes, which confirms them both as expressions of the same totalitarian, oppressive and intolerant mentality. In the name of (the belief in) impartial and supposedly unquestionable “scientific” arguments an attempt is being made to replace one (traditional and well defined) system of values and impose a fuzzy collection of others as substitutes. Whether we call this a “fideistic scientism” or “scientific fideism” makes no difference – it is important to discover their real origin in the simple quest for power!

3.2 Competence and freedom
I should like to emphasize the important role of competence for understanding social and political processes, and thus illustrate from a different angle the previously analysed connection between scientific and religious formation of a young person and its importance for the society.

Competence, both in life and profession, is one of the key elements of a successful and independent personality, and the role of both the family and the school is certainly to bring up competent young people. By competence I understand the ability to solve problems encountered in life, to make appropriate decisions in accord with the situation, adequate knowledge and the proper system of values, and to be able to carry them through. Such independence leads to personal awareness, social recognition and freedom, and therefore it is not well perceived by the totalitarian power centres that want to manipulate and govern others.

As the education in the proper sense is one of the essential sources of competence for young people, this motivated the Communist party to put the school system under strict control, even at the expense of the quality of education, in order to eliminate every possibility of the formation of a new elite among young people who might be able – one day – to challenge their absolute power.

Another feature of the Soviet system (not only in the Soviet Union but also in other countries of the Soviet Bloc) was the separation of teaching and research in higher education. In simple words, universities were supposed to teach, and research was to be done in the network of institutes, which were usually part of the academies of sciences. Of course, we know that this could never work because unity of research and teaching is an intrinsic quality of the university. And very soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union all these countries started dismantling these huge institutes and reorganizing higher education in a standard way, though not without difficulties. The reason for this strange behaviour was that the Party realized that it could be relatively easy to impose strict control on the teaching – e.g. curricula, selection of teachers and their influence on the students. But imposing such rigid control on research proved to be counterproductive – the creativity suffered and the expected results were lacking. Therefore, for pragmatic reasons the Party allowed relative freedom inside these research centres, but they were not permitted to contact and «contaminate» large number of students at the universities.

Education of competent and independent individuals with strong commitment to a morally sound value system is the concern of every society (if it is dedicated to the «culture of life» and not the «culture of death»!), and especially those recovering from the period of totalitarian rule. These individuals should form the «elite» in the positive sense that could provide necessary and qualified leadership in a democratic society and thus guarantee its future.

4. Problems of a post-totalitarian society

4.1 Specific need for a science-religion dialogue
The development of democratic and prosperous societies in this region, after the material and spiritual destruction caused by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, will be impossible without the real – and not only formal – reconstruction of the whole range of key institutions of the civil society, including not only government and political structures but also intellectual and academic centres. This will require great engagement of the whole society, but primarily the efforts of the intellectual elites, which are still undervalued and marginalized by the present post-totalitarian mentality.

As emphasized earlier, this is not only an academic problem. An important example of urgent need for such a dialogue will be how to answer adequately to the challenges of the new technologies, which not only bring great benefits to the mankind but also present enormous potential dangers, from the weapons of mass destruction to the global warming, to mention just the most obvious.

Obviously, not all technologies that are possible are also acceptable and desirable, and the society is permanently confronted with the dilemmas of choice which science alone cannot answer. Namely, science is descriptive and not prescriptive (“Science is value-free, or morally neutral!”), it tells us “how” but does not treat the questions of meaning, sense, purpose, and especially value statements7. On the contrary, all great religions are primarily concerned with the problem of values and their applications, and therefore they can be fruitfully explored only in the science-religion dialogue.

We therefore need people who will be both scientifically “literate” – trained in a specific field of science and/or technology, an at the same time mo