Monday, May 5, 2008

Letter from Romania

I'm currently in Romania, guests of some fabulous people. I am also doing some talks with Paul Kurtz and Norm Allen for CFI.

Religion in Romania: some interesting facts:
  • Only 0.2% of the population claim to be atheists.
  • The main church is the national Orthodox Church, which gets to teach religion to all kids in state schools, unless their parents pull them out. They are teaching creationism.
  • The church has great political influence.
  • As a result evolution has been pulled from the curriculum, as has any philosophy of religion in which religion is critically examined.
  • Only 14% of 10-18 year olds believe the theory of evolution.
  • I spoke to a young woman today who says that because she is an atheist, her academic boss victimizes her and is destroying her career. And this sort of bullying and victimization, she tells me, is not at all unusual.
  • Our CFI sponsored discussion/conference of secularism today was, to the organizer's knowledge, the first ever in Romania. All the press were informed but none showed up.
  • It also seems to be illegal to criticize religion in Romania - there will shortly be a legal test case (today I met the guy who is bringing it - against himself).
Speaking again on Wednesday: MIERCURI - 7 MAI 2008 - ORELE 10:00 - 12:00 - Centrul de Cercetri Antropologice "Francisc Reiner" (Bucureti, Bd. Eroilor Sanitari, nr. 8, Sala de Consiliu).



POSTSCRIPT 8th May

I paste in below the comment from Dan, and then from Liviu Andreescu, which contains and confirms some statistics:

FROM DAN

Hi Stephen,

I am afraid the facts you listed here about religion in Romania are far off from reality. I'm sure that your Romanian guests had no intention to misinform you, but they seem disconnected from the religious phenomenon in Romania. I will quickly go over your list for some clarifications:

1. I am not convinced that only 0.2% of the population declares themselves as atheists, but certainly the number is low, most likely below 10%. This is a reaction to the communist times when it was impossible to declare one’s personal religious beliefs.

2. It wasn’t the Orthodox Church that made the religion study mandatory in schools, but the Romanian politicians trying to capitalize on the trust that the population has in Church. At the moment, there are already many clerics that want to pull out the study of religion from school. Orthodox Church encourages spiritual exchange with own confessor and mentor, not the memorization of the Scriptures.

3. The Orthodox Church is trusted by the population and therefore feared by politicians, but it has no political involvement, by its own decision. There were exceptions to this rule in the past, but they were short lived. In general, the Orthodox Church, compared to other Christian Churches, strived not to be involved in politics. I think this is one of the main reasons why the Orthodox Church has kept its reputation intact in the eyes of the population.

4. Evolution was definitely not pulled from the curriculum, and Orthodox Church does not teach Creationism. Orthodox Church, in contrast with other Christian Churches, has kept the Old Testament as part of the dogma. But the Church never tried to interpret ad litteram the Old Testament (Genesis for instance), it sees the Old Testament as apophatic truth (descriptions of the revelations, impaired by the use of human understanding and language).

Orthodox Church has no stance in regard to evolution theory, or any other scientific theory for that matter. At most the Church is against scientific dogma, the use of “science” to rally people against other scientific theories, populations, or against the Church. The fact that Philosophy is taught very briefly in the last year of the high school is because of the poor curriculum, it has nothing to do with the Church. This is my own perspective: I am a biostatistician, I see support for evolution every day in the lab. At the same time I am a Romanian Christian Orthodox, I see no conflict between the two.

6. I have never heard of anyone being persecuted because he or she declared to be atheist. This seems to me a very unlikely situation, probably an attempt by someone to put the blame for a personal failure on something else than the actual reason. The Orthodox Church is very much against forcing people to come to Church, in fact it is actually against proselytism as well (attracting people to the Church).

7. Criticism of the Church is possible in Romania, but don’t expect to attract media attention with such a topic. Romanian TV channels, like any other (young) consumerist society, would rather report latest TV star gossip than doing anything else. In addition, if you plan to discuss the Orthodox Church make sure that your information is correct (ask people outside the atheist circles as well) and that your criticism does not repeat the general criticisms made against the Catholic or Protestant Churches, which most likely do not fit well the Orthodox Church.

Regards,
Dan


FROM LIVIU ANDREESCU

Hi Stephen & co.

This is in response mostly to what Dan above said.

1. Judging by the 2002 national census, there are LESS than 0.2% self-declared atheists in Romania. Those of you who read Romanian - and even those who don't - can find the census results here: http://www.recensamant.ro/datepr/tbl6.html. Hope this is convincing enough. AFAIK, this is the only comprehensive piece of statistics on this point.

2. The Orthodox Church (ROC) has been at the forefront of the campaign to make religion (taught confessionally) MANDATORY in Romanian public schools. And they were very successful in persuading politicians this was a good thing, so much so that it took a Constitutional Court decision to make religion an elective - and even so the status of this subject remains quite unclear. So religious education in public school has been and remains a chief goal of the ROC, ABSOLUTELY no question about that. Indeed, though under Romanian law religion is an elective subject, the official ROC Patriarchate website lists it as mandatory. There might be isolated priests who support taking it out of the public school curriculum, but the official position is quite the opposite. Indeed, I have been working and writing on the subject for the past 3 years and have never encountered one Orthodox priest of the type Dan referred to. More about the history of how religion became a quasi-mandatory subject in Romanian public education, here: http://www.proeuropa.ro/norme_si_practici.html#istoric. (Romanian language)

3. The ROC has been, on the contrary, VERY ACTIVE in Romanian politics, both overtly and behind the scenes. Those of you who can access academic journal databases would do well to read a recent article that deals precisely with this issue: Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu. "Pulpits, Ballots and Party Cards: Religion and Elections in Romania". Religion, State and Society, 33(4), 2005.

4. Evolution WAS DEFINITELY pulled from the biology curriculum through a Ministry of Education Order. (In fact the former minister of education who signed this decision publicly admitted it might have been a mistake.) Those of you who read English can find a summary here: http://www.humanism.ro/articles.php?page=62&article=223. And here: http://www.thediplomat.ro/reports_1207.php. A list of those who protested is here (Romanian lg): http://www.humanism.ro/articles.php?page=62&article=228,

And of course the ROC DEFINITELY teaches creationism: just take a look at the Romanian religion textbooks commonly used in RO public schools. The Genesis account is commonly offered.

6. It depends a lot on what you call "persecution". No one was jailed for being an atheist, afaik. But people have been called things, have fallen off with their bosses, have been denied a floor or an audience on that account, etc. - the usual shenanigans. More significantly, atheists ARE being commonly persecuted when their kids are forced to attend religious education classes in public schools, religious ceremonies in public institutions etc. You can find some more in English in this academic article: Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, "Religious Education in Romania," Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 38, no. 3 (September 2005)

For general information on religion in Romania in English I recommend a series of academic articles by Stan and Turcescu (see http://people.stfx.ca/lstan/articles.html) as well as their latest book at OUP.

The only comprehensive study of religious education in RO (Romanian language) is available here online (it can be obtained in book format as well): http://www.proeuropa.ro/educatie.html

So Dan, you seem to me to be a decent fellow who's completely misguided and has done no research on these matters.

One final point on what Stephen wrote. Article 13.2 of Romania's new (2007) law on religious denominations stipulates that ‘Any form, means, act or action of religious defamation and antagonism, as well as public offending of religious symbols are forbidden in Romania.’

Some people are concerned this may be used to stifle criticism of religion. As yet, this has not been the case - but the law is merely 1 year old.

I myself am skeptical that the article will be used to such purposes on a regular basis, but I do not find it unlikely that in some isolated cases it might be used to intimidate.

16 comments:

Geoff Coupe said...

Stephen, if you get time, you should fix your links in this post - they currently don't work. Mind you, it's relatively easy to figure out what they should be, so it's not urgent.

Good to see you in Utrecht last Saturday. I enjoyed the talk.

the repressed one said...

Reasons #501-508 for "Why not to plan a family vacation to Romania".

Seriously - this sounds like it's like talking a lovely nostalgic stroll back to 1489. How does such a backwards society function in modern society?

Jackie said...

Do they realize how stupid this makes them look to the rest of the world? Oh, yeah - I live in a country where roughly half of the population doesn't believe in evolution but does believe the second coming of Jesus. Nevermind.

Dan said...

Hi Stephen,

I am afraid the facts you listed here about religion in Romania are far off from reality. I'm sure that your Romanian guests had no intention to misinform you, but they seem disconnected from the religious phenomenon in Romania. I will quickly go over your list for some clarifications:

1. I am not convinced that only 0.2% of the population declares themselves as atheists, but certainly the number is low, most likely below 10%. This is a reaction to the communist times when it was impossible to declare one’s personal religious beliefs.

2. It wasn’t the Orthodox Church that made the religion study mandatory in schools, but the Romanian politicians trying to capitalize on the trust that the population has in Church. At the moment, there are already many clerics that want to pull out the study of religion from school. Orthodox Church encourages spiritual exchange with own confessor and mentor, not the memorization of the Scriptures.

3. The Orthodox Church is trusted by the population and therefore feared by politicians, but it has no political involvement, by its own decision. There were exceptions to this rule in the past, but they were short lived. In general, the Orthodox Church, compared to other Christian Churches, strived not to be involved in politics. I think this is one of the main reasons why the Orthodox Church has kept its reputation intact in the eyes of the population.

4. Evolution was definitely not pulled from the curriculum, and Orthodox Church does not teach Creationism. Orthodox Church, in contrast with other Christian Churches, has kept the Old Testament as part of the dogma. But the Church never tried to interpret ad litteram the Old Testament (Genesis for instance), it sees the Old Testament as apophatic truth (descriptions of the revelations, impaired by the use of human understanding and language).

Orthodox Church has no stance in regard to evolution theory, or any other scientific theory for that matter. At most the Church is against scientific dogma, the use of “science” to rally people against other scientific theories, populations, or against the Church. The fact that Philosophy is taught very briefly in the last year of the high school is because of the poor curriculum, it has nothing to do with the Church. This is my own perspective: I am a biostatistician, I see support for evolution every day in the lab. At the same time I am a Romanian Christian Orthodox, I see no conflict between the two.

6. I have never heard of anyone being persecuted because he or she declared to be atheist. This seems to me a very unlikely situation, probably an attempt by someone to put the blame for a personal failure on something else than the actual reason. The Orthodox Church is very much against forcing people to come to Church, in fact it is actually against proselytism as well (attracting people to the Church).

7. Criticism of the Church is possible in Romania, but don’t expect to attract media attention with such a topic. Romanian TV channels, like any other (young) consumerist society, would rather report latest TV star gossip than doing anything else. In addition, if you plan to discuss the Orthodox Church make sure that your information is correct (ask people outside the atheist circles as well) and that your criticism does not repeat the general criticisms made against the Catholic or Protestant Churches, which most likely do not fit well the Orthodox Church.

Regards,
Dan

Stephen Law said...

Hi again from Romania

I have been talking to various other Romanians, leading me to modify my view a bit.

Dan questions the 0.2% atheists statistic, and he may be right to do so - I will try to check it.

Dan says it wasn't the church that put religion into schools, but politicians, but of course I didn't say otherwise.

On Dan's next point - I have been told that churches are being built in prisons, that the church opens parliamentary sessions, etc. that the government has promised to fund 50% of the cost of building a big Church, whatever the cost may be, and so on. Even a religiously neutral person I talked to today represented church and politicians relationship by locking her fingers together. But possibly I am getting a skewed view.

On Dan's 4th point, well, I have been given the statistic that only 14% of children age 10-18 believe the theory of evolution (which Dan does not deny), and a person with, I think, no axe to grind confirmed to day that evolution has been pulled from the curriculum. So seems I now need to do some more research to confirm this, if Dan's denying it. Possibly I am mistaken, but possibly Dan is...

On the persecution example - let me clarify: it was not the church that was persecuting, it was an individual. I talked to another academic, who seemed fair minded, and he said that he thought such bullying was not widespread, but that it did occur.

I'll post this in main blog entry as well...

In retrospect, I think I may have been a bit hasty to repeat everything I was told by the Romanians I was meeting. But on the other hand, quite a bit of it has been further confirmed. Dan's right to pick me up on that.

Certainly it's worth looking at those stats in more detail. So I shall try to get them...

I certainly would not want to give the impression Romania is highly religious oppressive - it's not (we;re not talking 1498). But there are some issues concerning e.g. separation of church and state which are of genuine concern.

I will try to get some other Romanians to contribute, once I get email again...

Fofy said...

I attended monday on your lecture and I will be present today too.
I think Dan is quite subjective but I don't have time now to debate because I have to go to Bucharest to attend the conference and I will talk to you there.

Liviu said...

Hi Stephen & co.

This is in response mostly to what Dan above said.

1. Judging by the 2002 national census, there are LESS than 0.2% self-declared atheists in Romania. Those of you who read Romanian - and even those who don't - can find the census results here: http://www.recensamant.ro/datepr/tbl6.html. Hope this is convincing enough. AFAIK, this is the only comprehensive piece of statistics on this point.

2. The Orthodox Church (ROC) has been at the forefront of the campaign to make religion (taught confessionally) MANDATORY in Romanian public schools. And they were very successful in persuading politicians this was a good thing, so much so that it took a Constitutional Court decision to make religion an elective - and even so the status of this subject remains quite unclear. So religious education in public school has been and remains a chief goal of the ROC, ABSOLUTELY no question about that. Indeed, though under Romanian law religion is an elective subject, the official ROC Patriarchate website lists it as mandatory. There might be isolated priests who support taking it out of the public school curriculum, but the official position is quite the opposite. Indeed, I have been working and writing on the subject for the past 3 years and have never encountered one Orthodox priest of the type Dan referred to. More about the history of how religion became a quasi-mandatory subject in Romanian public education, here: http://www.proeuropa.ro/norme_si_practici.html#istoric. (Romanian language)

3. The ROC has been, on the contrary, VERY ACTIVE in Romanian politics, both overtly and behind the scenes. Those of you who can access academic journal databases would do well to read a recent article that deals precisely with this issue: Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu. "Pulpits, Ballots and Party Cards: Religion and Elections in Romania". Religion, State and Society, 33(4), 2005.

4. Evolution WAS DEFINITELY pulled from the biology curriculum through a Ministry of Education Order. (In fact the former minister of education who signed this decision publicly admitted it might have been a mistake.) Those of you who read English can find a summary here: http://www.humanism.ro/articles.php?page=62&article=223. And here: http://www.thediplomat.ro/reports_1207.php. A list of those who protested is here (Romanian lg): http://www.humanism.ro/articles.php?page=62&article=228,

And of course the ROC DEFINITELY teaches creationism: just take a look at the Romanian religion textbooks commonly used in RO public schools. The Genesis account is commonly offered.

6. It depends a lot on what you call "persecution". No one was jailed for being an atheist, afaik. But people have been called things, have fallen off with their bosses, have been denied a floor or an audience on that account, etc. - the usual shenanigans. More significantly, atheists ARE being commonly persecuted when their kids are forced to attend religious education classes in public schools, religious ceremonies in public institutions etc. You can find some more in English in this academic article: Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, "Religious Education in Romania," Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 38, no. 3 (September 2005)

For general information on religion in Romania in English I recommend a series of academic articles by Stan and Turcescu (see http://people.stfx.ca/lstan/articles.html) as well as their latest book at OUP.

The only comprehensive study of religious education in RO (Romanian language) is available here online (it can be obtained in book format as well): http://www.proeuropa.ro/educatie.html

So Dan, you seem to me to be a decent fellow who's completely misguided and has done no research on these matters.

andreescul said...

One final point on what Stephen wrote. Article 13.2 of Romania's new (2007) law on religious denominations stipulates that ‘Any form, means, act or action of religious defamation and antagonism, as well as public offending of religious symbols are forbidden in Romania.’

Some people are concerned this may be used to stifle criticism of religion. As yet, this has not been the case - but the law is merely 1 year old.

I myself am skeptical that the article will be used to such purposes on a regular basis, but I do not find it unlikely that in some isolated cases it might be used to intimidate.

andreescul said...

(sorry for the repeated posts, just wanted to confirm that liviu and andreescul are the same person)

Papilio said...

According to the Eurostat survey in 2005, 90% of Romanians believe in God, 8% are 'spiritual' and <3% atheist (I seem to remember that the margin of error is +-3%).

The Eurostat website has the compiled data for the EU, accession states and trading partners. Of the 32 countries listed, only 2 (Malta and Turkey) are more religious than Romania.

Stephen Law said...

I'll post Liviu's comment in the main post...

Stephen Law said...

P.S. Incidentally, interest in the paranormal is certainly running very high in Romania. Exorcisms are very popular out in the countryside. Here is a BBC news story:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4107524.stm

Stephen Law said...

I like this comment from the priest after crucifying and killing a nun in an exorcism:

"I don't understand why journalists are making such a fuss about this. Exorcism is a common practice in the heart of the Romanian Orthodox church and my methods are not at all unknown to other priests," Father Daniel added.

the_atheologist said...

"Oh, yeah - I live in a country where roughly half of the population doesn't believe in evolution but does believe the second coming of Jesus."

Where, the U.S.A.? :D
No, seriously, I don't think any significant number of Orthodox Christians really believe in the "second coming" or think about it much (I don't remember this as an important part of Orthodox sermons). Most of them have no idea just how many stupid and horrible things there are in the Bible, because they've barely read any of it! See, Romanian faith is very much a social phenomenon, while being very shallow in terms of spirituality and even belief in dogma. It's about what you're perceived as believing more than what you actually believe and how you live because of it.
There was a news piece last year, "Romanians are the most religious European people" - http://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-arhiva-1242902-romanii-sunt-cel-mai-religios-popor-european.htm - beginning:
"Almost all Romanians - 97% - identify with a religion, but only 18% of them take part in religious services weekly, according to a study performed by the GfK group together with the Wall Street Journal, in 21 countries. It is the greatest difference in the world between assumed religious identity and actual practice."
So, happily, there aren't many actual hardcore fanatics around (although a few have started to rear their heads this century). But OTOH, shallow as it may be, this form of religion still has very real political effects which, if left unchecked, could end up fostering fanaticism and which are, undeniably, attacks against the rights of non-Orthodox citizens generally and us atheists particularly. Right now, this is the problem, as I see it. And since Romanians are actually such superficial believers and deep down just good-natured people, I think the legal/discrimination problem could be explained to them in such a way as to make them understand it and want it solved almost as much as we do. I find it hard to believe that the average Christian really wants religion forced down the throat of someone who explicitly refuses it (after all, they themselves see it only as a habit that has to do with Easter and Christmas but stays pretty much out of the way the rest of the year).
It's a secular PR challenge, among other things (the courts still have their role, of course).

Vlad said...

Hi Stephen, I liked your talk in Bucharest about the Evil God hypothesis.

About "Exorcisms are very popular out in the countryside." That's a gross exaggeration. I'm pretty sure that was a unique case. Making such statements based on news stories is like saying bombing abortion clinics is very popular in America.

About the statistics: As a Romanian, I personally have met only very few religious people. The predominant attitude about religion seems to be "gimme a break, I have better things to worry about". Moreover, I know some people who have declared themselves Orthodox in the census, although they are as atheistic you can get, because they see the label "Orthodox" as analog to an ethnic label.

A better indicative of people's religiosity is church attendance. From Wikipedia: "38% go to church several times a month or more (of which 7% go weekly or more often), 20% go to church on the average monthly, 33% go only one or two times a year, and 7% don't attend church."

I think that the correct interpretation of this statistic is that 40% are basically atheists (83% of whom care about their cultural heritage).

andrei said...

some comments here unfortunately seem permeated by utter Westerno-centrism, a complacent belief that "normality" can only be defined in terms of what modern American culture accepts (if such a gross generalisation is to be accepted at all). I am Romanian, pretty confident in my academic record and level of sophistication, yet a practising Christian Orthodox. I'm afraid that not much insight can be gained by just looking at statistics and by trying to understand such complex phenomena only by scratching the surface of this world..