Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
A Clash of Opinions

Scientists Write to Two Presidents At One Stroke

The creation of petitions is a matter far from scientific work but the events of recent months have forced us to devote time to it. On 14 February the Interfax News Agency published the "Appeal of 227 Doctors and Candidates of Science to the President of the Russian Federation in Connection With the Introduction of University Degrees in Theology and the Teaching of Religious Disciplines in the Schools" (, calling upon the head of state to promote the introduction of the school subject of "Principles of Orthodox Culture" and university degrees in theology.

The "Letter of the 227" has been intensively discussed in "Live Journal", at the site, and simply in conversations with colleagues. It touched many of us not just because of the ideas contained in it and not because of the aggressive tone in which it was described as much as because of the possibility of inaccurate interpretations of this act itself. We are very concerned about the danger of the "Letter of the 227" being taken as an expression of the opinion of the entire scientific community, including our opinion. In the present situation of general uncertainty and the ambiguous position of the Ministry of Education and Science about the introduction of OPK [Principles of Orthodox Culture] and university degrees in theology and the lack of a clearly expressed opinion from state academies of sciences about this problem such a danger is completely real.

The discussions which have been held clearly showed that a considerable part of the scientific community do not share the point of view of the 227 candidates and doctors of science described in their letter. Many scientists are seriously concerned about the continuing clericalization of our society, that is, the intrusion of religious organizations into those areas of public life which lie outside their legal competence. We prepared the letter below to the President in order to express our concern. Our letter is not directed against Orthodoxy or any other faith: among its four authors are both atheists and Orthodox and we respect one another's world views. However, we share the opinion that Russia ought to remain a secular country and that religion is the private affair of its citizens.

The appeal already has the signatures of more than 1000 candidates and doctors of science from 66 cities of Russia; it is also supported by more than 400 of our countrymen who do not have university degrees. The collection of signatures continues. Any citizen of Russia who works in the field of science and education can sign the letter. In order to do this one needs to send an e-mail with their full name, university degree, institution, and position to or to Live Journal It is also desirable to indicate any contact information (telephone or e-mail address). One e-mail or Live Journal post can contain the information of several persons who have read the letter and agree with its content. The letter will be sent to the addressee in the near future, however, the collection of signatures will continue.

Aleksey Ivanov, Candidate of Geological and Mineral Sciences, Institute of the Earth's Core, Siberian Branch, [RAN] Russian Academy of Sciences, Irkutsk;

Yevgeniy Onishchenko, Junior Scientific Researcher, P. N. Lebedev Institute of Physics, RAN, Moscow;

Mikhail Gel'fand, Doctor of Biology, A. A. Kharkevich Institute of Information Transmission Problems, RAN, Moscow;

Aleksey Oskol'sky, Candidate of Biology, V. L. Komarov Botanical Institute, St. Petersburg.

Open Letter of Science Workers to the President of the Russian Federation

Dear Mister President!

In recent months the public polemics about the possibility of teaching the course "Principles of Orthodox Culture" (OPK) in schools have become particularly acrimonious. On the one hand, a number of the most eminent Russian scientists, in particular 10 academicians among who are two Nobel laureates, have spoken out against the introduction of such a course in schools. On the other hand, hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church [ROC] have stepped up their attempts to convince the government of the need for the immediate introduction of the course in OPK. For example, in January at the Christmas Readings in the Kremlin Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk said, "We reiterate the request of millions of people to include in a new standard a new educational field in which children from Orthodox families might study Orthodox spiritual and moral culture in order that this subject become part of the main program and occupy an entire period of instruction for grades one through 11". Until recently the Ministry of Education and Science, which had had a restrained attitude toward the idea of teaching OPK, yielded and approved the concept of the creation of the "Spiritual and Moral Culture" lesson plan developed by the ROC. However, the campaign in support of the OPK is unceasing and on 14 February the appeal of the 227 candidates and doctors of science to the President of Russia was published. Besides statements in favor of introducing OPK this appeal also suggested introducing the university degrees of candidate and doctor of theology in the state system of the certification of science workers with the permission of the VAK [Higher Certification Commission], with the creation of dissertation councils to defend dissertations in competition with the above university degrees and the subsequent awarding of government-recognized diplomas.

The large number of candidates and doctors of science who signed this letter could create the false impression that the scientific community supports the introduction of the course of OPK into general educational schools and the equation of theology to other sciences. In connection with this we consider it necessary to state our position.

1. The teaching of religious disciplines in government schools violates Article 14 of the RF Constitution, which establishes that Russia is a secular country. In spite of numerous declarations about the secular and "culturological" nature of the OPK course, this subject is in fact religious and is being introduced to catechize students. Both its content (which we can judge by the series of textbooks by A. V. Borodina, for example) and official documents of the ROC testify to this. In particular, in the 9 December 1999 letter N? 5925 of Patriarch Aleksiy II it said, "If difficulties are encountered with the teaching the principles of Orthodox dogma call the course 'Principles of Orthodox Culture'".

2. The instruction in government schools of the principles of the dogma of a particular faith which traditionally predominates in a given region will unavoidably lead to a reduction of the social status of students who have another religion or world view. There are already examples right now of how impermissible pressure from teachers and peers is placed on children from families of religious minorities or atheists. The introduction everywhere of the OPK program or similar disciplines associated with other religions will unavoidably lead to an increase in interreligious estrangement and create fertile ground for extremism.

3. Existing non-governmental religious educational institutions (church schools, ecclesiastical academies, madrassas, etc.) meet the requirements for religious education for those who need it without violating the RF Constitution and without creating a source of tension in society. According to sociological surveys there are only a small number of people in present-day Russian society who call themselves believers [and who] regularly participate in religious life in accordance with the precepts of their religion. In such a situation the obligatory instruction of religious disciplines in government general educational schools would not promote moral education but on the contrary an even greater spread of hypocrisy, conformism, and spiritual relativism in society. The experience of teaching theology in Czarist Russia testifies to this.

4. It is impossible to agree with the proposal to introduce the degrees of candidate and doctor of theology approved by the VAK and the creation of schools of theology in state universities. If theology is understood as a secular discipline then the specialty "09.00.13 The Philosophy and History of Religion, Philosophical Anthropology, and the Philosophy of Culture" already exists in the list of VAK specialties, which allows one to receive the degree of candidate and doctor of philosophy for work in religious studies. In addition, researching the various aspects of religion might be the basis for awarding university degrees in history, sociology, philosophy, cultural studies, and other sciences. If divinity, that is, a discipline based on the dogma of a particular religious faith, is what is meant by the term "theology" then its introduction into the system of government accreditation of scientific personnel would mean the recognition of a system of religious doctrines at the governmental level, which again violates the RF Constitution. References to the Bologna Process cited as an argument for introducing theology into the VAK nomenclature is at the same time irrelevant: unlike in Russia, in the other countries which are members of the Bologna Agreement there is no system of government certification and university degrees are awarded by a specific university or another educational institution.

In the "Letter of the 227" the opponents of the creation of a government system of religious education are accused of "obscurantism and nihilism", in clearing "the road for the imposition of their own religious or ideological doctrines", in an intolerant attitude "toward the Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox believers", and are called "militant atheists and enemies of Russia". This does not simply show the level of polemics, it shows at what level and in what style instruction in OPK will be conducted in government schools and theology in government higher educational institutions if a decision about it is adopted in today's situation. This would lead to a division of the country along religious lines, which cannot be permitted.

We call upon you to fulfill your duty to protect the Constitution and support the efforts of the Ministry of Education and Science to preserve the secular nature of government schools and higher education in Russia.

The list of signatories is regularly updated at:

From the Editors:

So, the scientists are warring again, which is quite normal. Yes, and the topic is unquestionably worth it. However one should be aware that in the heat of the discussion its participants sometimes run afoul of the truth.

For example, in open letter to the President published above it states that the Ministry of Education and Science "approved the concept of creating the 'Spiritual and Moral Culture' lesson plan developed by the ROC. The authors evidently drew this conclusion from a speech by A. Fursenko at the XVI International Christmas Readings "Orthodox Values and Modern Education". But in fact the Minister said something else: the concept "was directed at the Russian Academy of Education for use in developing new standards". That is, the speech was not about ministerial approval!

Strange it may seem, in the very same letter of the "anticlericals" it speaks of efforts by the Ministry of Education and Science "to preserve the secular nature of government schools and higher education in Russia". Does this point not contradict the preceding one? From our point of view it does. And the main thing is, exactly what sort of "efforts" of the Ministry of Education and Science does it mean?

The above speech at the Christmas Readings by A. Fursenko full of reverence for the ROC is in our view evidence of the desperate attempts by the Ministry to avoid specific decisions and satisfy both sides at the same time, to have it both ways. This, too, is understandable. In recent years the [Russian] Orthodox Church has become close friends with the highest leaders of the government and, in turn, the latter have with it. On the other hand, no one has abolished the Constitution. The classic scenario with a hammer and an anvil between which the long-suffering Ministry of Education and Science finds itself.

We are confident that the majority of participants of the long-running discussion understand all this. Therefore there is nowhere to turn but to the Kremlin. There are two presidents available there right now. You'll see, someone will judge.

Translated by Gary Goldberg