Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Atheism is not a Creed, Theology is not a Science

Not long ago in the weekly “Arguments and Facts” there appeared an article by Professor M. Dunayev of the Moscow Spiritual Academy [1]. The theologian decided to express his objections to the atheistic articles by V. L. Ginzburg. That’s laudable. V. L. Ginzburg long ago suggested that theologians begin broad discussion [2]. And Russian President V. V. Putin agreed with this suggestion:

“….We should quietly discuss in what form and on what scale we should teach about the issues of the history of our country and about religion in our schools. And how to do this in our secular country in a non-confrontational manner, but to the benefit of young people and all of society. I agree absolutely with the suggestion to make the discussion of this issue public. I think that this is the only correct thing that we can and should do in this context [3].”

For a long time theologians decided not to respond to atheists. It has finally happened! I won’t dwell on the, to put it politely, completely incorrect statements by M. Dunayev about V. L. Ginzburg’s personality. The world-famous academician and Nobel Prize laureate needs no defense from me. Therefore I’ll move to my subject. Thus, here’s a quote from M. Dunayev’s article:

For some reason not everyone wants to understand: science is quite limited in its abilities. It can answer and does answer many questions, but it does not know the answer to the most important. Even Lev Tolstoy wrote about this: science can say what it pleases, even calculate the distance from Earth to the constellation Aquarius, but it doesn’t know why man lives on Earth and what is the meaning of his existence. “Man dies and that’s all”, states Ginzburg in a recent interview with AiF correspondent V. Pisarenko. That is (let’s avoid the now fashionable political correctness), man is simply a heap of crap, which appeared in the world by accident, living and dying without purpose. This is what science says.

I think that the professor is mistaken: science does not “say” this. He himself is “saying” this, by virtue of which he has a quite confused idea about science and is trying to discuss and even instruct scientists about the subject of science.

Right away I will bring clarity about the “most important question” from this quote. If we’re talking about the natural sciences then these sciences never have raised, do not raise, and, I think, will never raise the issue of the “meaning of human life”. This is not their prerogative. The natural sciences study the world around us and study man himself, viewing him only as an object of this world. Using methods developed over many centuries of experience the natural sciences predominantly identify the existence of objects and phenomena which are accessible for study today, study the properties and characteristics of these objects and phenomena, the relationships between them, the structure of objects, the dynamics of the development of phenomena, and the conditions in which objects develop and phenomena arise.

Now if M. Dunayev is talking about the humanities, to which philosophy, sociology, psychology (although psychology is a natural science to no small degree) belong, and other humanitarian components of human existence (humanism, ethics), then this is already another aspect of the question. These humanitarian elements examine the behavior of humans both as individuals and as parts of society, study the behavior of humans taken individually and public organizations. And, of course, they strive to identify the motives which define human activity and the meaning of this activity. However, without being a specialist in the humanities I will refrain from further judgments on these issues and will not be offended if professionals in the humanities consider my statements those of a dilettante.

Further, I will try to examine some aspects of the science-religion relationship only from the position of the natural sciences. I will continue with the quote of the article by M. Dunayev:

But possibly science does not understand something? And it’s not capable of understanding? It simply has to understand its limitations, and then there will be no conflict between science and religion.

There you are! Is the author’s opinion of himself not too high? A professor, that’s understandable, but theology is neither physics nor chemistry nor biology. And does the author not concede that theology itself “does not understand something. And is not capable of understanding”? And that theologians ought not turn this on themselves? Possibly then they would understand what conflicts exist between science and religion, serious ones and ones of principle? Possibly it is the theologians who ought “to recognize their own limitations and then there will be no conflict between science and religion”, in any event about the existence or absence of such conflicts?

Probably, it would be natural if the professor of theology had described his own theological world view, talking about the complexities which exist in it, the achievements of theological thought of, let’s say, recent centuries, the methods by which theology tries to understand the secrets of the universe, and the problems of today which theologians have taken on in their desire to penetrate these secrets. And then from their theological position he would compare theological methods, problems, complexities, and achievements with the analogous ones which exist in science. In doing this, of course, not being a specialist in scientific knowledge he should turn to the publications of recognized scientists. In particular, when comparing theological and scientific views from the fields of astronomy and physics it would have been no sin to use two of the rather recent publications of V. L. Ginzburg himself [4, 5]. Instead, in the very first phrases (after a prelude) M. Dunayev writes: “According to Ginzburg, science is the only light in a little window and religion is downright nonsense and an annoying delusion, mysticism which no one needs. The ancient delusion about the irreconcilable antagonism between science and religion is hauled out again for general review. However, religion is not at all opposed to science, but against a scientific ideology, against the pretensions of science to possess all truth”.

The author contradicts himself: on the one hand, he denies the antagonism between science and religion, but on the other here he maintains that a scientific ideology is unacceptable to religion. It would be more correct not to talk of the ideology of science but perhaps refer only to its goal, the study of the world around us. Based on the words of M. Dunayev, one could assume that such a goal is unacceptable to religion, but this is a problem for religion, but not for science.

This contradiction testifies to the author’s misunderstanding of what science is. In reality science is not just an agglomeration of opinions, statements, or even scientifically established facts, theories, and hypotheses forming a scientific picture of the world. Facts, theories, and hypotheses are the most important element of science, but not the only one. The rest are the methods of study, that is, a methodology itself, but in no way an ideology. At each stage of development scientific facts and theories are the foundation, today’s knowledge. New knowledge is built on this foundation. It is built not any old way, but by methods worked out by many generations of people who got to comprehend the surrounding world both by thinking about its organization as well as by, and what is more important, numerous trials and errors. This path of trials and errors laid the foundation for the primary method of scientific knowledge - observation and experiment.

Science is, first of all, a process of studying the surrounding world. Therefore the second element of science, no less important than the facts, is the methodology itself - the agglomeration of methods, by the use of which science establishes scientific facts, that is, it obtains knowledge about objects and phenomena of the surrounding world and separates opinions about actually existing objects and phenomena from opinions about those imagined, that is, invented.

An opinion about the existence of an object or phenomenon (hereinafter, an opinion about the existence) is viewed by science as equal to the reality if and only if it is proved by scientific methods the main one of which is experimental observation of this object or phenomenon. For observation is not an isolated event, but [one] in numerous experiments conducted by different researchers independently of one another in different scientific laboratories. Each experiment is viewed by the scientific community as having been done only after publication of a report about it indicating all its special features and critical details allowing each researcher to repeat the experiment in any laboratory. Only after such a procedure of verification with the attainment of positive results in all experiments without exception does an opinion about the existence move to the status of knowledge.

Some opinions about the existence without the status of knowledge are viewed by science as conjectural. Such opinions are called hypotheses. The identification of those which match the status of the hypothesis from all possible opinions is one of the most important steps of scientific knowledge. An unproven opinion about existence obtains the status of a hypothesis only in the event it is based on earlier acquired knowledge and logically follows from it.

The ability of science to separate opinions about existence having the status of knowledge or hypotheses from all other, random, opinions about existence can be called the basic principle of scientific knowledge. This principle was empirically formed over many thousands of years in the process of Man’s perception of the surrounding world.

Let’s take a well-known example from the history of science, a simple but instructive example of the advancement of a hypothesis and its transformation into knowledge. In 1846 French scientist Le Verrier, using Newton’s theory of gravitation experimentally proven by that time and the results of observations of the planets of the solar system, calculated the position and basic characteristics of a new unknown planet later called Neptune. In the same year, on the basis of Le Verrier’s calculations, German scientist I. Galle made the first direct observation of this planet. Then the planet began to be observed in other observatories.

Today the existence of the planet Neptune does not arouse any doubt - it is knowledge. But from what moment did it obtain such a status? Let’s examine two periods. The first, from the day that Le Verrier made his calculation and until the first observation by Galle. And the second, from the day of the first observation to our day. In the first period even Le Verrier himself would hardly have expressed the opinion about the existence of a new planet in the form: “I know that such a planet exists”. Yes, a calculation was made, but Le Verrier could have been mistaken, and the observations of the planets on the basis of which he made this calculation might have been inaccurate. One might have assumed the existence of other completely unknown factors which might have led Le Verrier to a mistaken conclusion. Thus, in the first period an opinion about the existence of a new planet could still not have been viewed as knowledge. But Le Verrier’s calculation was based on previous knowledge, the observations of planets, and on Newton’s theory. Therefore, even in the first period Le Verrier’s opinion had the status of a hypothesis.

Let’s move to the second period. Can it be said that from the moment of the first observation of the new planet that the opinion of its existence immediately acquired the status of knowledge? Perhaps not. Galle also could have been mistaken or taken the desired for the real. A single observation was all the same insufficient for an opinion about existence to move from the status of a hypothesis to the status of knowledge. Usually in such cases they say that the hypothesis has acquired an experimental basis but it still remained a hypothesis for the time being. It can be said that from the moment of the first observation the hypothesis about the existence of a new planet began to move to the status of knowledge but this transition had still not been completed. Finally, it became possible to view the opinion about the existence of a new planet as knowledge only after similar observations were conducted by other independent researchers. Only after this did the opinion about the existence of the planet Neptune move from the status of a hypothesis to the status of knowledge.

Let’s now go further in the article of M. Dunayev. Let’s leave the theological doctrine of “the undivided triune of body, soul, and spirit” “for dessert” and turn to the following excerpt: “We repeat the old banal truth: atheism is also based on faith just like a religious world view: if it is based on a faith in the existence of God, then atheism is a faith in the non-existence of God. For any science is constructed on several axioms accepted without proof, that is, on faith. Why, each free to believe what he likes; only why are the imperfect methods of one’s own faith to be declared absolute?”

Let’s begin with the “axiom”. The term “axiom” is used in mathematics, but not in the natural sciences. All natural science theories are either based directly on experimental premises or are the generalization of other more specific theoretical ideas which, in turn, were also based on experimental premises. The original premises of natural science theories and the theories themselves are viewed as knowledge by virtue of the fact that all the results of these theories agree with the results of experiments. The natural scientist researcher observes the existing world and, relying on observations, creates an approximate model of it, a scientific theory. The basic task of a natural scientist researcher is to refine the original premises by observing the existing world and to accordingly change the model created in order that the results ensuing from this model also agree with the observations of the existing world in the best way.

A mathematician who is creating a theory at the same time creates his own abstract world completely suitable to this theory and dependent on this theory. Therefore he can accept initial premises independent of observations of the existing world which are immutable and absolute for his construct. Such premises are also called axioms. Thus, for example, if we stay in the abstract world of Euclidean geometry, then inside this world an axiom about parallel lines is and always will be an absolute and immutable truth.

Now we turn to the more complex issue of what is “faith”? Let’s examine this question from the viewpoint of science and leave theological treatises to the theologians. Only such things which have the status of knowledge or hypotheses are classed as scientific opinions about existence. Science does not regard as scientific any other opinions about existence as scientific and in general does not examine [them]. In particular, science never views as scientific any opinion about existence based only on the fantasies of a specific individual or group of people (however great and authoritative this group is). If an opinion about existence does not aspire to the status of scientific, for example, [if] it has a routine nature, then science simply passes over it, and generally does not take notice of it. It is another matter when someone disseminates an opinion about existence which is not scientific but calls it scientific. Science regards such activities as a deception of the public, as pseudoscience, and the people who engage in this are called pseudoscientists. Often the mass media support such activity by virtue of incompetence in an eagerness for sensations or from mercantile considerations (see, for example, the very same AiF [6]). The participation in such acts by people who have scientific degrees or titles is especially dangerous (unfortunately, there are such people). Often they try to introduce pseudoscience into the educational process [7].

An opinion about existence which is not scientific but is offered to the public in the name of science is regarded by science as a pseudoscientific myth. But a person’s attitude toward a pseudoscientific myth, as to knowledge, ought to be called faith in a pseudoscientific myth, from the viewpoint of science.

The

term “faith” might be used in various meanings. And although in the context of this article it has a sufficiently defined meaning it ought to be noted that any faith is foreign to science, even in such cases where we are talking about scientific opinions. For example, in reply to the question, “Do you believe in the existence of the planet Neptune?”, a person familiar with science would most likely shrug his shoulders [and say]: “Generally speaking, I know that the planet Neptune exists”. A scientist would not use the term “faith” not only in a scientific article but, as a rule, in speaking to a wide audience about research in a scientific field in which he is a specialist. Faith is not required if there is knowledge. At the same time there are many questions for which science has no answers. When commenting on them a real scientist will not become like a pseudoscientist and pass off a pseudoscientific myth as science and will give the only possible honest answer, “I don’t know”, even in routine conversations with colleagues who among scientists will rarely say “I believe” or “I don’t believe”.

Following one of the most important principles of humanism, freedom of conscience, and considering the historical and ethical aspects of human existence, science does insert itself into the relations between theologians and the public, that is, it exhibits political correctness with regard to the theology of the aforementioned M. Dunayev. But theologians constantly issue judgments about science, publicly give assessments of scientific views, in particular, they propagate the opinion that science is based on faith. Such actions introduce negative attitude about science in the public, and convince people not familiar with science that scientists are passing off “scientific faith” as science, that is, that they are actually deceiving the public. Some theologians go further, representing science as part of some absolute truth known only to them. Sometimes they distort scientific opinions and then, ascribing these distortions of science and criticizing them themselves, they try to convince the public of the groundlessness of science. For example, the article of M. Dunayev that I am commenting on.

Sometimes with the aid of the symbiosis of theological scholastics and scientific-sounding rubbish theologians create some sort of scientific-theological surrogate, passing off this surrogate as science and, when instilling it into the consciousness of people, they simultaneously instill religious beliefs. An interesting example is the article of deacon A. V. Kurayev [8], in which he somewhat reinterprets the Bible in the direction of scientific views in order to create a surrogate. The concept is clear - to convince the reader that if the Bible does not contradict science in little things, then it does not contradict it as a whole and this means that religion does not contradict science (see [9] about this). On the other hand, theologians try to present themselves to the public as intellectuals passing judgments about science and those affiliated with science. For example, A. M. Ridiger, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church [ROC] constantly calls theology a “science”, trying to convince the public of the unity of science and religion and, in declaring this unity, to raise the authority of theology to the level of the authority of science.

The goal of the theologians is completely banal - by these actions they are trying to “kill three birds with one stone” right off. First, “to hang onto” science and, using its authority among the public, to raise the authority of theology. Second, to replace some knowledge inconvenient to theology with a suitable surrogate. And, third, to damage the authority of real science, which ignores theology, in the eyes of the public. Such behavior by theologians only confirms the precariousness of theology and the strength of scientific view. Actually, unlike theologians, scientists never have to identify science with theology or justify scientific conclusions with references to theological works. Science gained the highest authority in society in the 20th century. But religion…I cite the words of a recent report of the same Patriarch of the ROC, A. M. Ridiger: “Unfortunately, the highest educational level is not always maintained in existing Orthodox secondary schools [gimnazii], as a result of which their graduates do not have an opportunity to enter a secular higher educational institution. If such practice takes root, then the Orthodox school might become a marginal part of Russian education and a disregard for it will become customary for society” [10].

Yes…theologians recognize that religious education in itself is at a marginal level without reliance on science. But they understand that to include instruction in a complete range of scientific disciplines in the curriculum of religious educational institutions means to cut their own throats. This is telling students about the origin of life on Earth, including man, about the order and formation of the universe. The Biblical narrative about the creation of the world against the background of today’s knowledge seems a pitiful semblance of the stories Baba Yaga and Koshchey Immortal*. When teaching scientific views, it is also impossible not to touch on the issues of the methodology of science which rejects pseudoscientific fabrications. But this is already practical atheism, that is, a complete undermining of the very foundations of “theological science”.

Actually, a pupil who masters even the least foundations of scientific thinking and then reads M. Dunayev’s words: “A man makes his own existence in “the undivided triune of body, soul, and spirit” will think this way: “where did the respected professor derive this ‘triune’? And where are the arguments which might turn this opinion into a hypothesis? And why does the professor not propose an experiment with whose aid one could prove the existence of all the elements of this ‘unity’, that is, turn this opinion into knowledge? It’s not a question of a miracle here? This means that an experiment ought to be repeatable. But have him prove experimentally and meanwhile not take me for a fool with his nonsense…”

Yes…to introduce scientific ideas into religious education is dangerous for theology. But it is very dangerous to seem semi-educated marginalia with an educated public. And if it is impossible to pull religious education up to the level of a modern world view without harm to theology then another completely banal move needs to be made - lower the threshold of general education to their own, theological, level - better be first in the village than last in the city [Translator’s note: equivalent to the English “…big frog in a small pond…”]. This very idea, introducing theology into the scientific and educational process, is what the ROC has been trying to do for the past 10-15 years.

Thus on the one hand theologians deny the differences between science and religion, call theology a “science”, insert themselves into relations between science and society, and demand the inclusion of theological subjects in the curricula of scientific educational institutions. But on the other hand they refuse to recognize scientific methods of research and scientific assessments of opinions about existence, and try to discredit science and scientists which explain the essence of science and scientific knowledge to society. Such completely unethical conduct by theologians completely permits science to talk about theology from scientific standpoints openly when defending itself from the insinuations of theologians.

As practice shows (see, for example, [11]), theologians are in no position to cite any arguments capable of turning religious opinions about existence not only into knowledge (let them only say together what is knowledge from their point of view), but also into hypotheses (if theology is generally compatible with such a concept). Theological opinions about existence have not been researched experimentally, do not follow from previously acquired knowledge, and therefore, from the point of view of science, have the status of a pseudoscientific fabrication. But religious faith is a typical faith in a pseudoscientific fabrication.

Professor M. Dunayev proposes that science prove the non-existence of God, the soul, and the celestial world experimentally: “…if one follows the particularly scientific principle then we are justified in demanding: prove there is no God, no soul, and the celestial world is a fabrication. But there is no proof”. M. Dunayev is not the first theologian who, in demanding such proof, refers to “scientific principle”, completely misunderstanding the essence of this principle. But the answer is simple. From the viewpoint of science, opinions about the existence of God, the soul, the celestial world are not knowledge - they have not gone through the procedure of scientific proof. These opinions are also not a hypothesis - they are not based on earlier acquired knowledge and do not logically follow from it. Therefore science could regard these opinions as unscientific and simply not give them notice. It could…if theology were not dictating to science. But in connection with what was described above science has been forced to defend itself and characterize the opinions about the existence of these objects cited by Professor M. Dunayev as an exclusively pseudoscientific fabrication. But the objects themselves are like fabrications.

Now about atheism. Again (see, for example, [12]), I repeat: atheism is not a religion, not an ideology, and not even a world view. Atheism is only the non-acceptance of religious beliefs. If an atheist is familiar with science then his atheism is based on the very same basic principle of scientific knowledge in accordance with which an object or phenomenon is viewed as existing in the event and only in the event that its existence is proven. Such atheism is logically called scientific atheism, for it is based directly on scientific methodology and following this methodology it consciously rejects religious faith in a pseudoscientific fabrication. Might something else, “unscientific” atheism, exist, based on faith? Perhaps it can. For example, a person might not believe in a pseudoscientific fabrication even without being familiar with scientific methodology, but believe in the authority of science and scientists. Such atheism might be called atheism of faith. But here the term “faith” has a substantially different meaning and even in atheism of faith a lack of belief in a pseudoscientific fabrication is present. Any atheism is a lack of belief in a pseudoscientific fabrication.

Often atheistic activity - opposition to the introduction of religious beliefs into the public consciousness by the atheistically-minded part of the public - is called by the term “atheism”. In this sense atheism might be viewed as an instrument with whose aid the public, armed with scientific knowledge and scientific methodology, protects itself from militant theology.

Theology in itself is no danger to science; science simply take no notice of it. But only as long as theologians do not try to hinder the development of science. In this event science rebuffs and will rebuff these attempts. As long as theologians speak on their own behalf and do not infringe on science, there are no complaints against them: religion has the right to exist. But when they begin to speak in the name of science, deceive the public in identifying theology with science, and state that there are no differences between science and religion, they turn into pseudoscientists, and all their preachings into typical pseudoscience, essentially a deliberate lie.

So what, respected theologians, is possible; will we not “confuse God’s gift with fried eggs”? But it’s better we agree: scientists tie their shoes with their - scientific - methods and tell the public about these methods of theirs and their results from their own, scientific, standpoint in their scientific educational institutions. But let the theologians bake their pies with their own - theological - methods (and even tie their shoes, but their own!) and also tell the public about this, but from their own, theological, standpoint, in their own behalf, and in their religious educational institutions.

But as soon as theologians exhibit a desire to try on “scientists’ shoes”, then…and need to walk in them “like a scientist”. But it’s possible to stumble, even make a mess of things. But generally, as everyone knows - to some other monastery… [Translator’s note: part of the Russian equivalent of “do as Romans do”, retained here in keeping with the religious metaphor].

Bibliography and web links

1. Dunayev, M. There’s trouble if a shoemaker begins to bake pies //Argumenty i Fakty. 2005. 23 March. Issue 12 (1273). http://www.aif.ru/online/aif/1273/11_01
2. Ginzburg, V. L. Open letter to S. L. Kravets, the Responsible Secretary of the Large Russian Encyclopedia //The Razum ili Vera [Reason or Faith]? site,
http://atheismru.narod.ru/Atheism/Society/Ginzburg03.htm
3. Speech of Russian President V. V. Putin at a meeting of the Council on Science and High Technologies //Press Service of the President of Russia 09.02.2004
http://president.kremlin.ru/text/appears/2004/02/60451.shtml (see also “Razum ili Vera?», http://atheismru.narod.ru/Science/Authority/President05.htm).
4. Ginzburg, V. L. What kind of problems are physicists and astrophysicists faced now on the threshold of the 21st century which are especially important and interesting? Nauka i zhizn’ [Science and Life]. 1999 N? 11,
http://nauka.relis.ru/cgi/nauka.pl?05+9911+05911014+HTML, ¹ 12 http://nauka.relis.ru/cgi/nauka.pl?05+9912+05912018+ html (see also “Razum ili Vera?», http://atheismru.narod.ru/Ginzburg/Articles/10_5.htm).
5. Ginzburg, V. L. Several successes of physics and astronomy in the last three years //Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk [Successes of the Physical Sciences]. 2002. February. Vol. 172, N? 2. p. 213.
http://www.ufn.ru/ufn02/ufn02_2/Russian/r022d.pdf html (see also “Razum ili Vera?», http://atheismru.narod.ru/Ginzburg/Articles/10_6.htm)
6. Vladimirov, D. Master of torsion fields //Argumenty i Fakty. 2003. 8 June. Issue 32 (1189),
http://www.aif.ru/online/aif/1189/16_01
7. Trevogin, P. A. A Shaman in the Director’s Chair (in the schools of Volgograd they are guided by horoscopes) //The “Razum ili Vera?” website,
http://atheismru.narod.ru/Pseudo_science/Articles/Trevogin.htm
8. Kurayev, A. V. Can an Orthodox believer be an evolutionist? //The website of Deacon Kurayev,
http://www.kuraev.ru/evoluti.htm
9. Vasil’yeva, N. L. Orthodox Darwinism, or Notes on the Margins of One Theological Creative Work //The “Razum Ili Vera?” website,
http://atheismru.narod.ru/Atheism/Learn/Articles/Vasilieva.htm
10. Ridiger, A. M. (Aleksiy II), Report of His Holiness, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksiy II. Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. 3-8 October 2004. //Official site of the Russian Orthodox Church,
http://www.mospat.ru/text/council2004/id/7732.html
11. Kraynev, A. M. On the Discussion of “A Student Against a Theologian” //The Razum Ili Vera website,
http://atheismru.narod.ru/Atheism/Discussions/Krainev_Lega.htm
12. Kraynev, A. M. Atheism is not an Ideology, but Resistance to a Fabrication (Reply to a Letter of a Believer) ” //Razum Ili Vera website,
http://atheismru.narod.ru/Letters/Letter03.htm.

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* Baba Yaga is a witch and Koshchey Immortal is sort of an evil wizard. [Translator’s note]

Alexander Kraynev

Translated by Gary Goldberg

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