The first speeches on secular humanism ever delivered in Romania were given in Bucharest on May 5 and 7, 2008, by Paul Kurtz and Norm Allen from the Center for Inquiry/Transnational and Stephen Law from CFI/London. The lectures’ importance is high: Romania is today a great battlefield, and at stake is the struggle to defend freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and the separation between church and state.
Paul Kurtz discussed the principles of secular humanism and what he referred to as “planetary ethics,” which is based on humanist ethics, scientific knowledge, and reason. Kurtz noted that “[As secular humanists] we believe in individual freedom and autonomy without church or state dictating to individuals. . . . We emphasize intelligence, critical thinking, and the use of reason in order to make one’s choices. . . . The best guarantee against tyranny is educated citizens. . . . A person needs some confidence in himself or herself. . . . You do not have to believe in God to be a moral person.” Noble and reasonable as they may seem, such humanist principles are far from being accepted on a broad scale by contemporary Romanians.
Norm Allen lectured twice on the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender/transsexual persons, as well as on homophobia. This topic is especially controversial, as the Romanian Family Code was recently modified to forbid same-sex marriages. Parliament justified this decision by referring to the Bible.
Law’s first speech concerned the existence of God. By standing the “problem of evil” on its head in designing a “problem of good” argument, Law showed that the chances that an all-powerful and completely benevolent God could exist are slim. His second speech concerned religious schools and religious education—in his 2006 book, The War for Children’s Minds, Law argued in favor of Liberal education (with a capital L), rejecting authoritarian schooling.
Let me give some background that will help explain why these talks were so significant. Romania is a new member of NATO and the European Union, but it is far from a completely functional democracy. It has the highest level of corruption and poverty in the EU. The median income is only 350 euros per month. According to the 2002 national census, fewer than 0.2 percent of Romanians are nonbelievers; 87 percent of the population is Orthodox, and almost 13 percent belongs to other Christian denominations. There is a very small number of Jews and Muslims. While Romania is a secular state on paper, it is quite the opposite in practice. The political parties are very closely connected with the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC). A December 2007 poll by the Soros Foundation determined that only 18 percent of the Romanian population expressed confidence in Parliament, compared with 84 percent who expressed confidence in the churches. The churches are considered by law to be “institutions of public interest” and are lavishly supported with public money and properties. This is especially true of the ROC.
After the Romanian anticommunist revolution in 1989, an ideological vacuum emerged that was soon replaced not by the values of a truly open society but rather by populism, religious excess, and nationalism. More than three thousand Orthodox churches began construction with strong support from the public treasury; more than two thousand were completed. In addition, more than one thousand “neo-Protestant” (Baptist, etc.) churches were built after 1989, most without state support. In many cities, public parks, monuments, and green areas have been destroyed and replaced by Orthodox churches. At the same time, Romania has far too few kindergartens and modern schools, and its research sector suffers terribly from lack of funds.
The patriarchy of the ROC launched a project to erect a giant “Cathedral for National Redemption” in one of the most beautiful parks in Bucharest. This project enjoyed strong support from state authorities: it is perhaps the only instance in the contemporary world when a national parliament passed a law to support the building of a cathedral. Four years ago, Solidarity for Freedom of Conscience, a Romanian secular humanist nongovernmental organization (NGO) that I represent, launched a successful campaign to stop the ROC from destroying the park and the mausoleum located there. The latter is an important piece of architecture even though it served as a tomb for communist leaders from the sixties. Eventually, church and political leaders changed the desired location of the cathedral, but we have continued to resist the idea of building this cathedral anywhere with state support and have brought a new lawsuit.
Religion as practiced by more than a few Romanian orthodox priests—and citizens!—seems analogous with a Dark Ages, mystical outlook. For instance, there are still many reports of exorcism rituals in Orthodox churches. People with mental disabilities or other “problems” are believed to be possessed by the devil, and because of this are abused or even tortured in various rites. Unfortunately, sometimes the victims die. Such a shocking case took place in 2005 in the Orthodox Monastery of Tanacu, when a priest conducted an exorcism that led to the death of a nun who had been crucified because he believed that she was possessed by devils. He was sentenced to jail for seven years.
People who support church-state separation would agree that public schools should be neutral in matters of religion, but in Romania they are not. In practice, most are essentially religious schools and experience profound interference from the ROC. In more than 90 percent of Romanian public schools, the school year begins with religious prayers and rituals. Religion classes, of course, usually start with prayer, and icons hang on classroom walls in more than 90 percent of Romanian public schools. The children are officially registered to attend religious classes, and they will be pulled out only if their parents demand it in writing; only about 8 percent of children know that this right even exists. More than 95 percent of the children attend religious classes. Most religion textbooks promote intolerance toward other religions and denominations, and also toward atheists. Orthodox textbooks teach an ethics largely based on fear—for instance, first-grade textbooks include illustrated lessons suggesting that God will punish you physically (perhaps you’ll be hit by a car) if you are not a good, religious child and you are doing “bad things.”
In 2006, our NGO prepared a report on religion in Romanian public schools with the support of the Institute for Humanist Studies. We continued this analysis in 2007 as part of another project supported by the Dutch Embassy in Bucharest and initiated by the Pro Europe League, a closely allied NGO. Our conclusions generated extensive debate in the media concerning the abuse of and discrimination against children, the presence of religious symbols in classrooms, and the confessional manner in which religion is taught in Romanian public schools. Emil Moise, a philosophy professor and the president of our NGO, succeeded in November 2006 in obtaining a decision from a state agency, the National Council for Combating Discrimination, directing that religious icons be removed from public schools. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education refused to carry it out. Another lawsuit is pending on this issue.
During the twelve years of public schooling, confessional rel
igious classes exclusively familiarize students with the literal biblical worldview, including teaching that God created the world in seven days, woman was created out of one of Adam’s ribs, vegetation was created on the third day and the sun on the fourth, and so on. Religion textbooks present the theory of evolution as an error of modern science. According to one recent study commissioned by the government, only 14 percent of Romanian seventh- to twelfth-graders regard evolution as a correct theory. The situation has worsened since December 2006, when the Ministry of Education completely removed evolution from biology curricula; previously it had been studied in the eleventh or twelfth grade. The Ministry also removed from the former philosophy curriculum a chapter titled “God,” which offered young men and women the opportunity to study religiously inspired philosophical views (such as those of Pascal or Thomas Aquinas) as well as critical perspectives on religion, including those of Voltaire, Epicurus, Nietzsche, and Camus. We have started an international campaign to return the theory of evolution and philosophical approaches toward religion to high-school curricula.
The 2006 law on religious freedom restricts freedom of speech and criticism of religion, for example stating in Article 13 (2) that “Any form, means, act or action of religious defamation and enmity, as well as any public offence against religious symbols, shall be prohibited in Romania.” We will soon launch yet another lawsuit against this law.
We recently initiated a lawsuit against the Romanian national radio station, which begins its programs every morning with the “Pater Noster” (the Lord’s Prayer).
After more than three centuries of challenges to dogma and critical debate, Western churches have accepted the principles of a secular state. But in Eastern Europe, especially in Romania, the situation is very different. We have never had a real debate on secularism; even now this debate is just beginning. The ROC is still far from a stance of tolerance and respectful dialogue. For instance, its official pronouncements remain pugnacious toward secularists, who are described as “frustrated people,” “enemy forces against The Orthodox Church,” and “promoters of occult goals.”
This is only a brief introduction to some of the main issues regarding secularism in Romania. As you can imagine, these first speeches by CFI representatives were an intellectual “breath of fresh air” for many who attended. The secular humanist approach is almost completely absent from Romanian public discourse.
The lectures on secular humanism were organized by the Romanian branch of CFI/Transnational, Fundatia pentru Constiinta Critica (CCC), recently founded in Bucharest. The organizers of these events included Beth Ciesielski, Ancuta Becherescu, Liviu Andreescu, Cristi Lascu, Liviu Dragomirescu, and Gabriel Andreescu.