Sep 30, 2023
Sep 30, 2023
by Mehru Jaffer
A recent international conference on 'Science, Ideology and Religion' in St Petersburg attracted many young people apart from professional scientists and seers from the world over. The conference was an effort to move beyond the disastrous and violent consequences that science, ideology and religion can be (and have been) used for, towards a dialogue to address present-day cultural, social and educational needs in Russia and in other countries of the world.
It is important to question the kind of education provided for the young today, says Dr Tatiana Petrova, from the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. The conference was organised by the St Petersburg Educational Centre for Science and Religion (SPECRS), the St Petersburg School of Religion and Philosophy (SRPh) and the St Petersburg Association of Scientists and Scholars.
The emphasis in Russia for most part of the last century was on science, perhaps at the cost of the humanities and the fundamental values of the country's artistic and literary heritage. This, "despite the fact that in the past, monasteries have served as the first schools", remarks Petrova.
Recently, Arthur Galoyan, 21, walked into the Church of the Resurrection, a nine cupola place of worship from the early 20th century and the most ornamental in St Petersburg, Russia' cultural capital. Looking up at the enamel cupolas above him that frame spectacular paintings of icons from the New Testament - in gold and natural semi-precious stones - he exclaimed, "Wow!"
This was the first time Gayolan was inside a church. "My mother often goes to church. She may have taken me with her when I was an infant. But I do not remember ever being inside a church before," says Gayolan, a student at SRPh.
The Church of the Resurrection that covers 7,000 square meters is a mesmerising display of artistic and technical skills used to depict Orthodox iconography - in marble and gold and from ceiling to floor. But its special memorial role was reduced to that of any other church after the October revolution led by Vladimir Lenin in 1917. The Communists prohibited all forms of worship.
Closed in 1930, the church was used as a warehouse till 1970, when work first started to restore its onion-shaped domes and the beautiful icons inside. Today, the recently renovated church is a glittering symbol of the State's attempts to revive spiritual activities and to replace the strict social, political and economic controls of the Communist period with freedom to worship and to work at will.
In fact, the religious renaissance in Russia since 1989 is considered the most significant phenomena of the new century. That year alone, over 1,000 religious communities, most of them of Orthodox Christian belief were registered in the country and the 1990s saw a series of laws passed on the freedom of religion.
"After the gradual economic and social stagnation of the three post-Stalin decades, remembered for Soviet scientific and technological achievement, we want to motivate students of science, and older people who grew up during our atheist past to also look into the spiritual quest of professional scientific activity. And why and how it influences research, ethical thinking and the surrounding world in general," explains Dr Natalia Pechereskaya, Rector of SRPh, one of Russia's first education centres that is not owned by the State.
Earlier, in 2000, when SRPh hosted a conference titled 'Science and Faith: The Problem of the Human Being in Science and Theology', it brought together many in Russia who had remained outside the discourse between science and religion to seek answers to the most difficult questions of human existence.
"This was the first time that Russian Orthodox priests, members of other Christian denominations and different religions were involved in a scholarly discussion in Russia about life. This culture of communication allowed people to speak freely, without fearing flak from either religious or scientific authorities," says Dr Pechereskaya, a mathematician by profession and Russain Orthodox by belief.
At the 2005 conference, many young people addressed a wider context than before. Jeroen Temperman, 25, from the Danish Centre for Human Rights, spoke on the contemporary challenges before religion and universal human rights and described his personal religion as humanism. He says that to be religious means to be able to respect all human beings and to resolve differences without resorting to violence.
Ekaterina Chernyakov, 26, the conference secretary, is a student of the theory of music. "I have not given much thought to my relationship to religion or to God. But when I have the time, I would like to find out more about spirituality," she says.
Dr Beata Kostrubiec, Professor of Psychology, Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, talked of the social and religious changes in the post-modern era as we live in the midst of an increasing culture of crass consumerism that encourages the individual to concentrate on "me and myself".
"After our country was freed from the totalitarian system and accepted democracy and a free market economy, numerous changes - social, economic and mental - have taken place," she says, pointing to enormous developments in science and the transformation from the industrial to the information society. Dr Kostrubiec, who feels that God is truth, adds that it is important for young people to have a positive image of God as it leads to a positive image of the self.
"Modern people seem to gravitate towards a religion that revolves around a more impersonal good force, love or state of bliss as psychologically it is more attractive than an ominous and avenging, although personal, God," says Kostrubiec.
Russians are signing up in great numbers not just with religious associations of the Church. There are also 200 Krishnaites, 68 Buddhists and 80 Judaists, apart from thousands of Muslims and members of different denominations of Christianity like Seventh Day Adventists and Lutherans.
Nadezda H Orlova from the Institute of Humanities of St Petersburg State University wants to study Reiki further, and like Tatyana Klenova she is a member of the Brahmakumari sect. And Yury Rovashev, a theoretical physicist has been practicing Kundalini Yoga for the past five years.
Victor Legler, 57, a geologist, says that even when religion was banned under communism in Russia he was attracted to worship. "While still in my teens, I started to spend time with elders who talked to me about the scriptures. My parents did not object but I was later told in my office that I should not expect promotions in my career if I continued to believe in God. Under communism, I remained a petty official with a modest income but now I practice my own business and travel around the world," he says.
Boris Panich, 36, a mathematician, teaches a course on the symbolism of the Old Testament Temple (built in Jerusalem in 967 BC), at SRPh. He has also delved into the history of the Jewish branch of his family. Perhaps his interests make him feel a little more at home in a very chaotic present, and help him get a perspective on the future.
More by : Mehru Jaffer