In Serbia we have an organization named Coalition for a Secular State, which is nongovernmental association consisting of many civil society activists, mostly from organizations concerned with peace and human rights, women’s groups, and also individuals – atheists, scientists, experts in law and citizens who appreciate modern values of civilized societies. Our major goal is to keep secular values of our state and society. I will explain why it is extremely important for Serbia, probably much more important than for developed democracy in other European countries, but first I must clarify the concept of secularization. Basically, by secularization we mean that:
– Churches and every religious community should be separated from the state and official politics. In other words, the state should be free from church tutorship.
– Churches should be comprehended as civil institutions with their own rights guaranteed by the state, but they should have the same obligations toward the state as any other civil community – they have to pay taxes, they should not have any material privileges, they should be appreciated but not privileged members of the society.
– Citizens in such a society should be free and equal, and not be forced to hold any beliefs.
– Believer who is politician and a member of the government cannot express his religion in public sphere. These persons are not allowed to display religious symbols when they represent state.
– The process of secularization should assure that the dominant way of thinking, both in politics and public sphere, should be rational, and based on experience, logic and empirical evidence. In short, worldview has to be founded on science, not on mysticism and theological doctrine.
– Finally, for each citizen, relation with religion should be a private matter. Privacy and individual sovereignty is common to monotheists, polytheists or atheists. In that way, for two reasons secular order becomes prerequisite for democracy. First, it prevents one religion from becoming the public norm, and second, it inhibits fragmentation of the society into more different communities.
So, these are some basics of secular organization of any state, and these should be the ground positions for Serbia as a country. Interestingly, we have it all in our Constitution. Article 11 declares Serbia as secular state in which administrative and political power is entirely separated from church influences. However, the reality is very very different.
The dominant religious organization is Serbian Orthodox Church. Although it is contrary to the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, the interference of church in state matters, both explicit and implicit, is enormous and welcomed by almost all politicians and state institutions.
First, Orthodox Church has its representatives in many official political bodies. I cannot remember all of their official functions, but, for example, priests are members of Republic broadcasting agency, where they should supervise TV programs and be some sort of moral advisers in consistence with the spirit of orthodox Christianity. They are also members of several University Councils, and National Education Council, with similar tasks of spreading influence of church.
Furthermore, they are advisers of politicians; many politicians go to visit Serbian Patriarch whenever they are facing some difficulties in political practice. These visits are always important part of politic marketing on television. We have to watch long TV report about these meetings where our political representatives kiss priests hands. Additionally, offices in State buildings are full of religious symbols (crosses and icons).
Our politicians even talk like priests. One influential conservative right-wing politician once said that “no one should speak after patriarch”.
One of the best demonstrations of church influence on state affairs was the situation when Law on prohibition of discrimination should have been accepted in Serbian parliament. All traditional and untraditional religious organizations were against several acts in that law. Not surprisingly these acts concerned the rights for citizens to change their religion, the right to change their sexual identity and the right to be fully appreciated as members of society if they are gay. This law was very important for human rights legislation in Serbia. Night before the parliament session where this law should have been accepted, one priest, who is highly positioned in church hierarchy, called the president of Serbia and the result of that conversation was the postponement of the law approval. Of course, all civil right organizations loudly criticized that behaviour of our president, the fuss lasted for several weeks, and finally the law was approved with small changes and a short delay. That was a happy end but more importantly we could see how it works, how church influences on politics actually function, for example by phone calls in the middle of the night.
Besides that, there are other examples of privileged position of the church in Serbia. Churches are excluded from tax liability, unlike all humanitarian organizations. Although their incomes are enormous for Serbian economy, the state has obligation to pay health insurance and pension funds for priests. The majority of the budget that is designed for civil nongovernmental organizations goes to Serbian Orthodox Church.
The reasons for such relationship between state and church are quite understandable. On one hand, church, as any other institution, shows the tendency to accumulate power and participate in state affairs. Besides its ideological goals, this influence always results in material wealth – large properties, big houses, luxury cars and life styles, etc.
On the other hand, in Serbian society there is a public perception that Serbian Orthodox Church must have monopoly on protection of national interests and on determining national priorities. Politicians can easily feel this ideological influence of church and because of that they try to gain as much political profit as it is possible from this fact. To do that, they must follow religious course and be close to church authority. In other words, religion, tradition, cultural heritage is used for political purposes.
All this is not a new invention of Serbian politicians. This situation is as old as the first monotheistic states which were created few thousands years ago. The best recipe for long reign is symbiosis with religious authorities – the unity of god’s and worldly rules. It is the oldest trick.
In Serbia, this symbiosis, or parasitism of church on state, or parasitism of state on religious ideology (both is true depending on the perspective), is very dangerous for several reasons. First, democracy in Serbia is very fragile plant. This is proto-political society still based on tribal order where ethnicity is essentially connected with the type of religion, so we have Serbs who have to be orthodox Christians, Croatians who are, as we perceive them, inherently Catholics, Bosnians must be Muslims, etc. Other combinations are strange, almost impossible, and atheism is seen as a communist deviation unacceptable for Serbia. In this way, when ethnicity is emotionally fused with religious ideology, and when there is no understanding of what tolerance means, we have groups of citizens closed up within their community, mostly hating other groups because of their differences. The situation is not unique for Serbia; it is very similar in all other states originated from former Yugoslavian federation.
The devastating effects of such fragmented perception of society were demonstrated recently in 1990’s, during the inter-religious wars between different republics of former Yugoslavia. The geographical segmentation of former federation corresponded in large degree with the ethnicity and the type of religion practiced by citizens on that territory. As long as the communist regime was ruling political ideology in Yugoslavia, by the end of 1980’s, whatever we may think about communism, these religious-ethnic tensions were completely suppressed. Although spiritual practice in Yugoslavia was not prohibited, religion was not socially desirable and community was created around the idea of brotherhood and unity. Nationality was Yugoslav and not Serb, Croat, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Slovenian, Macedonian, Albanian. I grew up having no idea that there were different ethnicities in Yugoslavia.
Later, however, the crash of communism and large economic collapse resulted in deep social crisis and frustrations. There was no economic and social stability for individuals; we experienced total social degradation. So, people poured into churches searching for new ideology – this time religious and nationalistic one. But since there were at least five different ethnicities, people separated in distinct droves based, in a large degree, on religious emotions and religious chauvinism.
The tension between different ethnic groups resulted in wars where religion was the most prominent fuel for destructive brutality. Priests on each side agitated for their own tribe and kept the flame of hatred for more than a decade. The wars were bloody, severe and thousands of people were killed.
The only subjects who made a profit out of these conflicts were religious institutions and, consequently, associated politicians. No one else. Societies were destroyed, economies were completely devastated, and citizens became poor. This was the end result of rampage of religious emotions.
Sadly, new politicians who came on political scene after the wars were finished, continued this practice. Political benefits from manipulation with primal tribal emotions are universal and are possible in countries in which political institutions are weak and politicians are primitive and incompetent.
From my point of view, the most devastating result of our recent history was the religious influence on education. This is because the period of intensive education is the most important for the development of logic, rational view, individuality, critical thinking and for the establishment of the way future adults will see the world around themselves, how they will understand natural and social realities. Basically, through education we are shaped metaphysically by our society. This social imperative determines whether we think our lives are ruled by mystical, irrational and supernatural causes or we develop rationality, responsibility, creativity, and plurality. If the society imposes believing in god as a supreme authority and believing in Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the end result will be intellectually lazy persons who blindly hold on belief system and traditional values. These persons are guardians of status quo who uncritically accept any political authority. For all these reasons education is the prime target of every social movement that has theocratic tendencies.
Religion made its first entry into Serbian curricula in 2000, with the introduction of catechism lessons in schools. Since that time, several ministries of education were members of right-wing political party and explicitly showed their sympathy for religious education. They didn’t hide their belief that church dogma has to be the foundation of moral up-bringing. In line with tendency to replace democracy with theocracy, they promoted creationism through advertising religious education in schools.
For example, on 7 September 2004 the Serbian minister of education Ljiljana Colic suspended the teaching of evolution. According to her directives, schools could be allowed to reinstate evolutionary theory in their curriculum only if they balance scientific lessons with lessons on creationism – lessons about the idea that the absolute truth about creation of Earth, living things and humans can only be found in Bible, not in science. This was really absurd because students were allowed to learn that evolution was reality and scientifically proven fact only if they learn, at the same time, that evolution was not happening in nature, that it’s not natural process. Similar to Alexander Asmolov, Russian deputy minister of education in 1994, she thought that creationism should be taught in schools not only because it is the absolute truth, but also because it could restore academic freedom after years of state-enforced scientific orthodoxy. For these characters, science is just a threat to religious beliefs and nothing else. Creationism, born of the denial of the evolution of species, is a perfect weapon in a war against science.
There are more interesting bizarre things about Minister Ljiljana Colic. She had more ideas about how to turn back the development of Serbia toward the medieval times and the Book of Revelation. For example, according to her opinion it is very harmful for young kids to learn foreign languages and how to use computers. It was really surprising and to be honest, at that time, it was hard to believe that anyone could be so fanatical and narrow-minded. After state-wide protests of teachers and university professors she was forced to resign on 16 September 2004. Basically she was a tragic figure in her scientific ignorance and religious fundamentalism, but she clearly showed to Serbian society the nature of political elite and plans for the future.
After her, school science syllabus remained formally secular, based on scientific knowledge, empirical evidence and testable explanation of natural phenomena. However, the practice is somehow different. The fusion of religion and state creates social environment in which science teachers feel that some scientific disciplines, controversial from religious point of view, such as evolutionary theory, should not be fully appreciated in classrooms. In most cases teachers don’t even mention biological evolution to their students. Thus, although not formally forbidden, the scientific explanation of the origin of life on Earth is indirectly excluded from education. What is left on this matter is the believing in creation myths.
On 17 September 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on the attempt by American-inspired creationists to promote creationism in European schools. The document name was “The dangers of creationism in education”. This is an excellent paper in which all disastrous effects of creationism on education and on a society as a whole are analyzed.
For example, that document said that:
“Denying evolution could have serious consequences for the development of our societies. Advances in medical research with the aim of effectively combating infectious diseases such as AIDS are impossible if every principle of evolution is denied. One cannot be fully aware of the risks involved in the significant decline in biodiversity and climate change if the mechanisms of evolution are not understood.”
“The war on the theory of evolution and on its proponents most often originates in forms of religious extremism which are closely allied to extreme right-wing political movements. The creationist movements possess real political power. The fact of the matter, and this has been exposed on several occasions, is that some advocates of strict creationism are out to replace democracy by theocracy.”
This document was not verified by Serbian representative at that Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Why, we did not hear the explanation.
Serbian situation is an excellent example of the claim that creationism is connected with politics. However, luckily for us, science is still holding on in schools. I think there are two major reasons why evolutionary theory is not completely expelled from schools. First, our politicians are completely incompetent for anything, including education politics (here I have to say that there are some fine experts within the ministry of education who are doing great job, but they are not politicians). Also, politicians in Serbia are corrupted and, since there is no much money in education, they are not very interested in that area. So, for now, we are lucky!
Second reason for the survival of the theory of evolution in school science syllabus, is the lack of science education of priests. They do understand that they should be against evolution, but basically, since they do not know what evolution is, it is hard for them to argumentatively struggle against it. In several situation when I had public discussion with orthodox priests I have learned that they are even afraid of the word creationism. First it was surprising for me, but then I learned that creationism is a word that they connect exclusively with Protestantism. So in order to keep confessional distinction, they think it is necessary to deny any similarity in opinions. Again, luckily for us, this prevents them to organize better and to make more serious threat for science education.
We do have, as many other European countries, nongovernmental creationist organization, probably funded from some US creationist funds. However, the leading figure in that organization in Serbia is very controversial weird person, who can hardly be taken seriously. I think he is arrested because he threatened to blow up the dam in Netherlands and to make a flood of biblical proportions. Namely, he wanted to punish Netherlands because The International War Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is settled in Haag. So there, generals of Serbian army are prosecuted for their involvement in genocides during conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990’s. I suppose this leading Serbian creationist was angry because of these prosecutions, confirming the basic thing that unity of nationalism and religion is very common. It certainly tells a lot about his personality.
As you could see, there are many funny characters in Serbia, but the situation is far from amusing. The trend of clericalization of Serbian society is scary; it is oriented toward medieval unity of state and religion and toward isolation from other modern societies. I must say that it is not a great relieve that mostly these things are happening with no elaborated and smart plans. The fact is that they are happening.
The author read the parts of this article for the radio show Pescanik – Special edition in broken English.