Pseudoscience Religion

The Wildlings are already here. Awaiting the White Walkers

Machine assisted translation

Mutations are caused by «original sin», and this is confirmed by the graph of the reduction of longevity «after the Flood», agricultural technology is «violence against the earth», the Orthodox answer to this is «rejection of GMO», and Russia is defending itself against overpopulated neighbors by «military means». And no, these theses do not belong to some obscurantist sectarian. They were presented by the Director of the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics. Alexander Kudryavtsev, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The presentation of Kudryavtsev has been made on March 14, 2023 at some low-notice theological conference. Mass media noticed it only two weeks later. Scholars were shocked. «I first thought it was a fake,» academician Alexei Khokhlov and bioinformatician Alexander Panchin wrote without collusion, reacting to the obscurantism.

It may seem like no big deal that some scientist has fallen under the influence of religious myths and discusses them with like-minded churchmen. Especially since soviet militant atheism remains a thing of the past, and religious scientists no longer surprise anyone. Still, this case is a landmark. Kudryavtsev heads a key research institute that was created to provide scientific support for exactly those activities that his report calls «violence against the earth» and which he deems unacceptable to Orthodoxy. That is, in fact, he states that his professional work is inappropriate for him for religious reasons.

Kudryavtsev’s presentation does not merely express his personal religious experiences and reflections, to which everyone is entitled, but grossly distorts the scientific method, taking completely uncritically the text of a religious myth as the source of quantitative scientific data. Such Biblical literalism is not generally adopted even among theologians. This is an example of a dangerous trend gaining momentum in Russia: religious fundamentalism invades the territory of science, puts it at its service, substitutes it, and ultimately leads to a pseudoscientific justification for militarism.

Science and Religion

Science and religion have a long history of an uneasy relationship. Since ancient times, religion has claimed to hold the absolute truth on a wide range of issues. Its authority has been reinforced by the special, sacred status of religious texts and rituals, which were considered socially unacceptable to challenge. The divergence of the sacred rules and their understanding repeatedly led to religious wars. It was therefore clear to many in antiquity that religious claims to absolute truth were not sufficiently grounded and were agreements whose disputes could be dangerous to people.

Over the centuries, principles of religious tolerance have evolved that help people of different faiths to coexist. Science has also played a role in developing these principles. The experimental scientific method, combined with the rules of logical judgment, allowed science to become a reliable referee of judgments about the properties of the physical world. Unlike religion, science does not claim to possess absolute truth, but provides a method to systematically increase the reliability of our judgments and to get rid of misunderstandings, preconceptions, and superstitions.

In its infancy, European experimental science was not opposed to Christian religion, but rather grew out of it as a special kind of religiously blessed activity to investigate the world designed by the Creator. This investigation has revealed, however, that many statements of sacred religious texts, if taken literally, come into direct contradiction with the scientific findings. These contradictions have repeatedly led to conflicts between science and religion. Yet theologians were already well aware that a literalist interpretation of sacred texts is the most primitive possible and often only prevents us from grasping their true meaning.

There is nothing new for theologians that many religious texts and proverbs must be understood allegorically, metaphorically, and allusively. Otherwise contradictions arise not only with science, but also with everyday common sense, and, of course, between religious traditions. This is evident also to those who study sacred texts from a scientific standpoint. Linguistics, semantics, history and even computer science tell us that meanings are not contained directly in texts, but are actively reconstructed from them by readers based on their life and cultural experiences. And so, in different societies and in different contexts, the same words can carry different meanings. Only a person far removed from modern culture can interpret poetry in the same literalistic sense that one interprets accounting documents, and understands parables and legends as encyclopedic descriptions of events. Understanding that religious texts are often written in allegorical language and originally intended for bearers of a culture very different from our own eliminates, in the vast majority of cases, the direct contradictions between these texts and the scientifically established facts.

Spheres of influence

As a result, religion and science have separated domains of influence. Science has priority in making judgments about the physical world around us, about objective reality. Religion cannot invade this territory and dictate answers that can be verified experimentally. At the same time, religions and other belief systems that do not assume the possibility of objective experimental verification determine what is called religious liberty. This includes, in particular, questions of values, purposes, and meanings in life, which everyone is free to decide in his or her own way, as long as this does not conflict with the freedom of others. The famous philosophical Hume’s law states that an «ought» can not be derived from an «is». This boundary prevents science from unduly encroaching on the territory of faith.

The division of spheres of influence between science and religion helps to explain the phenomenon of believing scientists, perplexing to many atheists: how can a biblical account of the creation of the world in six days be combined in one head with a theory about the evolution of the universe and life over billions of years? Religion does indeed contradict science if one reads its claims literalistically and takes them as reports of scientifically verifiable facts. However, an allegorical interpretation of sacred myth, coupled with the understanding that it has a poetic style and was created in a very different culture, helps to smooth out most of the contradictions.

Finally, the division of spheres of influence also has the beneficial consequence that science, being insensitive to religious differences, enables the use its territory for constructive interaction between the holders of different beliefs. Whenever these boundaries are violated from one side or the other, there is a conflict between science and religion, with the threat of interreligious clashes as well.

Herein lies the danger of religious fundamentalism, which violates this division and exalts one religion as the absolute source of truth, often accompanied by a literalist interpretation of all the language contained in its sacred texts. Fundamentalism takes us back to the era of the religious wars that preceded the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Awakening Fundamentalism

Many people used to think that religious fundamentalism can be found nowadays only in some aggressive currents of Islam known for their terrorist activities. However, the germ of fundamentalism lurks in any religion or ideology, and it is always ready to strengthen itself as soon as civil society’s control weakens.

The appeal of fundamentalism is that it justifies and legitimizes the unconditional power of the true believers, plays on their ego and catastrophically simplifies all complex social issues by dividing society into friends and foes. Instead of freedom, diversity and exploration of the world, fundamentalism offers subordination, uniformity and war.

Fundamentalists of different religions sometimes form quite strong sects that pose a threat to society. This is why the neutral territory of objectivist science separating them from each other is so important. Where science is weak, we see persecution for insulting the feelings of believers, executions for ties with jinn, and direct interreligious clashes that reach the level of genocide. It is the civic responsibility of scientists, especially believers, to maintain the separation of potentially conflicting fundamentalist forces and to protect the religious neutrality of science from them.

There is a large percentage of non-believers among scientists who know that ethics, meanings, and values can be drawn not only from traditional religions. However, the mere fact of belonging to a particular faith as a source of value is not in conflict with pursuing science. It is quite a different matter, however, when a scientist, with all his scientific regalia, takes the position of religious fundamentalism, breaks through the border, and allows religion, in its literalist form, to enter the territory of science, arbitrarily mixing objectively established facts and patterns with mythological ones. This is how the interests of science, enlightenment, and peace on earth are betrayed.

Religiously motivated pseudoscience

All this we observed in the report of A.M. Kudryavtsev, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In the graph, which he demonstrated to the audience, the fantastic lifespans of legendary biblical characters were presented as objective historical facts. From them the conclusion was drawn that the human lifespan is historically decreasing. And this, in turn, was linked to the thesis of the accumulation of mutations under the influence of sins committed by people. All of this is in flagrant contradiction with scientific knowledge. This means that the director of an academic institute is guided not by scientific arguments, but by religious superstition. It is superstition, because the literalist interpretation of the biblical Book of Genesis does not find strong support even among the majority of theologians.

Life span graph of biblical characters. A screenshot from the video recording of A.M. Kudryavtsev’s report. As it was clarified in RAS Commission against pseudoscience, the original source of drawing is the creationist biology textbook of S.J. Vertjanov (Moscow: the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra, 2012, p. 238). This textbook has repeatedly been subjected to devastating criticism, see, for example, the article by Elistratovs in «Наука и перспективы» No. 2, 2016.

It is impossible to know Kudryavtsev’s personal motives that led him to make such statements. Among religious scholars, of course, not everyone is satisfied with allegorical interpretations of biblical texts. Some hope over time to combine a more or less literal understanding of the Bible with scientific data and see this as a challenge to their intellect. Some see this discrepancy as an incomprehensibility of the Creator’s plan and a challenge to their faith. Such people are always faced with a choice in each particular case: whether to give preference to science or religion. And for them the choice in favor of one actually excludes the other.

By pushing a literalist interpretation of the biblical text into science, A.M. Kudryavtsev brings the discussion down to the same primitive level as the anecdotal argument of militant atheists that «Gagarin flew to heaven but did not see any God». At this level the conversation ceases to be not only scientific, but even theological. And since this unscientific reasoning is nevertheless passed off as scientific, it should be classified as pseudoscientific.

This kind of falsehood, unless it is the result of the deepest misunderstanding, violates both scientific and Christian ethics. It misleads believers into thinking that modern science confirms a literalist understanding of the Scriptures. To those who trust the statements of scientists about science, it misleads them into giving false information under the guise of science.

And, as usual, trouble does not come to us alone. Religious-scientific fallacies are accompanied in the report by purely scientific ones. For example, Kudryavtsev informs that it takes exactly one hectare of arable land to feed one person and therefore overpopulation on the Earth began exactly in 1987, when the number of mankind exceeded 5 billion. However, archaeological data show that the amount of arable land per person at different times and in different regions varied by more than an order of magnitude. At the same time, Kudryavtsev declares all the modern technologies that increase crop yields to be «violence against the land», although the institute he heads is named after its first director, N.I. Vavilov, who did so much for the subsequent green revolution in agriculture. It turns out that in his report, Kudryavtsev actually renounces both science in general and the specific scientific goals for which his institute was established.

What goals and meanings does it proclaim, based on its religious motive? Nothing new — the usual for any fundamentalist call for war. Russia, he says, still has a reserve of arable land for population growth, while its neighbors — China and Europe — are already overpopulated, and this allegedly makes it inevitable for Russia to go to war to protect its living space. Such a far-reaching conclusion is based on the arbitrary figure of 1 hectare per person. The slowdown in world population growth is ignored: the figure of 20 billion people in the near future appears in the presentation, although demographers predict growth to 11-12 billion, with a subsequent decline. The development of agricultural technology is not accepted as a solution under the pretext of «violence to the land». But war is seen as the solution. Such is Orthodox fundamentalism.