Science and religion in the Czech lands and Slovakia

Historical backdrop

The field of “science and religion” (for lack of a better term; to denote that it is a single notion, we shall use the abbreviation “S&R”) has a (relatively) long history in the Czech lands and Slovakia. The census of 1910 shows that the Kingdom of Bohemia was 95 % Roman Catholic. [Together with 3 % of Protestants, 1.4 % of Jews, 2.2 % of other religions or confessions, and 1.2 % of people with “no confession”.] By 1921 the proportion had fallen to 82 %, to 79 % by 1930, and 27 % by 2001, with only 4 % actually attending Sunday Mass (according to headcounts conducted by the Church in 1999 and 2004 on random Sundays). The majority of the people leaving the Church declared themselves as having “no religious confession” in subsequent censuses. The situation in Slovakia is vastly different. In 2001 there were 73 % Catholics, [With actual Sunday attendance at an estimated 20 %.] 13 % with “no confession”, 7 % Lutherans, and 2 % Calvinists. Without discussing the reasons, let us simply say that the Czechoslovak Republic, founded in 1918, adopted as a part of its national myth the idea that the Hussite Czechs had suffered under the Catholic Hapsburgs for 300 years, President Masaryk being hailed as the Liberator. Whereas until 1918 it was considered eccentric to be atheist or agnostic in Bohemia, after 1918 it became very much the "bon ton". The different situation in Slovakia is linked with the fact that the Slovak version of the Czechoslovak national myth was based anti-Hungarian sentiments rather than on anti-Catholic/anti-German ones.

The Communist coup in February 1948 led to the adoption of “Scientific Atheism” as a part of the state ideology, and to strong religious persecution. Practicing Christians became second class citizens, were not allowed to teach, and their children were denied higher education, especially in the arts and humanities where no independent thought was tolerated. The schools of theology were under firm control of the political police. Few people wanted to enter the heavily politicised fields of philosophy, history, sociology, economics (the only authorised variety had to be “based on Marxism-Leninism”), etc. Gifted people, if they were allowed higher education, studied mostly science and engineering or medicine.

Paradoxical consequences of religious persecution

The consequences of these policies were paradoxical. First there is the "Academic Anomaly": Unlike in most of Europe (France or Italy being clear examples), the centre of gravity of the Czech & Slovak academic elite has shifted firmly towards Science. A second consequence is that the proportion of practicing Christians among research scientists is somewhat higher than in the rest of the population. What is more, the concerted atheist propaganda has led to the development of a strong psychodynamic resistance in many critically thinking people.

There has been, therefore, a marked interest in the relationship between science and religion. The Christians among research scientists naturally felt a need to defend their faith against mostly rather crude propaganda. Most did so in private, while some spoke out in public. Simple apologetic arguments drawn from the religious instruction of their youth sufficed for the most part in confronting the “scientific atheism”. Over the years, it became increasingly obvious to many of these Christians and scientists that the old apologetics was insufficient, and that a new synthesis was called for. And so it may be said that the S&R of the 1950’s took place in prisons and labour camps with a defence of the faith being its primary concern, first recycling and developing the arguments constructed against interwar anticlericalism, and later focusing on refuting “scientific atheism“, the S&R of the 1960’s occurred in covert discussion groups, and strived for a more positive approach.

Once again it may be said that ideological persecution bore some surprisingly rich fruit because many a seminal thought arose from the interaction among independent thinkers of various hues brought together willy-nilly by their jailors, and when the regime decreased the ferocity of its pressure somewhat in the 1960’s a wave of underground activity broke up.

The regime still controlled its borders very tightly, however, effectively isolating the country not only from the West, but also from the fellow-vassals within the Soviet Empire. New books from abroad were precious, and only a few arrived. The thirst for at least some exchange of ideas was so great that the Soviet journal "Voprosy filosofii" was coveted and closely read. [Karel Beneš, private communication.]

Some texts of Teilhard de Chardin found their way through the Iron Curtain and generated an enthusiastic interest. A translation of "La Place de l’Homme dans la Nature" [Translated by Jiří Němec and Jan Sokol, and published with a postface by Milan Machovec, a prominent Marxist philosopher; "Místo člověka v přírodě", Praha: Svoboda, 1967. The translation of "Le Milieu Divin" by Václav Frei and Jan Sokol was published under the title "Chuť žít" [A Zest for Life] , Praha: Vyšehrad, 1970.] was one of the first books to appear during the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968 . It has to be said that serious understanding of Teilhard’s thought was not forthcoming at the time, undoubtedly due to the very narrow selection of texts available. If nothing else, though, the broad vision of the French Jesuit palaeontologist became an inspiration demonstrating that the time was ripe for a radical rethinking of S&R.

Teilhard’s ideas together with cybernetics were the main influences upon Felix Maria Davídek, the charismatic leader of "Koinotes", a particularly interesting group among the clandestine Catholic circles. As with many others, it was Teilhard who assisted his transition from neothomism to positions more philosophically open.

The 1970s and 1980s

The situation in the 1970’s and 1980’s was marked by the huge setback, a veritable time-bubble, created by the brutal suppression of the reformist Communist attempt to give “a human face” to the regime. The disillusion was great, especially among the believing Marxists. After August 1968, very few Party members actually believed in the regime’s positions. Inane ideology, hypocritical formalism, and pragmatic opportunism became the rule even among the most high-ranking apparatchiks.

A shift occurred regarding the search for Western literature. Whereas in the 1950’s and 1960’s other countries of the Communist Block served chiefly as mere transit routes, in the 1970’s and 1980’s translations, mainly Polish, came to play an important role. Thanks to the linguistic proximity, many Czech and Slovak intellectuals had little trouble in reading Polish, and the translations were somewhat easier to obtain than the originals. In the 1980’s many publications of the [ Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies] in Cracow, including its journal "Zagadnienia filozoficzne w nauce", were read by quite a few. [An interesting selection of books and articles by Polish authors, as well as a few Western works quoted from their Polish translation can be found in the bibliography of Ján Štohl, "Stvorenie a vývoj vesmíru" (Creation and Evolution of the Universe) in: Jozef Tiňo (ed.), "Zem a život vo svetle vedy a viery", Nitra-Bratislava: Spoločnosť Božieho Slova na Slovensku, 1992, pp. 57-81.]

Apart from the undercover seminars held in private apartments by people who were not allowed to pursue a professional career in their field of choice, [The prime example of such a circle was the group of intellectuals around the highly regarded philosopher Jan Patočka in Prague. Several underground groups of Catholics gathered around such notable theologians as Josef Zvěřina, Jan Evangelista Urban, Oto Mádr, etc. None of these were focused on S&R unlike the already mentioned "Koinotes" which operated in a similar fashion, effectively running illegal further education programmes. Independent, and therefore clandestine further education was also provided within other groupings (around bishop Jan Konzal in Prague, bishop Stanislav Krátký in Southern Moravia, etc.) where S&R did not play such a prominent role.] the novelty of the seventies and eighties was the emergence of a gray zone tolerated by the regime. Several non-Marxist intellectuals were allowed to work in academic institutions, especially if they had no contact with students. [The most notable from the point of view of S&R probably being Fr. Josef Petr Ondok, a Catholic priest who worked at the Botanical Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Třeboň. After 1991 he taught philosophy at the new school of theology in České Budějovice, and published several monographs on S&R. His obituary was published by the monthly journal of the Czech Academy of Sciences: Marcel Rejmánek, “Teologie, ekologie a smích Petra Ondoka. K nedožitým osmdesátinám” (Theology, Ecology, and Laughter of Peter Ondok. Marking his Unachieved 80th Birthday), "Vesmír" 85 (July 2006) 426-428.] Some informal “institutions” have been quietly established. [E.g. regular lectures under the auspices (and under the nose of the apparatchiks within) the Czechoslovak Scientific and Technological Society, ČSVTS (thanks to Petr Kůrka), seminars at Charles University’s Faculty of Mathematics and Physics (led by Miroslav Katětov, and Petr Vopěnka), and at the Faculty of Science (led by Anton Markoš), popular scientific talks for the general public by Jiří Mrázek, and Jiří Grygar rarely failing to cover S&R issues (often organised through the structures of the puppet People’s Party, run by the regime as a simulacrum of political pluralism).]

The S&R groups in this gray zone developed several widely differing positions. "Koinotes" with its combination of Teilhard and cybernetics has already been mentioned. A very influential group in Prague [Starting with the mathematicians and physicists (Miroslav Katětov, Petr Vopěnka, Aleš Pultr, Jiří Fiala, Ivan M. Havel, Petr Kůrka), along with biologists (Zdeněk Neubauer, Karel Beneš, Anton Markoš), philosophers/theologians and linguists (Zdeněk Kratochvíl, Petr Piťha).] soon established itself as the think-tank of Czech postmodernism with its New Age tendencies (syncretism bringing together medieval Jewish kaballah, ancient hermetism, gnosticism, etc. with the history and philosophy of science). [Zdeněk Neubauer becoming its leader, with several of the original informal members later leaving the group.]

The present: after 1989

Mentioning these two groups in particular is an anticipation of the events after 1989. In fact, today only these two can be clearly identified as having a circle of young adepts ensuring the continuation of their tradition. [ [ The Department of Philosophy and History of Natural Science] , [ Faculty of Science] , Charles University, Prague (co-founded by Zdeněk Neubauer and headed by Anton Markoš) currently has more than 20 PhD students. Since 1998, the [ Centre for S&R Dialogue] , [ Cyril-Methodius Faculty of Theology] , [ Palacky University] , Olomouc (led by Frank Mikeš) offers S&R seminars to students of the whole University (among the 70 students enrolled in 2005/2006, only 3 were theology students, many participants being agnostic), recruiting a circle of about 20 young people (known as "Koinotes III") who meet several times a year for weekend S&R workshops.] The recent history of a third centre may serve as an example of the great challenge to the continuity of this field. After its re-birth in 1991, the (Catholic) Faculty of Theology of the University of Southern Bohemia in České Budějovice, [There are currently five schools of theology in the Czech Republic (the one mentioned above, then the one in Olomouc, and three Faculties of Theology at Prague’s Charles University: [ Protestant] , [ “Hussite”] , and [ Catholic] ). All of these offer some courses in S&R. The situation in Slovakia is a little more complicated. Theology is taught in Bratislava (three schools), Nitra, Žilina, Banská Bystrica, Spišská Kapitula, Prešov (two schools), and Košice (a point of clarification is required: Trnava and Ružomberok have Universities with schools of theology based in Bratislava and Košice, respectively). All of these form integral part of State Universities.] became an important hub with several key figures actively interested in S&R. Alas two very important ones died recently, [Josef Petr Ondok and Karel Beneš.] and it remains to be seen how this will affect the school. [The philosopher Karel Skalický is interested in S&R but it is not at the forefront of his work, and the young vice-dean Tomáš Machula is understandably preoccupied with other duties.]

As was said in the previous paragraphs, during the Communist era, S&R enthusiasts were not allowed to devote their main efforts to this area of research. Rather, they were obliged to focus on other fields, and at best, dabble in S&R in their spare time. After 1989, these very same intellectuals were called upon to help restore normality to Czech & Slovak academe, [It should be noted that the Newmanian “idea of a University” has become very popular, especially the vibrant years after 1989 being dominated by a vision of a more organic approach to University education and University life in general, bridging the divides of narrow specialisation. A noteworthy case was that of [ Palacky University] in Olomouc where an interdisciplinary debate group (known as the "Rotunda" after the oval room which became the venue of the group’s meetings) of notable academics was instrumental in integrating the re-created Faculty of Theology within the tissue of the University body (with debates largely tending towards S&R topics).] taking important responsibilities of University administration over from Communist apparatchiks. [It has to be said that clearly more ex-Party members remain in positions of influence in Slovakia than in Czechia. This often presents an additional challenge for S&R in Slovakia.] S&R remained an activity for spare time. [With a difference, though. They could indulge their interest in S&R much more freely than before, working in various associations of like minded individuals, publishing articles in newly founded S&R journals, etc. We shall see the details later.] Sixteen years later, younger people are able and willing to shoulder the burden of administrative tasks, and many of the original S&R enthusiasts feel that the time has come to focus on S&R; many more are too tired to engage in a serious effort.

One of today’s main challenges is therefore that of passing on the interest for S&R to a new generation of researchers. In order to do this effectively, the field has to be recognized as an academic discipline, and national and international networking has to be developed further. [Another challenge is that very few theologians are involved. Indeed, very few good creative theologians are present in general. There is a hope that among the members of the new generation of theologians, some would be interested in a team work on S&R. On the other hand, signs of hope can be seen in the field of philosophy and history of science. We have already mentioned the [ Department of Philosophy and History of Natural Science] , [ Faculty of Science] , Charles University, Prague. The Centre for Theoretical Study, Prague, should also be listed, as well as the [ Department of Philosophy] at the [ University of Western Bohemia] in Plzeň (Daniel Špelda’s recent history of astronomy in antiquity being a prime example of their work integrating religious belief, ethical implications of cosmological concepts, as well as the technical aspects of astronomy within the history of thought; "Astronomie v antice", Ostrava: Montanex, 2006).] If only the two groups mentioned above show a real promise of continuity, and other traditions and currents are likely to be lost, there are, however, two or three centres, where S&R is approached from alternative perspectives. [We have already mentioned philosophy and history of science. The [ Centre for Theoretical Studies] , Prague, touches upon S&R also from the point of view of cognitive science (Ivan M. Havel). The [ Faculty of Humanities] , Charles University, Prague, approaches S&R from the angle of ethical philosophy and sociology in a world of science (Jan Sokol). The [ Centre for Democracy and Culture] , Brno, develops S&R within the methodology of sociology of religion (Petr Fiala, Jiří Hanuš). What is more, there are many initiatives also in the field of bioethics or Christian bioethics but these have to remain beyond the scope of this article.]

On the whole, the current situation is promising. There are several associations focused on S&R to a varying extent. [ [ Czech Christian Academy] , [ Moravian-Silesian Christian Academy] , Christian Academic Forum, [ Federation of Slovak Christian Intellectuals] , Association for Science and Faith attached to the Society of the Divine Word, Associations of Christian Teachers of Slovakia, etc.] Several journals publish regularly and often articles on S&R. ["Universum" (published by the [ Czech Christian Academy] , Prague), "Dialog Evropa XXI" (published by the [ Moravian-Silesian Christian Academy] , Brno), "Omega" (discontinued; only 3 issues were published), "Teologie & společnost" (Theology and Society) (published by the already mentioned [ Centre for Democracy and Culture] – an institute continuing the tradition of the underground Church in Brno), "Viera a život" (Faith and Life) (published by the Jesuits in Trnava), "Forum Scientiae et Sapientiae" (sponsored by [ Trnava University] ), "RAN – Radosť a nádej, spoločensko-duchovná revue" (Joy and Hope – A Revue for Society and Spirituality) (published by the [ Federation of Slovak Christian Intellectuals] ), etc. There are some internet journals dedicated to S&R (e.g.] There are S&R courses and seminars offered as subsidiary subjects at various Universities. [As a rule, these programmes, usually guaranteed by the Faculties of Theology, are available to the whole student body (we have already mentioned the case of Olomouc; A summer school was hosted by the [ Catholic University] in Ružomberok ( [ Faculty of Philosophy and the Science-Religion Dialog and Critical Thinking Local Societies Initiative] ; Spišská Kapitula, 5-12 July 2005; title: "Language as a Platform of Tolerance between Science and Religion"; Peter Volek, Marián Gavenda, Ladislav Kvasz, Imrich Jenča, Martin Schmidt, Roman Kečka et al.).] A successful S&R further education programme for teachers ran over a period of several years in Slovakia. [A series of five collections of articles was published by the Christian-Democratic Union of Science and Education Employees; "Viera, veda a spoločnosť" (Faith, Science and Society), Bratislava: 1992-1995. The Associatoin for Science and Faith attached to the Society of Divine Word organized at least two series of lectures (published as "Zem a život vo svetle vedy a viery" (The Earth and Life in the Light of Science and Faith), Nitra-Bratislava: 1992; and "Biologický vývoj vo svetle vedy a viery" (Biological Evolution in the Light of Science and Faith), Nitra-Bratislava: 1995). The texts of another teacher training programme, organized by the [ Federation of Slovak Christian Intellectuals] in 2001/2002, were published in the journal RAN (see above).] Many conferences were held over the years, [To list only the conferences with published proceedings that we have been able to acquire: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, Košice (a series of four conferences organized by the [ University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik] ; the driving force being Angela Zentková; the fourth proceedings are yet to appear in print); 2000, Brno ( [ Technical Uni.] , Milan Klapetek); 2000 (Oct.), Olomouc ( [ Theol. Fac.] , Frank Mikeš; with the participation of Antje Jackelén, John F. Haught, Lodovico Galleni, etc.); 2000 (Nov.), Brno ( [ Union of Czech Mathematicians & Physicists] ; Štefan Zajac); 2001 (Dec.), České Budějovice; 2003 (Apr.), České Budějovice; 2003 (May), Prague ( [ Acad. of Science] ; round table with 16 participants); 2004 (Apr.), Velehrad (round table with students:; 2004, Prague (2nd round table, ecology); 2005 (May), České Budějovice; 2005 (May), Prague (3rd round table; Jiří Bičák, Jiří Chýla, Pavel Gábor); 2005 (Oct.), Olomouc ( [ Theol. Fac.] , Frank Mikeš). A number of other conferences and workshops were held (e.g. in Bratislava at the [ Lutheran Faculty of Theology] of [ Comenius University] , Bratislava, organized by its dean Igor Kiss; and in Summer 2005 in Ružomberok organized by Ladislav Kvasz).] discussions took place in public gatherings as well as in books and periodicals. [E.g. controversies on the nature of life (with one side accusing the other of mechanicism, and vitalism, respectively; e.g. Václav Hořejší, Anton Markoš, Jan Zrzavý, Zdeněk Neubauer, Zdeněk Kratochvíl), and on Intelligent Design (a grandiose international conference took place in Prague on 22 October 2005 with about 700 participants, including many prominent ID proponents from the US; the conference was generally boycotted by established Czech scholars but a debate on the subject exists in the Czech academic circles nonetheless; Emil Paleček).] A number of translations have appeared in print, [John Polkinghorne ("The Quantum World", and "Science and Theology"), Alistair McGrath ("The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion"), John F. Haught ("God after Darwin"), etc.] as well as several collections of original articles. [Július Krempaský (ed.), "Kresťanstvo a fyzika" (Christianity and Physics), Trnava: Spolok sv. Vojtecha, 1999; id., "Kresťanstvo a biológia" (Christianity and Biology), ibid. 2001; U. Wollner (ed.), "Človek vo svete kultúry, vedy a náboženstva" (Man in the World of Culture, Science and Religion), Banská Bystrica: Matej Bel University, 2005. Mostly popular presentations of the works of Western authors, but some original papers can be also found.] Some S&R (or S&R-related) monographs have also been published. [Mainly popular: Jiří Grygar, "O vědě a víře" (On Science and Faith), Kostelní Vydří: Karmelitánské nakladatelství, 2001; Marek Orko Vácha, "Tančící skály" (Dancing Rocks), Brno: Cesta, 2003; id., "Šestá cesta" (The Sixth Path), ibid. 2004; id., "Návrat ke Stromu života" (Back to the Tree of Life), ibid. 2005. Systematic and original monographs: Zdeněk Neubauer, "Nový areopág" (The New Areopagus), Praha, ČKA, 1992; id., "Deus et natura", Liberec: Sus liberans, 2000; Ladislav Hučko, "Antinomia e mediazione indagine sulla prospettiva cosmologica di alcuni pensatori russi tra Ottocento e Novecento", Roma: Michal Vaško, 2000; id., "Medzi vierou a rozumom. Vybrané kapitoly interdisciplinárneho dialógu" (Between Faith and Reason. Select Chapters of Interdisciplinary Dialogue), Košice: Seminár sv. Karola Boromejského, 2003; Anton Markoš, "Tajemství hladiny. Hermeneutika živého" (The Mystery of the Surface. Hermeneutics of Life), Praha: Vesmír, 2000; id., "Readers of the Book of Life: Contextualizing Developmental Evolutionary Biology", Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002; Josef Petr Ondok, "Přírodní vědy a teologie" (Science and Theology), Brno: CDK, 2001; Július Krempaský, "Veda verzus viera?" (Sciece vs. Faith?), Bratislava: Veda, 2006.]

Another remarkable sign of hope has been the Czech and Slovak participation in John Templeton Foundation’s GPSS programme. [Since 2003, John Templeton Foundation has been funding an ambitious project the goal of which is to expand “constructive dialogue between science and religion” beyond the boundaries of the “Anglo-Saxon West”. This programme, [ Global Perspectives on Science and Spirituality] , undertook to cover the whole of the post-Communist world (with the exception of Muslim countries), India, China, Japan, Korea, etc.] In the first round (Summer 2004), 12 preliminary proposals were received from Czech researchers in particular, five out of which were invited to elaborate their projects, leading to two of them receiving fellowship awards. Along with the one fellowship award going to Slovakia, this represented 1/6 of the whole GPSS programme.

There is, therefore, potential for S&R in Czechia and Slovakia. It is to be hoped that the local traditions, both endemic (ranging from Neubauer to Davídek) and more main-stream, continue to develop and enter into a productive dialogue with the international S&R community.


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