Tag Archives: religion

Religious Belief, Human Rights, and Social Democracy: Catholic Reflections on Abortion in Iceland

In a secular world, religion is an antidote to dogmatism. Like religious societies before them, today’s secular societies take many things for granted. There are beliefs, even life-and-death ones, that hardly anybody challenges seriously or thinks through, if not even about. Such beliefs are secular dogmas.

In the Nordic countries, for example, abortion is as much a long-secured legal right as it is an obvious fact of life and daily practice for hospitals and their personnel. Academic debates on the ethical nature and status of abortion are, nomen omen, academic. Students do not get particularly excited about them, unlike what a philosophy teacher would experience in, say, North America or Great Britain. In these Anglophone parts of the world, instead, the debate can be so heated that it often degenerates in the opposite way: two factions scream aloud (“murder!”, “patriarchy!”) and nobody listens to any reason but their own–or better, they listen to prejudice that is supposed to count as reason. Yet, British champions of liberalism such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) or Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864–1929) claimed that unchallenged belief, even if true, is worse than challenged belief, for which one must retrieve and think through solid reasons. Let contrary belief, even false belief, be heard, so that the human mind may not acquiesce into shared habit, prejudice, or de facto dogma.

Roman Catholicism, with its insistence on equating the destruction of embryos to the destruction of human life, serves as a token of contrary belief. Whilst heathen religions demanded life sacrifices and allowed infanticide, Christianity, at least in its declared intentions, stopped them, to the surprise of peoples that had been exposing children since time immemorial—Christ’s death on the cross being ideally the last human sacrifice to the heavens. Contra the conventional wisdom of civilised peoples such as the Egyptians and  the Romans,  the radical Jewish sect initiated by Jesus Christ (or Yeshua ben Yosef) became the unlikely ideological conqueror of the ancient world and ushered an age in which the parent-child relationship, which noted Jewish historian of early Christianity and bioethicist Hans Jonas (1903–1993) regards as the veritable archetype of all moral responsibility, acquires powerful ramifications.

In the Nordic countries, whenever I voice my doubts about the comprehensive and commonsensical ethical legitimacy of abortion, I am quickly dubbed an “Italian Roman Catholic”, as though that label could put an end to the issue. It does not, however. Uttering disqualifying predicates may be popular and even effective (e.g. “fascist”, “populist”, “communist”, “chauvinist”, etc.), but it is cheap rhetoric nevertheless. Generally, I am regarded on almost all issues as a die-hard leftist. Personally, I consider myself a feminist, or at least I have been happily married and co-working with one for many years. Whether I am a leftist, a feminist, an Italian Roman Catholic, an Icelandic one, a Greek Orthodox, Jew or Buddhist, though, my doubts must be countered first through proper critical analysis, not put aside without thoughtful consideration by uttering some sort of supposedly negative or self-explanatory label that, in the mind of the utterer, means that the brain can be switched off in good conscience. If not a classic token of ad hominem attack, the standard reply that I receive in the Nordic countries is a case of fallacy of relevance. Let me articulate my doubts, then, and engage active reason, not automated numbness.

First of all, whatever a fertilised egg may be—a person, a cluster of cells, a magmatic centre of biological energy, a monad—we can all be certain of one thing: all persons have been precisely that at some early stage of their biological development. One does not have to deploy the full force of Aristotelian or scholastic metaphysics to grasp this fact, even if the notions of “potency” and “actuality” may appeal to her. After all, they appeal to engineers and physicists when dealing with energy; or to sport coaches and teachers when gauging the likely achievements (or failures) of a young athlete or pupil. But they do not appeal to me. Infinite regress seems excessive for something as temporally confined as a person, whom we know to have a beginning and an end, however blurry those may be. Besides, my doubts do not start with the reproductive cells taken independently, but with the fertilised egg. Plenty of sperm cells and, fairly regularly, of eggs, are disposed of without ever becoming a person. Far fewer fertilised eggs do not evolve into a foetus, which later becomes, often, a person. In any case, no person has never been a fertilised egg.

Could then a fertilised egg be a person? I do not know for sure. Though I do know that it might. Hence abortion might be prenatal infanticide. As such, on merely prudential grounds, I am strongly inclined to suggest that we should be cautious with regard to how we treat a fertilised egg, for it might be the case that we are dealing with a person, and I myself as well as all of my Nordic interlocutors (I have yet to meet an inveterate sceptic, social Darwinist or sadist outside philosophy books) wish to treat persons respectfully. Annihilating them is, with rare and typically tragically painful exceptions, something that we do not wish to do.

Secondly, when I look back at my personal experiences, and especially at whether growing up in a largely Roman Catholic country did make any difference, I can clearly see two things. One: on the most counterfactual level imaginable, I would be most displeased if my parents or just my mother had decided to abort me; I would have been deprived of my existence and all the experiences, bad as well as good, that have made it worth living. Two: when debating the legalisation of abortion in Italy, one of the most frequently heard arguments from the pro-abortion side was that, as painful and possibly harmful as it could be, it would have saved nonetheless the lives of many women, who would have otherwise sought illegal abortions.

Like several advocates of legalised drugs or prostitution, many who have favoured State-sanctioned and operated abortion suggest a choice in the face of empirical inevitability between two evils—one greater, another lesser—rather than between an evil and a good. Saving life, rather than contributing to destroying it, is a paramount aim to be attained by allowing and regulating abortions, even when it is found profoundly unappealing. Thus, the question arises: were we to find a way to save life to a higher extent, could we try to reduce the frequency of abortion, or establish conditions that could lead to the same result?

Please note that I have stated nothing so far about women’s fundamental rights and liberties. I am not indifferent to them. Quite the reverse, they are so obviously paramount to me that I have not wasted any time debating them or their legitimacy. I do not wish to see them diminished, not least in the medical sphere. Rather, as with all cases of possible limitation of anyone’s liberty and self-direction, such as penal law and traffic regulations, one can only intervene if some serious harm could be the case if no intervention takes place. Given that the ontological nature of the fertilised egg might be that of a person, or be so closely related to being a person as to entail some serious moral consideration, how could one ever intervene with all the authority, impersonality, clumsiness and yet inevitable necessity of State regulation in such an intimate sphere as a woman’s control over herself, her body, her earthly existence?

Certainly, since I have not ascertained with much certainty that fertilised eggs are real persons and, at the same time, I do know that all reasonable human beings would avoid harming persons as far as plausibly possible, whilst granting them as much freedom as possible, I cannot allow the State, in principle as well as in practice, to be heavy-handed. While it can be hypothesised academically that legal abortion is a modern woman’s equivalent of the ancient Roman pater familias’ having ius vitae necisque over all living beings that happened to be sub mano, the State’s ability for murderous power is far more empirically certain and we are reminded of it by each and every war that occurs on our planet.

The solution that I propose is therefore a fairly indirect and, in the lack of certainty, prudential one, which is bound to prove dissatisfactory to many pro-life advocates. It is partly the result of the theoretical considerations spelled out above, as tentative and imperfect as they may be. And it is partly the result of personal and, if one wishes to be a little more ‘scientific’, socio-cultural observations that I have made in different European countries over many years of professional and personal life.

These observations can be summarised fairly quickly: in Iceland, compared to the United Kingdom, there is a similar abortion rate and at least as easy an access to lawful abortion, coupled with a high rate of unplanned pregnancies, especially among young women. Overall, however, more children are born in Iceland of younger mothers, even in comparison with the other Nordic countries. Emblematically, while I never had young students with children when I was teaching in England, that has been a most commonplace experience in my long professional life in Iceland. Why?

Several factors are at play, all of which are relevant, though I cannot say which ones carry more weight than the others. To begin with, the social stigma attached in Britain to unwanted and teenage pregnancies is almost non-existent in Iceland. Secondly, Icelandic women can continue to study or work without fear of dismissal, for the existing legal provisions protect them; besides, such provisions might actually facilitate the commencement of a young, double- or single-parent family via tax credits, free public childcare, maternity leaves, and affordable education for children up to adult age. Also, many young Icelandic women seem to regard motherhood as a fundamental step in their personal growth, self-realisation and long-term well-being, whether there will be a father available or just the State qua surrogate parent. Finally, Icelandic families, as mixed and crisscrossing as they may be, tend to be willing to help young parents and many generations come together to raise the new baby.

Given this picture of the situation, my suggestion is as follows: let the United Kingdom and any other nation on Earth be more like Iceland, for the welfare State is actually pro-life. While changing local cultures may be complicated, changing taxation, labour law, access to education and healthcare provision is a fairly common practice, at least as the history of the past hundred years or so has shown across the globe. Moreover, the financial resources needed for these changes are undeniably available. It is enough to consider the vast amounts of tax-avoiding money that have been siphoned for years into well-known tax havens or that Central Banks have “injected” into the world’s economies over the past decade in order to keep failed private banks afloat. Whenever any talk of limited funds are heard, one should recall the exemplary and staggering 700-billion USD bailout package passed under George W. Bush’s administration in October 2008.

If only a tiny fraction of that huge monetary mass were created to support family policies along Icelandic lines, then the worries about budgets could be easily overcome (I do not discuss here the details of the funding process, for they would obscure the simple fact of the actual availability of funds, given a positive political will). If Iceland managed to achieve all of this, despite being one of the poorest countries in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, it is bizarre to think that at least all other high- and middle-income countries could not do the same. The Roman Catholic can thus conclude, in a spirit of hope: give us more Icelandic-style, or for that matter, Scandinavian-style social democracy in family policies, love thy children and thy nation’s children, and more births should occur. That, in turn, can translate into fewer abortions though, I must admit, it is no strict guarantee of it. After all, we do live in a secular world, in which career considerations or Down-syndrome diagnoses do routinely lead to terminating pregnancies. Nonetheless, better conditions for life-enablement can certainly be established, granting personal liberty and free conscience more room as to whether make full use of them or not, consistently with constitutional human-rights provisions. The imperfect knowledge of imperfect humankind can only usher imperfect solutions, but different degrees of imperfection matter as well and can well make a difference.

 

References

Alþingi, Lög 25/1975.

Duvander, Ann-Zofie et al., “Gender Equality Family Policy and Continued Childbearing in Iceland, Norway and Sweden“, Stockholm Research Reports in Demography, #2, 2016.

CESCR, General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12), ref. E/C.12/2000/4, 2000.

Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawny, Liberalism, NDA (originally published in 1911).

Hognert, Helena et al., “High birth rates despite easy access to contraception and abortion: a cross-sectional study”, Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 96(12)/2017: 1414-22.  

John Paul II, Pope, Evangelium Vitae, 1995.

Jonas, Hans, Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die Technologische Zivilisation, 1979.

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, 1993 (Collier & Son 1909 edition; originally published in 1859).

OECD, “A Progress Report on the Jurisdictions Surveyed by the OECD Global Forum in Implementing the Internationally Agreed Tax Standard“, 2009.

Sedgh, Gilda et al., “Adolescent Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion rates Across Countries: Levels and Recent Trends“, Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(2)/2015: 223-30.

US Senate, H.R. 1424, ref. AYO08C32, 2008 (as made available in The Wall Street Journal).

 

The Human Right to Freedom of Religion in the Polish Education System

Legal Guarantees for Freedom of Religion

 

The legal provisions in force in Poland set up standards for respecting freedom of and from religion. These provisions apply to all persons who find themselves within their territorial reach, regardless of whether they are citizens of Poland or other states or stateless persons residing in Poland. The standard of religious freedom is also not affected by the gender, ethnicity, race and age of a person. So it can be stated that the Polish national law and the international legal system serve as the basis for protecting the human right to freedom of religion and for exercising this freedom in educational settings.

The provisions of international law, to which Poland is a party, establish legal guarantees as to religious freedom, especially the freedom of worship and religious practices. Regarding the relation between education and people’s opinions about religion or in particular the lack of such; quite apart from the provisions applicable to all people regardless of their age, the regulations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and articles 14 and 24 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights are of special importance.

 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 1 The international legal system safeguarding the freedom of religion and from religion in Poland

 

The system of national law in Poland guarantees the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion, yet the analysis of the legal system leads to the conclusion that Catholicism is the religion of the majority, which brings about particular consequences and risks for the human rights sphere.

The Polish Constitution fully respects the international standards of human rights protection as regards the freedom of belief and religion. This includes prohibiting the public authorities from commanding a person to disclose their philosophy of life, religious convictions or beliefs. The right to freedom of and from religion is guaranteed by Article 53, para. 1 of the Constitution, which states that “freedom of conscience and religion shall be ensured to everyone”. As stated in para. 2 of the same article, “freedom of religion shall include the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest such religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing of rites or teaching”. What is more, according to para. 6, “no one shall be compelled to participate or not participate in religious practices” and “no one may be compelled by organs of public authority to disclose his philosophy of life, religious convictions or belief” (para. 7).

Moreover, Article 25 of the Constitution places on the public authorities the obligation to remain impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life.

 

Legal Regulation of Matters of Belief in the Spheres of Education and Upbringing

The Polish constitution guarantees the right of the parents to ensure their children a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions, while taking into account the freedom of conscience and belief of their children. As stated in art. 48, para. 1 of the Constitution,”Parents shall have the right to rear their children in accordance with their own convictions. Such upbringing shall respect the degree of maturity of the child as well as his freedom of conscience and belief and also his convictions”. In addition, according to Art. 53, para. 3, “Parents shall have the right to ensure their children a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions”. Parents thus have a subjective right towards the state with regard to their views on religious or lay upbringing of their children, although this right is limited and counterbalanced by the child’s right to have their religious convictions and beliefs respected.

There is, however, one provision in the Polish Constitution, which allows religion to be taught at school. According to Art. 53, para. 4, “the religion of a church or other legally recognized religious organization may be taught in schools, but other people’s freedom of religion and conscience shall not be infringed thereby”. The Catholic religion is not mentioned explicitly, but the Constitution states that the provision applies to a religion that is legally recognized. At present, there are 178 registered operational religious communities in Poland.

As follows from the case law of the courts, the right of the parents to raise children in the spirit of a particular worldview does not mean that the knowledge transmitted at school will be consistent with this worldview. Such an opinion was expressed by both the Polish Constitutional Court (Judgement of the Constitutional Court of 27 May 2003, on the provisions of section 97 paragraphs 3 and 4 of Act No. 127/2005Wyrok Trybunału Konstytucyjnego z dnia 27 maja 2003 r., ref. K 11/03, OTK-A 2003, No. 5, pos. 43) and the European Court of Human Rights (Judgement by the ECHR of 7 December 1976 in the case of Kjeldsen, Busk, Madsen and Pedersen v. Danemark application No. 5095/71, Judgement by the ECHR of 13 September 2011 in the case of Dojan and Others v. Germany, application No. 319/08). The case becomes more problematic; however, when children only learn about one religious worldview at school, something which comes close to indoctrination, or when it actually takes the form of intentional indoctrination where religious knowledge is passed on while participating in the religious practices of one particular tradition and faith.

The provisions that have significant bearing on the issue of human rights in education as regards the problem of religion at schools are mainly affected by the Concordat – an agreement signed in 1993 between the Republic of Poland and the Vatican. Poland has pledged that public schools and kindergartens will organize classes in Catholic religion and grant the Church the right to decide on its teaching programs, textbooks, and the persons teaching religion – including secular catechists, priests, monks and nuns, who have been granted permission to teach by the diocesan bishop.

The anti-discrimination provisions and the provisions securing the rights of the followers of other religions within the educational system and beyond are also in effect. Discrimination on religious grounds in Poland is forbidden according to the provisions of the Constitution and international law. However, victims of discrimination are not able to benefit from the legal measures provided by the Act implementing EU regulations, pertaining to equal treatment and the pursuit of compensation on its basis. This Act only prevents unequal treatment in education on account of race, ethnic origin or nationality (Art. 7).

It can be concluded that the Polish law introduces the standards of religious freedom, but it should be considered whether this standard is not a façade which hides the lack of equality. Because justice is not a dictate of the majority, the effectiveness of anti-discrimination instruments and the actual existence of response mechanisms for possible instances of minority discrimination need to be scrutinized and evaluated.

 

Dilemmas Pertaining to Teaching Religion in Public Educational Institutions

The main issue to consider when analysing the relation between education, religious matters and ethical principles is whether religion and ethics should be taught at schools and if so, how. Related questions are, first of all, whether teaching religion should also include participating in religious practices. The second question is whether the State should be neutral in terms of worldview and whether ethical issues should be taught through the lens of the legal protection of human rights. And the third question is whether religious matters should be discussed from the anthropological standpoint so that children could learn about the various belief systems that exist in the world.

It seems that these issues have long been resolved in the “old” European Union countries. Nevertheless, Poland is a peculiar state in which, after almost 30 years of teaching religion in public schools, we begin to ask these difficult questions anew. Poland is relatively uniform in terms of cultural and religious convictions and practices. There is a strong and increasingly stronger dominance of Catholic discourse in the Polish culture and public life. But the matter here is not so much about the numbers than it is about one of the most important issues in democracy. It is about honouring the rights of the minority to be respected in their beliefs and values and modes of social functioning. An analysis of the influence that religion and ethics have had on the society is difficult because everybody has a different value system. Values are part of human identity. The objective assessment of these problems is difficult in the actual circumstances. From the point of view of protecting human rights, it seems fit to evaluate the case of teaching religion in the context of law, which reflects certain universal values, developed and cultivated by the previous generations who had to find solutions to these problems before.

 

How Religion, Especially Catholic, entered into the Polish Education Institutions

The current regulations allow for teaching any religion that is registered in Poland, but originally the only religion taught in schools and later also in pre-schools was Catholicism, which found its way there due to pressure from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In order to fully understand the impact of the compulsory lessons in religion have had on the issue of human rights protection, the cultural and political circumstances behind the introduction of religion into the educational system need to be explained first.

Before religion became a school subject, children of the Roman Catholic faith could attend such classes at their parishes. These lessons were held in the so-called small classrooms, which looked like traditional classrooms, but were located either in the presbyteries or one of the parish buildings. Children from different religions either took non-institutional lessons or no lessons at all. Ethics was partially covered in the civic education course. But according to my experience, ethical dilemmas were discussed broadly in literature lessons while studying the Polish literary canon.

Religion was introduced into the Polish school system in September 1990, by virtue of a directive issued by the Minister of National Education on the 3rd of August 1990. At the time the act was illegal – as it would be illegal today. This was done at the express request of the bishops, who passed an official resolution regarding the matter at the Polish Bishops’ Conference and they threatened the Government to take legal action and organize social protests.

We should remember that Poland was in a very difficult situation at the time. The legislative power was held by a special constitution of the Sejm called the “contract Sejm”. It was made up in half from the Communists peacefully giving up power and in half of the Deputies chosen in a free election. The hyperinflation was raging. The Soviet Army was still stationed in Poland. The government wanted to defuse the social situation and was afraid of riots on religious grounds – even more so than in the Socialist period, the Church was heavily involved in the resistance against the Soviet Union and the Communist regime. It was at this moment the stereotype of the Polish-Catholic patriot was solidified. The Government took the opportunistic stand. They wanted to prevent further destabilization of the State and ensure a win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, so the blackmail happened to be effective.

One of the Government officials at the time, Jacek Kuroń, admitted: “I thought that we had avoided a religious war. But I was wrong. At once, critical voices were raised about trying to make Poland a religious state, which was all the more valid since we had broken the law – we, who talked so loudly about making the new Poland a state of the law!” (Kuroń and Żakowski 1997: p 182). It is often claimed that religion was sneaked into schools through the back door (e.g. Agnosiewicz 2002, Słowik and Beczek 2015). Introducing religious education classes were not approved by everybody and from the beginning it stirred many doubts related to civil liberties and human rights. This chart presents the formal stages of introducing religion into Polish schools (fig. 2 Chronology of educational curricula):

 

The decisions of the Government met with formal objections from the Ombudsman. Ewa Łętowska objected to the violation of the law, including the Constitution, provisions concerning the freedom of worship and laws regarding education. This was to little avail, as the Constitutional Court did not react accordingly. It stated, for example, that “the secular and neutral nature of the State” may not be a justification for teaching religion in public schools, but it also cannot be a justification for not allowing it to be taught.  Legislative measures to introduce religion into schools were undertaken in 1992. Again, the Ombudsman raised an objection, which again was dismissed by the Court. In the end, grades for religious education began to appear on the school-leaving reports.

While the actions that led to the introduction of religion into schools in 1990 could be described as a blitzkrieg because they came as a sort of shock to the society, soon afterwards a heated debate began, which continues pretty much until today. Below are some exemplary quotes from the statements made by the Church officials and their supporters. These statements maintain the belief that religion is an expression of freedom from Communism and that Catholicism is linked to patriotism. As such, they stigmatize attitudes that do not adhere to the Catholic worldview. Jacek Kuroń cites the opinion of the bishops who commented on introducing religion into the Polish schools’ curricula. (Żakowski and Kuroń 1997: p.180 – 181.) In their opinion, ”Believers have the right to learn and develop their faith and since it is not possible to separate education from upbringing, schools are the right place for religious formation”. Moreover,”Return of religion to schools means the reparation of the harm the Polish society suffered under totalitarian rule that sought to banish God from people’s lives and to deprive Poles of their national identity”. The bishops also claimed that their fidelity to Christ’s teachings obliges them to preach and remind the entire world that schools are a natural place for evangelization. The matter was also commented upon by priests; the following is a representative example: “Freemasonry and other unbelievers, under the guise of freedom and neutrality, have suspended any relations with the living God” (Bartnik 1993, see: http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,434).

Different argumentswere expressed by secular circles and those concerned about the “totalitarian” character of teaching just this one religion in schools. Some of these statements were made, for example, by the members of the Polish government at the time. They draw attention to the conflict-inducing nature of such actions and the threat that they pose to the freedom of persons who do not want to participate in religious education or who will only participate in them for fear of explicit or implicit discrimination and pressure.

Even then, technical problems as to the organization of these classes are signalled, which, as it turns out, has led to actual discrimination. Jacek Kuroń pointed to the negative implications of the fact that the state will teach religion under statutory coercion and he tried to salvage the situation of non-Catholics, stating that voluntary consent has to be a positive, not negative, decision for parents and pupils. He tried to substantiate his opinion with a claim that “introducing religion into schools threatens to create tensions and conflicts in many environments, not only between adults but also children”[1]. On the other hand, the then deputy minister, Anna Radziwiłł argued that universal Christian ethics should be part of education, but religion should not be taught as a school subject, because it is something greater. The representatives of the scientific and artistic circles and journalists then sent an open letter of protest to the Polish President, Prime Minister and The Minister of National Education, against the plans to introduce compulsory religious education in schools, in which they argued that “the initiative of the Ministry is aimed at turning state schools into denominational school which is the expression of undemocratic tendencies. They claimed, and rightly, as it turned out later, that ‘the choice: religion or ethics will be a false choice, given the Polish realities’.”[2]

Since 2007, grade in religion classes is placed on the school certificate and the Church has endeavoured to make religion one of the matura subjects(see: Wiśniewska 2016, see: http://wyborcza.pl/1,75398,20126283,religia-na-maturze-mozliwa-w-2021-r-kosciol-dogadal-sie-z.html?disableRedirects=true). Maturais a Polish state exam taken at the end of secondary school giving access to the University. Long-term observation of the political scene allows to conclude that the right-wing groups promised to acknowledge religion as one the matura subjects in exchange for the Church’s support for their candidates in the election.

 

The Importance of Catholic Religion in Poland

To understand the Polish case, one should be aware of how important the Catholic religion is in Poland as compared to other religions or atheism and what is the status of the ecclesiastical institutions in our country. Catholicism is very popular and, in a sense endemic here, as a worldview. Which is another reason why religious education (RE) has been taught at schools for about 30 years already.

The Catholic Church has an extremely well-developed and organized administrative structure, covering the entire Polish territory with a broad network of territorial units: parishes, dioceses, archdioceses and metropolies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 3 The administrative structure of the Catholic Church in Poland and basic statistics. The Central Statistical Office of Poland Information note prepared in partnership with the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics SAC, Warsaw, 2017 (https://stat.gov.pl/files/gfx/portalinformacyjny/pl/defaultaktualnosci/5500/7/1/1/struktura_administracyjna_kosciola_katolickiego_w_polsce.pdf)

 

Clearly, as far as human capital and organizational support are concerned, the organization of RE classes in public schools and kindergartens does not pose any problems to the Catholic Church, but given the situation, these classes could equally well be held at the parishes.

It is indeed difficult to assess how many Catholics there actually are in Poland, how many atheists and how many people of other beliefs. Official government statistics are based on data provided by religious associations, but other statistics are also considered. The authors of the report (cited below) observed a 3,2 million discrepancy in the number of Catholic Church followers, depending on the counting method. It should be noted that the Polish population is about 38 million.

According to the report, the statistics as of 2017 are as follows:

  • 10 248 parishes,
  • 30 925 priests.
  • 33 214 800 believers – according to the Church.
  • On average, there are 3241 followers in each parish and 1047 followers for one priest

The notion of a follower does not reflect fully the complex human relation to faith and religious duties. For this reason, the Church and public statistics do not indicate the actual number of practising followers, but rather the number of baptized persons. Thus, secular circles often allege that the official statistics, due to the opportunism of the Church officials, are highly inaccurate because they are based on the numbers provided by different religious denominations and their presentation is also not fully reliable.

In the general census, conducted in 2011,[3] 95% of respondents declared Catholic faith.  As for other beliefs, 0,44 % of respondents declared the formal membership in the Russian Orthodox Church, 0,39% in the Jehovah’s Witness Association, 0,20% in the Evangelical-Augsburg Church, 0,9% in the Greek Catholic Church, 0,8% in the Pentecostal Church,  0,03% in the Mariavite Old Catholic Church, 0,02 in the Polish-Catholic Church and 0,2% in the Baptist Church. 0,12% respondents declared belonging to other religions and 2,41% declared themselves to be non-believers. These numbers have been obtained through a census that took into account only 20% of the households in Poland. What is more, 7% of the respondents refused to answer the question and for 1,6% it was impossible to obtain data. It is thus uncertain whether these statistics reflect actual social tendencies. What is also important here is that people who have been raised in some religion or just in certain social conditions, in which the existence of a higher power is implied, may not be able to declare atheism, even if they do not practice any religion at all. “They believe just in case, because you never know how it really is, and you wouldn’t want to mess with God.”

As a result, data showing that there is so great a domination of the Catholic worldview in Poland is not fully reliable. Still, the fact that it is presented in such a manner may lead to the occurrence of a phenomenon known as the Noelle-Neuman’s spiral of silence. According to this theory, people refrain from presenting their views when they believe that these views are not in agreement with the view of the majority (Noelle-Neuman 1974: p. 43-51).

Nevertheless, Catholic religion in Poland is dominant and this is visible in all spheres of social life. Many people go to church every Sunday. Baptisms, weddings, communions and funerals according to the Catholic rite are also common. This can be seen as an element of folklore, but also as the result of the strong, position of the church in Poland, which has been built over the last decades. Catholic priests are present during many state ceremonies and they bless newly constructed public buildings. Characteristic of the Polish landscape is spontaneously erected and maintained chapels. Not only in the villages, which were commonly conceived as the bastions of the traditional approach to life and religiousness, but also in the cities (cf. below: Pic.1 On the left is a rustic chapel in Bukowina, near Kudowa, on the right, a chapel in the Grochów District in Warsaw – the capital. Photo: M. Tabernacka).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It should also be noted that the Catholic Church receives considerable support from the public authorities. This support may be financial, organizational or institutional. An interesting example of this tendency is the Polish Post, the offices of which look like a combination of a devotional shop and a little rustic store that sells socks next to rosaries. Both pictures were taken in a Wrocław post office. Books that can be seen here are quite consistent in their subject matter. Some of them describe events from the history of Poland and the Polish people, but from a rather nationalist standpoint. There are also books written by priests and culinary books written by nuns and religious literature for children. Although “The Danish Way of Parenting” can also be spotted (cf. Pic.2. Photo: M. Tabernacka).

A certain counterbalance to these tendencies is provided by people with a secular outlook and non-Catholic religious beliefs and the actions they undertake in the public sphere. One example of such actions is the “School is not Church” social campaign run by the foundation called “Freedom from Religion”,[4] whose poster (with the same inscription) is shown on the photo below (Pic. 3. Photo: M. Tabernacka 2017).

 

The campaign’s authors insist on the secularization of the school and they are opposed to the domination of the Catholic religion, pointing out that the ever-presence of its symbols in schools is a symbolic violence that affects students from religious and non-believer minorities during the long years of education. The same foundation also promotes the freedom of worldview and the separation between the church and the state, which is guaranteed by the art. 25 of the Polish Constitution.

Both the Polish Constitution and a separate legislation ensure the separation of church and state. However, a number of legal regulations guarantees a privileged position to the Catholic Church and teaching religion in schools is just one of its consequences. About 30 years of publicly teaching RE in Poland may be one of the key factors determining the current escalation of xenophobic attitudes among young people who hide behind a specific perspective of patriotism that is closer to nationalism and religious ethnocentrism.

 

What Is the Teaching Practice of Religion in Polish Schools

According to Polish provisions, children can attend RE classes in all types of primary and secondary public schools. These can be in Catholic religion or any of the minority religion classes. Those who are not willing to be educated in religion can attend ethics classes if these are organized at their schools. If these are not organized, they can attend neither of the classes, at least according to the general principles derived from the law. But it is the practice of teaching religion in Polish schools that raises doubts about the preservation of human rights.

Legal regulations in Poland guarantee the freedom of religion and non-discrimination on the ground of religion. The problem lies, however, in the manner they are executed and in the specific social climate, which makes public authorities and certain individuals more inclined to opportunism towards the aspirations of the clergy and the Catholic community.

Attending or not attending RE has important implications for the Polish learners, because it affects the assessment of their overall school performance. The following diagram illustrates the specifics of organizing RE and / or Ethics in Polish schools in relation to the grades that learners can obtain (fig. 4 Organization of RE / Classes):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The organization of RE / ethics classes are regulated by the Regulation of the Minister of National Education of 14 April 1992 (Journal of Laws No. 36, item 155, as amended, the latest amendment of 1 December) regarding conditions and methods for teaching religion in public schools and kindergartens. According to this regulation, learners attending RE / ethics can get two grades, one grade or no grade at all. These grades count in the grade average, which makes them important for the assessment of the learners’ overall performance. If either ethics or religion are chosen, presence is mandatory just as for any other classes, so it may affect the grade for conduct.

If there are 7 pupils in a school class or a kindergarten group who want to attend religion, the school or kindergarten is responsible for organizing such classes. If there are fewer than 7 pupils in a class or group, combined classes should be organized. If there are fewer than 7 pupils interested in attending RE classes in a school or kindergarten, the municipality is responsible for organizing classes for interschool or inter-kindergarten groups or at a religious education facility. The municipality is obliged to organize them even if there is just 1 such learner. The case is similar with ethics. In practice, the number of children attending ethics classes is small, even if it has increased in the last few years. The statistical data is presented below (fig. 5: Fig. 5, 2015 Annual Report of the Ombudsman. Source: M. Tabernacka):

 

Access to ethics classes in Poland was only taken seriously after the 2010 judgement of the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg in the case of Grzelak vs. Poland (Judgement of the ECHRights of 15 June 2010 in the case of Grzelak v. Poland, application No. 7710/02). The school authorities’ failure to organize ethics classes for a child who refused to attend RE classes was taken by the Court as an infringement of the articles 9 and 14 of the Convention. Nonetheless, even if ethics classes were formally guaranteed in schools, there were often doubtful cases from the standpoint of freedom of religion and conscience. There were some cases in Poland, where ethics classes were conducted by the same people who taught religion and on the basis of textbooks written by some Catholic priest or parents who opted for an ethics course were met with such proposals for these classes. Thus, when it comes to the actual safeguarding of human rights, the implementation of the provisions pertaining to teaching religion and ethics actually leads to the infringement of the standards for protecting human rights in Poland.

Teaching minority religions in Polish schools are, in fact, very rare. Under the current provisions in force public schools have the obligation to include the grade from any religion taught outside of the school system on the school-leaving certificate. The Ombudsman’s report showed that quite frequently the school authorities did not recognize such grades. The followers of minority religions who want to organize RE classes at schools often meet with a refusal by these authorities, their passivity or institutional obstacles, such as inconvenient hours (The 2015 RPO Report). The following chart illustrates the Polish educational practices for teaching minority religions (fig. 6):

 

The presence of the Catholic religion in schools goes far beyond the scope of an ordinary school subject in what regards the substance and organization.According to the law, two classes in Catholic religion should be held each week, or if it is only one, then the local bishop should give his permission. During the lessons, the pupils learn about the principles of the Catholic faith, but they also participate in religious practices, for example the classes tend to start with prayers. In fact, lessons are the combination of religious practices and theory from the textbook and workbook. This may pose a problem if schools cannot provide care or an alternative place to stay during the lessons to children who do not want to participate in RE and have to sit in class with other children. The organization of the Catholic holidays and retreats also calls for additional study breaks. The research conducted among children attending these lessons reveals that some of their contents verge on indoctrination. Children are shown propaganda videos (about miracles, conversions, etc.).

It is important to note that in Polish schools it is assumed that everyone will attend religion, but the regulations in force since 2014 (Journal of Laws of 1992 No. 36 item 155) explicitly state that religion is organized on the parents’ request or the learners’ themselves, after they have come of age, which stems from para. 1 of this regulation. The said request should be made in writing. The above chart presents the results of a study carried out by the Ombudsman in 2015.In many schools surveyed by the Ombudsman and schools which I researched, RE was simply a part of the agenda for all learners to attend by default. There was no practice of launching it on request and parents were not informed that such a request was a condition for the attendance of their children to such classes. Religion is simply placed on the class schedule, most often at a time convenient for the priest or catechist. The report that concluded the Ombudsman’s survey stated that in 70.4% of the schools surveyed, new students were automatically directed to take RE classes.If the learner didn’t want to participate, they could (or their parents could) report this orally (41.4%) or in writing (29%), 42% of principals explicitly stated that the schools they run do not inform learners and parents about the right to choose minority religion or ethics classes.

Both having a minority religion and ethics classes organized often require a great deal of determination from the learners and their parents, as these lessons often take place outside of school, in the so-called Inter-school classes and in inconvenient hours.

The law guarantees religious denominations and parents who adhere to specific beliefs the possibility to set up their own schools and such schools indeed exist. Parents representing these specific views can send their children to such schools without any obstacles, as it is also guaranteed by the law that a religious denomination can teach religion within their own structures.

The teaching of religion in Polish public schools points to numerous areas in which the right to non-discrimination and the freedom of worldview could be threatened. Economic determinants of state functioning considered in the light of the social justice principle, e.g. fair avocation of funds collected through taxes or total costs of the Polish education system are also relevant here. The law should not only safeguard certain rights but also provide mechanisms to counteract inequalities. Only such a legal standard can guarantee the protection of human rights in a given sphere. The Ombudsmanclaims that the current Polish regulations do not protect the various religious and social groups sufficiently. The persons belonging to the Roman Catholic Church have a privileged position: not so much due to legal regulations, but due to tradition, cultural practices and pragmatic considerations. The Ombudsman’s report points to the existence of hidden or passive denial of the rights of persons and groups representing religious or worldview minorities. The Ombudsman believes that legislative actions are less important than soft educational measures, appropriate mass media communication and a long-term policy for social education, which can bring about cultural changes (The 2015 RPO Report: p. 6-7).

The analysis of the legal provisions allowed me to distinguish a number of legal provisions pertaining to human rights in the field of education. They can be classified into three groups: first, freedom of religion, second, prohibition of discrimination affecting universal right to education and, third, provisions protecting the child’s mental and physical well-being. The rules in question will now be presented within the social context related to the presence of religion in the Polish public schools.

 

Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Thought

The principle of freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right, which obviously applies not only to adults, but also to children. It includes, among others, freedom to choose one’s religion, including the lack of it. One of the most important achievements of our civilization in the last 150 years has been the gradual refinement of the societies, which brought about the recognition of children’s subjectivity. As regards the guarantees for respecting human rights, another fundamental issue is the right of children to express and to demand respect for their views, including their religious views.

These standards are binding in secular countries with democratic systems. Any infringement of the principles regarding the freedom of worldviews and the freedom to choose one’s religion calls into question the actual secular and democratic nature of a state. Poland, according to the current Constitution, is both a secular state and a state following the model of democratic ruled by law.

It is extremely important to ensure that the prohibition against compelling anyone to participate in religious practices is complied with. This issue is related to whether RE will be taught as a school subject, whether it will aim to familiarize students with different religious systems and whether it will entail participation in religious practices. During the Religious Education lessons it may occur – and in Poland this is commonplace – that children say their prayers. Given the compulsory participation in such lessons this can be regarded as a violation of human rights.

Participation or non-participation in classes of religion in public school is an expression of a specific worldview or a particular religious or non-religious option. Even if a person who chooses one of these options does not intend to deliberately affirm anything, their choice can still become the subject of social evaluation. What is more, the consequences of making the choice and having it formally disclosed by placing the RE grade on the school certificate, are permanent, which further increases the risk of human rights infringement in the future and is already such an infringement itself. A related problem regards the assessment of the student’s participation or non-participation in RE within the context of the other classes that the school provides. According to the experts, placing a dash instead of a grade on a school certificate of a student who didn’t attend RE / ethics is regarded as illegal if ethics classes were not organized by the school. This violates the constitutional principle of not having one’s religious convictions disclosed and represents a breach of the right to privacy, guaranteed by Art. 18 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Olszewski 2010:p. 189-190).

One characteristic of teaching RE in Poland is that public education is subject to certain normative regulations that stem from a normative order that is not “public”. This also affects persons who are not willing to conform to this order. The public and legal relations of the state’s citizens should not be bound by regulations other than those provided by public law. This is one of the fundamental standards of democracy. The public law and its execution should thus not lead to the state of coercion, in which the process of performing public activities, the situation of individuals is affected by religious norms. Even if public law allows to be exempt from the operation of these norms, the actual social situation of an individual opposing the active, or even silent, will affect this individual’s right to religious freedom and freedom of convictions, which should be explored with regard to one more factor. As noted by J. S. Mill, “social intolerance, kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion”. According to the author, social stifling of “heretical” opinions allows to maintain the status quo of the intellectual climate, and to provide for comparative order, at least for some time. Yet, the price society has to pay for such an intellectual pacification is “the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind” (Mill 2012: p.128-129).

Freedom of religion and belief in the context of introducing religious education into schools should also be examined from the standpoint of the principle of proportionality operating in Poland by virtue of Art. 31 para. 3 of the Constitution. According to this regulation, any limitation upon the exercise of constitutional freedoms and rights may be imposed only by statute, and only when necessary in a democratic state for the protection of its security or public order, or to protect the natural environment, health or public morals, or the freedoms and rights of other persons. Such limitations shall not violate the essence of freedoms and rights. None of the conditions it outlines justifies restricting the scope of the principle of freedom of religion and belief, atheism included. Perceiving “minority” worldviews as immoral or “threatening” to the public order by the mere fact of their existence would be against the universal values expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to freedom of thought and religion, guaranteed in Art. 18.

Even more so, that the preamble of this convention frames its underlying rationale as the following: “whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Big words from the preamble, stating that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people”, and that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” should also apply to the legal obligation to ensure non-discrimination of religious minorities and persons professing no religion.

 

Ban on Discrimination

Discrimination related to teaching Catholic religion in Polish schools is thus a structural problem involving both specific organizational problems and organizational culture of the Polish educational establishments in general, derived from the broader social climate. This happens when the provisions create a condition in which, depending on the specifics of their implementation, discrimination will be either present or absent.

One example is the regulations of 1992 concerning the organization of RE which place the school principal in a very difficult predicament from the praxeological point of view. According to paragraph 1 of this article, lessons of religion in schools and pre-schools should be organized at the explicit request of parents or pupils, after they have reached the age of majority. But, as stated in para. 2, these lessons should be included into class schedules. Enrolment requests for school or kindergarten pupils should be made in writing. It is not technically feasible in multiple-class schools that RE will always be scheduled as the first or last lesson on a given day. These classes are often planned to take place in between other classes, which brings about serious logistical problems related to ensuring proper care to children who do not participate in them. This, in turn, causes schools to resort to measures resulting in discrimination of such children. It is also worth considering that statistical surveys conducted among both believers and non-believers conclude that the vast majority of the population (81%) thinks that RE classes should be scheduled either at the beginning or at the end of the school day so that persons who do not participate in them do not have to wait between lessons. Only one in eight persons surveyed (12%) does not endorse such a solution.[5]

An important question regarding the problem of discrimination is the question whether participation in RE is actually coerced. It emerges from my own research and the Ombudsman’s report (2015) that it is commonly “expected” in schools that all the school or kindergarten pupils will attend RE. Therefore, the catechists will commonly just enter the classroom and begin to conduct classes for all the children that are present. Also, contrary to the provisions of this Act, there are cases in which a written declaration of a child’s non-participation in RE classes is needed. At times, participation declarations ready to be signed were distributed among children at the beginning of a school year. Occasionally parents were required to hand in participation or nonparticipation declarations along with first-class admission forms. “Freedom from Religion,” foundation protested against such instances addressing the school management (e.g. the management board of the Integration Primary School No. 11 in Kielce), asking them to immediately change the first-class admission policy and remove any inquiries as to the candidates’ intention to attend or not attend RE. These inquiries were seen as having no legal footing and clearly violating Art. 53, para. 7 of the Polish Constitution as well as the provisions of educational law.[6].

The same tendency was pointed out in the RPO report (2015). On the other hand, as shown in the surveys conducted among the school principals, the practice of organizing RE classes for first graders is very routine. In 70.4% of the schools surveyed, new students were automatically directed to take Catholic religion classes. Only if the learner didn’t want to participate, could they (or their parents could) report this orally (41.4%) or in writing (29%). The active and prior, oral or written, declaration concerning the classes the student wishes to attend is taken by only one out of ten students (or their parents).  Almost half (42%) of the principals surveyed explicitly stated that the schools they run do not inform learners and parents about the right to choose minority religion or ethics classes.

The Ombudsman’s report has also uncovered other actions that bear the distinguishing features of discrimination on the grounds of religion or worldview (The 2015 ROP Report):

  • Not including the grade from minority religion classes on the school-leaving certificate. This grade is counted in the grade average, which results in unequal educational opportunities for these children.
  • No remuneration for teachers of minority religions within the education system.
  • Obstructing the organization of minority religion classes for children of the same age and insistence on creating combined groups for children. e.g. from the primary school’s year one up to six.
  • Negative reaction to the parents’, adolescents’ and children’s willingness to participate in ethics classes, including dismissal of the request, apparent acceptance, but lack of further action; making children participate in RE, e.g. by informing that participation is compulsory, when it is voluntary according to the law.

Yet the data disclosed by the foundation “Freedom from religion” suggests that religious discrimination in Polish schools takes on other forms as well. These include school employees pressuring students to take part in religious ceremonies; what is more, school celebrations contain elements of Catholic religion. Discrimination and indoctrination are also present in many educational and upbringing activities, including school decorations (e.g. the domination of religious symbols in the classrooms and corridors, a plaque in the cafeteria which equates the students’ high personal culture with praying before meals, etc.).[7]

Any discrimination of social groups or individuals is detrimental to the society’s potential as is social pressure to ensure a complete worldview uniformity. J.S. Mill draws attention to the need to ensure liberty of thought and pointed at the socially negative consequences of the “tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed”. According to the author, no nation has developed or will develop in “an atmosphere of mental slavery” (Mill 2012: p.131). The observations of R. Wilkinson and K. Picket concerning equal opportunities in society (Wilkinson and Pickett 2011: 191-211) are consistent with this line of thought and can also be linked to the social effects of discrimination arising in schools out of teaching just one (Catholic) religion there. The lack of equality brought about by favouring just one religion creates divisions and undermines trust, leading to a dysfunctional society.

The ban on discrimination on religious grounds is also related to fair participation in public finances. In the case of teaching religion in Polish schools this is also closely linked to the principle of separation of church and state expressed in Art. 25 of the Polish Constitution. Public schools are financed from public funds and run by municipalities. The salaries of the priests and catechists teaching RE are drawn from public funds, but these teachers are appointed by the church authorities. Public supervision of their teaching is limited, which will be analysed in more detail below. The catechists have a formal status equal to teachers of other subjects – in terms of wages, working conditions and pension rights.

The unequal professional standing of catechists and teachers of secular subjects is pointed out by B. Olszewski (2010: p. 186 and 193-194) as one element in the structural conflict related to teaching RE in Polish schools. The author mentions that the catechists are employed in accordance with the Teacher’s Charter – a legal regulation concerning all Polish teachers – but their legal status is also influenced by the Church regulations and the decisions made by its representatives. One example is the manner of assessing their competences to teach, e.g. the bishops deciding who can teach religion in a given school. The catechists can also become members of the Teachers’ Board and acquire early retirement rights like other teachers, but they are not fully subject to normal supervision within the general education system.

The cost of organizing the Catholic religion classes is therefore borne by all taxpayers, regardless of their beliefs. The problem of financing RE lessons in public schools has been debated since 1990s. One of the main arguments brought forward by the opponents of financing RE from public funds has been that teaching just one single worldview is financed through taxes also paid by those who do not subscribe to this worldview. The creators of the civic project under a statutory initiative “Secular school”, started in 2015, put forward the following postulates: “Religion in schools – yes, but not paid for through our taxes – let it be financed through Church funds and disappear from the class schedule. They maintain that their initiative is not anti-Catholic nor anti-religious. On the contrary, “[they] are absolutely for religion being taught in schools but after the regular classes have ended, not alongside them”.[8] Opponents of public funding often refer to the opinion expressed by T. Jefferson: that it is unacceptable “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves”. He considers this “sinful and tyrannical, and any attempt to do so threatens the religious neutrality of the state” (Agnosiewicz 2002: op.cit).

The prohibition to compel a person to disclose their convictions or belief is essential for the elimination of discrimination. However, when a particular religion is commonly taught at schools, this prohibition is actually violated, because the very fact of participating or not participating in RE classes is indicative of a certain worldview. If schools are to be neutral in terms of worldview, then religious matters could be taught in classes objectively presenting different religious and philosophical systems. What is specific about learning environments in general is that they foster frequent interactions between children who know relatively much about one another. Actively creating situations in which some of the children may feel inferior because they differ from the majority is a real discriminatory mechanism. Adolescence is a period fraught with conflicts and those who differ from others are subject to rejection and discrimination. In Poland, unfortunately, little attention has been paid to the shaping of egalitarian social attitudes, especially lately.

Any form of discrimination against learners who are the followers of minority religions or followers of no religion at all may prevent these learners from fully benefiting from their right to education. Vital aspects of this problem will be presented below, but it should be noticed that in the General Commentary to Art. 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee has pointed out that public education which allows for teaching of a particular religion is not compatible with this Covenant. Unless it is possible to obtain an exemption from these classes without any discrimination or alternative classes are offered, taking into account the wishes of the parents and caretakers.

 

Universal Right to Education and the Prior Right of Parents to Decide on their Children’s Upbringing

To pass on certain religious views to children at school could impact the right to education. This right should be implemented on an equal footing for all entitled persons. Where there is an actual breach of the principle of equality by discriminatory practices in both peer groups and in the school-pupil relations, that right is infringed. There are some important problems here.

One problem is the right of children to care and that their well-being is taken into consideration. This includes the physical security such that a child will not be left unattended as well as the psychological comfort that a child will not feel excluded and, furthermore, that it will not be affected by the negative consequences of the fact that they do not attend certain classes due to a different worldview. Another issue is related to ensuring the safety of children in educational institutions. Yet another concerns the parents’ right to raise their children in accordance to their convictions. It is also important to ensure a sufficiently high level of schooling that is uniform across the entire state.

The parents’ attitude to the declaration of their children’s participation in RE classes would be influenced by a possible threat against their children’s physical security and psychological comfort. According to one such views, the pressure from the “worldview majority” is so strong that non-believers, as they themselves declare, choose to declare their children’s participation in catechesis and other religious practices for “social reasons”. Non-believers are often worried about their children’s well-being in the face of more and more frequently reported cases of social ostracism and violence[9].

This tendency already manifested itself in the early stages where RE was introduced in the Polish public schools, that is, in the 1990s. Studies reveal (NEUTRUM 1996) that parents and students preferred to avoid open and long-term conflicts with the school. In practice, such conflicts were resolved by the child’s departure from school or muffling the conflict for the sake of peace. The conflicts were thus resolved “quietly”, as the parents were afraid that the situation might affect their child. In order to avoid repercussions or out of a sense of duty to remain loyal to the representatives of the religion that they professed, they rarely resorted to institutional settlement of conflictual situations.

The fear of being subject to aggression in a situation where the education system does not guarantee the de facto equality of different belief systems is not unfounded. As noted by Wilkinson and Pickett (2011: p. 151-152 and 161), increased inequality raises the stakes in the fight for status and is responsible for the increase in aggressive behaviours. The authors draw attention to the fact that violence is a frequent reaction to being insulted or losing one’s face. In a situation where children being educated get a hint that another person is “different”, because he or she does not attend RE and does not belong to the majority that would give them a sense belonging to the “right” people, this may lead, especially if there’s no standard of respecting differences, to treatment that is humiliating to the affronted person and may cause them to retaliate.

In the words of R. Tyrała (2014: p. 320), non-belief is a discreditable stigma. According to the author, dealing with this stigma by hiding one’s non-belief may result from the balancing of profit and loss. His research shows that non-believing parents often submit to the pressure of their family environment and send their children to RE classes, even though a relatively higher percentage of non-believers decides against such a step. Yet, due to the lack of institutional mechanisms, the pressure from peers and teachers is still present in the lives of the children whose parents are non-believers (Ibidem: p.334-335).

According to Art. 3, para. 3 of the regulations on the conditions and method of teaching religion in public schools, schools are legally obliged to “guarantee care or general educational classes during the period of religion or ethics classes for students who do not attend religious classes”.It emerges from my research that the implementation of this obligation in practice may at times be improper, resulting in both uncomfortable and dangerous situations for children as well as stigmatization and discrimination.

I have documented instances in which a child was to be chaperoned into another class for the duration of these lessons, but often he just had to wait in the school corridors. He was not taken care of properly, so he had to be moved to a different school. In another instance a child whose parents declared that he will not participate in RE classes was given a choice to either wait in a school corridor or stay in the class for the duration of RE, during which, in order not to “stand out”, he stands up for the prayer like other pupils. He does not participate in the activities but should not disturb the others.This is a stigmatizing situation, affecting the individual’s universal right to education. A study conducted in Poland soon after RE classes were first introduced[10] revealed that the opinion of the students themselves is no different. According to the respondents, when all the students finished their classes and went either home or to the parish to attend RE, their school situation was more or less equal. Upon introducing RE, the “otherness” of the children who did not attend the classes had become a problem. They have been stigmatized by being labelled with epithets that equalled not attending RE with being a member of certain religious or social groups that are perceived negatively in the society[11].

The proper standard of schooling should also be ensured by appropriate control measures. Public authorities financing a given initiative should have a degree of influence or at least supervision over its most important aspects. When teaching a subject in school, religion included, these aspects include, above all, appropriate pedagogical preparation for teaching different age groups in a manner that is adequate for their physical and mental development as well as providing an appropriate content. According to para. 4 of the regulations regarding the conditions and method of teaching religion in Poland, the RE curricula and textbooks are developed and approved by the Church authorities and only forwarded to the Minister of Education. There are no constitutional or supervisory mechanisms to oversee the content of these textbooks and curricula. The obligation to employ a catechist is not equated with influence over who will actually be employed. As stated in para. 5 of the aforementioned regulations, a catechist is employed solely on the basis of a registered referral issued by the church authority – in Catholic Church this is diocesan bishops. Similarly, professional qualifications of catechists are assessed by the Church hierarchs – the Polish Bishops Conference, specifically, but here the provisions entail acting in agreement with the Minister of National Education. Taking everything into consideration, it cannot be stated that the Polish provisions introduce a universal standard of equality in religious instruction in public schools. What is most lacking are the instruments of control and supervision over the socially important aspects of such an instruction, including curricula and staff responsible for conducting the classes.

 

Conclusions

The case regarding the introduction of RE into the Polish public education system allows the observation of certain important tendencies and evaluate them from a relatively long-time perspective of 30 years of religious education. Common religious education in public schools can highly affect the functioning of a given society. Some consequences are also visible in the manner of functioning of certain religious communities, such as the Roman-Catholic parishes in Poland.

Paprzycki (2015: p. 10) notes, while analysing the problem regarding religious markets as they are related to the competitiveness of churches, that the Catholic Church in Poland after 1989, that is, after the fall of socialism, was faced with the challenges related to its former position of a monopolist that did not have to, as the beacon of patriotism and freedom, compete with other religious orders. For these reasons, Catholic Church in Poland has difficulties in communicating with the state and the society, including its followers. The author suggests that the Church officials often depend on the state’s help, especially legislation that is favourable to them and takes the burden of convincing people about their rights and values off their shoulders. It seems that this strategy, despite its “totalitarian” character or perhaps because of it, has been quite effective, which is reflected in increasing social support for religion in schools, as confirmed by statistics below.

The data shows an upward trend in the social acceptance of teaching RE in schools as well as a decrease in the number of its opponents, which is illustrated by the chart:

Should religion be taught in public schools? Respondents’ answers by date
IX ‘91 IV ‘93 VII ‘93 I ‘94 VII ‘94 VII ‘07
Definitely yes 23% 21% 22% 20% 24% 36%
Rather yes 34% 34% 31% 37% 31% 36%
Rather not 23% 19% 18% 19% 19% 12%
Definitely not 19% 22% 25% 19% 22% 12%
Hard to say 1% 4% 4% 5% 5% 4%

Based on: Opinions about teaching religion. Research summary. Polish Public Opinion Centre (CBOS) BS/119/2007, Warszawa, Lipiec 2007 http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_119_07.PDF

 

When it comes to teaching kindergarten students, the same study reveals that public opinions are rather divided.  A bit more than a half of respondents (53%) believes that religion should be taught in public kindergartens, while two fifths of them (41%) takes the opposite view.This does not change the fact that religious minorities and non-believers still need to have their rights protected.Their situation, taking into account the increasingly widespread acceptance of religion in public schools, is becoming more and more difficult.

The study also paints a picture of the content which, according to the Poles, should be taught in RE classes. More than a half of the people surveyed (57%) believes that these lessons should present knowledge about various beliefs and religions, while a bit more than one third of them (36%) thinks that the curriculum should concentrate mostly on the rules of the Catholic faith.The practitioners – teachers and scientists – are of similar opinion (Olszewski 2010: p. 194). This is also a proof for the existence of a certain cultural climate allowing for religious tolerance, which, in turn, should be used for promoting anti-xenophobic attitudes. This, however, does not translate into the respondents’ empathy regarding potential threats to the rights of those not professing the Catholic faith. The question: Can the hanging of a cross in public places, such as classrooms, be considered a violation of the freedom of non-believers? Was responded in the negative by 60% of the respondents and by only 33% in the affirmative. 7% did not give their opinion (CBOS, BS/170/2013).

Both in the 1990s, when introducing RE in schools (Kuroń and Żakowski 1997: p.182), and at present (Paprzycki 2015: p.61), attention has been called to the fact that turning religious education into a school subject that is not respected by the youth, strips it of its sacrum. Paprzycki notes that introducing RE in schools could be perceived as a kind of coercion and the result of an agreement between the church and the world of politics, which might cause teenagers to rebel. According to the author, the said changes in the education system did not bring about an explosion of religiousness among the school learners, so the present state of things turned out to be rather a manifestation of the church gaining formal influence and the state authorities’ submission rather than an evangelical success.

Besides, studies conducted in the first 5 years after introducing religion in schools, already showed that certain non-religious motivations in taking up RE, tended to prevail. There were often related to pragmatic and conformist attitudes. The influence of the family and the pro-religious climate at schools were said to be the most prominent factors. Still, the authors were concerned by the fact that every one in four students declare that non-attending RE and the subsequent lack of grades may result in troubles, which, according to the authors, proves that there exists a cultural climate in Poland that will only strengthen the conformist attitudes towards RE classes.[12] And, as may be noted, their prognosis was correct.

The Catholic priests also see certain difficulties inherent in catechesis being taught in school. Attention is being paid (Tułowiecki 2010: p. 125-127) to the weakening bond between the children and the parish and moving the religious relations from the ecclesiastical organization to the school’s grounds as well as different relations with the parents who expect to treat religion as the provision of a certain service, without making any contribution to their children’s religious upbringing. The priest formulating these opinions also views the collision between the religious reality and the reality of a dynamic youth environment within the confines of a single institution, which performs both educational and pedagogical functions, as a threat. The author writes, for example about the confrontation with modern pluralism and postmodernism in the atmosphere of axiological turmoil.

It thus can be noted that almost 30 years’ practice of teaching RE in the Polish schools has brought about a particular social situation becoming established and strengthened, but it did not eliminate all the conflicts, which, considering their nature, seems impossible.

A major threat related to the common presentation of a single worldview, especially using the authority of the state leads to the unification of attitudes and worldviews, which tends to inhibit creativity and reduce the cultural wealth of this society. The opportunism of public powers and readiness to comply with the demands of the church officials contribute to the discrimination of non-believers. Since the fundamental principles of democracy are the principle of equality and the principle of the state as the common good of all its citizens, public schools should be neutral with regard to worldviews.

 

References

 

Agnosiewicz M., Wprowadzenie religii do szkół, 2002, http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,434

Bartnik C. S., „Słowo”, 3 VI 1993, cyt za: Agnosiewicz M., Wprowadzenie religii do szkół, 2002, http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,434

Dostępność lekcji religii wyznań mniejszościowych i lekcji etyki w ramach systemu edukacji szkolnej. Analiza i zalecenia 2015, Biuletyn Rzecznika Praw Obywatelskich, Zasada Równego Traktowania Prawo I Praktyka Nr 17.

Kuroń J., Żakowski J. (1997), Siedmiolatka czyli kto ukradł Polskę?,Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie.

Mill J. S. 2012, Utylitaryzm. O wolności, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo naukowe PWN

Noelle-Neuman E., 1974 , The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion, Journal of Communication, vol. 24, nr.3, p. 43-51

Olszewski B.(2010), Konflikt strukturalny na przykładzie nauczania religii w szkołachin: M. Tabernacka, R. Raszewska-Skałecka (red.) Płaszczyzny konfliktów w administracji publicznej, Warszawa, Wolters Kluwer

Paprzycki J., 2015, Prawna ochrona wolności sumienia i wyznania, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo C.H.Beck

Słowik K. Beczek. W. (2015), Religię wprowadzono do szkół tylnymi drzwiami i na szybko. “Miałem telefony z episkopatu”.http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/1,114871,18941898,religie-wprowadzono-do-szkol-tylnymi-drzwiami-i-na-szybko-mialem.html

Tułowiecki D., 2010, Dwadzieścia lat religii w szkole – nadzieje, trudności, wyzwania. Próba refleksji socjologicznej, in K. R. Kotowski, D. Dziekoński (red.) Dwadzieścia lat katechezy w szkole, Warszawa-Łomża, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego w Warszawie

Tyrała R., 2014, Bez Boga na co dzień. Socjologia ateizmu i niewiary, Kraków, NOMOS

Wilkinson, K. Pickett, 2011, Duch równości. Tam gdzie panuje równość wszystkim żyje się lepiej, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Czarna Owca

Wiśniewska K., Religia na maturze możliwa w 2021 r.? Kościół dogadał się z rządem Beaty Szydło,2016, http://wyborcza.pl/1,75398,20126283,religia-na-maturze-mozliwa-w-2021-r-kosciol-dogadal-sie-z.html?disableRedirects=true

 

Authentic sources of opinions

Niesiołowski i Grodzka o religii. “Szkoła od edukacji, Kościół od katechezy” czy “im więcej religii tym lepiej”?, http://www.tvn24.pl)https://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/niesiolowski-i-grodzka-o-religii-szkola-od-edukacji-kosciol-od-katechezy-czy-im-wiecej-religii-tym-lepiej,394666.html

Społeczna kampania „Szkoła to nie kościół”

OŚWIADCZENIE, ŻE DZIECKO NIE BĘDZIE UCZĘSZCZAŁO NA RELIGIĘ WE WNIOSKU O PRZYJĘCIE DO SZKOŁY – INTERWENCJA FUNDACJI, https://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/oswiadczenie-ze-dziecko-bedzie-uczeszczalo-religie-we-wniosku-o-przyjecie-szkoly-interwencja-fundacji-2/

http://rownoscwszkole.pl/o-projekcie

Religia w szkołach? “Chcemy, żeby płacił za to Kościół” http://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/spor-o-finansowanie-z-budzetu-panstwa-lekcji-religii-w-szkolach,526692.html

http://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/kampania_spoleczna_szkola_to_nie_kosciol/

 

Statistics and study reports

Opinie o nauczaniu religii. Komunikat z badań. Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, BS/119/2007, Warszawa, lipiec 2007 (CBOSBS/119/2007) http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_119_07.PDF

Religia i kościół w przestrzeni publicznej. Raport z badań. Warszawa, grudzień 2013 (CBOS BS/170/2013)

file:///C:/Users/IM/Documents/Konferencje%20wystąpienia/Religia%20w%20szkole%20lub%20poza%20szkołą/Reigia%20i%20kościół%20w%20przestrzeni%20publicznej%202013.PDF

Religia w systemie edukacji. Komunikat z badań, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, BS/136/2008. Warszawa, wrzesień 2008  (CBOS BS/136/2008)

http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2008/K_136_08.PDF

Respektowanie wolności sumienia i wyznania w szkole publicznej Raport. Stowarzyszenie na rzecz Państwa Neutralnego Światopoglądowo NEUTRUM 1996, Warszawa

Struktura administracyjna Kościoła katolickiego w Polsce i podstawowe statystyki. GŁÓWNY URZĄD STATYSTYCZNY. Notatka informacyjna opracowana wspólnie z Instytutem Statystyki Kościoła Katolickiego SAC, Warszawa 2017, file:///C:/Users/IM/Downloads/struktura_administracyjna_kosciola_katolickiego_w_polsce%20(1).pdf

Struktura narodowo-etniczna, językowa i wyznaniowa ludności Polski. Narodowy spis powszechny ludności i mieszkań 2011, Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warszawa 2015, file:///C:/Users/IM/Downloads/struktura_narodowo-etniczna.pdf

 

Endnotes

1          20 years of religion in schools, http://fakty.interia.pl/religia/news-20-lat-lekcji-religii-w-szkolach,nId,886445

2          Ibidem.

3          file:///C:/Users/IM/Downloads/struktura_narodowo-etniczna.pdf

4          http://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/kampania_spoleczna_szkola_to_nie_kosciol/

5          http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_119_07.PDF

6          OŚWIADCZENIE, ŻE DZIECKO NIE BĘDZIE UCZĘSZCZAŁO NA RELIGIĘ WE WNIOSKU O PRZYJĘCIE DO SZKOŁY – INTERWENCJA FUNDACJI,https://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/oswiadczenie-ze-dziecko-bedzie-uczeszczalo-religie-we-wniosku-o-przyjecie-szkoly-interwencja-fundacji-2/

7          http://rownoscwszkole.pl/o-projekcie

8          http://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/spor-o-finansowanie-z-budzetu-panstwa-lekcji-religii-w-szkolach,526692.html

9          http://rownoscwszkole.pl/o-projekcie

10      Respektowanie wolności sumienia i wyznania w szkole publicznej Raport. Stowarzyszenie na rzecz Państwa Neutralnego Światopoglądowo NEUTRUM 1996, Warszawa, p. 9-16.

11        Ibidem, p. 18.

12        Respektowanie wolności sumienia i wyznania w szkole publicznej Raport., p. 13.

Introduction to the papers from the June 2017 conference “The Sick Action”

The papers in this collection deal with the theme of evil, interpreted according to various points of view: psychoanalytic, anthropological, philosophical, religious, mythological and legal. Indeed, the authors themselves have diverse professional and geographic origins: they are Italians and Icelanders, and they include university professors, psychoanalysts, philosophers, judges, and anthropologists. The discussion of these works occurred in Palermo, Italy, 9–10 June 2017, and was organized by the Sneffels Psychoanalytic Circle of Palermo, headed by Dr Roberto Buccola, an Italian psychoanalyst who, among his various papers, led two seminars at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, in 2016. The presentation of the articles occurred, with few exceptions, in Italian, so in some of these articles the reader can encounter peculiar Italian expressive forms translated into English.

The issues dealt with in this volume resonate with contemporary incidents of international terrorism in Europe, as these articles examine possible causes and ways of confronting them.

Palermo, 17 February 2018

Gaetano Roberto Buccola

Brendan Myers, Reclaiming Civilization: A case for optimism for the future of humanity. A Study of the Sacred, Part Three (Gatineau: Northwest Passage Books, 2016)

After addressing the phenomenon of the sacred from an individual (Loneliness and Revelation, 2010) and interpersonal perspective (Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear, 2012), Canadian philosopher, novelist, poet, gamer, trade unionist and neo-pagan acolyte Brendan Myers tackles it now from a socio-political perspective.

Continue reading Brendan Myers, Reclaiming Civilization: A case for optimism for the future of humanity. A Study of the Sacred, Part Three (Gatineau: Northwest Passage Books, 2016)

What is Morality? Pascal’s Heartfelt Answer

 

 

Introduction

I had the good fortune and privilege of meeting Mike when I was a student, back in 1995, and I owe him so much in so many ways, both as a man and as a scholar, that no words of mine will ever be able to convey my gratitude, my admiration and my friendship. A bottle of red wine might do instead. Also, as a humble token of recognition and a heartfelt recollection of the times when we first met, I decided to answer the question that he has chosen for this symposium by going back to an author, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was influential in making me interested in philosophy as a boy, but whose work I have not dealt with as a scholar. Thus, what follows is both old and new, being a first step into a terrain which I have not trodden for many years.

In effect, had I been asked to give an immediate answer to the question ‘what is morality?’ I would have said: ‘an instance of civil commons’, that is, an instance of “social constructs which enable universal access to human life goods without which people’s capacities are always reduced or destroyed.” (John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice” Studies in Social Justice 5(1): 11-61, 2011, p.17) In line with my academic studies over the past decade, I would have placed myself in the ideal position of an external observer and determined what role morality has been playing vis-à-vis the most regular aim displayed by human beings, both individually and collectively: to lead a tolerable life. Now, referring to the civil commons would give a description of morality that focuses upon its life-enhancing function. It would be a description of morality from the outside. Another description is also possible, however, that focuses upon the feelings of outrage, remorse, shame, distress, empathy, pleasure, pain, as well as the calls of duty and the spontaneous sense of what is right and what is wrong that populate at least my experience of morality—inside. All these emotions, the related beliefs, the reasoning processes that they set in motion, the subsequent acts of will and the corresponding physical actions that one imagines and hopes to materialise constitute the domain of morality as felt being, or lived personal experience.

It is primarily within this domain that Blaise Pascal develops his reflections on morality, which, despite his enduring fame as a scientist and a thinker, have received very little attention by modern Anglophone ethicists, who have written instead endless volumes on the epistemology of his wager or le pari (“the machine”, 680)[1]—itself a piece of apologetics and an early example of game theory. They have labelled Pascal a ‘philosopher of religion’ and pretty much left him there, as marginal as religion itself seems to be these days.[2] Yet, Pascal did have a moral philosophy of his own and one that can help us answer the question ‘what is morality?’ from the perspective of lived personal experience.[3] It is not an easy one to detect, for it is scattered across his unsystematic maxims, short reflections and aphorisms, themselves scattered across a number of differing manuscripts. Reconstructing and outlining it here today is the chief aim of my paper.[4] Knowing that some of today’s participants are greatly interested in French philosophy, literature and culture at large, Mike himself included, I hope you will appreciate my effort.

Pascal’s Moral Philosophy

According to Pascal, morality is behaviour consistent with the correct apprehension of moral value, i.e. goodness, through “the heart, which perceive[s] wisdom” (339). The heart [coeur] is the faculty that feels or senses good and bad or, in other words, it is the moral sense, perhaps an organ of perception, analogous to hearing (41) or seeing—hence Pascal’s writing in the same passage about “the eyes of the heart” (cf. also 804 [from the Manuscript Guerrier, not Copy B]). And if the eyes can see many things, so does the heart deliver much more than just the immediate apprehension of moral truths or values, whether ‘explicitable’ (e.g. “homicide is wrong”, 450) or not, since all forms of knowledge rely upon first principles that cannot be rationally demonstrated, but only intuited:

We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all knowledge. For knowledge of first principles, such as space, time, motion, number is as firm as any we derive from reasoning. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it. The heart feels that there are three dimensions in space… Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways (142).[5]

Analogous remarks appear in his 1658 Art of Persuasion (Harvard: Harvard Classics, 1993-2013 [1909-14]), where Pascal distinguishes between knowledge that enters the heart through the spirit, and knowledge that enters the spirit through the heart.[6] Perhaps the heart should be better described as a skill than a faculty, indeed one relying upon long-internalised skills, such as seeing or hearing; this is certainly a difficult issue to resolve, given the ambiguity of many passages in Pascal’s work. However, the actual crux of Pascal’s emphasis is the following: sane human beings grasp and believe in the existence of, say, space, time, extended bodies, moral wrongfulness, and upon them build their sciences, whether these eventually reflect adequately the original intuition or not.[7] “Ethics” itself, albeit “special”, is, for Pascal, a “universal science” (598).[8] What is important in it, is to rely upon correct intuited principles, which we may have experienced in childhood if we had good enough a natural disposition (157-9, 527), and before education, local customs[9] or excessive faith in discursive or demonstrative reason could lead us astray (97-8, 132, 171): “Wisdom leads us back to childhood” (116).[10]

It is important to highlight that the heart’s sentiments combine emotional, intellectual and volitional elements. We may separate them in abstracto, but they are joined in actual experience.[11] These sentiments are “internal and immediate feeling[s]” (360; emphasis in the original), but they are also forms of comprehension, insofar as they engender certain beliefs and interpretations (287), and they prompt us into action, including successive discursive or demonstrative rational processes (662). As Pascal famously asserted: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (680; emphasis added) Typically, philosophers have emphasised the negative part of this statement. However, the positive is at least as important. Pascal was an intuitionist and believed sentiments to be the springboard of morality, but he was no sentimentalist or, to use a 20th-century label, no emotivist. “Religion”, as he writes, “is not contrary to reason” (46). Echoing old scholastic wisdom on this matter, Pascal states that “[t]he principle of morality” is “to think well” (232; cf. also 106, 117). Pascal does not posit an impassable contradiction between blind subjective bodily passion on the one end, and cognising objective disembodied reason on the other. Rather, he tries to reveal how different types or levels of belief, certainty and knowledge, wisdom included, can be acquired through our different faculties, one of which, the heart, also characterisd as “instinct” (187), can grasp fundamental truths that discursive or demonstrative reason cannot grasp.[12] Indeed, science itself would not be possible if we were not trustful enough in our intuitions (cf. also 455). Thus, Pascal condemns “Two excesses. Excluding reason, admitting only reason.” (214).[13]

True to his intellectual hero, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), and to Augustine’s motto “credo ut intelligam”,[14] Pascal sees the limits of human reasoning and believes our sentiments to be able to spur (142 cited above), integrate (e.g. 287) and, when necessary, substitute our discursive or demonstrative reason (e.g. 662). A famous mathematician and physicist, Pascal reminds himself nonetheless to “write against those who delve too deeply in the sciences. Descartes” in primis (462). There are much more important subjects than the scientific ones, such as “the study of man” (566), to which science can contribute nothing, for it cannot address the ultimate questions of our existence (57). The strictly rational conceptual tools of science are inadequate: “The heart has its order; the mind has its own, which consists of principle and demonstration. The heart has another. We do not prove that we should be loved by displaying in order the causes of love. That would be absurd.” (329).[15] Thus, gifted with intuition, a humble child may attain moral truths that an adult, even the keenest scientist or theologian, fail regularly to grasp (13). As Pascal puts it: “The greatness of wisdom… is invisible to carnal or intelligent men. These are three different orders. Of kind.” (339). The most intelligent philosopher’s reason may demonstrate, while the libertine’s embodied will may desire; but the sage’s heart loves, allowing for forms of understanding that escape reason. After all, to expect that one faculty or one mode of reasoning suffices for all possible domains of experience and investigation is a foolish form of “tyranny” (92).[16] For Pascal, there are “different kinds of right thinking: some in a certain order of things, and not in other orders, where they talk nonsense” (669).[17]

Let me emphasise once more that Pascal is not advocating irrationalism, rather a form of understanding that does not rely primarily upon abstract conceptual expression (e.g. Descartes’ ethically “useless” rationalism, e.g. 445), logical reasoning (e.g. the “corrupt” Jesuits’ casuistry attacked also in his Provincial Letters, e.g. 498; 770 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B], 800 [from the Recueil Original, not Copy B]) and algorithmic computation (e.g. his own calculations of utility for the libertine’s sake, 680). As difficult to pinpoint as it may be–for he never offers more than a sketchy phenomenology of the heart in action (cf. 87, 544)–Pascal’s account of moral experience entails an embodied rationality that is intuitive rather than discursive or syllogistic, as well concomitant and intertwined with emotions and willfulness, and capable of grasping objective truths about the world. As Pascal writes, “We know this in a thousand things” (680).[18]

Immediate, intuitive apprehensions of good and bad are not the end of Pascal’s moral philosophy. Rather, they are its beginning. In primis, there is the issue that we might be mistaken in our apprehensions, which may then require correction, as when we hear ‘cabbage’ instead of ‘baggage’ inside a noisy place, or claim to have seen Woody Allen when in fact we had seen Mike. Yet this is not an issue that Pascal is interested in as such. His focus is moral and apologetic, not epistemological. As Richard Rorty would possibly put it, it is relevance, not rigour, that which guides Pascal’s endeavour (cf. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth Cambridge: CUP, 1990). Pascal wants to help his fellows to lead a better life, not to get entangled into technical debates. Indeed, Pascal cautions us against over-rationalisation as a path leading away from our intuitions’ potential clarity: “Reason acts slowly, and with so many perspectives, on so many principles, which must be always present, that it constantly falls asleep or wanders, when it fails to have its principles present. Feeling does not act in this way; it acts instantaneously, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling, or it will always be vacillating” (661). Consistently, he warns his readers against people who no longer have any “common sense”, such as “academics, students, and that is the nastiest type of man I know.” (662)

Pascal is much more intrigued by the fact that despite our possible immediate grasp of moral value, human behaviour is all but consistent with it. Even moral philosophers, who might be inclined to making morality an important feature in their lives, fall prey of professional pride, pettiness and resentment. A devout Catholic, Pascal was well aware of the endless list of sins that human beings are capable of. How can we sense what is good and bad and, between the two, opt for the latter? Pascal’s penultimate answer to this crucial ethical question lies in his account of imagination, which reshapes and reinterprets the immediate givens of the heart. And this is bad. Far from extolling the virtues of this faculty, which Romantic and post-modern philosophers have done aplenty in later centuries, Pascal worries about the imagination’s “dominant” role within the human psyche (78) and its ability to distort in self-serving fashions the data of sentiment, which is particularly prone to being twisted in over-intellectualising minds: “I am not speaking of fools; I am speaking of the wisest, and they are those whom imagination is best entitled to persuade. Reason may well protest; it cannot determine the price of things.” (Id.)

Reason does not fix values within and around us; imagination does. Appealing to our “proud” and selfish thirst for power, knowledge and pleasure, “imagination… has established a second nature in man” and “disposes of everything. It creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are the whole of the world.” (Id.) Instead of allowing the humble acknowledgment of our helplessness and imperfection, which is grounded in our feelings (689) and is rationally as undeniable as our mortality (e.g. 195-8, 686), imagination leads each person to attribute an overwhelming amount of value upon herself and “makes [her]self the center of everything” (494), when it is quite obvious that she is not (cf. also 509-10). Far from the exaltation of amour-propre or “self-love” that will characterise much French and Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy, Pascal writes:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what will it do? It cannot prevent the object it loves from being full of faults and wretchedness. It wants to be great and sees itself small; it wants to be happy, and sees itself wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees itself full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its defects deserve only their dislike and contempt… No doubt it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since this adds the further evil of a deliberate illusion. (743).

The power of imagination can be so deep-reaching that we may no longer be able to distinguish between sentiment and the fantasies that imagination—also called “fancy”—delivers in order to please our self-love:

All our reasoning reduces to giving in to feeling. But fancy is similar and opposite to feeling, so that we cannot distinguish between these two opposites. One person says that my feeling is fancy, another that his fancy is feeling. We should have a rule. Reason is proposed, but it is pliable in every direction. And so there is no rule (455)… It is a nothing that our imagination enlarges into a mountain: another turn of the imagination makes us discover this without difficulty (456)… We need a fixed point in order to judge… The harbour decides for those who are on a ship. But where will we find a harbour in morals? (576)

In the midst of such uncertainty and confusion, which are epitomised by the madness of human love affairs (cf. “Cleopatra’s nose”, 31-2, 228), given that intuition itself can become as unreliable a source of belief as reason is, tradition can come of use and help us. When something is not “demonstrable” and “doubting” leads nowhere, “submission” becomes reasonable (201; cf. 203-13). In Pascal’s case, that means submission to religious tradition, and specifically to the Catholic one (cf. “Luther: everything outside the truth.” [791] {from the Recueil Original, not Copy B}); in this sense, then, “all morality is concupiscence and grace” (258).[19] “Religion is such a great thing”, as Pascal writes, also because it grants “[c]omprehension of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’.” (709-10). Submission to religious tradition means, in essence, to follow “[t]wo laws” that “suffice to rule the whole Christian Republic better than all political laws” i.e. to love God and to love one’s neighbour, as per Matthew 22:35 (408); “charity” or love “in morals” being able “to produce fruits against concupiscence” (458) and turn the energy of potentially sinful “passions” into “virtues” (500; cf. 759 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).[20]

Still, even within religion does imagination make moral life difficult: “Men often take their imagination for their heart, and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.” (739); they can therefore remain “duplicitous in heart… neither fish nor fowl” (451); their “blinded” minds leading to quarrels, schisms and sectarianism that “destroy… morals” (447-8); their misplaced self-confidence making them “sinners, who believe themselves righteous” (469; cf. 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), “corrupt the laws” of “the Church” (558), and “do evil… completely and cheerfully… out of conscience” (658). Consistent with his picture of the human being as an erring wanderer prone to error yet also capable of greatness, Pascal offers no easy path to wisdom, which may be perceived at times, even patently exemplified in saints and sages, yet still eludes us in spite of our best efforts to grasp it and make it truly ours.

Furthermore, according to Pascal, imagination is the first step in a process of moral self-deception, which reasoning can take farther by: (A) adding the uncertainty of sceptical considerations to the distortions of the imagination; and (B) making religious self-correction ineffective. We may even be most thoughtful and honestly good-willed, but without divine grace there is little likelihood of success. The good may still escape us—even the brightest and most celebrated minds among us can fail. As Pascal remarks, there are “[t]wo hundred eighty kinds of supreme good in Montaigne” (27; cf. also 16, 714).[21] Starting a theme that will play an important role in the moral philosophy of 20th-century French existentialists, Pascal deems self-deception the main springboard of immorality, not our inability to perceive what is right or wrong, or our incapacity to comprehend what is good and what is bad. Quite the opposite, according to Pascal, we would appear to have the faculties needed to perceive and understand all this; but we also possess another, imagination, which, combined with our passions and with self-love in particular (e.g. 699; 744 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), distorts our perceptions and understanding to the utmost degree.[22] More than religion itself, then, we need God’s help: His grace alone can save us, “enlighten” us, and help us make proper use of the faculties that we are endowed with, and upon which we rely in order to lead a good life, religious life (335).

 

Conclusion

Reading a classic is always a worthy endeavour, especially if it offers opportunities for genuine philosophical meditation. However, there are some more specific reasons why I think that rediscovering Pascal may be advisable for today’s Anglophone ethicists.

First of all, his moral conceptions and his celebrated literary style highlight the importance in human morality of sentiments. This is no minor issue, for the impact of sentiments upon people’s actual behaviour tends to be much stronger than that of abstractions or complex reasoning.[23] And yet philosophers have been pursuing relentlessly the path of abstraction and complex reasoning, leaving that of sentiment to others. Now, if we wish to engage in meta-ethics alone, such a division of labour may be fine. But if we want to change the world a little, whether as educators or public intellectuals, then some familiarity with the realm of sentiments may be a boon, since we may aim at “impassioning” rather than just “instructing”, as Pascal would word it (329; cf. also 496, 702).

Secondly, moral intuitionism has been on the rise over recent decades because of its recurrent empirical substantiation in psychology (e.g. J. Haidt (2001), “The Emotional Dog and its Rational TailPsychological Review 108:8, 14-34). Still, as far as I know, the only philosopher who has taken seriously Pascal’s notion of a different, heartfelt understanding—embedded, embodied, united with sentiments—and built an ethics upon it was Max Scheler (1874-1928). Amongst contemporary Anglophone intuitionists, Pascal is as absent as Scheler himself, who has long lost the enormous popularity that he enjoyed in the early 20th century. Yet Pascal’s moral philosophy is based upon the notion of intuition and constitutes an attempt that treads upon the tight rope set between rationalism and sentimentalism, and one that could be mined for insights and for the enduring rhetorical power of his writings.

Thirdly, Pascal’s approach is relevant because it makes the ground of moral value independent of the individual, who can only apprehend it for what it is, lest her imagination is so corrupt as to distort apprehension. In that case, Jesus Christ, that is, revealed religion is the fixed point of equilibrium that Pascal opts for (e.g. 570). Since the global affirmation of industrial society, we live in the first age in human history in which our species has become a threat to its own survival, as another religious-minded ethicist, Hans Jonas (1903-1993) underscored repeatedly in the 20th century (cf. The Imperative Responsibility Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1979]). Pascal’s moral philosophy is relevant in this respect because, like Jonas’, it reminds us of the possibility that the ground of moral value may not be individualistic, relativistic, or even anthropocentric. The risk of species-wide annihilation may reveal something much more objective, such as planet-wide life-conditions and eco-system-wide life-needs, which we can only acknowledge and comply with, lest we prefer perishing to living, hence destroying the fundamental precondition for all preferences. As such a reminder, Pascal’s moral philosophy can then serve as a token of civil commons. And there I am, again: civil

 


[1] All references are by fragment number as they appear in the latest complete English translation of the 1976 Sellier edition of the so-called “Copy B” of Pascal’s thoughts, that is, the second copy prepared for his sister and least likely of having undergone third-person reordering (Pensées, edited and translated by Roger Ariew, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2005). When preparing this paper, I have also made use of the original French and related Italian translation of Pascal’s thoughts by Adriano Bausola contained in Pensieri (Milan: Rusconi, 1993).

[2] A valuable and possibly unique recent exception is constituted by: William D. Wood (2009), “Axiology, Self-deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s PenséesJournal of Religious Ethics 37(2): 355-84; the first footnote in Wood’s essay contains also a brief account of the negligible record of Pascal studies in modern Anglophone ethics.

[3] Pascal’s religious focus is as much a result of his moral philosophy as his moral philosophy is the result of his religious focus: “Man’s true nature, his true good, true virtue, and true religion, are things that cannot be known separately” (12).

[4] The main difference with regard to Wood’s own commendable 2009 attempt is my further avoidance of strictly epistemological and theological considerations, to either of which Pascal’s moral philosophy is regularly reduced. Also, I attempt hereby to provide more numerous references to relevant fragments in Pascal’s Pensées.

[5] Pascal’s emphasis upon intuition vis-à-vis first principles is analogous to Aristotle’s epagoge in connection with the fundamental laws of thought that cannot be obtained through any set of syllogisms but that underpin them all nevertheless (Anal. Post. II, 99b-100b; Meta. 980a-981a).

[6] This is not to be confused with Descartes’ distinction between empirical and innate knowledge. Rather, Pascal wishes to separate knowledge that we can reach through explicit reasoning processes of demonstration, whether deductive or inductive, and the indemonstrable fundamental principles that make them possible.

[7] Henri Bergson, probably, would be sceptical that they do so (cf. Time and Free Will London: Allen, 1910 [1889]).

[8] Given the regular use of “wisdom” rather than “knowledge” in connection with the moral considerations expressed in his Pensées, I would venture to argue that this different object is one of the reasons why “ethics” is said to be a “special” science.

[9] Customs, for Pascal, are very powerful, to the point of establishing causality itself (661), though theyr are neither absolute (e.g. 527) nor certain (e.g. 94-6).

[10] Some human beings, according to Pascal, are fortunate enough as to be able to attain religious faith through the same mode of apprehension: “As if reason alone were capable of teaching us! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never had need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition. But nature has refused us this good, giving us instead very little knowledge of this kind… That is why those to whom God has given religion by intuition of the heart are very fortunate and, in fact, properly convinced” (142). The least fortunate, instead, who are devoid of a piously “incline[d] heart” (412; cf. also 443, 448, 450, 646, 717) or have been hardened (580) or corrupted to the extreme point of cynical disinterest for the most important things, such as the fate of our immortal soul (2, 5), may have to think through Pascal’s wager or “machine” and determine whether it is advantageous to lead a pious life rather than a selfish one (680).

[11] Pascal’s account is reminiscent of Mihail Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002 [1958]); perhaps morality is an eminent example of tacit knowledge that is difficult to make explicit and cannot be turned into a neat system of axioms, theorems and corollaries.

[12] On repeated occasions (e.g. Gesammelte Werke, Bern: Francke Verlag, 1971-97, volume V, p.104) did Max Scheler praise Pascal and his spiritual mentor Augustine for attempting to overcome Western thought’s long-standing prejudice that grants epistemic objectivity and evidential value to rational proofs alone, ignoring sentiment and religious revelation or, worse, condemning them as subjective and dangerously irrational.

[13] The notion of a golden mean between too much and too little of something is a recurrent theme in Pascal’s thoughts and it applies, inter alia, to the effect of age on judgment (25), thinking (25), the distance from an object of observation (25), the speed of one’s reading (75, 601) and the constitution of virtue (645). Whether it can be attained, however, is doubtful, given the dual nature of man (cf. especially 145-67, 230-4, 690, 707-8; 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), who is a “thinking reed” cast between two opposed infinities (i.e. meaninglessness and all-embracing thought), experiencing opposed tendencies (e.g. fear and courage, pain and pleasure) and possessing two opposed natures (i.e. animal and angelic). Jesus Christ alone seems capable of embodying opposites successfully (e.g. 736; 749 & 771 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).

[14] “I believe in order to understand”; cited in Perry Cahall, “The Value of St Augustine’s Use/Enjoyment Distinction to Conjugal LoveLogos (8)1: 117-28, 2005, p.117; under this perspective, Pascal’s heart can be seen as opening a hermeneutical horizon, which embraces much more than just the knowledge that can be rationally demonstrated.

[15] This is another notion that Pascal derives from Augustine, i.e. the “order of love” [ordo amoris].

[16] One generation after Pascal, Vico would describe reason’s hypertrophic disregard of bodily and emotional components of life and related understanding the “barbarism of reflection” (The New Science, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948[1744]). Today, faced with the notion of a particular mode of reasoning (e.g. scientific ‘Method’, homo oeconomicus‘ self-maximisation) being regarded as the only one possible, we would speak of cultural or disciplinary imperialism.

[17] There is no lack of vagueness and ambiguity in Pascal’s writings. For one, “heart” itself is not used only as the term denoting our faculty of intuition, but also more loosely as referring to will or desire (182, 536, 681-2; cf. also 544 in which “the will” is said to be the human faculty that “loves”), mere feeling (210), and a person’s soul or character (especially in connection with the Old Testament’s use of it, e.g. 309, 311, 378, 504; cf. also 707). Furthermore, it does not help that Pascal stresses so often the opposition between heart and reason, as though they were irreconcilable enemies at “war” with each other (29; cf. also 144, 164, 203, 414, 503, 514)—and here we get truly to the negative part of the cited famous statement about heart’s “reasons”.

[18] Whether in matters of mathematics, love, or religion, intuition anticipates, grounds and eludes whatever subsequent reasoning we may attempt to build upon it. As morals are concerned, Pascal believes logical reflection to be inadequate within the domain of the intuitive spirit for fine things, or “ésprit de finesse”, as opposed to the logical spirit of geometry, the “ésprit de géometrie”. Whilst the former is subtly acute, delicately nuanced, highly personal, and mixed in its being both cognitive and affective, the latter is forcefully trenchant, rigorously explicit, methodically interpersonal and allegedly purely rational. These two forms of comprehension are not mutually exclusive in absolute terms. For example, a mathematician may sense analogies or truths and conjure thereof new hypotheses, which he can test according to standard geometric methodology. Moreover, explicit knowledge may be internalised to the point of becoming intuitive, as with the acquisition of a skill (531; cf. Polayi, supra). Still, Pascal knew that these two forms of comprehension could subsist separately. A mystic, for one, could cultivate the former to the point of becoming unfamiliar with the latter: “Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand matters involving reasoning. For they want first to penetrate at a glance, and are not used to looking for principles.” (622) On their part, persons relying upon logical reasoning can become so removed from their own heart and the realm of intuition that they end up quite ignorant of them both and incapable of ascribing any order or intelligibility to them: “And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles and being unable to see at a glance” (Id.)–one is reminded here of hardcore orthodox economists, who no longer perceive the blatant immorality or ugliness of the self-maximising conduct that they deem rational and commendable.

[19] Pascal does seem to allow for cases of commendable moral virtue in non-Catholic and non-Christian settings, e.g. “the Jewish religion” (276; cf. 692-6, 715).

[20] Christ’s two laws go to the very heart of human behaviour towards oneself and others, hence they can make the eradication of vice fairly effective, since “[t]here are vices that take hold of us through other ones, and that, when the trunk is removed, are carried away like branches”. (457)

[21] Humbly, Pascal remarks: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find everything I see in him.” (568)

[22] Wood (2009) argues convincingly that the imagination’s detrimental deceptions are, for Pascal, one of the consequences of the Biblical fall, i.e. the ultimate cause of immorality. For Pascal, having tasted perfection before the fall, we are condemned to sense and seek truths that, however, escape us (e.g. 25, 62, 90-1, 165-6, 180-1).

[23] Abstraction and complex reasoning are relied upon in somewhat particular circumstances, such as bioethical committee’s deliberations about technology-driven dilemmas and adjudications by courts of justice. Under normal circumstances, mothers, teachers, priests, novelists and TV stars affect people’s sentiments to a much greater degree than any ethicist or judge, shaping a fortiori people’s moral and immoral behaviours. As Richard Rorty noted in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did much more to let Americans see the true horror of slavery than all liberal philosophers since John Locke’s day were ever capable of.

Sigurður Árni Þórðarson, Limits and Life: Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland (Peter Lang: American University Studies, 2012)

 

Today about 320.000 people still live on this island with its contradictory name Iceland. But are they aware of their limits? According to the news in the past few years, some thought that everything could be possible if you had enough money. Yet, all of a sudden, Iceland was a country that stood on the verge of national bankruptcy. Many realized the following: We are limitied! Þórðarson’s book gives exactly the kind of food for thought that is needed in today’s transformation of Icelandic society.

Limits and Life, Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland is in that context an appreciated 200-pages long, revised English version of the authors’ dissertation, first published in 1989 with the title “Liminality in Icelandic Religious Tradition”. The author states that this revised version is in line with the original publication, but additionally it addresses some of the most important recent scholarly work, primarily concerning his two major fields of study: Vídalínspostilla and the Hymns of the Passion, leaving a detailed discussion with this literature open for scholarly papers yet to be written.

 

Sigurður Árni Þórðarson [Sigurdur Arni Thordarson] is a pastor in one of the biggest parishes within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (ELCI). He holds a Cand. Theol. from the University of Iceland and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. His 30 years of work within the ELCI has brought him a wide range of expertise as a manager, community leader, scholar, teacher and writer. Therefore his further publications on this matter will be of great value for the contemporary discussion in Iceland. A discussion that is among other things reflecting the youngest history of the ELCI; a church that, at the beginning of the 20th century, could still be proud of almost a 100% membership of the inhabitants and a close link to the state. At the end of the same century, it enjoyed still a 90% membership, whilst already in 2010 it only had an 80% membership; the tendency is clear: declining. As regards the status, it is not closely linked to the state any more.

 

Social Change

Chapter six might be the one to find most interesting among Iceland’s population today. Solely the title itself cries out to the reader: “Social Change, Theology and Critique”. On his search for a meaning behind the travel of the Icelandic nation through the ages, Þórðarson here looks into the time of the birth of modern Iceland with its new capital Reykjavík in the late 19th century. He reminds the reader that this was the time when Reykjavík became the centre for Iceland’s parliament as well as the centre of education. Further the District Court was moved to Reykjavík and the society took new steps in strengthening the democracy along with human rights and new means of power for the working class. At the beginning of the 20th century, Þórðarson states, a new society was born requiring a new system of meaning. Its theological counterpart was the so-called “new theology”.

 

In a powerful way Þórðarson shows how this new theology was interrelated with one of the contractions that where a part of this gestation of this new society during the last two decades of the 19th century. For the first time the Icelandic church was confronted with a major critique which, so argues Þórðarson, included a many-fold challenge: All of a sudden the discussion around theology in Iceland was flavoured with challenging inputs from abroad, having counterparts in Canada explaining how boring church life in Iceland seemed to be; at the same time as the Danish Brandesian realism found more and more followers in Iceland and theosophy, spiritualism and other religious movements inspired people. And this all at the same time as Catholics, Mormons and different non-Lutheran groups grew in strength and number in Iceland. This historical review leads Þórðarson to the conclusion that the entire message of traditional theology needed re-evaluation; a statement that could stir today’s discussion on the (missing) fundament of Icelandic society.

 

The cry of the time

Quoting the poet and politician Hannes Hafstein “The cry of the time is the life of the person”, Þórðarson continues the discussion around the new theology in a new era in chapter eight, having given some insights in the life and work of bishop Pjetur Pjetursson (1808-91) in chapter seven. Þórðarson researches show that bishop Pjetursson had the role of an intermediate figure, a link between the old tradition and the upcoming new theology. According to Þórðarson, this new era was a time where the nation changed their thinking about the fight between good and evil into the question on how negative aspects of the world were to overcome. Analogously he analyzes the main themes of two liberal theologians, Jón Helgason (1866-1942) and Haraldur Níelsson (1848-1928); themes that are very much interrelated to today’s discussion around the National Forum 2010 “Þjóðfundur”. According to Þórðarson, Níelsson speaks of life, power, faith, love, humility, beauty and peace, and Helgason of similar values, adding joy, freedom and firmness. All values of great importance, 100 years ago and hopefully today as well.

 

Those two men, Jón Helgason and Haraldur Níelsson, seem to be a kind of role model for pastor Þórðarson, remaining as he states “the standard for the Icelandic pastors in the early twentieth century who wanted to modernize church and theology” (page 131). For the reader it is obvious that Þórðarson is enchanted by their work, their individualistic, even privatistic approach that results in actual consequences for church, ethics, politics and the world as an interwoven reality of both Mother Earth and the spiritual world. The interested reader is given a holistic picture of the life and work of those two gentlemen on almost 40 pages in chapter nine and ten.

 

Foundation for the 21st century

Only two other names have as great an importance in Þórðarson’s book (next to Luther of course). Those are the names of Iceland’s most adored spiritual poets, writers and Lutheran theology scholars: Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), the author of the Hymns of the Passion, and bishop Jón Vídalín (1666-1720), who is the man behind a collection of sermons called Vídalínspostilla. Even today the Hymns of the Passion are widespread literature in Iceland, while Vídalínspostilla has become less known during the last century, but both were used in homes and churches for centuries after their first publication. To understand the broad use of those books one has to imagine almost a whole nation sitting together, each at their own farm, night after night, week after week, year after year, every evening during the long, dark winters, listing to the head of the farm reading from one of those two great spiritual books. No wonder that many people knew those books by heart.

 

Those two men and their works mark the point of departure for Þórðarson as he steps into his research to undertake an analysis of the theological tradition in Iceland, something that is, as he states, “long awaited and badly need for understanding theological development of the twentieth century” (page 4). And he is definitely sure that the history is a needed teacher: “If people do not live well connected to history they are doomed to a series of disasters. But when wisdom of well worked crises is heard the healing is in the making. The wisdom about limits is a wisdom and a practical orientation for life.” (page 5)

 

Dialogue and background

Þórðarson’s book appeals to every human being to engage into dialogue with the primary goal to team up for an analysis of human nature and culture. Such a task is, according to Þórðarson, of primary importance in our pluralistic world, and he states that it will help us to understand the limits of the human being as we realize where our ground, our foundation is or might be missing. Referring to Mark Kline Taylor and Richard Bernstein, Þórðarson stresses the importance of valuing experiences and struggles made by us and others working towards a genuine mutual participation, which includes reciprocal wooing and persuasion.

This book can be understood as Þórðarson’s statement that it is very likely that the Icelander will engage in such a dialogue marked by his/her post-Reformation, Christian tradition that is primarily a “limit-tradition”, but at the same time coming from a society that is leaving behind the model of the monarchic-fatherly God, while questioning too a whole cluster of images and concepts given by the church through the ages. That leaves, so claims Þórðarson, the question open concerning whether or how the contextualization, with its aim to address the meaning of central Christian issues into the situation of each and every inhabitant in Iceland, really was a success: “There is always a need for a reconstruction of theology, a new theology and even a new paradigm. […] The achievements of past generations and individual theologians need to be cherished, but particularly their concern for a better and more realistic critical correlation of the Christian message with the contemporary situation.” (page 179-180).

 

Limits and Life, Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland is in itself a journey through the landscape of 300 years of theology, looking in the back-mirror of some of the gems of old Icelandic literature, heading towards a new era of non-dualistic theology. The question will remain open though, that is, whether the inherent human limits are to be accepted, although authentically reacted to – as done in the Hymns of Passion and Vídalínspostilla – or if the limits are to be seen as characteristic of this world and its human beings, yet giving us the task to find an escape route – as done perhaps by the scholars behind the new theology. For Þórðarson there is no question that further research is needed in order to reflect more deeply on the limits that we face / our forefather faced, how their concept of limits looked like, and how we understand our limits today. Among others things, he mentions further research on the folklore of Iceland, the 20th-century theology of Iceland, especially the one of bishop Sigurbjörn Einarsson, as well as the meaning of today’s challenges, like for instance ecological changes and nuclear catastrophes. One might be attempted to add the assumption that research on ethics of modern Iceland should be included as well, having the recent challenges of Icelandic society in mind. So, there is still work to be done. Let’s face it in our limits!

 

C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)

 

More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions, asks this relevant question regarding the old Nordic belief systems and religions in a publication comprising together a vast array of scholars of Pre-Christian Scandinavian cultures and a handful of views on the Sámi-Finnish tradition. The 286-page book opens new horizons in the understanding of the past and the present of the Northern part of Europe.

 

Central to the diverse papers are the overarching themes of narrative studies, the role of rituals and the discussion of regional difference and distribution, and perhaps secondly also religion as a communal practice. Price opens the book with an in-depth and conclusive view on “Mythic Acts”, stressing the need of assessing burials, rituals and other practices as series of “performances” sometimes spanning over decades in the same geographical place, such as the gravesites in the Oslo Fjord. He refers to such a process as the “theatre of death” where these “performances” have taken place. Furthermore, in his splendid essay, he makes the case for the need to combine archaeological data with ethnographical, anthropological and other textual sources. He makes a strong case for diversification of views regarding the pre-Christian Nordic context, given the reported 500,000 different grave- and other dug sites, stressing the need to avoid any “unified view”. Price also proceeds to provide the reader with an eyewitness’ account of a “Viking” funeral along the Volga River in Russia, through the text of Arab geographer and historian Ibn Fadlan – such a description remains a pivotal text on the topic, despite the possibilities of misinterpretation and culture-specific lenses that Fadlan’s testimony gives rise to. Again, the notion of performatory function of the rituals comes to the fore.

 

Jackson investigates the merits and limits of comparative philology. He positions the crucial difference of nomadic and settled communities of the “pre”-Indo-European peoples of the Steppes as a topic worth paying attention to in the linguistic context. One can almost see the vast expanse of the pre-historic Indo-European society from India to the West Fjords in Iceland, spanning continents, nations, cultures, over time and space. Jackson investigates the rituals of the past using key linguistic possibilities, employing such concepts as the “blót” qua shared cultural heritage. Dumezils’ notion of an “Indo-European” ideology is mentioned, but Jackson stresses that the “present now” of any belief system makes the unique characteristics of such systems.

 

DuBois makes an excursion into the diets and deities of the Scandinavians and the Sámi. This is a good overview of the differences between the settler-farmers of Scandinavia and the hunter-gatherers belonging to various Sámi Nations. He positions different animals as a source of cultural-religious similarity and difference between the two cultures – as a result the Nordic communities hold in reverence mostly domesticated animals, as opposed to the Sámi, who have preserved other worldviews centred on “wild” animals, even though the reindeer, as a semi-domesticated herd animal falls between these categories. Within the Scandinavian life-world, the role of sheep and goat is very interesting. Differences come to the surface with regard to fish and their cultural interpretations in the communities. Interestingly, some animals, such as horses, have a meaning for both peoples, but they are of a very different kind – to the Sámi the horse possesses a demonic association. DuBois discusses the notion of a “mythic lag” on community change – how some attachments from “prior” systems [hunter-gatherer] manifest “still” or persistently in the “more advanced” life stage of a people.

 

As he is the only author who, to a certain extent, discusses Sámi worldviews and compares them to the Scandinavians, his text requires some reflection. The article has merits. At the same time, it has serious flaws too, for the viewpoint is fixed upon the Finno-Ugric side. According to DuBois, “both Scandinavians and the Sámi differentiated themselves from each other through the religious imagery related directly to the species they chose to consume”. It is true that the Sámi stress their connection with fish and reindeer as opposed to domesticated animals, but there is a set of reasons for this. DuBois avoids stressing the Scandinavian and, since the 1800s, the Finnish colonisation of the Sámi across the region; meaning the hunter-gatherer-herder systems as opposed to invading and expanding farming settlers. It is reasonably safe to assume that already the early historical meetings [while trade was certainly also a part of them] between the farmers and the Sámi in various parts of the region led to land use conflicts, as the subsistence rounds of the hunters required large, stable old-growth territories, as opposed to the needs of the farmers to clear forests for farms. As several Sámi scholars and leaders, such as Elina Helander, Jelena Porsanger, Pauliina Feodoroff and others have done, the emphasis in the cultural discourses on reindeer and fish, and other “wild” foods and animals, are also mechanisms of resistance against invasion.

 

DuBois utilizes some photographs from Eastern Sápmi (or Finnmark) in Norway in his article. They should be seen in a critical light. Especially the famous “Grease Stone” of Mortensnes (p.81) receives special attention. Having worked in the villages and areas around the stone since 1996, I have another opinion. My Sámi friends indicate strongly that the stone is, in fact, a Scandinavian imposition on their landscapes – while other stones and other sites of Mortensnes are indeed of the Sámi world. DuBois utilizes little-known and well-established sources from the Sámi side, but the big change and sites of resistance are not expressed clearly enough.

 

Raudvere establishes religion as a mechanism to interpret local reality. Cosmic histories and transcendental realities of past community life are a text for the scholars but a lived reality for the people themselves. She utilizes Völuspá to explore ritual and meaning. Readers could have benefitted from a more thorough discussion on the various versions of Völuspá.

 

 Nordberg presents a significant methodological paper on the study of Old Norse religion. Importantly, he stresses the need of geographical diversity and difference.A Map could have helped this article. Secondly, Nordberg importantly distinguishes between farms and coastal fishing villages, and stresses the shifts within religions in times of change. Some old colonial ghosts loom within the text with the references to “advanced religions” [of farming societies] – such terms having been deconstructed a long time ago to their proper place by postcolonial research.

 

Stark and Anttonen offer us the only views of the Finnish-Karelian tradition. They dwell little on the difference between the Scandinavian and the Sámi tradition; however Stark reminds us that “some elements of the Finnish folk practice…clearly have Finno-Ugric roots…[deriving from] Eurasian shamanism.” According to her, these constitute a “loosely structured ethno-theory for illness aetiology.” This is in line with the claims by Clive Tolley, who has not found evidence of shamanism in the Old Norse religion. Stark employs a strong feministic view on the recorded texts and identifies the year 1860 as a big change for the Nordic traditions and the complex cultural layers of religious imagery. Anttonen, by quoting at length the earliest Nordic folk tradition text by Agricola, investigates the influences and context of Finnish and Karelian deities in early times. He argues that no single coherent pagan system existed here and makes the case for the slow speed of religious change. Both texts are an important and distinct introduction to the Finnish tradition and its difference compared to the Sámi and Scandinavian ones. Stark’s conclusions could benefit a Finnish popular audience too.

 

Sundqvist investigates the sacral kinship and proposes a “religious ruler ideology” instead as a defining term. It would consist of relationships with the mythic world, its rituals, symbols and cultic organisation. He convincingly argues that there is a need of an all-inclusive rethink – and using empirical materials makes a strong case between the Swedish-Norwegian situation and the strongly independent Icelandic Commonwealth, leading to the conclusion that there was no uniform religious ruler ideology in the Nordic space.

 

Schjödt brings the far-reaching volume to its close by offering new aims and methodological discussions. Shortly stated, contemporary sources such as archaeology and the medieval sources, such as cultural texts of the time, need to go to together to widen the scope of studies on the Old Norse religion. Sagas and Eddas are to be viewed as a blend of skills of the author, oral traditions and influences of the time-space in which they were composed. Models, discourse analysis and comparative views will open the doors to new understandings. The hunt for the “original text” remains an enigma, even though, according to Schjödt, an Indo-European kernel of stories and myths existed – but, despite this and Dumezil, the “old” religion was not a coherent worldview, rather a “discursive space of diversity”.

 

Technically, this surprisingly good book could have benefitted from maps. Contemporary views of Norse religion, the role of Sigur Rós in Iceland and other followers would have enlightened the views expressed in the book too. A clear distinction between Karelian hunter-societies in the period 1600-1800 and the Sámi hunters, as opposed to the colonial impact of the farming societies of Scandinavia, would have made clearer the expanding nature of the Old Norse world. And lastly, what happened to the dragons?

 

And thus we come to a close of “More Than Mythology” – in the opening line I asked, borrowing from Schjödt, what kind of evidence is needed to propose convincing interpretations? The main problem with the critical study of religion is that it is often done by people that do not believe. Therefore the “materials” are seen as “texts” and interpretations abound, but yet the “source” is missing.

 

I am pondering this in the Karelian village of Selkie, one of the westernmost of our communities, where a hundred years ago Kalevala-style incantations and poems were collected by the scholars of that day. Snow has fallen on trees and our fishing season for open waters is at a close, boats are up and we eagerly await for the arrival of proper lake ice so that we can spread the nets under the ice again. As I reflected about the More Than Mythology, on the lake, the last of the migratory birds flew by on their way to the south – soon we will meet again, I said to them. And the realisation came to me – if we are to understand the views of our ancestors, we need to live in that nature, or remnants of that nature, that sustained them – that is the source. Then the scholar, removed from the yearly cycles of the European North with his analytical or even her feminist apparatus, can return to see that time and space are not a line, indeed many things remain, of the “old” and of the “new”, of the things the wind only whispers of, but which are already emerging.

 

 

 

 

George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff (eds.), Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2009)

The account of the city’s founding continues in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (3.I.5-2.2),[2] where Alexander, who travelled to Kanobos and sailed around Lake Mareotis to select an appropriate site, decided to locate his city. Once he had planned out the city, determining the location of the Agora and establishing the sanctuaries and temples for the various deities ? both “Greek gods and Egyptian Isis” ? Alexander sacrificed to the gods and when he received favorable signs, he laid out the city walls; however, since he had nothing with which to mark out the parameter of the city, he used meal that his soldiers carried with them. While there is disagreement about the precise date of the founding of Alexandria, some have suggested that this event may have occurred in 332 or 331 BCE. Shortly after founding the city, Alexander left the actual building and administration of the city to others and, moving his campaign further east, was never to return to his city. Certainly, current scholarship is critical of the foundation stories surrounding the origins of Alexandria; many of the authors in this collection of essays, Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot, emphasize persistent difficulties with sources and the tendency for various ancient authors to mythologize the founding of the city. According to Krasilnikoff, however, “the first citizens of Alexandria were also soldiers in Alexander’s and Ptolemy’s armies” (“Alexandria as Place,” 21). Hence, it is not surprising that Greek and Egyptian cultural forms and content should be intertwined in Alexandria. Citing Heracleides, Plutarch notes that Homer, who “was no idle or useless companion” accompanied Alexander on his campaign (“Alexandria as Place,” 21).

Indeed, the ancient city was a center of scholarship and intellectual activity with the Alexandrian Library and the Museum, and much of the early Homeric scholarship was done in Alexandria; even the form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have received these works each having twenty-four books was first codified by scholars working in these institutions. To be sure, other groups also helped write the history of the city. Jews were apparently among the earliest inhabitants of the city. Philo the Jewish thinker, known for his skeptical epistemology, worked there. As Per Bilde argues in his paper, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” while he has not been recognized as such, Philo was also a polemist and a political apologist for the significant Jewish population of the city, and, according to Josephus, led the delegation to Gaius to plead for the Jews. Moreover, Alexandria belonged to the Roman Empire and under the influence of Clement and Origen it was a significant center, along with Antioch and Rome, in the development of early Christianity.

Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is the ninth volume in the Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity (ASMA) series published approximately once a year by The Centre for the Study of Antiquity, University of Aarhus, Denmark. Edited by George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff, the eight papers in this volume were selected from among those presented by a number of scholars from different countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, at the May 2004 seminar on Alexandria hosted by the Centre; other papers were also included later. The eight papers in this volume are divided into two sections, entitled: “Part I. Alexandria from Greece and Egypt” and “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity.” Each paper in this text is well-researched and is followed by a rich bibliography. While the authors are critical of the mythological accounts of the founding of Alexandria, the ancient sources are not simply rejected out of hand; rather, despite the problematic character of ancient sources, these sources along with their scholarly interpretations are examined carefully and critically with an eye to understanding the city the cultural and religious diversity of its people. The authors represented in Alexandria are also aware of and discuss the tendency of some sources to distort their facts in their enthusiasm for a particular historical point of view or outcome. While one must use the available sources, we must keep in mind that religious conflicts, for example, between Pagans and Christians tend to be written by the victors. One advantage that the scholars writing for this publication have had, however, is the enormous growth in the scholarship of Egypt and north Africa during the last thirty years and the increase in the availability of the number of papyri manuscripts and other relevant evidence from these regions. Another theme common to the papers in this collection is the view that cultures are extremely complex, living organisms and not ‘static things’. Thus, in his essay, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen, citing Martjin van Beck, objects to “a static model” of culture – one that

… gives a distorted picture of the cultural and social reality of human beings, past and present. Culture – and religion as well as part of the cultural construction – should rather be seen as ways of interpreting the world. Culture represents what one does and not what one is. Martjin van Beck has poignantly emphasized this point. He underlines to what a great extent the talk about cultures is itself part of the cultural construction: “The point is not to deny that common features exist in particular fields but to document that the extrapolation from specific similarities and differences to homoginised, cultural and even civilizing units is a creative process and not just a mapping of already existing facts” (Petersen, 123).[3]

Indeed, reminding us of Alfred Korzybski’s observation “that the map is not the territory,” Peterson writes, “Cultures are by their very nature ‘messy’ or hybrid affairs” (124 and 125).[4]

The four papers of the first part take up in various ways “the relationship between Ptolemaic Alexandria and its Greek past” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10). Jens A. Krasilnikoff launches the volume with his paper, “Alexandria as Place: Tempo-Spatial Traits of Royal Ideology in Early Ptolemaic Egypt.” Specifically, Krasilnikoff is interested in the way that Egypt as space is transformed into Alexandria as place. Borrowing from the work of humanistic geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan, Peter J. Taylor, and Jonathan M. Hall, he examines this problem by considering the concepts of “space,” “place,” and “identity.” Citing Tuan’s Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Krasilnikoff observes that the concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ are “interdependent” (Krasilnikoff, 23).

… the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value … The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place (23).[5]

Interdependence of space and place and the relationship between these two concepts “determine the formation of different kinds of identity”; hence, we can distinguish “identity of place” which “includes the identity markers that constitute a particular place,” and “place identity” which “involves those qualities of a place that helps generate identities of individuals or groups.” Krasilnikoff, uses these concepts to explore the meaning of “place within the Egyptian context of the Ptolemaic period”; indeed, he wants to understand how “the Greek concept of the ‘city-state culture’ and society developed in this distinct framework” that is Alexandria (38). For Kasilnikoff, then, Alexandria is to be understood in the Greek polis tradition because of its founding and the heroic character of its founder; this view was reinforced by the Ptolemaic rulers who claimed to be direct descendents of Alexander and by ancient authors who apparently borrowed their conceptions of the founding from other founding myths. At the same time, examining the earliest history of the city leads Krasilnikoff to conclude that Alexandria “differed fundamentally from the majority of classical and Hellenistic cities” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10).

In her paper, “Theatrical Fiction and Visual Bilingualism in the Monumental tombs of Ptolemaic Alexandria,” Marjorie Susan Venit notices that in the very beginning of Alexandria the inhabitants created “monumental tombs as communal spaces for both burial and veneration of the dead” in the limestone on which the city stands (Venit, 42). These tombs, Venit observes, are “unique” to the city, “and, until their dissemination across the north coast of Egypt and to the eastern Mediterranean, they stand unparalleled as monuments to a complex vision of the afterlife.” Illustrating her paper with five diagrams and eight pictures of the tombs, she notes that elements of two “disparate” traditions are brought together in the construction of the tombs. First, “Egyptian elements” are incorporated “into the fabric of an initially and fundamentally Hellenically-inspired monument.” The second element that interests Venit is that the tombs include theater. Hence, the tombs and monuments combine two “culturally distinct architectural traditions and … two ethnically discrete visual systems as well.” The tombs, according to Venit served as “a purposefully designed space within which, and against which, the human drama of the funerary ritual” was performed. While the dead were entombed in these monuments, the buildings also served a symbolic function making an “external reference” that allowed an extremely diverse population to identify themselves as Alexandrians. It is precisely this that makes the Alexandrian tombs unique. “Both visions,” Venit writes:

… bilingualism and theatricality – incorporate into their fabric the fiction that is the underlying basis of Ptolemaic period Alexandrian tombs, and both fictive situations apart and in concert, establish the mortuary buildings of Ptolemaic Alexandria as bi-cultural monuments that can only have had their genesis in the peculiar construct that was ancient Alexandria. It is this bi-ocular modality that separates characteristics to express the singular eschatological vision that marks the monumental tomb of ancient Alexandria (64).

George Hinge takes up the ever-controversial subject of race in his essay, “Language and Race: Theocritus and the Koine Identity of Ptolemaic Egypt. ” Hinge cites Herodotus’Histories to show that “Greek ethnicity” is determined by “four components: origin, language, cult, and culture” (Hinge, 67). In this passage, Hinge refers to words spoken by the Athenians to a Laconian delegation, arguing for a coalition to fight against the Persians.

There are many reasons why we should not do this, even if we wanted to: First and foremost, they have burnt and destroyed the statues and temples of our gods, and we are obliged to revenge them as far as possible rather than conclude a treaty with the offenders. Furthermore, there is the Hellenicity, consisting in the same blood and the same language, the common shrines of gods and cult and the same way of life, which the Athenians should not betray (Herodotus, Histories, 8.144.3; Hinge’s underling).

Thus, Hinge argues, “language is quintessential to Herodotus’ concept of ethnicity” (68). In this Hinge is arguing against Jonathan Hall, who in his Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity holds the view “that language played only a minor role in the formation of ethnic groups” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 11).[6] Hinge argues that while it may have mattered “what sort of Greek you are” ? whether one was a Spartan, an Argive, or an Athenian ? in the Greek homeland, once the colonization of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE got underway, “a Greek identity” began to emerge “in opposition to the non-Greek natives in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Sicily, Italy or Scythia. The otherness of those ‘Barbarians’ and the complete unintelligibility of their languages, which were frequently compared to the chirping of birds, made the existence of a specific Hellenic identity obvious” (Hinge, 69). This identity, as Hinge emphasizes, “is not natural per se, but a cultural construction” that has its origins in the Mycenaean Age and that leads to “the creation of a Koine.” That Koine displaced local dialects, Hinge argues, was not just a way to bridge various local languages and dialects, “but the symptom of a new identity, and not only a symptom, but also a most powerful contribution to that identity” (77).  

In her “Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria,” Minna Skaffie Jensen describes the Alexandrian Museum and the research conducted by the scholars working there especially the work done on Homer. According to Jensen, Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian scholar and one of Aristotle’s students was responsible for organizing the Alexandrian Library; not surprisingly, it was modeled on Aristotle’s library in the Lyceum. While he was active in politics and even ruled Athens for the Macedonians (317-7 BCE); he also continued to work with the Library and is credited with having had Aesop’s fables written down. Jensen engages a number of scholars’ interpretations of the origins of the Homeric texts, including, Martin West, Antonio Rengakos, Gregory Nagy, Stephanie West, and others. She concludes her brief history of the Library and Museum and of the Homeric scholarship that took place there lamenting that, despite the problems, the view “we get in the sources does not confirm the picture of the Library as an important participant in the great interaction of cultures and religions. On the contrary, the philologists of the Library appear to have been concerned with Greek literature and nothing else” (Jensen, 89). Apparently Egyptian texts were left to the priests. While the subtitle of this collection of essays is, “A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot,” and while there is evidence in other fields for a melting pot, with regard to the Library perhaps it was not quite so. “The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt,” Jensen writes,

… achieved nothing more important than the superb intellectual milieu established at the Museum. Whatever their intentions, the results of their generous support of learning are remarkable. To them we owe infinite gratitude for the fact that ancient Greek texts have reached us in such quantity and quality Scientific and scholarly method was developed to a previously unknown level. Poetry flourished. And just as Alexandrian poets become the stimulating ideal for Roman poets from Ennius onwards; the Ptolemies offered themselves as worthy models for the patronage of the artists practiced in Augustan Rome (91-92).

The first two of the four essays constituting “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity,” are devoted to Judaism. In the first piece, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” Per Bilde considers two texts by Philo, an extremely influential Jew from one of the most important and prosperous Alexandrian families to show that although Philo is usually known for his work in theology, epistemology, and metaphysics, he also played an significant role as a politician, a polemist, and a political apologist, especially between 38 and 41 CE – “a period of great importance in the history of the Jewish people in the ancient world” (Hinge and Krasinikoff, “Introduction, 13). In his essay, Bilde reconstructs the historical and political events in the year 38 CE, the year of what has become known as “the first pogrom” against the Jewish people. Then, he analyzes Philo’s two historical treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. Finally, Bilde examines “the literary genre and the aim, dating and intended readers” of these two works and considers whether Philo’s writings “could be perceived as a threat to Rome” (Bilde, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist,” 98).

As Bilde explains, Judaism had flourished in Alexandria for many years and “continued to thrive well over the first year of Caligula’s rule (37-38 CE)” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 13). Aulus Avilius Flaccus was a Roman prefect in Alexandria and Egypt (32-38 CE). While “the living conditions for the Jewish people,” according to Bilde, were generally not bad “in the Roman empire from Caesar (died 44 BCE) and Augustus (31BCE-14 CE) until the summer of 38,” for reasons that are not evident, Flaccus “seems to have cancelled the Jewish population’s established right to live in Alexandria according to the customs of their fathers and under some kind of internal self-government …” (Bilde, 99). When King Agrippa I, also known as Herod Agrippa, (37/41-44) who had recently been crowned King of Palestine stopped in Alexandria en route from Rome to his homeland, his visit set off riots against the Jewish people. Non-Jewish residents of the city also tried to set up statues of the emperor in synagogues. Instead of trying to stop the riots, Flaccus, and here Bilde follows Philo’s account, sided with the “‘Greeks’ and issued a decree … denouncing the Jews as ‘foreigners and newcomers’ … in Alexandria” (100). Subsequently, Jews were driven out of four of the five parts of the city and ghettoized into the remaining fifth part. Jews were the subject of violent attacks, some were flogged publically, some were killed, and some were forced to violate religiously sanctioned dietary prohibitions by eating pork. Although Bilde cautions: “when reconstructing historical circumstances in Antiquity, from using terms related to the European persecutions of Jews in the Middle Ages and in recent times” (101), he also claims that “this violent persecution of Jews seems to be something new in Antiquity” (100). Eventually, Flaccus was arrested by the Emperor, returned to Rome, where after his property was confiscated, he was sent into exile and eventually put to death by the emperor. According to Bilde, then, Philo’s Against Flaccus is begins with a glowing report of Flaccus’ first six years in office only to explain Flaccus’ fall from office; indeed, it is a cautionary tale that proclaims the power of the god of the Jews and explains that those who violate the Jewish people will face a fate similar to Flaccus’. On the one hand, Bilde interprets the texts as being written for the Jewish people in a “traditional and effective Jewish literary form or genere, religious apologetics,” which was later adopted by Christians; Philo’s apologetic texts were meant “to comfort and edify Jewish readers” and should be compared to the Book of Esther of the books of the Macabees (109). On the other hand, however, Bilde suggests, is that Philo wrote in “this form or genere “for Roman readers, primarily the new Roman emperor, Claudius, the new imperial prefect in Egypt, Pollio, and other leading Roman circles …” as if to warn them against actions that might harm the Jewish people and blaspheme their god.

In his paper, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen takes a quite different approach from Bilde’s, for he is not interested in well-known writers like Philo nor is he interested in “the empirical subject matter of Alexandrian Jewry” (Petersen, 116); rather, Petersen’s paper is much more ambitious and is focused on the theoretical problem of how to reconstruct past cultures. Petersen begins by briefly sketching out the history of Jewish people in Alexandria. Then, he examines “Alexandrian Judaism with close attention to a number of theoretical problems that are infrequently mentioned in the predominant strands of scholarship.” Finally, Petersen concludes by offering “a theoretically viable way of reconstructing ancient cultures in a manner that is simultaneously theoretically adequate to the acknowledgement of the confined nature of the sources, and to current insights within the fields of cultural anthropology and sociology of how to speak and to conceive of culture.” Petersen is critical of approaches to culture that assume one individual, such as Philo, Aristeas, or Artapanus, can speak for or represent a particular culture or subculture. While contemporary scholarship seems to understand this, Petersen maintains that even though many contemporary scholars acknowledge this problem, they proceed to deal with their sources without considering the consequences of taking “one trajectory of thought” as the embodiment of an entire cultural entity. Indeed, “the banalities of culture and the platitudes of human beings,” Petersen writes, “are seldom handed down” (118). On the other hand, he does not argue that scholars should ignore available sources; rather, the solution is to keep “the constrained nature of the majority of the extant sources” and to reflect on the “wide strands of scholarship, current as well as classical, on Alexandrian Judaism” (119). Petersen is also critical of those who understand Philo in terms of a preconceived dualism of Hellenism and Judaism. This dualistic view, Petersen argues is “theoretically flawed” for several reasons (124).

First, even the most vehement Jewish antagonist of Greek thinking is culturally as well as socially inevitably enmeshed in what he opposes …. Secondly, the use of a notion like “Hellenism” is always contextually bound. It relates to particular traits only within the other culture. It is never a comprehensive term that refers to the entire plethora of phenomena of the “other culture. “Jerusalem” and “Athens” are unfailingly entities that are rhetorically used in particular contexts to refer to specific phenomena. Thirdly, the abstract taxonomic play with terms like Judaism and Hellenism in modern scholarly discourse is very far from their use in antiquity. That … does not invalidate contemporary use, but it certainly should put some restraints on the manner in which they are used (125).

One must remember that a thinker like Philo is a Jew, but also an Alexandrian; even Philo himself is not a simple unity; “Philo’s writings should be interpreted as the creations of a composite being who under particular circumstances and with particular aims and situations in mind attempts to conquer the cultural battlefield of his time” (139). Still, this does not mean that we should speak of “Alexandrian Judaisms or Jewries” instead of “Alexandrian Jewry / Judaism” (Petersen, 128). While this may have “heuristic value,” it is “misleading” because it indicates the inability “to distinguish a concept and a phenomenon.” Alexandrian Judaism may only be a construct of contemporary scholarship. On the other hand, Petersen suggests, following Benedict Anderson, that although “Alexandrian Judaism was hardly a community characterized by ‘the primordial village of face-to-face contact,’” it could still be understood as “‘imagined community’” because “its members constituted a conscious community” that “shared the common frame of reference of being Jews of Alexandria.” In end, Petersen concludes, “however perplexed we may be as a result of engagement with cultural ‘messiness,’ the great intellectual challenge for future studies not only on past Alexandrian Jewry, but on ancient cultural entities in general, will be to take the ‘messiness’ of human cultural and social affairs profoundly seriously” (140).

In “From School to Patriarchate: Aspects on the Christianisation of Alexandria,” Samuel Rubenson is not concerned with religion or theology; rather, he focuses on “the transformation of the classical heritage into an early medieval Christian culture” and the important role that Alexandria played in that transformation (144). Indeed, Rubenson argues that this transformation must be understood “from a social point of view” (145). The importance of Alexandria to the development of Christianity with development of Christian theology and the revision of classical philosophy is unequaled until “the emperor and the bishops of Rome and Constantinople … ended the ecclesiastical power by means of the council of Chalcedon in 451.” Origen of Alexandria was important for his work in “Christian hermeneutics and Bible interpretation”; indeed, according to Rubenson, he was the most important Christian teacher of this period. Athanasius of Alexandria is acknowledged for his interpretation of the divine as trinity and his efforts to define church dogma. Cyril of Alexandria addressed himself to the problem of how Jesus as Christ could be both man and god. The work of later Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus are certainly based on Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril. Rubenson concludes that our understanding of early Christianity in Alexandria, then, is based on the work of Christian teachers and philosophers, who instituted a tradition of Christian schools during the second century, and who were recognized for their work both in Alexandria and in the larger emerging Christian community. Schisms and a break between the church and the school were caused by “the severe and prolonged persecutions of the Christian leadership of Alexandria in 303-11” (156). Emperor Constantine’s recognition of the bishop of Alexandria elevated the importance of the bishops and gave them increased responsibilities. The bishops, who attempted to unify the church and unite the Christian community in the face of the pagan traditions that were embraced by parts of the Alexandrian elites, were resisted by intellectuals living independently on the edge of the desert south of the city. Uniting with local authorities, the bishops received the support of the emperor to unite Christians against their Christian opponents and critics and the remaining pagans.

In “Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to ‘Pagan’ Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE,” Troels Myrup Kristensen begins where Rubenson ends with the conflict between the Christian bishops and the continued pagan tradition of parts of the Alexandrian elite. Noting the complicated religious, social, and political tensions that were part of the Mediterranean world of the fourth and fifth centuries, Kristensen contextualizes his discussion of the conflict between Christians and pagans by tracing Christian opposition to pagan statuary to “the Judaic tradition and the Mosaic prohibition against idolatry” (160). While wooden statues were burned, stone statues were either defaced or “reinterpreted” by adding crosses or other Christian symbols to the statues by Christians (161). At the same time, Kristensen emphasizes that these views were not held by all Christians and that some pagan statues survived in Christian households. Illustrating his paper with three photographs, one diagram, and one map, Kristensen discusses the destruction of the Serapeum and its statuary in 392 CE which along with “the murder of the philosopher Hypatia” are “among the best known cases of religious violence in Late Antiquity” (162). Christian destruction of pagan statuary is one of the reasons that pagan statuary was cached and pagan practices were driven underground. Kristensen concludes by noting that the violence brought on by the religious and social transformation in Alexandria in Late Antiquity was rampant; indeed, it can be understood “as the result of the ‘brutalisation of local politics’ or ‘progressive Christianisation’” (172). While there is much literary evidence for the Christian destruction of statuary, actual evidence is much more difficult to obtain. One of the problems is that most of the surviving accounts of this period of Alexandrian history are from Christian sources. “The bias of the Christian literature concerning the ‘end’ of pagan cult at Alexandria makes it difficult to accept them at face value.” Archaeological evidence is also problematic because interpretation and documentation are difficult. Still, Kristensen argues, we can rough out Christian reactions to paganism and pagan statuary.

Hinge and Krasilnikoff are to be commended for bringing together the papers in this volume; indeed, Alexandria A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is an interdisciplinary text that may be recommended to both the scholar and the general reader interested in culture, religion, and ancient communities. Although Alexandria will certainly interest classicists, cultural anthropologists, and classical archeologists, scholars working in other disciplines such as art history, philosophy, and cultural studies will also find this text exciting for its fresh look at the ancient city of Alexandria that exemplifies the social, economic, and political complexities of a diverse population living in the same community. The various reflections on culture and religion are obvious strengths of this text. However, the discussions of the problems involved in the study of ancient cultures, and their reflections on how scholars might approach ancient cultures are important n/pot only for those studying ancient cultures, but also raise questions that should be considered by anyone thinking and writing about culture.


[1] Krasilnikoff cites Pseud-Callesthene I:30, trans. E. H. Haight (New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1955).

[2] Krasilnikoff cites M. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), no. 7.

[3] Petersen translates and cites M. van Beck, “Identiteternes møde, civilisationernes sammenstød,” Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 40, 1-11.

[4] Petersen refers to Alfred Korzybski’s “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics,” presented before the American Mathematical Society at the December 28, 1931meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.

[5] Krasinikoff quotes Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.

[6] See Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).