Evolution and Science Curriculum Debates in Serbia

by Gayle Woloschak and Tatjana Paunesku  |  ελληνικά   |  ру́сский

Recently in Serbia “a group of interested citizens” with signatures from more than 50 academicians and 100 additional people with postgraduate degrees (including 5 clergyman) released a petition to “revise the curriculum for study of evolution.” This petition was circulated to Serbian universities, as well as to several government bodies responsible for education including Ministry of education, science and technological development. In essence, this petition requested that theory of evolution be taught as “just a theory,” and (more or less) literal reading of Genesis be taught alongside it in science classrooms in Serbia. This problem is not new to Serbia; a similar effort was initiated in 2004 by the former Minister of education, but this was put on hold and thus efforts have been renewed to modify the school science curricula again.

What is remarkable in this discussion is the response from a group of orthodox theologians, teaching at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology at the Belgrade University. (For a version of this document in Serbian, please see here; for an English version, see here.) A group of 11 faculty members released an official statement explaining why this petition is inappropriate and even anti-Orthodox. The reasoning of this remarkable document is elegant and clear. It begins with a legal reflection that none of the agencies that received the petition can alter scientific theories because such right belongs only to the science itself following appropriate and exhaustive scientific research. It concludes with a resonant statement: “We believe that there is no reason why education in biology, physics, anthropology or geography (as “theories” in all of these fields can be found in the Bible just as well as those concerning the origin of life) should include the study of biblical narration, which apparently deals with the same issues as these sciences. The Holy Bible is not, and it was never meant to be, a textbook or an ultimate source for arbitration in any scientific discipline.”

Why is this document so important? It takes a clear and strong stand against the challenge posed to Orthodoxy world-wide (from Moscow to Chicago to Belgrade and beyond). Proponents of literalist fundamentalism are pitting evolution against Biblical stories of creation (predominantly from Genesis) as being opposed to each other. Serbian theologians have made the point that the substance of science (or theology for that matter!) is not determined by democratic decisions, nor a decision of a committee or the ministry of government, but rather is determined by discipline itself.  Evolution is a complicated scientific theory that explains the development of life forms on Earth, it is poorly understood outside the confines of scientific experts in the field.  Nevertheless, the principles of evolution provide the fundamental basis for all of biological sciences; there is nothing in biology that can be understood if it is artificially separated from evolution. The document released by the Serbian theologians articulates that theology cannot provide an alternative to biology just as biology cannot provide an alternative to theology; these are not competitive scientific disciplines.

The discussion in Serbia is familiar to many of us in the US, with extreme elements in society creating a false conflict between science and religion.  Even some of the Orthodox who are not proponents of biblical literalism take a fundamentalist view of the Genesis text and argue strongly against evolution creating a difficult environment for honest science and religion dialogue. This disparity is apparent if one examines closely the recordings and postings on various Orthodox media sites, for example, where some speakers purporting an Orthodox view can be found vigorously denying evolution as “anti-Christian”.  Still more importantly, there is little official challenge to these claims against evolution by the Church in the US either at the local archdiocesan level, at the broad Assembly level, or even from seminaries.

In the current political climate in Serbia, it is remarkably courageous of this group of theologians to take on this issue. There are elements within the Orthodox Church in Serbia who have been reactionary against many societal issues that are labeled together with evolution as “modernist” innovations. There is a battle ground in Serbia (that is not alien to American Orthodoxy) but it is not between science and religion; rather, it is between two extremes within society: new-found religious “rigorists” with renewed emphasis on Biblical literalism, extremist fasting regulations, etc. on the one hand and those that have no use for religion at all on the other. Often the Orthodox Church has taken the side of the ultra-rigorist groups resulting in the alienation of many in the Orthodox Church who have a traditional but discerning view of faith.  This “rigorist” view is extremely harmful to the Church, demanding a slave-like adherence to legalistic formulas and at the same time denying a role for interpretation, discernment, and wisdom in the Church.  Through this document, Serbian theologians have taken the narrow road that is so characteristic of the true Orthodoxy -pointing out the need for a more discerning and thoughtful approach to the science-religion interface and by extension to all other similar issues that the Church faces.  It is hoped that this document will provide an example to those in Serbia (and in the world) who are looking to Orthodox to answer challenging questions for challenging times.

Gayle Woloschak, PhD, DMin is Professor of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern University School of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Religion and Science at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago. 

Tatjana Paunesku, PhD is Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.