Science, religion, and superstition in Romania

by Alexandra Stavinschi, Project SOW Researcher

Why should we talk about science and religion in the first place? Because people already do that, and they do it a lot. But they do it in totally misguided ways, which end up discrediting religion, in particular, and the connection between the two. Why is that? In Romania, both are held in high regard: religion is part of the culture and the prestige of science is undeniable, although the level of the scientific education is not always high. As a result, science and religion blend in a bizarre and dangerous mix of misplaced trust in what can be labelled as pseudoscience and pseudoreligion: astrology, paranormal energies, witchcraft and pagan-like rituals are also very popular. The search for the truth is driven and eventually jeopardized by a frantic search for control over the future.
Let’s see what the picture looks like. Are Romanians more keen on trusting religion or science? How do these two seemingly different attitudes interact and what are the consequences?

Religion
According to the Religiosity and Atheism Index, released by Gallup International, Romania is the most religious country in Europe. It ranks seventh in the whole world and is the only EU country that makes it into the top ten. It is also one of the very few countries where interest in religion has been on the increase (rising from 85 to 89% in just seven years, from 2005 to 2012).
Religion seems to be part of the traditional upbringing. A study conducted by the Soros Foundation revealed that over 75% of Romanians consider themselves religious; the percentage is even higher in rural areas, among women, elderly people and among people with low income. According to a survey carried out in 2010 by researchers at the Faculty of Sociology at the University of Bucharest, entitled Science and society. Interests and perceptions of the public on scientific research, 89% of the respondents declared that religion was important in their family during childhood. For 77%, religion means truth and only 17% disagree with this idea. The Church is largely believed to have an important social function and is expected to provide answers to: spiritual needs (86% of the respondents), moral issues (76%), problems of the family life (72%), youth problems (61%) and social problems (59%). All this may have a strong impact on shaping common beliefs and values; according to the Eurobarometer 2008 (on the values of Europeans), a significant part of the Romanian population mentioned faith as being among the most important personal values. (The percentage - 19% of respondents – is only outnumbered by the answers of Cypriots at 27% and Maltese with 26%, but is still considerably above the European average of 7%).

By contrast, the study on “Science and society” mentioned earlier found that the level of scientific culture is very low, with only one in ten people having a solid scientific culture. On the other hand, the survey indicated, in our country, a widespread positive attitude towards science and towards scientific development (about one in two Romanians are ready to strongly support scientific research, even though there appears to be little awareness of scientific values and achievements). The report shows that nearly 90 percent of the population included in the study lack basic scientific knowledge and an active scientific vocabulary, have no idea how scientific research method is carried out and operate poorly with probabilities. In 2009, the index of scientific knowledge in Romania was below the European average. The responses to the questionnaire suggest that at least one in three Romanians turn out to be: creationist, geocentrist and have poor knowledge of genetics, physics and some aspects of medicine. In contrast, they scored better when asked specific questions about astronomy, geology, as well as other aspects of medicine and genetics.

Science

By contrast, the study on “Science and society” mentioned earlier found that the level of scientific culture is very low, with only one in ten people having a solid scientific culture. On the other hand, the survey indicated, in our country, a widespread positive attitude towards science and towards scientific development (about one in two Romanians are ready to strongly support scientific research, even though there appears to be little awareness of scientific values and achievements). The report shows that nearly 90 percent of the population included in the study lack basic scientific knowledge and an active scientific vocabulary, have no idea how scientific research method is carried out and operate poorly with probabilities. In 2009, the index of scientific knowledge in Romania was below the European average. The responses to the questionnaire suggest that at least one in three Romanians turn out to be: creationist, geocentrist and have poor knowledge of genetics, physics and some aspects of medicine. In contrast, they scored better when asked specific questions about astronomy, geology, as well as other aspects of medicine and genetics.

Superstition
Research has shown that, at least in Romania, religion and superstition go hand in hand. Superstition is particularly high in Romania, compared to other countries. There is also a potential correlation with the lack of a solid scientific culture among a large part of the population. In fact, in addition to inexplicable beliefs in supernatural influences, many people are seduced by teachings that claim to have a scientific basis. Although less than 20% of Romanians consider themselves as superstitious, 61% follow horoscopes, 46% believe in the end of the world and 44% claim that they have premonitory dreams (according to an opinion poll conducted in October 2014 by the Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy (IRES) to identify Romanians' superstitions). Another study, which was carried out by Ivox for the Romanian Secular-Humanist Association (ASUR) on a sample of 2,477 respondents from urban areas, revealed comparable data: 57% believe in horoscopes and especially in astrology charts,considering that they have a scientific basis. 22% of Romanians think that horoscopes are very scientific - in 2005, the highest rate in the European countries after Cyprus. Romania is also one of the top European societies in terms of the proportion of adults who believe in the existence of lucky numbers: about half of the Romanians agreed that some numbers are particularly lucky for some people, compared to about one third of the EU and Turkey average. The 2009 STISOC survey data reconfirms these distributions, their consistency over time, and also indicates that about 40% of Romanians think that the zodiac either strongly or very strongly influences the personality.

Conclusions
When we look at these data, we can easily jump to the conclusion that religion and superstition are two sides of the same coin, both at odds with science: irrational vs rational thinking, as has often been suggested.
However, these studies are only quantitative, not qualitative analyses of the facts. They reveal a widespread confusion that is entertained by the media, who often indiscriminately combine science, religion and superstition. They also reveal a great deal of superficial judgments that influence both our thinking and our actions. When we look deeper, we see a different picture, where science and faith reveal striking similarities.
In fact, the Orthodox Church, in particular the Holy Fathers, have often condemned superstitious behaviour as incompatible with true faith. Just like science, they give a prominent place to the “laws”, they insists on personal “research”, namely prayer, to be carried out in our inner “laboratory”, which is our heart and mind, with the help of our spiritual father, who is our “supervisor”. We are also supposed to perform the works of the faith, as words alone are not enough. We are supposed to go, just like scientists, through a trial and error process, which is meant to eventually bring us closer to the truth. Crucially, we are encouraged to trust the spirit, which is encountered through a “peer-reviewed” experience inside the community, as opposed to blindly follow the letter of the scripture, which is the equivalent of unfounded beliefs (superstitions) or of blindly follow any earthly authority, including our own isolated „revelations”.
All this shows another detail that science and true faith have in common, as opposed to their fake counterparts: it is the honest personal effort, enlightened by discernment, that makes a crucial difference. Romania is also the home country of theologians such as Fr Dumitru Staniloae, of scientists such as the Nobel prize winner George E. Palade and of historians of religion such as Mircea Eliade. We should follow in their footsteps. Serious, meaningful, well-informed discussions can also help counteract the detrimental trend that is promoted elsewhere. Of course, these are not expected to provide the ultimate answers, but we need to make sure that at least we are weeding out what takes us away from the truth.

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