Science – religion disputes in Bulgarian social media

by Ivaylo Nachev, Project SOW Researcher 


Science - religion disputes in Bulgarian social media 
(Some thoughts on the importance of a constructive dialogue when worldviews clash)


Public discussions about the relationship between science and religion are thin on the ground in Bulgaria these days. Such matters, if not thoroughly neglected, are at best debated in closed/academic circles which are usually advocates of the one side only. However, once a conversation of such kind does get rolling, it may rapidly become dominated by extreme and irreconcilable views, where sound arguments and reasoning are easily displaced by emotions, prejudices and stereotypes.

This tendency was recently confirmed by a fierce dispute, caused by an ironic statement denouncing traditional Orthodox faith in the miracle of the Holy Fire. The statement was posted on Facebook over the Easter holidays in the page Science and Critical Thinking (original name – “Наука и критично мислене”). The post featured a picture of the religious ceremony with the following text: “When someone tells me about the miracle of the Holy Fire and its self-ignition, I am quite sure this person had failed his chemistry tests at the primary school” (see screenshot below). The post also elaborated on the chemical properties of white phosphorus and the mechanisms of self-ignition, adding that the holy fire practice has been condemned by the Catholic Church since the 13th century.
Science and Critical Thinking’s post 

The holy fire demystification, of course, is not a discovery in itself, as it has been discussed many times and on different occasions, including in online publications in Bulgarian language. Nevertheless, the post, which was probably intentionally provocative, given that the owner of the account described it as “a page which is not politically, socially and religiously correct”, engaged both friend and foe in passionate polemics.

Noteworthy is the big scope of engagement of a large number of people from different social, cultural and professional backgrounds. In less than a week the post triggered more than a hundred comments and replies, most of which were quite more lengthy and exhaustive than the typical social media interactions. In addition, there were several hundred reactions to the post and probably thousands of passive viewers. This leads to the assumption that the relationship between science and religion still accounts for one of today’s controversial and heated issues, reflecting conflicting worldviews, which can hardly be reconciled.

The participants in the discussion were clearly divided into two opponent groups: scientific/atheist versus religious. The advocates of the scientific approach to the Orthodox traditions were quite numerous, which is not surprising, considering the type of page that sparked the debate. However, the religious/faith group was by no means outnumbered and was equally vociferous in defending their position. Only a few opinions emerged in between, seeking reconciliation of the two extreme views.

In fact, few of the participants dwelled further on the specific case of the holy fire or on the possible uses of white phosphorus or other substances and the discussion went in several different directions instead. There were mentions of the horrors in the Old Testament, the Inquisition (or victims of the French Revolution), Buddhism or general reasoning in the very broad circle religion-philosophy-politics. Leaving aside the usual jokes, chatting, personal attacks and so on, the conversation actually touched upon fundamental dilemmas: knowledge/advancement versus moral, science versus pseudoscience, rationality versus intuition, critical-thinking versus ignorance, modern versus old fashioned/archaic etc.

A recurring argument of the science group was that their opponents have distorted views about what science actually is, to which the opposition replied that atheists likewise have distorted notions of religious people. It was also argued that religious people who have become interested in science have gradually lost their faith, but contrary opinions were also put forward by the adversary side.

The faith group claimed that their opponents have specialized in one field and are ignorant of many others that might be relevant, for example, a chemist with no historical knowledge. In addition, they insisted that most of the renowned scientists were religious people, whereas the opponent side came up with the opposite statement: many/most of the famous scientists were/are atheist; Einstein, strangely enough, was given as an example in the argumentation by both sides. Some religious advocates voiced their conviction that the path to faith might be combined with scientific activities. Others gave various examples for the limits and constraints of contemporary science.

Both sides used quite a lot of epithets and ad hominem reasoning in the debate. Each group accused the other of fanaticism. Neither the scientific group relied very extensively on factual argumentation, as might be expected, nor did the religious group always use a tone, showing respect for the neighbor. So, in many of the exchanges one could not really see a constructive dialogue, in the sense that the other side’s position was not heard and considered. This was probably due not only to the clash of worldviews, but also to the occasional superficial formulation of the opinions.    

Despite the wide range of positions, no general conclusions can be made on the basis of this specific case. While the usual distortions in social media should be taken into account, some observations seem justified. The keen interest in science/religion matters, displayed by various groups and social strata is undeniable. At the same time, the attitude towards these issues can be characterized as immature. Therefore, we can affirm the importance of the Bulgarian public being better informed on the current Science and Orthodoxy issues and debates.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.



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