The region

CEE comprises twenty-four countries, located between the Elbe River and the Caspian Sea: Albania, Armena, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, former East Germany, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. This section outlines CEE’s complex religious, cultural, and political background insofar as it is relevant to the region's present-day capacity for Big Questions research. For this project, the Ian Ramsey Centre found it convenient to group the CEE countries into the five regions shown in the picture above: (1) Central Europe, consisting of Czechia, former East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia; (2) The Balkans, consisting of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia; (3) The Baltic, comprising Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania; (4) The Dnieper Basin, comprising Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova; and (5) Transcaucasia, consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia.

Throughout its history, CEE has been a region of religious and intellectual vitality. It is the birthplace of Slavonic Orthodoxy and Protestantism, and the home of the ancient churches of Georgia and Armenia. It is also a historical centre of Ashkenazi Judaism and European Catholicism. At the same time, it has been the site of epochal advances in scientific thought including Copernicus’s demonstration of heliocentrism, János Bolyai’s discovery of non-Euclidean geometry, and the founding of modern genetics by Gregor Mendel.

In the twentieth century the intellectual and religious life of CEE was disrupted by the World Wars, Nazi occupation, and the long period of communist government. Religious and intellectual life were suppressed during this interval, often brutally, and with lasting effects. The collapse of communism was followed by a period of economic and political shock. In recent years, however, the region has seen rapid political and economic development, and it is starting to re-emerge as a centre for research in topics relating to science and religion.

Early roots

Prior to the twentieth century, CEE frequently played a central role in European religious and intellectual history. Armenia and Georgia converted to Christianity in the early fourth century, becoming the first Christian states in the world. Their Churches remain strong today, with Georgia and Armenia enjoying some of the highest rates of religious belief in the world.

In the Early Middle Ages, Greek and Latin Christianity competed in the region. Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Croats joined the Latin Church over the ninth and tenth centuries. Bulgarians and Serbs converted to Greek Christianity in the ninth century, while the Kievan Rus, ancestors of modern Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians, converted in 988. The Christianisation of CEE concluded with the conversion of the Lithuanians in 1387.

In the eleventh century, existing divisions culminated in the Great Schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The east of CEE fell within the Orthodox region and continues to be an important centre for Orthodox thought. The western areas of the region came to be dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which was the scene of further religious change in the Early Modern period, including the work of Church Reformers Jan Hus in Czechia and Martin Luther in Saxony.

The late Middle Ages saw the expulsion of the Jewish inhabitants of most Western European countries, including Spain, Portugal, France, England and much of Italy and Germany. By contrast, CEE was a place of relative religious tolerance, and by the end of the Middle Ages a large majority of European Jews lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Kingdom of Hungary. They developed the Ashkenazi tradition, which remains the most widely practiced form of Judaism today.

Parts of South-Eastern Europe converted to Islam during Ottoman rule in the early modern period, and historic Sunni Muslim populations remain today in Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bosnia. There is also a Shia majority in Azerbaijan, which was part of the Shia Persian Empire until its conquest by Russia in the early nineteenth century. In comparison with Western Europe CEE has few adherents of non-Abrahamic religions, due to historically low conversion and immigration.

The oldest university in CEE, Charles University, Prague, was founded by Pope Clement VI in 1348, welcoming diverse CEE scholars into its Bohemian, Bavarian, Polish and Saxon “nations”. The Jagiellonian University in Cracow was founded in 1364 and endowed by Saint Jadwiga, the Queen of Poland, who sold her personal jewellery to raise funds. Other ancient CEE universities include Tartu, Eötvös Loránd, Babeș-Bolyai, and Vilnius. These seats of learning provided the focal point for the region’s many contributions to science and enquiry.

Scientific research and religious belief have frequently accompanied one another in CEE. The Polish friar Vitello (c. 1230-1280) was one of the founders of optics; the great astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) was in minor orders; the Bohemian abbot Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) founded modern genetics; the Ragusan Jesuit, Roger Joseph Boscovich (1711-1787) anticipated atomic theory and discovered the absence of atmosphere on the Moon; and the Bohemian priest Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848) did pathbreaking work on the logical foundations of the empirical sciences.

In the early twentieth century, CEE was a global centre for science and mathematics. It saw both the foundation of modern logic by Gottlob Frege, Jan Łukasiewicz, Kurt Gödel, Alfred Tarksi, and Kazimierz Twardowski, and famous breakthroughs in physics by Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein. Like their predecessors, early twentieth century scientists in CEE took a nuanced view of the relationship between science and religion, including those among them who personally lacked religious faith, like the Polish logician Bogusław Wolniewicz or the Serb inventor Nikola Tesla.

Crisis and setbacks

In the twentieth century CEE underwent perhaps the greatest social and cultural trauma that any geographical region has undergone. The region was the epicentre of both World Wars and the site of the greatest Nazi atrocities. Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia became part of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, and the rest of the region fell under communist rule after 1945. It is impossible to overstate the impact of these events on the region. The economic instability, intellectual and religious repression, and the cultural isolation they brought with them is directly responsible for the near disappearance of CEE as a global centre for scientific and religious thought in the second half of the twentieth century.

During the Second World War the population of CEE fell by 15%. Thousands of CEE scholars were murdered in the Holocaust, such as St Edith Stein and Debora Vogel; others like Arthur Koestler, Kurt Gödel, and Alfred Tarski escaped to the West, never to return. Even before this, scholars in what was to become East Germany, including Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger, were expelled on racial or political grounds. The Nazi authorities shut down universities and other centres of thought and culture in the CEE countries that they occupied, with the specific intent of destroying local intellectual and cultural life. In 1939 they launched the Intelligenzaktion in which around 100,000 intellectuals were murdered.

The Soviet victory over Germany in 1945 did not bring an end to intellectual repression in the region. From its inception, the Soviet Union carried out intellectual purges, and these were extended to the countries occupied by the Soviet Union after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. In Poland some 20,000 officers and intelligenzia were murdered in a single massacre at Katyn. These purges were renewed after the Soviet army overran the rest of CEE in 1944-5. Many of the leading intellectuals remaining in the region fled as communist rule was imposed in the following years, such as Ernest Gellner and Mircea Eliade.

Persecution of intellectuals continued throughout the communist era, albeit not with the same intensity as in the 1930s and 1940s. University research was subject to strict controls, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Academic theology was almost entirely suppressed, and philosophy was confined to the Marxist tradition. Mandatory official curricula included conflict narratives about religion and science. Although communist states were officially committed to freedom of religion, they simultaneously represented religion as a means of class control, with no ultimate place in a socialist society.

An insight into the changes in the CEE education system after the imposition of communism can be found in Czesław Miłosz’s comparison of the education he received in interwar Poland with the approach that prevailed in the Eastern bloc when he writes in 1953 (Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, (London: Penguin 2001 [Marin Secker & Warburg, 1953]), 199-202):

There is a great difference between schools in the people’s democracies and schools in the West, for example the schools I attended in pre-war Poland. My friends and I were exposed to a dual system of values. Mathematics, physics, and biology taught us scientific laws, and inculcated respect for a materialistic outlook inherited from the nineteenth century. History and Letters seemed to elude scientific laws, while the history of the Catholic Church and Apologetics cast doubt, though often naively, on what physics and biology taught. In the people’s democracies, the materialistic outlook of the nineteenth century has been extended consistently to every subject; history and every branch of human creativity are presented as governed by unshakeable and already known law.

While elements of Miłosz’s description are specific to Poland, the overall picture applies across CEE: the old tradition of liberal education comprising scientific, humanistic, and religious components was superseded by an ideological approach aimed at bringing all of life under the jurisdiction of a unified science.

Miłosz goes on to emphasise that the new education system did not eliminate intellectual appetite for anything other than state-approved ideology, but often rendered it inarticulate:

The resistance against the new set of values is, however, emotional. It survives, but it is beaten whenever it has to explain itself in rational terms. A man’s subconscious or non-quite-conscious life is richer than his vocabulary. His opposition to this new philosophy of life is much like a toothache. Not only can he not express the pain in words, but he cannot even tell you which tooth is aching.

Despite dangers and difficulties, the appetite to break the confines of the communist education system found a number of outlets. In Yugoslavia, where the regime was less oppressive, some dissent was permitted in the universities; in Poland, the regime allowed the Catholic system of seminaries to survive, as well as one Catholic university in Lublin, whose story is told later in this report. In Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, intellectual life also persisted illegally in the so-called underground universities. These were unofficial organisations with Western support, which gave CEE students access to education beyond state-approved ideology.

The effects of communist government on religious life were complex. In many countries state hostility to religion had the opposite of its intended effect. Religion came to be viewed as the moral alternative to communism, endowing it with prestige and popularity. Dr Diana Tsaghikyan of Yerevan State University explained this in a meeting with the authors of this summary:

We are very proud of our religion in Armenia. I think that this is because it was only my country’s Christian faith that allowed it to survive as a nation through the Soviet Period.

Dr Tsaghikyan’s statement echoes a widespread feeling across CEE, especially in the Catholic countries of Central Europe and the Christian countries of Transcaucasia.

Religion ultimately played a significant role in the downfall of communism. Priests were prominent in the resistance to communism in Poland, with Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko becoming a famous martyr of the period. Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Poland was a milestone in the weakening of the government’s authority, while the Monday Demonstrations organised around the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig began the downfall of the East German regime.

In other respects communist government did lasting damage to religious life in the CEE. Almost every theology faculty was closed and the region’s ancient traditions of academic theology were profoundly damaged; religious dimensions were also excluded from every other university discipline. Even where it flourished, religion often came to be seen as something private and subjective, an esoteric domain with few points of contact with the modern world or with rational enquiry. This attitude continues to inhibit academic research in CEE with a faith perspective.

The present situation

Communist rule in CEE collapsed after 1989 following economic crises and popular protests. The 1990s were a period of economic disruption, political upheaval, and in some cases armed conflict. Those CEE countries that are now European Union member states are thought to have seen their GDP decline by more than 25% in the early 1990s. The share of GDP devoted to research and development fell from well above 1% of GDP to 0.8% in 1994. The effects elsewhere in CEE are likely to have been even more severe. A new wave of emigration further weakened academic institutions.

While the crisis of the 1990s was felt across the region, countries have since taken different paths. Of the twenty-four nations of CEE, two remain under authoritarian government, namely Belarus and Azerbaijan. Ukraine, Moldova and some Balkan states continue to struggle with corruption and fragmented political institutions. Several countries have also been adversely affected by “frozen conflicts”: areas of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are under what the international community regards as illegal occupation by separatist groups, and Kosovan independence remains unrecognised by Serbia.

These difficulties are exceptional, however. The general pattern has been one of sustained advances. Most CEE countries have seen their GDP per capita (PPP) double since the early 1990s, and some have done better still. These growth rates are much higher than those in most of Western Europe, leading to growing economic convergence across the continent. All CEE countries save Azerbaijan and Armenia are now democracies, perhaps the greatest shift towards political freedom in human history. Many are characterised by highly effective and transparent governance, especially in Central Europe and the Baltic. Apart from the Azerbaijan-Armenia and Serbia-Kosovo conflicts, every CEE country maintains good relations with every other CEE country. In Central Europe and the Baltic corruption has been largely eliminated, and it has been greatly reduced almost everywhere. The UN rates the Human Development Index for all CEE countries as “very high” or “high”.

Intellectual and religious freedom are almost always protected in CEE today, in dramatic contrast to the situation until three decades ago. Again, the only exceptions to this are Belarus and Azerbaijan, where these freedoms remain constrained: further details of this situation are provided in section 2. Great efforts have been undertaken to reform the communist-era higher education system, which are now beginning to bear fruit.

In the 1990s, CEE countries inherited the Soviet system of research funding. This comprised centralised state funding and decision-making and a focus on closely controlled academies of science. This system has changed considerably with the 2000s bringing in decentralisation, increased focus on encouraging excellence through competitive grants, and a shift of balance away from academies of science to universities and industry. These changes have been greatest in those countries that have become member states of the EU.