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Bringing Pragmatism, Critical Thinking, and Humanism to Russia

by David Koepsell and Bill Cooke

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 3.

David KoepsellFrom July 25 to August 7, Center for Inquiry–Moscow, headed by the Russian philosopher Valerii Kuvakin, hosted the first CFI Summer School in that country. It was a fabulous event, with eager and educated students from all four corners of this vast country attending, and it offered a great new opportunity for cooperation and intellectual dialogue among Russian humanists. Supported by CFI–Transnational, CFI–Moscow, and Moscow State University, which houses CFI–Moscow’s offices, the program featured courses in American Philosophical Naturalism, Critical Thinking, and the History of Humanism. The faculty consisted of Bill Cooke, CFI’s director of Transnational Programs, John Ryder, a dean of the State University of New York and a fellow of CFI, and David Koepsell, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

The idea of bringing the Summer School to Moscow grew out of the frustration of Russian students from earlier years who wanted to attend the Summer School at CFI–Transnational in Amherst. In 2003, all but one student was denied a visa to enter the country. CFI Chair Paul Kurtz decided that, if the students couldn’t come to the Summer School, then the Summer School should go to the students.

Once in Moscow, we learned that, despite leaving communism behind, the government bureaucracy has been scrupulously maintained. In between teaching classes, we spent the first several days involved in a confusing ballet of filling out forms and taking them to the appropriate people, simply to get a special stamp in our passports allowing us to stay.

Our accommodations were sizable and comfortable at the Moscow State University guest hotel, which is a wing of the enormous Stalinist-gothic edifice comprising the main campus. The building was beginning to crumble, even as a new, multimillion dollar library was being constructed for MSU just across the street. As we entered our “hotel,” we noticed mesh-wire canopies that would not possibly function as sunscreens and which we realized were there to catch chunks of falling masonry. A few pieces were already embedded in the canopies.

The CFI Summer School classroom and the MSU Philosophy Department were housed in a 1960s era, classic Soviet-style concrete building that was also crumbling. The humanities departments housed there were soon to move into a new building that was under construction nearby.

But, while we found the physical plant and bureaucracy all quite outdated, the intellectual life in Russia continues to blossom. Freed from ideological repression, many different political and economic worldviews are debating one another, even in our CFI Summer School classroom. But while our students were libertarians, democrats, capitalists, and even quite a few Marxists, they were all enthusiastic humanists and practiced skeptics.

The humanist and skeptical traditions stem in part from Marxist materialism, which was of course the dominant philosophy for the lifetimes of most of our students. They were eager to learn more of the philosophical roots of American pragmatism and naturalism and the practical logic involved in critical thinking. And, of course, the history of humanism was a lively and welcomed part of the two-week curriculum. The Russians were especially interested in the transnational origins of humanism. They were less receptive to the materialist conceptions of the soul now common in Western philosophy. They seemed keen to retain some notion of an irreducible essence of being human.

Our translator was fabulous, and by the end of the first day, each teacher developed a rhythm that flowed smoothly. Much of the classroom discussion focused on cultural differences and similarities among different philosophical schools. The conversation and dialogue was energizing and enlightening, as we discovered many interesting similarities between American naturalism (which is relatively unknown outside the United States) and Marxist materialism. Even so, there are many stark differences, such as the absence of the dialectical method in modern naturalism, although John Dewey was trained in Hegelian dialectic. A discussion of critical thinking was much appreciated as well, because, while many of the students had strong backgrounds in logic, they did not generally have training in practical reasoning as opposed to rigorously mathematical logic. Students found this aspect of the course particularly enjoyable, because the use of practical examples is also unusual in Russia, where theory is king.

The Center for Inquiry movement, and secular humanism in particular, are alive and well in Russia. The movement needs our support as religions such as  Russian Orthodoxy begin to grow and to struggle for political power. David Koepsell was interviewed on Radio Liberty (part of Radio Free Europe) on a show hosted by an Orthodox priest and with an Orthodox bishop as another guest, and the discussion revolved around the issue of the compatibility of science and religion. Russia now faces a crossroads as the dogmatism of religion begins to exert itself against a crumbling educational and scientific culture.

David Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and Bill Cooke is director of Transnational Programs for the Center for Inquiry.

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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