Religion, Science, Russia: An Interview with Boris Raushenbakh

By Daniel, Wallace | The Christian Century, February 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Religion, Science, Russia: An Interview with Boris Raushenbakh


Daniel, Wallace, The Christian Century


The 50-year career of physicist Boris Viktorovich Raushenbakh has been marked by spectacular scientific achievements and--in the context of Soviet Russia--an unusual defense of religion. In the late 1930s he was a victim of the terror that engulfed Soviet society and decimated the scientific establishment. He spent World War II in prison camp laboratories, where he worked in missile technology. In prison be met Sergei Petrovich Korolev, who later became one of the pioneers of the Soviet space age and chief designer of Sputnik I.

In the glory years of Soviet space research, Raushenbakh become the Soviet Union's leading expert in the automatic control of jet engines and space vehicles. He played a major role in designing controls for spaceships, and published seminal works on controls in interplanetary space travel, on the solar orientation system for spaceships, and on air craft and jet engines. He is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and for many years he. directed the Physics and Technological Institute in the Academy of Sciences.

Although Raushenbakh's career has been in the scientific establishment, he has also studied art, early Russian culture and theology. In the 1980s he began to write about icon painting, the religious themes of Russian art and the role of bells in Russian civilization. His writings are extremely sensitive to the religious context of Russian culture.

The philosophy of dialectical materialism dominated the thinking of the Soviet scientific establishment. At the heart of dialectical materialism are two assumptions: that the ultimate source of reality is based on "matter" or, more precisely, "matter-energy," and that nature develops according to dialectical laws. As Loren R. Graham has written, this philosophical system is materialistic, rational and science-oriented; it seeks to avoid reference to spiritual elements (Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union).

In 1989 Raushenbakh wrote of the need for a new worldview. His article "Toward a Rational-Imaginary Picture of the World" appeared in Kommunist, the influential journal published by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The article attracted a great deal of attention, leading him to revise and republish it under the title "Religion and Morality" in January 1991 (several months before the August coup attempt) in Znamia (Banner), a journal widely read by the Russian intelligentsia. In this and subsequent articles, Raushenbakh assaulted several main pillars of Soviet life: dialectical materialism, the denigration of religion and the attempt to create a "new morality" based solely on science and reason. He argued that the one-sided emphasis on materialism and rationality in Soviet education over the past 70 years had been misguided, and that religion is an essential ingredient in both human creativity and morality.

Raushenbakh discussed at considerable length the spiritual crisis facing Russian society and the nihilistic attitudes that lay at the core of this crisis. He quoted Dostoevsky's statement in The Brothers Karamazov that "if God does not exist, everything is permitted." He argued that Russia not only had to recapture older spiritual voices, such as those of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but also reacquaint itself with the giants of its scientific tradition, especially Mendeleev. He also praised Kant's in sights into the connection between religious belief and social morality, and he stressed Kant's argument that God's existence cannot be proved by logic, a dictum that Soviet education had forgotten.

In Raushenbakh's view, a key to rebuilding Russia lay in a new "humanizing education"--one that would embrace both the scientific and the spiritual. "We live in a country," he wrote, "that was founded on religious principles, on strong religious ideals, but we have gone very far from them, to the other extreme; it is absolutely essential that we recover what we have lost. …

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