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A Romanian Adventure

by Michael Shermer, Sep 22 2009

The week of September 7 I spent in the beautiful Eastern European country of Romania, home of the blood-sucking vampire Count Dracula in Transylvania and the soul-sucking Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in Bucharest. I was invited by the physicist and historian of science Gheorghe Stratan at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj (pronounced Kloog), who translated two of my books, Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters (published by Humanitas publishing house in Romania). Dr. Stratan has also translated books by Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and Ernst Mayr. The central event was an evolution conference in Cluj celebrating the Darwinian bicentennial, and there were many interesting talks on evolutionary biology, history, and cultural impacts.

While I was there the Romanian Humanist Association invited me to give a talk in Bucharest, hosted by the organizers of that fine organization with the very Roman names of Ovidiu Covaciu and Remus Cernea, both of whom were exceptionally kind in escorting me about the city and treating me to their local beers and meals, such as here as Ovidiu and I enjoy an Ursus (Bear) beer and lunch consisting of polenta with pork wrapped in grape leaves.

Ovidiu and I enjoy an Ursus (Bear) beer and lunch consisting of polenta with pork wrapped in grape leaves.

Ovidiu and I enjoy an Ursus (Bear) beer and lunch consisting of polenta with pork wrapped in grape leaves.

Ceausescu's monument to himself, People's Palace, that Trump tried to buy!

Ceausescu's monument to himself, People's Palace, that Trump tried to buy!

Ovidiu and Remus also took me to the infamous “People’s Palace” (now the Palace of the Parliament), constructed by Ceaucescu to be his pyramid-like monument to himself as the largest building in the world. (They claim that the Pentagon is actually the largest by square footage, but that the palace may actually be larger if you don’t count the inner empty unused center courtyard of the Pentagon.) The Palace is unbelievably huge. Inside, the hallways are so wide that you could drive a tank down some of them. The ballrooms are breathtakingly enormous, and of course the exterior exudes strength and power.

Our tour guide told us that after the overthrow of the Communists in 1989, the Palace, still unfinished and bankrupting the country (with the people starving, the streets unlit at night, etc.), that they nearly took an offer of $1 billion from Donald Trump, who wanted to turn the Palace into the world’s largest casino. Somehow that seems fitting. Someone wised up and had the place assessed by an American company, which put the price tag at $22 billion, so The Donald missed what would have been his biggest real estate deal ever.

Inside the Palace hangs the propaganda artwork of Sabin Balasa, commissioned to paint idealized happy Romanians under Communist rule. Here are two classic pieces.

Happy communists! by Sabin Balasa

Happy communists! by Sabin Balasa

Idealized peaceful communist woman and man by Sabin Balasa

Idealized peaceful communist woman and man by Sabin Balasa

Most disturbing was the level infusion of religion into science education. (Romanians are overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox with a level of belief in God approaching 99.9%, an overreaction, my hosts assured me, to the state enforced atheism—you can’t force people to believe.) Here is the 11th grade science textbook featuring the six days of creation, along with a 9th grade biology textbook written by two teams of authors: biologists and theologians, and on whose first page it reads “God Exists.” (Click the thumbnails below to view larger photos in my Flickr photostream.)

photo thumbnail photo thumbnail photo thumbnail photo thumbnail photo thumbnail photo thumbnail

Remus is planning on running for President of Romania on a secular government platform that would enforce the separation of church and state, which at this point in the country’s history is going to be difficult. Nevertheless, I support him in his cause. Here is Remus and I in the beautiful Venezia hotel they hosted me in.

Other impressions: Both of my talks were well received, the Romanian people were exceptionally friendly, almost everyone I met my age and younger spoke quite good English , and the city of Cluj was quite beautiful. On the down side, I was amazed at the number of cars in Bucharest (and remember, I’m from L.A.!), jammed into every nook and cranny (without an SUV to be found). I was also stunned by how many people smoke. Everywhere I went the acrid smell of smoke was in the air, including restaurants, which once again reminded me of the tension I feel between my libertarian tendency to prefer freedom, including the freedom to smoke, and my personal preference for a smoke free environment anywhere I go. I know, second hand smoke has not been proven to cause serious lung illnesses, but it sure does stink and bothers me to no end. One market solution, of course, is to allow, say, restaurants to choose to be smoke free or smoke filled, and then let customers decide. But even in the outdoors second-hand smoke stinks and makes it difficult to appreciate the otherwise clean air (well, okay, not with all those cars, but you get the point).

I also got to visit the spectacular Botanical Garden in Cluj where I got an insider’s tour, as well as walking about town a fair amount and going inside a classic Orthodox cathedral:

Orthodox Cathedral much more austere than Catholics, no seats for services! You stand, like at a Springsteen concert

Orthodox Cathedral much more austere than Catholics, no seats for services! You stand, like at a Springsteen concert

Global warming is real...inside the botanical greenhouse. I was sweating like Bernie Madoff in jail.

Global warming is real...inside the botanical greenhouse. I was sweating like Bernie Madoff in jail.

Botanical Garden in Cluj

Botanical Garden in Cluj


26 Responses to “A Romanian Adventure”

  1. Max says:

    I know, second hand smoke has not been proven to cause serious lung illnesses, but it sure does stink and bothers me to no end.

    You should read “Why People Believe Weird Things”.

    • Max says:

      Almost missed the caption.
      “Global warming is real…inside the botanical greenhouse.”

      Something else is missing. Oh yeah, is Romanian water fluoridated?

      • Hu says:

        I don’t think so.
        Then again, Romanians seldom drink tap water; it sometimes has a taste of rust and dirt.
        Botteled water is a big industry here.

      • Paul says:

        Actually the water it is fluoridated. Tap water is drinkable, but not all cities have the same quality tap water. People that live in rural areas have wells, with cold, clear, natural water which is the best. There are many springs in Romania, with natural mineral water that many people use as treatments for various illnesses. Most bottled water in our country, what Americans call soda water, is actually spring water with added carbon dioxide.

  2. AUJT says:

    Thank Isis that there’s a few rational Romanians —>

    It must be difficult to have Cristina’s views in a theocracy.

  3. AUJT says:

    Romania, religion and other related stuffs. Ain’t the internets great!————>

  4. Beelzebud says:

    Ah yes, global warming only exists in greenhouses, and libertarians are the only people who value freedom…

    So much for critical thinking.

    • Tuffgong says:

      Somehow I get the overwhelming sense that there’s a lot more snark than skepticism in that comment.

    • Max says:

      the tension I feel between my libertarian tendency to prefer freedom, including the freedom to smoke, and my personal preference for a smoke free environment anywhere I go

      But you didn’t have a choice of a smoke free environment, did you? And when society is polluted by ads, drugs, and smut, it becomes harder for you and your children to avoid these things as well.

  5. Tuffgong says:

    This is all so funny to me being an American born Romanian skeptic who visits a lot and believe me when I say that Romanians are not a very skeptical nation. Goddamnit if I don’t have to argue my parents every day regarding their woo. Religion and superstition are EVERYWHERE.

    Anyway, It’s funny seeing things that I’ve known for years being summed up to me by someone I respect skeptically. Nothing has made me cringe in a while and the declaration that “God Exists” in that text book as I read it sure as hell did it. Man, that’s as unscientific as you can get in a scientific textbook.

    The “polenta with pork wrapped in grape leaves” is a Romanian staple and I eat if occasionally.

    The cars are a big problem in every major city in Romania (I visit Timisoara, basically the opposite side of the country from Cluj) and that is due to the antiquated city design not being able to be updated fast enough to accommodate for the recent explosion in cars. A lot of cars that are lower level get funneled into Romania and that accounts for the sheer number. Europe being all interconnected now, the need for cars in each nation has also increased and the problem you saw in Bucharest is all these issues coming to a head.

    My brother visited the capital and he said it was horrible and we thought it was bad where we were.

    Oh and don’t let that politeness fool you. That concept in Romanian culture is (at least from what I’ve experienced) enforced for its own sake and is employed for no real good reason. Considering the nature of Romanian gossip, a lot of times politeness is a blanket tactic to cover someone’s true feelings. The fact that everyone is generally polite means that it can be hard to distinguish the good from the bad.

    Sorry but this blog post was just to relevant to me and I’m sorry for the book.

  6. Brian M says:

    The problem with “letting the market decide”, is that all restaurants are afraid to ban smoking for fear of losing some customers, so those of us (the actual majority) that dislike the smoke, have no choice in the matter. If it was 50/50, such as enforcing “smoke free” areas, but more so in 50% of restaurants smoke free, THEN the market would slide one way or another, and everyone would have choices.

  7. danekart says:

    I thought Libertarians understood “your rights end where my nose begins”.

    Smokers should be free to smoke in public places if they can capture the fumes so others don’t have to breathe it. We need maybe a pocket sized water filter for cigarettes.

    Until then it’s mostly governed by societal conventions. In Australia restaurants are smoke-free environments and it really makes eating the meal a lot more pleasant.

  8. danekart says:

    Oh, and that’s really depressing to see religion in a science textbook.

    But what does it say underneath “GOD EXISTS” ? Not knowing any Romanian, it looks to me like several arguments asserting reasons for God to exist.

    • Armand K. says:

      They are, indeed… old and tired ones, very in tone with the book’s subtitle, “Divine grace and resplendence in biosphere.”

      It reads:
      Title: “Theological introduction”, Subtitle “God Exists.”
      Section headings:
      “1. The need for the existence of a Creator” [Presumably the old and tired teleological argument, or Aquinas 'proof' or something like that... Things you find on the Answers in Genesis site and the like.]
      “2. The ultimate argument / The final proof” [AiG stuff again]
      “3. Science appeals to evolution”
      “4. The myth of mass-media neutrality/impartiality” [As a side note, they got it backasswards: in Romania mass-media is very much biased towards religion; exceptions apply, of course.]
      “5. What is the truth?” [Take a wild guess!]

      They go on to explain, below, that as Jesus is the keystone of the Church [mind the capital!], Creationism [idem] is the foundation and key to understanding the Bible blah-blah-blah, and the moment of creation is the declaration of absolute reign of God on the world, yada-yada-yada, Christ’s blood yada-yada-yada… [The usual creationist mind-garbage, nothing new here.]

      The last photo is representative for many sections of the manual. It has in it some normal material on ferns (photo, description and taxonomy) and, at the bottom of the page, a big grey box reading, “God preserves his creation so that it continues to function [oh, so technical a term!] as he planned it to — the principle of conservation[sic]. Be a brave steward [?] of the unaltered creation.” [WTF?] Then Isaiah 25:1 is quoted, “O Lord, you are my God, I will extol you and praise your name; For you have fulfilled your wonderful plans of old, faithful and true.” [Cited from the Catholic New American Bible.]

  9. Hello all,
    I am one of the Romanian skeptics that lives happily and undisturbed in a “theocracy”. Let alone the exaggerations, please bear in mind Romania was an ex-communist state that promoted secularism and the rule of man.I don’t know where you got your statistics from, that Romanians are 99% Orthodox, because the numbers show differently.

    According to the last census from 2002 (it hasn’t been done another since then) Romanians are 86.7% Orthodox, but not necessarily because they are ardent observers but because they consider themselves Christians, as religion sometimes is passed onto our children as a rite of passage. Most of my friends think of themselves as Christians, but they haven’t read the bible, they don’t go to church and don’t follow any religious rules. The rest are Catholic, Jews undecided or Atheists.

    The school book of biology that you showed is just ONE among several that are proposed in schools. Indeed, it is unfortunate that there are religious alternatives to scientific ones, but nevertheless, the parents have the option to: 1) withdraw the child from the religious class (there is a law that specifies this and the application can be found on official sites- I have downloaded one myself); 2) opt for an exclusive 100% pure scientific biology school book like the one authored by MIHAIL AURORA, Florica Macovei, published by ALL. The teachers agree with the parents what kind of schoolbooks they go for. If the child is 16 he can choose for himself to either follow the evolutionist or creationist explanation of biology. Similarly, the pupil does not need parental consent if he/she is 16 to withdraw from the orthodox religious class. Excuse my intrusion, but i would hate if your fellow Americans will think that our tap water is rusty (it is just yucky), Romanians are narrow-minded bigots that ostracize atheists like myself, or make a cross sign every time they see a black cat. Bigots and naive people who believe in superstitions are all over the world, US included :-) This being said, I hope you had a nice stay in Romania and next time, ahem, avoid the tap water :-)
    Best wishes,
    Diana Chemali-a Romanian Agnostic

    • DEA says:

      Hei Diana, Michael said 99% religiously afiliated.
      If you remember the census only 0.2% were atheists. So it makes the math.

      And yes there are other books which are scientifically correct, and they are the majority, but nevertheless, no creationist books should be approved by the Education Ministry.

      “If the child is 16 he can choose for himself to either follow the evolutionist or creationist explanation of biology.”
      This is utterly wrong, creationism is not an alternative explanation it’s just religion.

    • @Diana Chemali: that people don’t make a cross sign when they see a black cat is certainly true; and probably few make one when they pass by a church – but the latter is probably the reality in Bucharest.

      The rest of the population, I’d wager, is much more religious. I lived in Galati, a decent industrial city of 300,000, and let’s just say that priests in church clothing, people making cross signs whenever they passed a church, and public transportation vehicles displaying religious artifacts displayed in, were a tad too much for my taste.

      Mr. Shermer, I greatly enjoyed your presentation at Ohlone College in Fremont on March 06, 2009 (thank you for signing my book), and I wish to thank you as well for helping spread critical thinking in my home country.

  10. Peter Gluck says:

    The Cluj conference and the Shermer book re. Weird things-are presented here:
    in the editorial No. 370 of this weekly newsletter.
    Unfortunately in Romanian. I had the pleasure to meet
    Michael and he has promised to answer my message.
    I am preparing a letter mainly with the following points:
    a) Shermer’s prediction for the future: Knowledge or Ignorance based society? Is this century a new one or is it the 12-th in a new form?
    b) A discussion re. what erroneously is named cold fusion,,based on experimental data and, even more important about the technology described at
    http://www.blackl; According to Cipolla’s 2nd Law even skeptics can err, and CF is such a case.
    c) My “Negatheist Manifesto”- I consider that atheists
    i.e. zerotheists believe in too many gods and we need
    religions based on negative numbers of gods. This means humans have to become more and more godlike-
    by Education and Science.
    By the way, an old concept, see H.G. Wells- “Men like gods” and Arthur C.Clarke’s idea that ‘perhaps or mission is not to worship God but to create him”

    Best wishes and thanks for the fine conference!

  11. Jeffrey Eldred says:

    You should have visited ZOMGitsCriss from youtube!

  12. Glenn says:

    Frank using English reads like a Donkey playing a violin.

  13. frank says:

    re: Glenn (now comment 12 – retreayt having been (properly) deleted)

    ok – fair comment!



  14. Monica says:

    I loved your post. I am Romanian (I left the country a while ago) and I still miss “sarmale” and Ursus :)
    I must confess I was a bit surprised to see that biology book. I was a teenager in 1989 during the events that overthrew Ceausescu’s regime. After that, religion became more and more visible in the society(to a nauseating degree I must say, priests blessing the opening of malls,etc. etc), but I don’t recall seeing anything like that in school, certainly no biology books presenting such ridiculous views. Only the highschool philosophy book discussed God and theological points, but with quite a balanced approach. It is very worrying to hear that kids are going to study such idiotic books. I hope it will not happen or if it already does, it means the education system is really moving in the wrong direction and the atheist lobby (if there is such a thing) should try and do something about it.
    I was a bit suprised to read about Remus who would run for presidential elections to enforce separation of state and church. State and church ARE separated in Romania. It is true that the Church has a huge influence on people, but Romania is not a theocracy. I wouldn’t like Remus to fight a battle that looks already lost (running for president as a declared secular person in Romania would have just as much chance to be successful as running for president of US as a gay and an atheist – although we had a president who declared himselh a “free thinker”, but only after he was elected). Wouldn’t it be better just to try and organize a sort of lobby at Parliament level or start a grassroots organization? You know, start small and grow and be reasonable.
    I have always been openly atheist and although sometimes I got some disapproving looks and nasty comments in Romania, very few people seemed to have a huge problem with my worldview. It is a bit annoying and lonely to be the village eccentric, I agree :)
    I have moved to a Catholic country and although I don’t see as much display of religion as in Romania, abortion is prohibited here by law and in my opinion, this actually makes this country more religious than Romania.

    But yeah, I miss Bucharest and Cluj and crazy Romania :)))

  15. Ada says:

    I just read on the internet today that you have visited and had not one, but two conferences in Romania!
    I am a big fan (I subscribe to Skeptic – under my husband’s name, I used his credit card to pay for it), I listen to the podcasts and I work in the media – so I should be better informed, and still had no idea about the conferences!
    This is just me venting my frustration in here.
    But I have an idea: Next time you go for a public conference in some place at the end of the world – can you please ask the subscription dept at the magazine to drop a mail to those in the area about the event? Some of us could benefit from that.

  16. Mazgalica says:

    Salut imi place cum scrii vrei sa facem linkexchange cu blogul meu?

  17. frank says:

    in reply to retreayt comment No. 12

    i, too, had lost patience with mshermer in the face of his abrasive and offensively aggressive dismissal of those who profess a belief in the outworkings and presence of a supernatural “deity”.

    i have now read the first and last chapters of “Climbing mt improbable” and find him a far more readable and informative fellow – well worht a read.

    i am still wrestling, however, with his seeming prevarications – or maybe i am impatient. i still have not come to any place where he has shown that there is, indeed, a gentle sloping path around the impossible cliffs of the mountain.

  18. frank says:

    ooops – mybad

    my befuddled brain concatenated messers Shermer and Dawkins.

    my apologies.
    it is Mr Dawkins whom i have found abrasively offensive in his misotheism. (though absorbing and entertaining in his book (but frustratingly obtuse in proving his contentions))

    mr shermer i have respect for in his circumspectness (though some of his followers seem blinkered)

    hope this resolves (absolves?)