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Science, Religion And War

By John Scales Avery

14 August, 2014

The recent murderous, and religiously motivated,.attacks by ISIS on the Yazidi community in Iraq make it appropriate to ask whether religion most frequently acts as a force for peace in the world, or whether it is more often the source of conflicts.

The world's major religions have at their core the principle of universal human brotherhood, which, if practiced, would be enough to make war impossible. However, the principle of loving and forgiving one's enemies is rarely practiced.

Many wars have been fought in the name of religion. We can think, for example, of the Crusades, or the Islamic conquests in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, or the wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, or the brutal treatment of the native populations of Central and South America in the name of religion. The list by no means stops there.

What about science and technology? How are they related to war? As we start the 21st century and the new millennium, our scientific and technological civilization seems to be entering a period of crisis. Today, for the first time in history, science has given to humans the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of infectious disease. At the same time, science has given us the power to destroy civilization through thermonuclear war, as well as the power to make our planet uninhabitable through pollution and overpopulation. The question of which of these alternatives we choose is a matter of life or death to ourselves and our children.

Science and technology have shown themselves to be double-edged, capable of doing great good or of producing great harm, depending on the way in which we use the enormous power over nature, which science has given to us. For this reason, ethical thought is needed now more than ever before. The wisdom of the world's religions, the traditional wisdom of humankind, can help us as we try to ensure that our overwhelming material progress will be beneficial rather than disastrous.

The crisis of civilization, which we face today, has been produced by the rapidity with which science and technology have developed. Our institutions and ideas adjust too slowly to the change. The great challenge which history has given to our generation is the task of building new international political structures, which will be in harmony with modern technology. At the same time, we must develop a new global ethic, which will replace our narrow loyalties by loyalty to humanity as a whole.

In the long run, because of the enormously destructive weapons, which have been produced through the misuse of science, the survival of civilization can only be insured if we are able to abolish the institution of war.

Is there a conflict between science and religion? This is a frequently-asked question, and many different answers have been given. My own opinion is that there are two aspects to religion - ethics and cosmology. I think that when we talk about cosmology, there is often a conflict between science and religion. But with respect to ethics, there is very little room for conflict because science has almost nothing to say about ethics.

Why do I say “almost nothing” instead of “nothing”? It is often said that ethical principles cannot be derived from science, that they must come from somewhere else. Nevertheless, when nature is viewed through the eyes of modern science, we obtain some insights which seem almost ethical in character. Biology at the molecular level has shown us the complexity and beauty of even the most humble living organisms, and the interrelatedness of all life on earth. Looking through the eyes of contemporary biochemistry, we can see that even the single cell of an amoeba is a structure of miraculous complexity and precision, worthy of our respect and wonder.

Knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics , the statistical law favoring disorder over order, reminds us that life is always balanced like a tight-rope walker over an abyss of chaos and destruction. Living organisms distill their order and complexity from the flood of thermodynamic information which reaches the earth from the sun. In this way, they create local order; but life remains a fugitive from the second law of thermodynamics. Disorder, chaos, and destruction remain statistically favored over order, construction, and complexity.

It is easier to burn down a house than to build one, easier to kill a human than to raise and educate one, easier to force a species into extinction than to replace it once it is gone, easier to burn the Great Library of Alexandria than to accumulate the knowledge that once filled it, and easier to destroy a civilization in a thermonuclear war than to rebuild it from the radioactive ashes. Knowing this, we can form an almost ethical insight: To be on the side of order, construction, and complexity, is to be on the side of life. To be on the side of destruction, disorder, chaos and war is to be against life, a traitor to life, an ally of death. Knowing the precariousness of life, knowing the statistical laws that favor disorder and chaos, we should resolve to be loyal to the principle of long continued construction upon which life depends.

War is based on destruction, destruction of living persons, destruction of homes, destruction of infrastructure, and destruction of the biosphere. If we are on the side of life, if we are not traitors to life and allies of death, we must oppose the institution of war. We must oppose the military-industrial complex. We must oppose the mass media when they whip up war-fever. We must oppose politicians who vote for obscenely enormous military budgets at a time of financial crisis. We must oppose these things by working with dedication, as though our lives depended on it. In fact, they do.

But let us turn to religious ethics. Not only do they not conflict with science, but there is also a general agreement on ethical principles between the major religions of the world.

The central ethical principles of Christianity can be found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that we must not only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves; we must also love and forgive our enemies. This seemingly impractical advice is in fact of great practicality, since escalatory cycles of revenge and counter-revenge can only be ended by unilateral acts of kindness.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are told that our neighbor, whom we must love, is not necessarily a member of our own ethnic group. Our neighbor may live on the other side of the world and belong to an entirely different race or culture; but he or she still deserves our love and care.

It is an interesting fact that the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, appears in various forms in all of the world's major religions. The Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule gives an impressive and fascinating list of the forms in which the rule appears in many cultures and religions. For example, in ancient China, both Confucius and Laozi express the Golden Rule, but they do it slightly differently: Zi Gong asked, saying,”Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?” The Master said, “Is not reciprocity such a word?” (Confucius) and “The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.” (Laozi)

In the Jewish tradition, we have “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus) In Islam: A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with it. The Prophet said: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!” (Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146)

The principle of reciprocity is an ancient one in human history, and it is thus embedded in our emotions. It is an important part of human nature. Reciprocity is the basis of non-market economies, and also the basis of social interactions between family members, friends and colleagues. In hunter-gatherer societies, it is customary to share food among all the members of the group. “Today I receive food from you, and tomorrow you will receive food from me.” Similarly, among friends in modern society, no payment is made for hospitality, but it is expected that sooner or later the hospitality will be returned.

According to Wikipedia “Reciprocity in Social Psychology refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much more nasty and even brutal.” As Wikipedia points out, reciprocity can also be negative, as in the case of escalatory cycles of revenge and counter-revenge.

The Buddhist concept of karma has great value in human relations. The word “karma” means simply “action”. In Buddhism, one believes that actions return to the actor. Good actions will be returned, and bad actions will also be returned. This is obviously true in social relationships. If we behave with kindness and generosity to our neighbors, they will return our kindness. Conversely, a harmful act may lead to vicious circles of revenge and counter revenge, such as those we see today in the Middle East and elsewhere. These vicious circles can only be broken by returning good for evil.

However the concept of karma has a broader and more abstract validity
, beyond the direct return of actions to the actor. When we perform a good action, we increase the total amount of good karma in the world. If all people similarly behave well, the the world as a whole will become more pleasant and more safe. Human nature seems to have a built-in recognition of this fact, and we are rewarded by inner happiness when we perform good and kind actions. In his wonderful book, “Ancient Wisdom, Modern World”, the Dalai Lama says that good actions lead to happiness and bad actions to unhappiness even if our neighbors do not return these actions. Inner peace, he tells us, is incompatible with bad karma and can be achieved only through good karma, i.e. good actions.

In Buddhist philosophy, the concept of Karma, action and reaction, also extends to our relationship with nature. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions emphasize the unity of all life on earth. Hindus regard killing an animal as a sin, and many try to avoid accidentally stepping on insects as they walk.

The Hindu and Buddhist picture of the relatedness of all life on earth has been confirmed by modern biological science. We now know that all living organisms have the same fundamental biochemistry, based on DNA, RNA, proteins and polysaccharides, and we know that our own human genomes are more similar to than different from the genomes of our close relations in the animal world.

The peoples of the industrialized nations urgently need to acquire a non-anthropocentric element in their ethics, similar to reverence for all life found in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as in the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi and Albert Schweitzer. We need to learn to value other species for their own sakes, and not because we expect to use them for our own economic goals.

Religion often contributes to conflicts by sharpening the boundaries between ethnic groups and by making marriage across those boundaries difficult and infrequent. However, this negative role is balanced by a positive one, whenever religion is the source of ethical principles, especially the principle of universal human brotherhood.

Many of the great ethical teachers of history lived at a time when cultural evolution was changing humans from hunter-gatherers and pastoral peoples to farmers and city dwellers. To live and cooperate in larger groups, humans needed to overwrite their instinctive behavior patterns with culturally-determined behavior involving a wider range of cooperation than previously. This period of change is marked by the lives and ideas of a number of great ethical teachers - Moses, Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus, and Saint Paul. Mohammed lived at a slightly later period, but it was still a period of transition for the Arab peoples, a period during which their range cooperation needed to be enlarged.

The religious leaders of today's world have the opportunity to contribute importantly to the solution of the problem of war. They have the opportunity to powerfully support the concept of universal human brotherhood, to build bridges between religious groups, to make intermarriage across ethnic boundaries easier, and to soften the distinctions between communities. If they fail to do this, they will have failed humankind at a time of crisis.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com



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