Religion And Science An Alliance

The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day, we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.


Intelligence and tool-making were our strengths from the beginning. We used these talents to compensate for the paucity of the natural gifts—speed, flight, venom, burrowing, and the rest—freely distributed to other animals, so it seemed, and cruelly denied to us. From the time of the domestication of fire and the elaboration of stone tools, it was obvious that our skills could be used for evil as well as for good. But it was not until very recently that it dawned on us that even the benign use of our intelligence and our tools might—because we are not smart enough to foresee all consequences—put us at risk. i 64 • Billions and Billions

Now we are everywhere on Earth. We have bases in Antarctica. We visit the ocean bottoms. Twelve of us have even walked on the Moon. There are now nearly 6 billion of us, and our numbers grow by the equivalent of the population of China every decade. We have subdued the other animals and the plants (although we have been less successful with the microbes). We have domesticated many organisms and made them do our bidding. We have become, by some standards, the dominant species on Earth. And at almost every step, we have emphasized the local over the global, the short-term over the long. We have destroyed the forests, eroded the topsoil, changed the composition of the atmosphere, depleted the protective ozone layer, tampered with the climate, poisoned the air and the waters, and made the poorest people suffer most from the deteriorating environment. We have become predators on the biosphere—full of arrogant entitlement, always taking and never giving back. And so, we are now a danger to ourselves and the other beings with whom we share the planet.

The wholesale attack on the global environment is not the fault only of profit-hungry industrialists or visionless and corrupt politicians. There is plenty of blame to share.

The tribe of scientists has played a central role. Many of us didn't even bother to think about the long-term consequences of our inventions. We have been too ready to put devastating powers into the hands of the highest bidder and the officials of whichever nation we happen to be living in. In too many cases, we have lacked a moral compass. Philosophy and science from their very beginnings have been eager, in the words of Rene Descartes, "to make us masters and possessors of Nature," to use science, as Francis Bacon said, to bend all of Nature into "the service of Man." Bacon talked about "Man" exercising a "right Religion and Science: An Alliance • i 65

over Nature." "Nature," wrote Aristotle, "has made all animals for the sake of man." "Without man," asserted Immanuel Kant, "the whole of creation would be a mere wilderness, a thing in vain." Not so long ago we were hearing about "conquering" Nature and the "conquest" of space—as if Nature and the Cosmos were enemies to be vanquished. "*

The religious tribe also has played a central role. Western sects held that just as we must submit to God, so the rest of Nature must submit to us. In modern times especially, we seem more dedicated to the second half of this proposition than the first. In the real and palpable world, as revealed by what we do and not what we say, many humans seemingly aspire to be lords of Creation—with an occasional token bow, as required by social convention, to whatever gods may lately be fashionable. Descartes and Bacon were profoundly influenced by religion. The notion of "us against Nature" is a legacy of our religious traditions. In the Book of Genesis, God gives humans "dominion . . . over every living thing," and the "fear" and "dread" of us is to be upon "every beast." Man is urged to "subdue" Nature, and "subdue" is translated from a Hebrew word with strong military connotations. There is much else in the Bible—and in the medieval Christian tradition out of which modern science emerged—along similar lines. Islam, by contrast, is disinclined to declare Nature an enemy.

Of course, both science and religion are complex and multi-layered structures, embracing many different, even contradictory, opinions. It is scientists who discovered and called the world's attention to the environmental crises, and there are scientists who, at considerable cost to themselves, refused to work on inventions that might harm their fellows. And it is religion that first articulated the imperative to revere living things.

True, there is nothing in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition that approaches the cherishing of Nature in the Hindu-

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Buddhist-Jain tradition or among Native Americans. Indeed, both Western religion and Western science have gone out of their way to assert that Nature is just the setting and not the story, that viewing Nature as sacred is sacrilege.

Nevertheless, there is a clear religious counterpoint: The natural world is a creation of God, put here for purposes separate from the glorification of "Man" and deserving, therefore, of respect and care in its own right, and not just because of its utility for us. A poignant metaphor of "stewardship" has emerged, especially recently—the idea that humans are the caretakers of the Earth, put here for the purpose and accountable, now and into the indefinite future, to the Landlord.

Of course, life on Earth got along pretty well for 4 billion years without "stewards." Trilobites and dinosaurs, who were each around for more than a hundred million years, might be amused at a species here only a thousandth as long deciding to appoint itself the guardian of life on Earth. That species is itself the danger. Human stewards are needed, these religions recognize, to protect the Earth from humans.

The methods and ethos of science and religion are profoundly different. Religion frequently asks us to believe without question, even (or especially) in the absence of hard evidence. Indeed, this is the central meaning of faith. Science asks us to take nothing on faith, to be wary of our penchant for self-deception, to reject anecdotal evidence. Science considers deep skepticism a prime virtue. Religion often sees it as a barrier to enlightenment. So, for centuries, there has been a conflict between the two fields—the discoveries of science challenging religious dogmas, and religion attempting to ignore or suppress the disquieting findings.

But times have changed. Many religions are now comfortable with an Earth that goes around the Sun, with an Earth that's 4.5

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billion years old, with evolution, and with the other discoveries of modern science. Pope John Paul II has said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. . . . Such bridging ministries must be nurtured and en<!ouraged."

Nowhere is this more clear than in the current environmental crisis. No matter whose responsibility the crisis mainly is, there's no way out of it without understanding the dangers and their mechanisms, and without a deep devotion to the long-term well-being of our species and our planet—that is, pretty closely, without the central involvement of both science and religion.

It has been my good fortune to participate in an extraordinary sequence of gatherings throughout the world: The leaders of the planet's religions have met with scientists and legislators from many nations to try to deal with the rapidly worsening world environmental crisis.

Representatives of nearly 100 nations were present at the "Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders" conferences at Oxford in April 1988 and in Moscow in January 1990. Standing under an immense photograph of the Earth from space, I found myself looking out over a diversely costumed representation of the wondrous variety of our species: Mother Teresa and the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the chief rabbis of Romania and the United Kingdom, the Grand Mufti of Syria, the Metropolitan of Moscow, an elder of the Onondaga Nation, the high priest of the Sacred Forest of Togo, the Dalai Lama, Jain priests resplendent in their white robes, turbaned Sikhs,

Hindu swamis, Bud-

168 • Billions and Billions dhist abbots, Shinto priests, evangelical Protestants, the Primate of the Armenian Church, a "Living Buddha" from China, the bishops of Stockholm and Harare, metropolitans of the Orthodox Churches, the Chief of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iro-quois Confederacy—and, joining them, the Secretary-General of the United Nations; the Prime Minister of Norway; the founder of a Kenyan women's movement to replant the forests; the President of the World Watch Institute; the directors of the United Nations' Children's Fund, its Population Fund, and UNESCO; the Soviet Minister of the Environment; and parliamentarians from dozens of nations, including U.S. Senators and Representatives and a Vice-President-to-be. These meetings were mainly organized by one person, a former UN. official, Akio Matsumura.

I remember the 1,300 delegates assembled in St. George's Hall in the Kremlin to hear an address by Mikhail Gorbachev. The session was opened by a venerable Vedic monk, representing one of the oldest religious traditions on Earth, inviting the multitude to chant the sacred syllable "Om." As nearly as I could tell, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze went along with the "Om," but Mikhail Gorbachev restrained himself. (An immense milky-white statue of Lenin, hand outstretched, loomed nearby.) That same day, ten Jewish delegates, finding themselves in the Kremlin at sundown on a Friday, performed the first Jewish religious service ever held there. I remember the Grand Mufti of Syria stressing, to the surprise and delight of many, the importance in Islam of "birth control for the global welfare, without exploiting it at the expense of one nationality over another." Several speakers quoted the Native American saying, "We have not inherited the Earth from our ancestors, but have borrowed it from our children."

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The interconnectedness of all human beings was a theme constantly stressed. We heard a secular parable, which asked us to imagine our species as a village of 100 families. Then, 65 families in our village are illiterate, and 90 do not speak English, 70 have no drinking water at home, 80 have no members who have ever flown in an airplane. Seven families own 60 percent of the land and consume 80 percent of all the available energy. They have all the luxuries. Sixty families are crowded onto 10 percent of the land. Only one family has any member with a university education. And the air and the water, the climate and the blistering sunlight, are all getting worse. What is our common responsibility?

At the Moscow conference, an appeal signed by a number of distinguished scientists was presented to world religious leaders. Their response was overwhelmingly positive. The meeting ended with a plan of action that included these sentences:

This gathering is not just an event but a step in an ongoing process in which we are irrevocably involved. So now we return home pledged to act as devoted participants in this process, nothing less than emissaries for fundamental change in attitudes and practices that have pushed our world to a perilous brink. Religious leaders in many nations have begun to move into action. Major steps have been taken by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, evangelical Christians, leaders of the Jewish community, and many other groups. As a catalyst of this process, a Joint Appeal of Science and Religion for the Environment was established, chaired by the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, dean of the HO • Billions and Billions

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and myself. Vice President Al Gore, then a U.S. Senator, played a central role. At an exploratory meeting of scientists and leaders of the major American denominations, held in New York in June 1991, it became clear that there was a great deal of common ground:

Much would tempt us to deny or push aside this global environmental crisis and refuse even to consider the fundamental changes of human behavior required to address it. But we religious leaders accept a prophetic responsibility to make known the full dimensions of this challenge, and what is required to address it, to the many millions we reach, teach and counsel.

We intend to be informed participants in discussions of these issues and to contribute our views on the moral and ethical imperative for developing national and international policy responses. But we declare here and now that steps must be taken toward: accelerated phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals; much more efficient use of fossil fuels and the development of a non-fossil fuel economy; preservation of tropical forests and other measures to protect continued biological diversity; and concerted efforts to slow the dramatic and dangerous growth in world population through empowering both women and men, encouraging economic self-sufficiency, and making family education programs available to all who may consider them on a strictly voluntary basis.

We believe a consensus now exists, at the highest level of leadership across a significant spectrum of religious traditions, that the cause of environmental integrity and justice must occupy a position of utmost priority for people of faith. Response to this issue can and must cross traditional religious and political lines. It has the potential to unify and renew religious life.

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The last phrase of the middle paragraph represents a tortuous compromise with the Roman Catholic delegation, opposed not only to describing birth control methods, but even to uttering the words "birth control." By 1993, the Joint Appeal had evolved into The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a condition of the Catholic, Jewish, mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, historic black church, and evangelical Christian communities. Using material prepared by the Partnership's Science Office, the participating groups—both individually and collectively—have begun to exert considerable influence. Many religious communities previously without national environmental programs or offices are now described as "fully committed to this enterprise." Manuals on environmental education and action have reached over 100,000 religious congregations, representing tens of millions of Americans. Thousands of clergy and lay leaders have participated in regional training, and thousands of congregational environmental initiatives have been documented. State and national legislators have been lobbied, the media briefed, seminarians apprised, sermons delivered. As a more or less random example, in January 1996, the Evangelical Environmental Network—the Partnership's constituent organization from the evangelical Christian community—lobbied Congress in support of the Endangered Species Act (which is itself endangered). The grounds? A spokesman explained that while the evangelicals were "not scientists," they could "make the case" on theological grounds: Laws protecting endangered species were described as "the Noah's Ark of our day." The Partnership's fundamental tenet, "that environmental protection must now be a central component of faith life," is apparently being widely accepted. There is one major initiative that the Partnership has not yet broached: an outreach to parishioners who are executives of 172 • Billions and Billions major industries that affect the environment. I very much hope that this will be attempted.

The present world environmental crisis is not yet a disaster. Not yet. As in other crises, it has a potential to draw forth previously untapped and even unimagined powers of cooperation, ingenuity, and commitment. Science and religion may differ about how the Earth was made, but we can agree that protecting it merits our profound attention and loving care.

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