Belief Systems in the Developed World
So far, our dialogue has been centred mainly around the three great monotheistic religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — perhaps rightly so because they have given so much to humankind in the way of beliefs, inspiration and progress. But they have also inspired much antagonism, intolerance, hatred and violence: for thousands of years the world has seen inquisitions, crusades, barbarism, and mass slaughter, often conducted by religious groups in the name of their ‘one true god’ who will defend them from all their enemies. Where are the much-vaunted ethical and moral values preached, in one form or another, by all of them? Is there anything to suggest that religious belief is essential to the creation of a just society and the elimination of poverty and ignorance? And the Three Religions certainly have no prerogative in the teaching of morality and ethics: think of the great Hindu epic poem the Bhagavadgita (going back more than 2000 years..) and the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, on the battlefield, with all the fine ethical sensibilities it displays. Sadly, collision between the religions still occurs as frequently as ever, though one suspects that in many cases religion has now become simply a `label’ to give an air of moral respectability to what is at root tribal conflict. Religions apart, I want to put the case for the rest of us, the vast uncommitted (and often silent) majority — the ordinary decent human beings, who may neither subscribe to a particular religious doctrine nor even profess any belief in a deity. In particular, I think of those who are more concerned with understanding the material world and the way it functions.
One of the many products of their industry and intelligence has been Science and all that goes with it or results from it — including the capacity, through its misuse, to destroy the human race. John Avery, in his presentation, has stressed the double-edged nature of Science as a weapon for good or evil; and has pointed to the vast inequalities created in the world by the exploitation of science and technology. An even worse consequence, however, has been the development of a global selfishness, in which those who have benefited in the process are not prepared to share their good fortune with those who have not. The ‘haves’ will even go to war with the ‘have-nots’ to preserve the status quo, often justifying their actions in the name of ‘defence’. This has happened with the super-powers, who (one hopes) may now be ready to learn better ways; and is currently happening in the world’s smallest and poorest countries, in Africa and elsewhere. Weaponry today is costly, and the massive polarization of national economies by a perceived need to prepare for war, is a key factor in putting counties on a collision course that could threaten the survival of our species. As John Avery has said “We know that war is madness, but it persists”. How can we avert such potential disaster?
I am sure this can be done in only one way: The rich and powerful countries of the world must make massive investments in the poor, investments in both the intellectual and material sense, to develop (i) Education, and (ii) Infrastructure — in which I include not only basic services such as the provision of Clean Water and Electric Power but also Communications.
At the root of all things is education: the elimination of ignorance, superstition and prejudice; and the promotion of understanding and awareness, both of others, and their needs, and of the world around us. To this end, I believe Science Education has a special part to play. It seems to me right, therefore, that Science has been included in our brief, along with the Three Religions, as a fourth great belief system. Science is based on objectivity and rationality; but it is not a religion, though some of you have rightly insisted that it depends on ‘acts of faith’ just like the ‘real’ religions. There is a very basic difference however: acts of faith in Science are simple imaginative leaps, acts of creation which we call “hypotheses” — they are speculations, inspired guesses, ideas which may be right or wrong but which are almost invariably transient. The importance of hypotheses is that they provide a basis for building a theoretical structure, which can lead to predictions that can be tested; and if they fail the test they are at once discarded, while if they pass they become candidates for eventual inclusion as acceptable principles. This is the mainstay of scientific method — which has nothing to do, I would say, with technical progress, centred on getting useful results, but rather with the achievement of understanding. Centuries ago this discipline was called Natural Philosophy, the term still used in some of the ancient universities of Western Europe to include mathematics and physics.