Ethics today: science or religion?

Do we continue to destroy and consume the planet and its resources – and in the process each other – or do we finally rein ourselves in and find as rational a way through as possible?

A text came my way recently on a favourite subject! It was on the concept of God being totalitarian and promoting science to replace religion on ethics, and got me thinking. Where should our sense of right and wrong stem from?

The quote was from Christopher Hitchens now battling cancer yet still speaking as eloquently as ever.  For years he has championed atheism and the scientific method (though not a scientist himself) and may he do so for many years yet.

Yes, religion has a lot to answer for historically – and also contemporarily. But so, if we are honest, does science – its use and misuse.

Context is important. This century humanity is at its greatest crossroads ever: do we continue to destroy and consume the planet and its resources, and in the process each other, or do we finally rein ourselves in and find as rational a way through as possible. Because this is the context that both science, in terms of our practical abilities, and religion in broad terms as the ‘rules’ we live by, have brought us.

Some want to blame religion for the mess, others want to blame science. Everyone should be blaming greed – our unquestioned lifestyle in the “rich west”, our materialist habit, our consumerist throwaway society and the necessary economic dominance, resource depletion and wars that it entails.

Often people have said to me “religion is the cause of all wars”. I ask: oh, which ones? There is often a stunned silence – as if someone should have such temerity! But it’s a simple question. The Iraq War? Afghanistan? (This time round? Or  1860? Or 1890?) The Falklands War? Vietnam? Korea? The Second World War? The First World War? Take your pick, make your case.

There have been plenty of religious wars and not all of them are in the past. But nothing can match the killing of last century. So far.

The industrial scale with which we slaughtered each other in the 1900s would not have been possible without science. Bombs, fighters, machine guns, the A bomb. Napalm, agent orange, white phosphorous. Einstein who paved the way for the nuclear age is quoted as saying he should have become a watchmaker. Our agriculture, our food production, the industrialization of so much we consume is all down to various sciences.

But the myopia of religion in defining itself as the only truth (whichever one, pretty much) is matched by the myopia of science which almost always gets lost in its own reductionism. For example, some 50% of science graduates end up working for the defence industries in one form or another. Can we stop investing our intelligence in killing each other?!?

We need the best of both. And more. The deep commitment from religion, sometimes, from spirituality, from ethics, from conscience finally, that the destruction of the planet’s resources and of each other is simply wrong. The insight and capability and creativity of the world’s best minds to get us out of this impasse of energy and food and sustainability and war that we find ourselves in.

And the commitment of ordinary people everywhere to challenge the status quo still driven by outmoded ways of thinking whether religious, political, economic or sheer habit, and driven by the literal power of engines and bombs that science has given.

Because time is running out.