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.


4 thoughts on “Ethics today: science or religion?


    I tend to say it is not religion that is the cause of some wars, but the political leaders miss-using a religion. I am CERTAIN that if Jesus knew who Christianty had become so war like he would be horrified.

    You are right it is GREED that really is the cause of MOST Human problems. Gandhi said that there is enough in this world for everyone’s NEED, but not for their GREED.


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  3. 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.

    Iraq. Religious factions on both sides played great part in mutual enmity and justification for violence. Big American voting bloc of Christians, crusading spirit.

    Afghanistan. Same.

    Falklands. No direct religious involvement. Argentinian and conservative juntas always have support of Christian right, but not directly used for justification.

    Vietnam. Hardline religionists always keen to see godless communism destroyed, big voting bloc in America.

    Korea. Same.

    Second world war. See Dawkins for Hitler’s Catholic leanings. Also Aryosophy. War provoked by religious separatism. Religion always divisive and promoting paranoia.

    First World War. No overwhelming religious justification.


    Selected death tolls of wars and campaigns below. Note Mongols 40 million with only sword, spear, bow – some estimate 75 million – global population at time only 400,000,000.

  4. Hi Martin,

    “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?”

    Who’s the ‘we’?
    If you mean ‘mankind’, i.e. everybody, well, I’d like to take issue with that. The real culprit is something euphemistically known as the ‘free market’ or capitalism, the global economic system which functions mainly in the interests of a tiny minority.
    It is big business which is rapaciously plundering and consuming the planet’s vital resources, wrecking and destroying, while the vast majority of people, who are in many cases its victims, can only look on helplessly.
    The people of the ‘third world’, whose lands are the main target for this destructive exploitation, are generally poverty stricken, mainly due to the huge debts inflicted upon them by those bastions of capitalism the IMF and World Bank.
    They have no choice when faced with starvation but to sell off their lands and environment. And if they do resist they are forcibly evicted from their homes by armed thugs. (witness the huge strip-mining operations in Colombia and other South American countries by Australian, British, American and Chinese companies where the indigenous people have been swept aside)

    Or perhaps you mean ‘we’, i.e., the cosseted citizens of the ‘developed’ nations, with our relative wealth which enables us to enjoy the fruits of this wholesale plunder? How many creatures died, and how much environmental destruction was wrought to bring you that mahogany TV stand eh?

    Apart from the minority, i.e. us, people are either not aware of this or prefer not to think about it. They have been seduced by consumerism and cheap flights to the sunspots. Of course they are also the victims of consumerism. They were seduced into spending money they did not have and when the shit hit the fan it led to many of them paying for that with their livelihoods, their homes etc.

    The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. Under the Blair/Brown govt, despite all the rhetoric, the gap continued to widen.

    . “Inequality is necessary to ensure greater wealth for all.” said Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, a life peer and Christian theorist of “biblically based wealth creation.” (Just the man to explain how Goldman’s taxpayer-financed bonuses are perfectly moral, eh?)

    He said it to a panel (of his peers) discussion in London on 21st October. What he really meant is greater prosperity and opportunity for all the very rich.

    Of course what he said was perfectly true from the point of view of big business. Inequality is certainly necessary for the cheap exploitation of the world’s resources.

    Article 25 of the Universal Declaration (of Human Rights) states:
    “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

    Every one of these rights is violated by the inequality endemic to free-market capitalism, yet most of the ‘civilised’ world endorsed the declaration.
    On the subject of science and religion, I think a little clarification is needed. By science you appear to mean technology rather than the pure sciences, though I’m aware the atomic bomb was the result of Einstein’s famous equation.

    I’m not sure that science and religion are such opposing and incompatible entities. (By religion I don’t mean organised religions.) In the days of alchemy, which I believe Newton indulged in, the two were compatible (though possibly heretical from the church’s viewpoint).

    There is evidence that suggests a future convergence may be likely. For instance quantum physics has revealed a can of worms which gets more and more bewildering with each new discovery. “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice said. I’ve heard it said that you can frighten a physicist by asking him or her about the problem of measurement. There is a strong indication that we are participants rather than observers.

    Yes, generally speaking, science is the handmaid of big business, especially the military industrial complex and the biotech industry. Most of today’s scientists are employed by the likes of Monsanto, BP and BAE, government institutions or foundations financed by multinationals and such.

    On the question of religion and war I agree with what you say. Most of the 20th century conflicts came about though imperialist expansionism or were ideological in character.

    Whilst it appears on the surface that the ‘war on terror’ is Christianity v Islamic fundamentalism, I believe it is more a case of the expansionist USA needing a bogeyman to replace the ‘evil empire’ of communism.

    In the US there is also the erosion of the barrier between church and state. See the following:

    Religion and government jobs
    Best wishes,

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