Progress in Religion

Progress in Religion

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Upon receipt of the 2000 Templeton Prize:

First, a big thank you to Sir John Templeton and the administrators of the Templeton Foundation for giving me this undeserved and unexpected honor. Second, a big thank you to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for supporting me and the editors and publishers of my books for giving me the chance to communicate with a wider public. Fourth, a big thank you to my wife and family for keeping me from getting a swelled head. And fifth, a big thank you to the Washington National Cathedral for allowing us to use this magnificent building for our ceremonies.

Sir John Templeton has told us clearly the purpose of his awards. They are prizes for Progress in Religion. But it is up to us to figure out what Progress in Religion means. Roughly speaking, there have been two main themes in the lives of the previous prize-winners. The first theme is practical good works, caring for the poor and sick, helping the dying to die with dignity. Outstanding among the doers of good works were Mother Teresa and Dame Cicely Saunders. The second theme is scholarly study and teaching, helping people who are committed to one religion or another to approach God through intellectual understanding, explaining to the uncommitted the logical foundations of belief. Outstanding among the scholarly prize-winners are James McCord and Ian Barbour. I am amazed to find myself in the company of these great spirits, half of them saints and the other half theologians. I am neither a saint nor a theologian.

To me, good works are more important than theology. We all know that religion has been historically, and still is today, a cause of great evil as well as great good in human affairs. We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls. Religion will always remain a powerful force in the history of our species. To me, the meaning of progress in religion is simply this, that as we move from the past to the future the good works inspired by religion should more and more prevail over the evil.

Even in the gruesome history of the twentieth century, I see some evidence of progress in religion. The two individuals who epitomized the evils of our century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were both avowed atheists. Religion cannot be held responsible for their atrocities. And the three individuals who epitomized the good, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, were all in their different ways religious. One of the great but less famous heroes of World War Two was Andre Trocme, the Protestant pastor of the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France, which sheltered and saved the lives of five thousand Jews under the noses of the Gestapo.

Forty years later Pierre Sauvage, one of the Jews who was saved, recorded the story of the village in a magnificent documentary film with the title, “Weapons of the Spirit”. The villagers proved that civil disobedience and passive resistance could be effective weapons, even against Hitler. Their religion gave them the courage and the discipline to stand firm. Progress in religion means that, as time goes on, religion more and more takes the side of the victims against the oppressors.

For Ian Barbour, who won the Templeton Prize last year, religion is an intellectual passion. For me it is simply a part of the human condition. Recently I visited the Imani church in Trenton because my daughter, who is a Presbyterian minister, happened to be preaching there. Imani is an inner-city church with a mostly black congregation and a black minister. The people come to church, not only to worship god, but also to have a good time. The service is informal and the singing is marvelous. While I was there they baptized seven babies, six black and one white. Each baby in turn was not merely shown to the congregation but handed around to be hugged by everybody.

Sociological studies have shown that violent crimes occur less frequently in the neighborhood of Imani church than elsewhere in the inner city. After the two hour service was over, the congregation moved into the adjoining assembly room and ate a substantial lunch. Sharing the food is to me more important than arguing about beliefs. Jesus, according to the gospels, thought so too.

I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels. Both as a scientist and as a religious person, I am accustomed to living with uncertainty. Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe. Why are we here?  Does the universe have a purpose?  Whence comes our knowledge of good and evil? These mysteries, and a hundred others like them, are beyond the reach of science. They lie on the other side of the border, within the jurisdiction of religion.

My personal theology is described in the Gifford lectures that I gave at Aberdeen in Scotland in 1985, published under the title, “Infinite in all Directions.” Here is a brief summary of my thinking. The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory. The second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness. The third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind. We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of atoms and the unpredictability of God. Atoms are small pieces of our mental apparatus, and we are small pieces of God’s mental apparatus. Our minds may receive inputs equally from atoms and from God. This view of our place in the cosmos may not be true, but it is compatible with the active nature of atoms as revealed in the experiments of modern physics. I don’t say that this personal theology is supported or proved by scientific evidence. I only say that it is consistent with scientific evidence.

I do not claim any ability to read God’s mind. I am sure of only one thing. When we look at the glory of stars and galaxies in the sky and the glory of forests and flowers in the living world around us, it is evident that God loves diversity. Perhaps the universe is constructed according to a principle of maximum diversity. The principle of maximum diversity says that the laws of nature, and the initial conditions at the beginning of time, are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth. This is the confession of faith of a scientific heretic. Perhaps I may claim as evidence for progress in religion the fact that we no longer burn heretics.

That is enough about me. Let me talk now about the great transformations of the world that we are facing in the future. All through our history, we have been changing the world with our technology. Our technology has been of two kinds, green and grey. Green technology is seeds and plants, gardens and vineyards and orchards, domesticated horses and cows and pigs, milk and cheese, leather and wool. Grey technology is bronze and steel, spears and guns, coal and oil and electricity, automobiles and airplanes and rockets, telephones and computers. Civilization began with green technology, with agriculture and animal-breeding, ten thousand years ago. Then, beginning about three thousand years ago, grey technology became dominant, with mining and metallurgy and machinery. For the last five hundred years, grey technology has been racing ahead and has given birth to the modern world of cities and factories and supermarkets.

The dominance of grey technology is now coming to an end. During the last fifty years, we have achieved a fundamental understanding of the processes occurring in living cells. With understanding comes the ability to exploit and control. Out of the knowledge acquired by modern biology, modern biotechnology is growing. The new green technology will give us the power, using only sunlight as a source of energy, and air and water and soil as sources of materials, to manufacture and recycle chemicals of all kinds. Our grey technology of machines and computers will not disappear, but green technology will be moving ahead even faster. Green technology can be cleaner, more flexible and less wasteful, than our existing chemical industries. A great variety of manufactured objects could be grown instead of made. Green technology could supply human needs with far less damage to the natural environment. And green technology could be a great equalizer, bringing wealth to the tropical areas of the world which have most of the sunshine, most of the human population, and most of the poverty.  I am saying that green technology could do all these good things, bringing wealth to the tropics, bringing economic opportunity to the villages, narrowing the gap between rich and poor. I am not saying that green technology will do all these good things.

“Could” is not the same as “will”. To make these good things happen, we need not only the new technology but the political and economic conditions that will give people all over the world a chance to use it. To make these things happen, we need a powerful push from ethics. We need a consensus of public opinion around the world that the existing gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth are intolerable. In reaching such a consensus, religions must play an essential role. Neither technology alone nor religion alone is powerful enough to bring social justice to human societies,  but technology and religion working together might do the job.  We all know that green technology has a dark side, just  as grey technology has a dark side. Grey technology brought  us hydrogen bombs as well as telephones. Green technology  brought us anthrax bombs as well as antibiotics. Besides  the dangers of biological weapons, green technology brings  other dangers having nothing to do with weapons.

The  ultimate danger of green technology comes from its power to change the nature of human beings by the application of  genetic engineering to human embryos. If we allow a free market in human genes, wealthy parents will be able to buy  what they consider superior genes for their babies. This  could cause a splitting of humanity into hereditary castes. Within a few generations, the children of rich and poor  could become separate species. Humanity would then have  regressed all the way back to a society of masters and  slaves. No matter how strongly we believe in the virtues of  a free market economy, the free market must not extend to  human genes.

A few weeks ago I was attending Mass in St. Stephen’s  church in England. In Princeton I am presbyterian, but  in England I am catholic because I go to Mass with my sister. The reading from the gospel of St. Matthew told  of the angry Jesus driving the merchants and  money-changers out of the temple, knocking over the  tables of the money-changers and spilling their coins on  the floor. Jesus was not opposed to capitalism and the  profit motive, so long as economic activities were  carried on outside the temple. In the parable of the talents, he praises the servant who used his master’s  money to make a profitable investment, and condemns the  servant who was too timid to invest. But he draws a clear line at the temple door. Inside the temple, the  ground belongs to God and profit-making must stop.

While I was listening to the reading, I was thinking how Jesus’s anger might extend to free markets in human  bodies and human genes. In the time of Jesus and for many centuries afterwards, there was a free market in  human bodies. The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their  property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth  century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and  other religious believers in the lead, succeed in  establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God’s temple  and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes. Let us hope that  we can reach a consensus on this question without  fighting another civil war. Scientists and religious believers and physicians and lawyers must come together with mutual respect, to achieve a consensus and to decide where the line at the door of the temple should be drawn.

Like all the new technologies that have arisen from scientific knowledge, biotechnology is a tool that can be used either for good or for evil purposes. The role of ethics is to strengthen the good and avoid the evil. I see two tremendous goods coming from biotechnology in the next century, first the alleviation of human misery through progress in medicine, and second the transformation of the global economy through green technology spreading wealth more equitably around the world. The two great evils to be avoided are the use of biological weapons and the corruption of human nature by buying and selling genes. I see no scientific reason why we should not achieve the good and avoid the evil. The obstacles to achieving the good are political rather than technical. Unfortunately a large number of people in many countries are strongly opposed to green technology, for reasons having little to do with the real dangers. It is important to treat the opponents with respect, to pay attention to their fears, to go gently into the new world of green technology so that neither human dignity nor religious conviction is violated. If we can go gently, we have a good chance of achieving within a hundred years the goals of ecological sustainability and social justice that green technology brings within our reach.

Now I have five minutes left to give you a message to take home. The message is simple. “God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.” This was said by Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of modern science, almost four hundred years ago. Bacon was the smartest man of his time, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. Bacon saw clearly what science could do and what science could not do. He is saying to the philosophers and theologians of his time: look for God in the facts of nature, not in the theories of Plato and Aristotle. I am saying to modern scientists and theologians: don’t imagine that our latest ideas about the Big Bang or the human genome have solved the mysteries of the universe or the mysteries of life. Here are Bacon’s wor s again: “The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding”. In the last four hundred years, science has fulfilled many of Bacon’s dreams, but it still does not come close to capturing the full subtlety of nature.

To talk about the end of science is just as foolish as to talk about the end of religion. Science and religion are both still close to their beginnings, with no ends in sight. Science and religion are both destined to grow and change in the millennia that lie ahead of us, perhaps solving some old mysteries, certainly discovering new mysteries of which we yet have no inkling. After sketching his program for the scientific revolution that he foresaw, Bacon ends his account with a prayer: “Humbly we pray that this mind may be steadfast in us, and that through these our hands, and the hands of others to whom thou shalt give the same spirit, thou wilt vouchsafe to endow the human family with new mercies”. That is still a good prayer for all of us as we begin the twenty-first century.

Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.

Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions. In the little town of Princeton where I live, we have more than twenty churches and at least one synagogue, providing different forms of worship and belief for different kinds of people. They do more than any other organizations in the town to hold the community together. Within this community of people, held together by religious traditions of human brotherhood and sharing of burdens, a smaller community of professional scientists also flourishes.

I look out from the pampered little community of Princeton, which Einstein described in a letter to a friend in Europe as “a quaint and ceremonious village, peopled by demi-gods on stilts”. I look out from this community of bankers and professors to ask, what can we do for the suffering multitudes of humanity in the world outside. The great question for our time is, how to make sure that the continuing scientific revolution brings benefits to everybody rather than widening the gap between rich and poor. To lift up poor countries, and poor people in rich countries, from poverty, to give them a chance of a decent life, technology is not enough. Technology must be guided and driven by ethics if it is to do more than provide new toys for the rich. Scientists and business leaders who care about social justice should join forces with environmental and religious organizations to give political clout to ethics. Science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world. That is my vision, and it is the same vision that inpired Francis Bacon four hundred years ago, when he prayed that through science God would “endow the human family with new mercies”.