Potter, Van Renselaer., (1994, May 16). Science, Religion Must Share Quest For

Global Survival. The Scientist, 8,(10), 1-12.

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The continued degradation of the global environment and the international population

explosion that contributes to it are matters that must concern every scientist. Each of

us is capable of participating in efforts in the interest of the biosphere and human

survival; each of us has something to contribute to the solution of the seemingly

intractable problems confronting us. No longer can we relax in the assumption that,

years from now, "when things get bad enough," science will step in to provide the

answers. The time to step in and prove our ethical as well as technical competence is

now; things are already "bad enough." And central to our efforts must be the

promotion of dialogue between science and religion concerning human and biosphere

survival. For centuries, the subject of human values has been regarded as beyond the

realm of science, the exclusive property of theologians and secular philosophers. Now

we must assert not only that scientists have transcendent values, too, but also that the

values embedded in the scientific ethos need to be integrated with those of religion and

philosophy in order to facilitate political processes beneficial to the global

environment's health.

`A Civil Society'

Many books and articles have focused on environmental problems and human health,

but relatively few have dealt with the issue of whether the human species can survive

in the long term in what may be called "a civil society." Two such books are The

Technological Conscience: Survival and Dignity in an Age of Expertise by sociologist

Manfred Stanley (University of Chicago Press, 1981) and The Imperative of

Responsibility: In Search of an Ethic for the Technological Age by the late German

philosopher Hans Jonas (University of Chicago Press, 1993). Neither, however, deals

with ways in which secular views can or should be integrated with traditional religious

views. On the other hand, a beginning attempt along these lines is presented in Global

Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic by Hans Kung (New York,

Continuum Publishing Co., 1993). Kung, director of the Ecumenical Institute at the

University of Tubingen (Germany), is a Swiss theologian who, although originally

trained as a Roman Catholic priest, has, since 1964, departed from dogma in a series

of provocative books and articles. In Kung's thought and writings, concern for the

future of the human race has been a high priority. It was he who drafted the

5,000-word "Declaration of a Global Ethic" at a meeting of the Parliament of the

World Religions held in Chicago last September on the 100th anniversary of the

organization's original assembly. Thousands attended the week-long event, and Kung's

declaration was signed by 250 religious leaders.



Key Issue

In his works, Kung has taken a strong position in examining the issues separating the

diverse religions of the world and deploring their record of killing each other in large

numbers right up to the present. At the same time, he has proclaimed that--at the

core--the world's religions all are grounded in ethical insights that deserve one's

attention and can justify one's hope. Unfortunately the core religious morality he

depicts does not incorporate--and therefore cannot respond to--scientifically devolved

demographics that project a doubling of the world's population within the next

century. Indeed, people embracing several of the world's largest religions--Roman

Catholicism and Islam, in particular--are among the major contributors to the current,

frightening rate of increase. Only science has the techniques for assessing population

changes and their impact. But at least, in formulating a global ethic, Kung has hit

upon human survival as the key issue confronting the world's people--an idea that no

other theologian has even dared to mention. While other religious leaders have

proclaimed that life is sacred and have championed human rights, only Kung has put

survival as such on the agenda. In contrast, scientists have long embraced human

welfare and, implicitly, survival as the very heart of their endeavors. They are thus

well-suited for entry into the campaign for human and biosphere survival.

Coalition Needed

To the more devout, the notion that scientists could step into such a matter and take

charge is bound to seem ominously "antireligious," since, in general, religion's

ultimate goal rests not in long-term survival of Earth's fauna and flora, but in the

survival of individual souls, or whatever, in some form of "life after death." Kung, on

the other hand, made it clear that a global ethic taking us beyond the 21st century was

already in his mind when he wrote Theology for the Third Millennium: An

Ecumenical View (New York, Doubleday, 1988). Not only theologians, but also

secular philosophers (other than the likes of Stanley and Jonas) have failed to think of

human and biosphere survival as an ethical issue. Rather, the examination of ethics

has been confined to matters involving interpersonal or social relationships among

humans and thus excluding questions of behavior relating to the vast population and

ecological problems facing Earth's inhabitants. In his recent book, however, Kung

(while avoiding certain specific and important matters) takes a step forward: In

addition to declaring that there can be "no survival without a world ethic," "no world

peace without peace between the religions," and "no peace between the religions

without dialogue between the religious," he goes still further when he says that a

"coalition of believers and non-believers [atheists, agnostics, and so forth] in mutual

respect may also be necessary for a common world ethic." Scientists should applaud

the efforts of Hans Kung in urging reconciliation between "believers" and those who

are not essentially characterized as religious; included among these, I believe, are the

great majority of scientists. And we need to join forces with his drive toward global

responsibility for survival and his call for the "mutual respect" necessary for "a

common world ethic." Certainly the involvement of biological scientists is required;

more than others, it is likely, these scientists are aware that world population is

increasing too rapidly. And although major religions have a stake in the issue, it is the

duty of the biological scientists to point out--while respectful of the various religious

tenets--that ultimate survival of the human race is contingent upon limiting the world

population to what is compatible with a healthy biosphere. While it is up to the

various religions to enter into dialogue and defend their positions, it is up to scientists

to proclaim the severity of the overpopulation problem and insist, for example, that it

cannot be solved while major religions oppose any attempt to limit fertility. And yet,

while dialogue on the matter is bound to be frustrating, bioethicists must recognize

that science alone will not prevail--that there can be no survival without religions'

agreement on population ethics. The key question, of course, is whether dialogue can

achieve consensus and political acceptance by national governments. Can the pursuit

of a world ethic shared by religion and science be laid out in concrete principles for


Basic Agreement

In my opinion, the burden of addressing global problems through what German

philosopher Jurgen Habermas termed "communicative rationality" rests upon

scientists. It is they who are capable of reviving the idea of a civil society and

conveying the transcendent motivation of long-term human survival. But the role of

science in this dialogue is not by itself sufficient--since the role of religion as a

motivating force is paramount. Kung insists that, if it is to be effective, the dialogue

must indeed begin by agreement on basic assumptions before proceeding to the details

of survival. Indeed, he writes that "whatever the basis for the unconditional character

of the ethical demands in the various religions . . . one thing is certain: religions can

present their ethical demands with a quite different authority from a merely human

one." Thus, one may consider Kung's global ethic as actually a global theology for

survival that de-emphasizes God-images but steadfastly utilizes universal

religious-given precepts. Kung, however, has avoided mentioning such important

population-problem specifics as abortion, contraception, and reproductive freedom for

women. Therefore, these key issues on which human survival may depend are

excluded from his demand for global responsibility. But we do indeed need rational

discourse to guide political decisions on such matters--and it is necessary for every

scientist to stand up and be counted. Is there hope for reasonable dialogue between

science and religion that would yield progress toward the desired global ethic? To

what extent, really, are the religions concerned about the fate of the biosphere?

Unfortunately, although a high percentage of denominations in the United States

support the general concept of stewardship for the Earth and many have put forth

official statements on population or family planning, no surveys are available to reveal

the attitude of religious leaders on the concept of global survival.

To Do What Is Right

Today, many conscientious scientists have already embraced stewardship as a worthy

pursuit whose goal is the survival of the human species and of a viable biosphere. In

my opinion, the world's religions--if they, too, are to embrace stewardship--need

science to tell them what paths they should follow. With religion then generating the

universal motivation for stewardship, a forceful coalition of believers and nonbelievers

will, I hope, materialize to preserve the biosphere and ensure human survival--to do,

in short, what is right. As individual scientists, we can do much to proceed according

to an evolving bioethic conditioned by a combination of personal humility and proud

display of professional competence. In addition to our individual disciplinary

associations, we should be aware of the many organizations that deal with environment

problems, human rights, and local politics. We can join such groups--the Union of

Concerned Scientists, for example--and express our opinions through them on issues

of human survival. We can do this without sacrificing our technical productivity. Of

course, to move effectively toward forging the matrix for productive dialogue between

secular science and organized religion--traditionally separated by a vast gulf of mutual

misunderstanding and mistrust--we face a daunting task. Is the situation hopeless? I am

compelled to think it is not. And I suggest that science must make the first move. As

far as the United States is concerned, the National Academy of Sciences may be a

linchpin for such an operation; and if it succeeds, the effort could serve as a model for

national academies elsewhere.

Van Rensselaer Potter is Hilldale Professor of Oncology, Emeritus, at the University

of Wisconsin, Madison 53706; E-mail: vpotter@oncology.wisc.edu. He is the author

of numerous articles and books on global bioethics, most recently Global Bioethics:

Building on the Leopold Legacy (Michigan State University Press, 1993).




ADDRESSES: garfield@aurora.cis.upenn.edu71764.2561@compuserve.com