We think of science and religion as being in opposition to one another – or at least, as markedly different; and in many senses they are. I am using the word “religion” here in quite a narrow sense: as referring to the three abrahamic belief-systems – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in order of historical seniority. In order of size and influence it would be Christianity, Islam, then Judaism: Christianity has a little over two billion followers, Islam about one and a quarter billion, and Judaism a mere fourteen million.
If I am focusing on the three abrahamic religions for the purpose of argument, it does not mean that I see Buddhism, Hinduism and the Sikh religion as being unimportant. There are about 900 million Hindus, 376 million Buddhists, and 23 million Sikhs in the world, and these religions have had – and continue to have – great cultural and political impact in Asia and the Indian subcontinent. But the abrahamic religions are those which impinge most obviously on us in Europe and America – and have done so (for better or worse) over the last thousand years.
They have three obvious things in common: they are monotheistic, they are prescriptive, and they have from the outset attached themselves to political and military power and spawned a professional caste of clerics. All three, in essence, are theocracies in waiting; and at different points in history all three have become full-blown theocracies. Today, despite the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, which in their different ways helped to free humanity from the shackles and blinkers of clerics, and lay the foundations for a secular society, we have still not entirely escaped the danger of being dragged back into a theocratic society. If certain Muslim clerics had their way, the entire planet would be an Islamic caliphate – a hideous prospect. And some Christian clerics, although they should know better, are nearly as misguided: despite the countless lessons of history, the current Pope still interferes in the civil affairs of sovereign states – witness his recent (successful) campaign to exempt Catholic adoption societies from their obligation under British and EU law to allow gay couples to adopt children.
It is the ambition to gain power and influence, not the pious desire to spread “truth” and goodness, whch is the real reason for all religious expansion and proselytising. In this department, Judaism is the odd man out. Because of its stateless and immigrant status in past centuries, it had no access to major centres of political power until the foundation of the modern state of Israel in 1948; and its teachings have more to do with the preservation of cultural identity and customs than with missionary zeal. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it is not aggressive in seeking to persuade those of other beliefs to join its ranks – which explains, perhaps, why it has only fourteen million adherents today. The murder of six million Jews by the Nazis may partly explain this; but the main reason is that Judaism is not an aggressively proselytising religion. It is also, in part, ethnically based; so in modern consumer, multicultural society it is bound to dwindle as educated Jews in increasing numbers “marry out”, and their children cease to practise Judaism. In marketing terms (and marketing is at the heart of all successful religions) Judaism is far less successful than its junior brothers in the abrahamic family. One could argue that in spiritual and human terms this failure is a mark of success; but that is a different matter.
All religions are embedded in the cultures which produced them. They start life, in effect, as a set of rules designed to preserve a tribe’s cultural identity. The abrahamic religions originated in the desert of the Middle East, and all three are imbued with the culture of desert peoples. The French philosopher Michel Onfray examines this idea in the preface to his Traité d’athéologie (Grasset, 2005): “Les arrière-mondes me paraissent soudain des contre-mondes inventés par des hommes fatigués, épuisés, desséchés par leurs trajets réitérés dans les dunes ou sur les pistes caillouteuses chauffées à blanc. Le monothéisme sort du sable.” In other words, the abrahamic religions’ fantasies of paradise and a perfect, eternal afterlife spring directly from the exhausted and thirsty desert traveller’s longing for the Oasis: cooling streams, shady trees, soothing drinks and (in the Islamic version) the caresses of beautiful women. Monotheism springs from the desert.
I have digressed; but with the best intentions. Back to my argument, which has to do with finity. The word does not exist, of course, but it ought to, because we need a word which conveys the converse of infinity – a universe, a timespan, and above all a concept of natural resources which is finite. I think the correct word is finitude; but it will not do – the converse of infinity has to be finity.
My starting-point was that religion and science, though seen as opposites, have more in common than we realise. Given the history of the last thousand years, my narrow definition of religion as referring to the abrahamic faiths should be narrowed still further to Christianity in its various forms. It was in great part the assumption of untouchable – perhaps I should say infinite superiority of the Christian religion which lent an aura of invincible self-confidence to European military and technological might, from the crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the colonial expansion of the nineteenth. We are still living with the complex consequences of these adventures.
Religion is blamed for many things – sometimes unfairly, because hindsight is a marvellous thing, and human nature is contradictory and perverse. We humans are easily corrupted by power, and we are an intensely aggressive species; but we are also capable of kindness, loyalty and self-sacrifice. This is no contradiction: communities only thrive when their members look after one another; and not even the most severe critic of the human race could deny that the human race has thrived – we are the greatest evolutionary success story our solar system has ever seen.
We have been so successful, in fact, that it seems we have forgotten what we are: one species amongst millions of others, all struggling for survival on a spinning lump of rock whose fragile covering of life-bearing soil and water is, as we know now (thanks to our wonderful intellects), unquestionably finite.