The evil that man does

2008-01-15 00:00

Science is the source of all the terrible evils of the world. You don’t believe me? The correlation is crystal clear. Why then did the most scientifically advanced country in the world actually use nuclear weapons in a war? And why did it choose to use them to obliterate two cities if not in the experimental spirit of science, to see what would happen?

In fact, science created all the weapons of the world, from tempered steel swords to mustard gas, from the bow and arrow to the machine gun. And it was the scientifically most advanced countries that cheerfully used these scientific products against their enemies, or even against themselves in the case of civil wars.

It is perhaps worth listing a few more scientific innovations in the military field to underline the horror of them. There is boiling oil and molten lead, the phosphorus grenade, the flame-thrower and napalm, if you like your enemy to burn. There are the various types of explosives if you are marginally more merciful and want to fragment him. The typical terrorist bomb today includes all kinds of sharp metal objects in order to shred the human frame. Some scientist, or someone with some scientific knowledge, has to sit down and figure this out, draw a diagram of it and then put it all together. Nasty fellow; nasty discipline; even nastier result.

The scientific mentality also enables evil to be conducted on an industrial scale — slavery or war or genocide. The mathematics of it has to be worked out as well as the physics and the engineering — how many trains, how much Zyklon B gas, even how many pangas. Without these scientific disciplines massacres on this scale would have been impossible.

The great concern today is that our scientifically enhanced way of life is in the process of heating the planet to the point where it will cause the extinction of much of the life on it, perhaps including human life. Had we remained at the level of those hunter-gatherers we would never have manufactured this apocalyptic problem. So science, and not just the apocalyptic nuclear stuff, but the mundane bits like water heaters and motor cars, is the producer of the evil products that threaten our very existence. And talking of cars, do they not cause one million deaths and countless terrible injuries every year?

A lot of things get blamed for our bad behaviour. Making excuses for our naughtiness begins in childhood and doesn’t necessarily go away with age. “It was the devil that made me do it” is perhaps the most notable quote summing up the tendency. Even in the wise world of academe, learned studies accuse political movements, religions, ideologies, you name it, of seducing us into evil.

All the above is tongue in cheek of course. But academic papers and portentous books by biologists are taken in deadly earnest when they try to prove that all bad behaviour comes from religion. Like science, it depends what you do with it whether the outcome is good or bad. You can use religious fervour to produce either a holy war or a campaign against slavery, just as you can use biology to produce antibiotics or biological weapons. This seems so glaringly obvious that it should not have to be said, but there is a growing popular view that seems incapable of handling such a fundamental distinction. That the view is sometimes expressed in the very universities that religion in one of its better moments established, seems to suggest a particularly wilful blindness.

The underlying assumption here is that rationality is incapable of the kind of evil perpetrated by emotions that get all fired up by religious enthusiasm. Those who simplistically think, enlightenment good, religious belief bad, should remember that the Gulag and the Holocaust were all products of rational rather than religious belief.

The kind of perverted religion which gives an absolute sense of righteousness no matter what one does is the one which justifies the unjustifiable and it is rightly condemned. But to believe that an absolute sense of righteousness is the preserve of the religious is to forget the Pol Pots of history. Every believer may be a potential grand inquisitor or crusader but every unbeliever is a potential torturer or killing fields killer. There is nothing that cannot be hijacked in the service of evil. Rationalists who project all the evils of the world on to religion are playing the old human game so powerfully portrayed in the deeply true myth of the Garden of Eden where Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent.

• Chris Chatteris is the media liaison officer for the Jesuit Institute of South Africa (Jisa).

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