On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s worth reflecting on the philosophies of the Civil Rights Movement’s most well-known leader. And it’s fascinating to me that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a lot to say about science.
In 1963, Dr. King published a series of sermons in a compilation titled Strength to Love. While, the book’s editors left out some of the reverend’s more strident views, the sermons are seen as an accurate depiction of many of Dr. King’s most closely held beliefs.
From the volume’s first sermon, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart:
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”
In other words, science and religion have important points of connection. Taking this lesson to the present, to strengthen the role of science in decision-making, we should acknowledge the strengths and limitations of both science and religion and ethics. This line of thinking is gaining ground; many scientists and science communicators arediscussingvalues, and acknowledging how it is important to take into account the ethical approaches and belief structures of others when bringing science to bear on policy discussions. (As an aside, interesting new research looks at connections between scientific thinking and adherence to moral norms).
Dr. King went on to herald scientific progress while lamenting the fact that many did not share in its fruits, and putting forth the idea that scientific advances must be accompanied by moral and spiritual growth. “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power,” wrote Dr. King in The Man Who Was a Fool, the seventh sermon in Strength to Love. “We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
From his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers…we have amazing knowledge of vitamins, nutrition, the chemistry of food, and the versatility of atoms. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.
Finally, Dr. King showed an awareness of how science can be misused for individual and political advancement. In writing about segregationists, Dr. King had the following to say in another Strength to Love sermon (hat tip Cara Santa Maria):
Pressed for a justification of their belief in the inferiority of the Negro, they turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the white man’s brain. They do not know, or they refuse to know, that the idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits, agree that, although there may be inferior or superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that science has demonstrated that there are four types of blood and that these four types are found within every racial group.
To be sure, many leaders contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. The success of the March on Washington itself is attributed to a little-known, and often ostracized, 51-year-old organizer and gay man named Bayard Rustin.
Yet it is encouraging that Dr. King, a man of profound faith, thought deeply about both the promise and peril of scientific discovery and its place in a just and democratic society. May we all continue to think of faith and science as complementary, understand the importance of moral growth as well as scientific advancement, and speak out against the misuse of science as we address the world’s toughest challenges.
Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: civil rights, equality, political interference in science, racism
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.
Martin Luther King, Jr, stated in his From Strength to Love, “The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” Little did he know how prophetic his words would be in a literal sense several decades later.
A Comfortable State Of Misery
In the modern times, we have achieved considerable ability to manipulate our external environment with the help of science and technology. Technological gadgets have, to a large extent, helped make life comfortable and easy, relieving us of many of the discomforts and inconveniences associated with a traditional way of life. The ads go so far as to claim that the world can now be in our grip (kar lo duniya muthi mein)
Yet, have all these comforts made us more peaceful or happy?
People in the past hardly ever complained of stress or depression, but these have become almost synonymous with the modern way of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that mental diseases will be the greatest health challenge of this century.
- With the rapid rise in promiscuity in modern times, the family, the basis of a steady and sustainable society, is breaking apart. A survey showed that two out of three marriages in the US end in divorce within three years of marriage. Marital rupture is traumatic for the spouses and devastating for their children. Statistics show that divorced people as well as children of divorced parents are more likely to succumb to addictions than their married counterparts. Even if they don’t succumb to addictions, the agony that comes from the rupture of relationships leaves lifelong scars.
- Worldwide addictions are on the rise. WHO statistics indicate that tobacco alone kills nearly 10,000 people worldwide every day. There are around 1.1 billion smokers in the world (about one-third of the global population aged 15 and over). By 2020 it is predicted that tobacco use will cause over 12% of all deaths globally. This is more deaths worldwide than HIV, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, motor vehicle accidents, suicide and homicide put together. And, to make matters worse, smoking is a relatively mild form of addiction as compared to alcoholism and drug abuse.
With the children of today’s disturbed, ruptured and addicted generation being the leaders of tomorrow, the future of the world becomes a matter of deep concern. The school massacres in US from Littleton to Virginia Tech may well be an ominous precursor of things to come.
So, despite the bluff and the bravado of a comfortable life, most modern people find themselves in mental misery. They thus live in a comfortable state of misery. And the tragic irony is that most of this misery is self-inflicted. For example, no one needs to smoke to survive but still people smoke and bring disease and suffering upon themselves.
Thus modern society may have succeeded in guiding missiles but has failed utterly in guiding human beings. What is the cause of this unfortunate, indeed tragic, state of affairs – guided missiles and misguided men? The Vedic texts offer valuable insights into this. Let’s explore.
The Enemies Within
The Vedic texts explain that within the human psyche are six formidable forces which misguide a person constantly and impel him to self-destructive behavioral patterns. These forces are lust, anger, greed, pride, envy and illusion. Among these, lust, greed and anger are the most dangerous and are declared in the Bhagavad-gita to be “the three gates to hell”. Let us see how these relate to the problems plaguing the present-day world.
It is the source of all kinds of sexual drives. While regulated sex is necessary for procreation, lust tends to create uncontrollable sexual urges within a person. While modern media – and practically the entire modern society – portrays passionate lust as a gateway to unlimited bodily pleasures, such a conception is in reality short-lived and treacherous; it is individually frustrating and socially disastrous. Enamored by erotic fantasies, a person tries to enjoy in newer ways and with newer partners. But each successive experience leaves him increasingly disappointed – and craving for more. Why? Because the highest pleasure the body can offer is heartbreakingly brief. Frustrated in his quest for erotic enjoyment, such a person turns in despair to perverted sources of pleasure like smoking, drinking and drug abuse.
As far as the family is concerned, uncontrolled lust in either or both of the spouses wreaks havoc in the lives of both of them as well as of their children, as discussed earlier.
Deadly sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like AIDS, which result from uncontrolled lust, have devastating individual and social consequences, which need no elaboration.
Greed makes one crave for far more than what one needs. A person victimized by greed does not find satisfaction no matter how much he accumulates. At the same time, his greed forces him to exploit others and strip them of even their basic needs in order to achieve his selfish ends.
During a morning walk through a slum area, Srila Prabhupada noticed some stout people jogging along the road. He poignantly commented that in the huts people did not get enough to eat, while the wealthy tended to overeat and were therefore forced to jog to decrease their weight.
Consider the following UNICEF statistics about the world hunger problem:
- Hunger kills a person every 3.6 seconds and over 15 million children every year.
- To satisfy the world’s sanitation and food requirements would cost only US$13 billion- what the people of the United States and the European Union spend on perfume each year.
- Nearly one in four people, 1.3 billion – a majority of humanity – live on less than $1 per day, while the world’s 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people.
The irony with greed is that the greedy person watches others die of starvation without helping them and can’t save himself from dying of anxiety.
Anger arises when one’s lusty desires are frustrated. Anger leads to all forms of violence ranging from petty quarrels to world wars. The modern media with its vivid depiction of violence portrays anger as a heroic quality. This is a major cause of the spiraling rates of violent criminality in modern societies. While most people recognize that in real life anger is not a desirable emotion, they savor the violent scenes in the movies. And then strangely enough they wonder why they themselves, in fits of anger, speak such words and do such deeds which break the hearts of their loved ones and which they themselves bitterly regret later. Anger destroys relationships and ruins lives.
Anger is also a known cause of a large variety of ailments ranging from high blood pressure to heart attacks.
This brief analysis gives us an idea of how the three internal enemies – lust, greed and anger are the root cause of a large variety of problems in modern society. If we were to extend this analysis to include pride, envy and illusion, (which we will leave to the readers so as to maintain the brevity of the article), we would find that every problem, individual or social, local or global, has its origin in these six misguiding forces.
The Vedic texts not only point out the root problem, but also describe the lasting solution. The means to counter the internal enemies is spiritual technology.
Just as material technology enables us to control the world around us, spiritual technology helps us to control the world within us, that is, to control the lust, anger and greed within us. The Vedic society was oriented to make people expert in spiritual technology. This spiritual expertise was achieved through a harmonious combination of education, culture and devotion. Let us compare Vedic society and modern society on these three counts:
In Vedic society, education did not mean just learning some technical skills to earn a living. It focused on acquiring spiritual knowledge, which gave the student a clear vision to see the deadly nature of the internal enemies. Vedic education also provided the student with the knowledge and the training to fight and conquer these enemies when they attacked. Overcoming lust, anger and greed did not however mean being condemned to live a dry life without any desires or ambitions. Vedic education enabled the student to utilize his desires and talents positively in pursuance of his enlightened self-interest so as to achieve lasting happiness.
In modern society, education focuses mainly on acquiring technical or other knowledge to earn a living. It leads only to the development of the intellect (the ability to recollect and manipulate information), not the development of the intelligence (the ability to discriminate between the right and the wrong, the beneficial and the harmful). It does not emphasize inculcating ethical, moral or spiritual values. Those educated in this way are able to control the world around them with material technology but fail miserably in controlling the world within them as they have no knowledge of spiritual technology. The result is tragic – a world with guided missiles and misguided men.
Vedic culture was based on the implicit understanding that human happiness came not by external aggrandizement meant to satisfy one’s lust, anger and greed, but by inner realization that gradually freed one from these internal enemies. Life in Vedic times was therefore not a rat race for wealth, but was arranged to enable one to utilize one’s inherent material abilities in satisfying and productive service to society. Simultaneously the social environment provided abundant facilities and encouragement for one to develop oneself spiritually and thus find happiness within oneself.
Modern culture, on the other hand, glamorizes as success stories the icons of lust (sexually appealing movie-stars), anger (action heroes) and greed (exploitative businessmen). The modern media with its undisguised promotion of a consumer culture and the entire society with its emphasis on material success both fuel and fan the lust, anger and greed within people. Thus, modern culture far from discouraging lust, greed and anger encourages them as the signs of success.
In Vedic society devotion to God was inculcated right from birth. Due to their firm devotion, people experienced sublime non-material satisfaction that gave them inner spiritual strength. Being content within, they could resist the otherwise irresistible pushings of lust, greed and anger. (Modern social studies have confirmed the power of spiritual practices as the best insurance from self-destructive behavioral patterns) In the Vedic times, genuine devotion to God did much more than protect people from addictions; it made them honest, kind, considerate, loving and selfless and thus facilitated a peaceful and harmonious society.
In modern times, many people don’t believe in or don’t care for God. Even those who profess to be believers do so mostly out of social custom or fear of the unknown. They have very little scientific understanding of God and are therefore not serious about their devotion. When lust, greed and anger attack them, they just don’t have the inner strength to fight and so they become easily victimized. This is all the more true for those who are openly atheistic or materialistic.
Modern society thus gives a free play to the misguiding forces of lust, anger and greed. It’s only natural therefore that the modern world, despite its expertise in guiding missiles, is filled with misguided men.
Is there a way out of this predicament?
Healing a Wounded World
Lust, anger and greed are like diseases afflicting the minds of people. The variety of problems bedeviling the world today – poverty, starvation, violence, disease and pollution, to name a few – are the symptoms of these diseases.
Dealing with these symptomatic problems through social service will not bring about a lasting solution. As long as people are not freed from slavery to their internal enemies, they cannot be peaceful or happy. And as long as they are not peaceful and happy, they will inevitably indulge in activities that will perpetuate the symptomatic problems.
ISKCON is among the very few organizations in the world arming people with the spiritual technology to conquer the internal enemies. ISKCON provides education, culture and devotion, which is based on the Vedic texts and is suitably presented for the modern times. This empowers ISKCON devotees to protect themselves from the insidious influences of lust, greed and anger and live a pure life filled with peace and joy.
Consider for example the four principal activities of an individual misguided by lust, anger and greed – intoxication, gambling, illicit sex and meat eating. Intelligent people can easily recognize the harmful nature of these activities and can also understand that a world free from these activities would be a much better place. Most people unfortunately indulge in these activities either voluntarily or involuntarily, being impelled by lust, greed and anger. Serious ISKCON devotees however refrain from these activities as a basic regulative principle for spiritual advancement. That they are able to do so in a world that is slave to these activities is itself eloquent testimony of the protection through wisdom that ISKCON offers.
ISKCON is, of course, working at a humanitarian level to mitigate suffering and distress; it runs the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program – Food for Life. But the highest service that ISKCON offers to the people of the world is its tireless attempts to provide them protection from their internal enemies and to enable them to find lasting peace and happiness within themselves.