What kind of world do we want?

“Here’s my policy on cake… I’m pro-having, and pro-eating.” – Boris Johnson,

Politicians may not all be delightfully frank as London’s mayor, but they are well-known to want their cake and eat it too.

But that’s unfair to politicians. They’re not the only ones. The desire is universal.

Call me chauvinist, but I want a world where science and technology serve humanity and not the other way around. I want a world where humans hunger to be human more than we desire to be rich, or powerful, or famous. I want a world where every human life is valued, meaningful, satisfying. I want a world where we celebrate each other and our interdependence as opposed to allowing our relationships to degrade into something much more unbalanced, one-sided, exploitative, or abusive. In the words of pastor John Ortberg, I want a world where we each are able to “do the right thing at the right time in the right spirit.”

I think that’s what you want too.

And that’s because we know in our heart of hearts that if we genuinely aspire and make it our aim to contribute to building that kind of world… then all the other things we want – personal and society-wide health, happiness, and safety; a robust, bio-diverse environment spanning our home planet even as it meets our needs for food, water, energy and other resources – are likely to come along as collateral benefits. We can have it all – literally have our cake and eat it too. By contrast, if we make material goals our primary aim, if we take what look to be shortcuts, and we jettison the angels of our better nature before we leave life’s starting gate, we’re likely to lose it all.

Simple.

Except that no generation, no people – not even any individuals[1] – have ever been able to live by such rules. Throughout history, the have-it-all strategy has always been available to us, but we have always opted for something less – considerably less. Over love, and putting the truest welfare and interests of others first, we’ve chosen selfishness. But we haven’t stopped there. We’ve chosen depression over joy, war over peace, instant gratification over patience, toughness and even brutality over kindness. No surprise, then, that as individuals we’re often despairing, troubled, fearful, worried, and anxious.

Much if not most of the world’s great art – the major literature, the theater, the musical compositions, the paintings and the sculpture – explore these this human tragedy.

These themes are also the major focus of the world’s great religions. In fact, for much of human history, over most of the world, this problem has been widely understood to be spiritual, discussed in that language, and solutions sought in that realm. But in recent times, many people have chosen to reject any reference to the spiritual. Arguably this is attempting to solve the problem with one hand (or both?) tied behind our backs.

The rejection of the spiritual may be more prevalent among physical scientists than among the rest of the world. But as scientists have searched for ways to increase societal uptake of scientific and technological knowledge and capabilities (about climate change, human health, and much, much more), physical scientists have a halfway step back. They’ve acknowledged the importance of social science in casting light on risk communication, determinants of behavior of individuals and groups, etc. We scientists of both stripes might do well to embrace one step more.

Some world leaders are doing this, in what at first blush might be thought to be the most unlikely places. Take China. According to The Economist, Christianity’s rapid spread in China is causing leaders to rethink. The article suggests Christians number more than Communist Party members (87M), and puts them on track to reach 250M by perhaps as early as 2030. That would make their Christian population the largest in the world. And Buddhist faith is experiencing a similar resurgence. Some excerpts:

“Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this. There is even talk that the party, the world’s largest explicitly atheist organisation, might follow its sister parties in Vietnam and Cuba and allow members to embrace a dogma other than—even higher than—that of Marx…

…Some Chinese also discern in Christianity the roots of Western strength. They see it as the force behind the development of social justice, civil society and rule of law, all things they hope to see in China…

…In recent years the party’s concerns have shifted from people beliefs to the maintenance of stability and the party’s monopoly of power. If working with churches helps achieve these aims, it will do so, even though it still frets about encouraging an alternative source of authority. In 2000 Jiang Zemin, then party chief, and himself a painter of calligraphy for his local Buddhist temples, said in an official speech that religion would probably still be around when concepts of class and state had vanished…”

It’s the weekend. A great opportunity for us to perhaps read The Economist article in its entirety and to reflect more deeply on the kind of world we want.

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[1]as in you and me; we’re all in this together.

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