Drawing on ideas from my book "The Science of Oneness", this article explores three of the deep beliefs underlying the modern western worldview, and how they lead to violence. They are the belief in Truth, individualism, and the meaning and purpose of life. I argue that enduring peace at all levels from the community to the international will be possible only when these beliefs change, and I make suggestions for alternatives.
A slightly edited version of this article is to be published in late 2007 by The Inter Religious Federation for World Peace in "Dialogue and Alliance"
The Constitution of UNESCO declares that “Since wars begin in the minds of men (and women), it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed."
There are many ways in which our minds cause violence but they can be divided into two broad groups. In the first are emotions. These include greed, jealousy, the lust for power, the desire for revenge, fear of those who are different, and fear of losing possessions, status or security.
In the second group are the beliefs we hold about ‘life, the universe and everything.’ Collectively these form our worldview which enables us to create a mental ‘model’ of how the world works. This model, in turn, determines what we perceive, and how we interpret our perceptions. In other words, the reality we experience is created by our minds based on our worldview and sensory data. It follows that our worldview strongly influences the way we act. For instance, it may lead us to stereotype certain groups as pigs, terrorists or Yankee imperialists, and to react to them accordingly.
A characteristic of all worldviews is that their basic beliefs are so deeply embedded in the way we think that they become unquestioned parts of the way things are – self-evident truths, and common sense. As a result, we are scarcely aware of them or of their consequences for our lives.
In this article, I explore three of the deep beliefs underlying the modern western worldview, and how they lead to violence. They are the belief in Truth, individualism, and the meaning and purpose of life. I argue that enduring peace at all levels from the community to the international will be possible only when these beliefs change, and I make suggestions for alternatives.
Belief in Truth
One of our deepest beliefs is that there is a single Truth, or set of Truths, about the nature of reality that we can discover and understand. This is most apparent in proselytizing religions that hold a particular vision of the Supreme Being, and promulgate particular paths to redemption or enlightenment.
A similar faith in the Truth of their beliefs is found in ideologies such as Marxism, Fascism, Capitalism, Nationalism and Democracy. Many scientists also believe their methods are the best, or even the only, path to the Truth about existence. We need look no further than Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, for an example.
Belief in the absolute Truth of a revelation, inspiration, theory or practice all too often leads to a desire to convert others to the same Truth, and zealous defence of our Truth against any real or perceived challenge. As individuals, such actions boost our sense of identity, and increase our feeling of psychological security. And for institutions, they are a road to growth, power and status in the world.
Active evangelism of any faith, even when exercised peacefully and with the best of intentions, can be seen as a form of cultural aggression. The most obvious example is the Christian missionary movement. Riding on the back of European imperialism, it denigrated all other cultures and beliefs with spiritual, psychological and material consequences that are still being suffered by many peoples. Sadly, such zeal all too often leads to sectarian violence, pogroms, genocide and war against unbelievers. Even religions that preach tolerance often breed hatred and the dogs of war rather than love and the doves of peace.
I have reluctantly concluded that the idea of Truth is one of the greatest sources of evil and violence. But belief in the existence of Truth and the possibility of attaining it is so deeply a part of our culture that it may be hard to imagine any other way of conceiving reality. Surely, you may say, there must be a single, absolute Truth underlying reality even if we have yet to discover it, or the human mind is unable to encompass it. Perhaps. And then again, perhaps not.
Science was founded on the idea that there are fixed and eternal Laws of Nature that we can discover through the scientific method. But some scientists now argue that these ‘laws’ may evolve and change with time, and be little more than cosmic habits developed over eons. Further, what we discover may be a mirror of our own beliefs rather than absolute Truth. This is nowhere better illustrated than in research into the paranormal and other subtle phenomena where believers get positive results, and sceptics get negative ones. Similarly, some scientists argue that the extraordinary precision with which mathematics describes the material world reveals the Truth that the universe is mathematical in nature. But others claim that these scientists find a mathematical universe because that is what they are looking for.
There is similar diversity of belief amongst religions. Many hold strongly to the absolute Truth of their particular revelation and, consequently, in the error of other beliefs. But some religions are open to different systems of belief. From this perspective, religious diversity reflects various cultural expressions of a deeper Perennial Philosophy, and offers alternative paths to the same spiritual destination. Still other traditions and teachers claim that there are many valid destinations. The Dalai Lama has suggested that if you want Buddhist enlightenment you should follow Buddhist practices, if you want Christian salvation you should follow Christian practices, and so on.
So were does this leave us? Western logic is based on belief in irreconcilable opposites. Something cannot be both true and false, good and evil. But Taoist and other Eastern philosophies do not have this concept. Rather, they believe that polar opposites exist in dynamic tension, and that nature seeks a harmonious balance in all things. If anything moves too far towards one extreme, forces come into play to restore the balance.
In our modern western worldview, we may have moved too far towards belief in Truth, with the consequences outlined above. Perhaps it is time to redress the balance, and move back to a point nearer the middle between Truth and Error. For myself, I recognise that there is a huge diversity of beliefs about every issue, and that I cannot know for certain which, if any of them, is the Truth. I try to hold the position that “I choose to believe this while accepting that I may be wrong and remaining open to other possibilities.” This applies to the beliefs I have expressed in this article as much as to any others!
As English leader Oliver Cromwell wrote to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Over three centuries ago, René Descartes believed he had cracked the problem of identity when he declared “I think, therefore I am” – a statement which has become one of the foundation stones of the modern western worldview. Its consequences are profound.
My mind is a highly personal world which I cannot share directly with you, and which you cannot comprehend fully even with the latest high-tech equipment. I believe this will remain the case no matter how sophisticated our brain scanning techniques become. So if I am my mind, I am cut off from direct relationship with other humans and other living beings. Inverting John Donne’s conclusion, I am, and will always be, ‘an island, entire of itself.’
This sense of isolation is reinforced by the reductionist approach of science that seeks to understand how the world works by breaking things down into separate components, and then studying their properties and interactions. Thus physicists have been engaged for centuries on the search for the fundamental particles of matter in the belief that discovery of this holy grail will open the door to a ‘theory of everything.’ Following the same track, social scientists often study the behavior of individuals, or social atoms, in order to understand society as a whole.
These two factors are significant sources of the individualism that has swept the modern world – a belief system that is justified by the nineteenth century philosophies of social Darwinism and capitalism. Inspired by the traumatic social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, and drawing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, social Darwinism envisages society as a fierce, competitive struggle for survival in which only the fittest individuals survive. The strong and ruthless prosper, while the weak and merciful go to the wall – an idea that inspired Hitler’s drive for Aryan supremacy. In a complementary theory, Adam Smith claimed that when individuals pursue their economic self-interest, they are led by an invisible hand to serve the good of the collective as well. And so we need not concern ourselves with issues such as poverty and exploitation.
For a period after the Second World War, the worst excesses of individualism and capitalism were moderated by Social Democracy. But in the greedy eighties and beyond these reforms were swept aside by revitalized right wing political and economic ideologies, and the collapse of the Communist bloc.
Individualism and the sense of separateness that it brings is implicated in many of our problems today. It has led us to regard nature as no more than a cornucopia of riches for our exclusive benefit, and to cause the greatest number of species extinctions for hundreds of millions of years. It justifies our brutal treatment of animals on factory farms and in experiments, claiming with Descartes that they are unfeeling machines whose cries of pain mean no more than the squeaking of a wheel. And it enables us to stereotype other races, cultures and religions as sub-human, leading to torture, pogroms, and genocide.
If we are isolated individuals, it is to be expected that we will pursue personal self-interest rather than the good of the collective. Hence, this belief feeds our greed, and erodes community and social ethics such as cooperation, compassion and charity. What were once social functions, such as care of the elderly, sick and young, become absorbed into the economy, dependent on the impersonal exchange of money rather than loving human relationships. People no longer work together to meet their social needs but rely on government and business to provide for them. Alienation, fear and loneliness increase as the sense of belonging to a caring community fades.
Individualism implies uniqueness and diversity. And yet we mostly strive to conform to group norms by holding acceptable opinions, wearing the latest fashions, listening to ‘in’ music and watching the most popular films. Our culture actually encourages only superficial differences and denies and rejects genuine diversity. We stereotype Jews, Muslims, Blacks and others, and our tolerance has very strict boundaries. We believe conflict arises from difference, and hence aim for cultural simplicity and homogeneity. But there is another view that conflict arises from lack of diversity because, if we are all similar, we have to compete with one another for status rather than being able to express our true uniqueness. Also, social diversity is like a library of alternative forms of social organization that we can draw on as we face the growing challenges of the future.
Individualism encourages an emphasis on individual rights, and neglects the essential counter-balance of responsibilities. People grab all they can for themselves, and opt out of responsible citizenship and community involvement as far as possible. Individualism similarly erodes values such as honesty and the honoring of contracts on which capitalism itself depends. Without these values, greater and greater reliance must be placed on law and regulation to prevent abuses. But such systems are costly and it is impossible to police every situation. Besides, if we all pursue our own self-interest, where will we find incorruptible guardians of public morality? These issues underlie the rapid rise of corporate and government corruption, with scandals such as Enron and the financial collapse of many retirement pension schemes. Simultaneously, the salaries and benefits that top corporate management pay themselves have exploded while the lid has been kept firmly on wages.
The growing gulf between the few obscenely rich and the many on the edge of survival is now a global phenomenon. In the ‘two-thirds world’ large corporations play country against country, continually moving production to gain rock-bottom wage rates and lax environmental regulations. Free markets and free trade give them the freedom to operate as they choose; the freedom from responsibility that allows them to pass on the social and environmental costs of their operations to peoples and nations that suffer the resultant social breakdown, ill health and ecological devastation. Economic freedom gives them the right to ‘discover’ traditional healing plants and patent them; to force indigenous peoples off their land in order to exploit mineral and other resources; to assume ownership of water resources that the poor can no longer afford; and to ignore the unprofitable diseases of the poor.
Meanwhile, in wealthy nations, corporations use both sticks and carrots to control the workforce. The sticks include the threat of unemployment due to competition from poor countries and new technologies. The carrot is an ever-rising flood of consumer goodies and gadgets to feed insatiable consumer wants stimulated by advertising. The population is further tranquillized by manipulation and sanitizing of media information.
More directly related to the issue of war and peace, it has been estimated that as many as half the scientists and engineers in advanced countries are employed on military research. Not only does this emphasis draw funds away from urgent problems such as poverty and climate change, but also it has led to the increasing use of military superiority by rich nations to dominate others, and the use of smart weapons to avoid the risks of military engagement.
This brief overview reveals that capitalism is aggressive at heart, thriving on inequality and exploitation. It is an economy of violence of the haves against the have-nots. It is dividing the world into two camps as the rich build defensive barriers against the poor while continuing to exploit them to meet their selfish ends. The violence may be non-physical most of the time, but it is violence nevertheless. Gross inequalities and injustice breed anger, resentment and violence. They incite anti-social behavior, crime and terrorism, and they exacerbate old racial and ethnic conflicts rather then resolving them.
It may seem far-fetched to attribute so many of our problems to individualism. But let’s imagine how things might be if we identified not only with our minds, but also with our bodies, emotions, relationships and souls (if you believe we have souls); and if our worldview emphasized not only our individuality but also the fact that we are integral parts of larger wholes.
Our contracted sense of identity would expand to embrace more of who we are. Descartes’ declaration that “I think therefore I am” would be joined by the Buddha’s “I breathe therefore I am”, Nicholas Humphrey’s “I feel therefore I am”, and the social and ecological perspective that “I relate therefore I am.”
The last of these is particularly important. It recognizes the indisputable fact that our very existence depends on the support of natural and social systems. Without our brothers and sisters, the bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, birds and mammals that form our ecosystem we would have no food to eat, no air to breathe, no water to drink. Without the Living Planet and all her life-support systems, we would not exist. Without our fellow humans, we would scrape a bare subsistence living at best. Without our society, we would have no language or culture, and no role or identity beyond that of an animal bent on survival. We are not only precious individuals with rights, but also totally dependent parts of larger wholes with the responsibility to care for them.
Once we recognize that we have no existence or identity apart from the whole, our sense of self starts to expand to include not only our minds and bodies, but also our families, our communities and our ecosystems. They become acknowledged parts of us. We come to understand that protecting and nurturing them is protecting and nurturing ourselves; that our true self-interest lies in the well-being of the whole. From this perspective, exploitation of other beings becomes exploitation of ourselves; violence against another being becomes violence against ourselves.
As with our belief in Truth, the pendulum has swung too far. We need to move towards a new balance in which individuality is complemented by an equally powerful collective identity – a strong belief in human and ecological community. With such a worldview, an economy of sufficiency and a society of cooperative communities would naturally emerge.
Meaning and purpose
The third deep belief I want to explore is the meaning and purpose of life. Science and atheistic humanism tell us that life is a meaningless accident in a purposeless universe. The cosmos is seen as a lifeless, mindless machine with every object and event determined by chains of physical cause and effect. Life evolved by chance through processes that are driven by aggressive competition for survival. Mind and consciousness are mere by-products of complex material systems with no independent existence. There is no life force, no soul or spirit, no God. There is nothing beyond death.
Capitalism presents a similarly bleak vision. Its purpose is endless growth of economic activity without regard to its non-monetary costs and benefits, the quality of life, human welfare and happiness, or its impacts on nature. A mother who stays home to raise her children contributes nothing to GNP, but if she goes out to work both her wages and the cost of childcare are counted. GNP rises when money is spent to clean up industrial pollution, or to fight crime and drug addiction caused by social breakdown, or to treat ill-health caused by stress.
The drive for material growth ignores the fact that nothing can grow forever without limits. When cells in our bodies lose their self-limiting mechanism, they become cancerous and eventually destroy us. The human race, with our ever-rising numbers and per capita demands, already absorbs more than half of all nature’s production, leaving insufficient to sustain the natural systems that sustain us. We have become a cancer on the face of the Earth, and are in danger of destroying our own home. Paradoxically, our greatest hope for the future lies in the crisis of climate change which may yet shock us into collective action before it is too late.
Capitalism sees the meaning and purpose of life as ever-increasing consumption of goods and services rather than in relationship, community, artistic creativity, or spirituality. But the satisfactions of consumption are transient. Like a drug, each fix soon wears off and we need more. Material wants are insatiable because they mask the enduring emptiness and inner hunger of life rather than fulfilling it.
Our culture leaves us, as individuals, to discover or create our own deeper meaning and purpose rather than providing a secure philosophical and psychological basis for existence. Given this situation, is it any wonder that so many people succumb to despair, depression, apathy, alienation and anomy, or fill the existential void with hedonism, sex, drugs or retail therapy? Is it any wonder that so many are being drawn to fundamentalisms and cults that bring meaning and certainty to life? Is it any wonder that young people find a sense of belonging and a kind of love in street gangs? Is it any wonder that many react with anti-social behaviour, aggression and violence against the black joke the cosmos and society has played on us?
The nearest western civilization comes to a sense of purpose is the ideal of progress. Belief in the possibility of a better future, was stronger in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than now. Two world wars and countless lesser conflicts, the nuclear age and the era of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, the rise of international terrorism and the looming crisis of climate change have sapped our confidence. When I was young, in the 1960’s, we faced the prospect of nuclear annihilation and global hunger, but it was still possible to believe we could save the world.
Today, faith in progress is much harder to sustain, and emphasis has shifted to the less inspiring goal of sustainability and security against crime, terrorism, resource scarcity and environmental destruction. In their drive for security, the rich nations are becoming ever more aggressive both towards other nations and their own citizens. We are destroying our own freedoms, and violating our own rights due to irrational, faceless terrors. And rather than examining inner causes, we are projecting our problems outwards onto other nations and religions, creating enemies in our minds and in fact. Terrorism is the harvest from seeds we have sown.
Progress and security are goals that keep us focused on the future; on a time when things will be better if not perfect; when poverty, disease and violence will be banished, and peace and harmony will reign. We feed this yearning for a better future by perpetually forecasting and planning, and, paradoxically by gazing in the rear-view mirror to see where we have been. We plot trends of every imaginable statistic to see if we are indeed making progress, and we take great interest in the lessons of history as guides to the future. We behave similarly in our personal lives, always imagining that things will be better when we have the latest gadget, another qualification, promotion at work, a new partner, more money … And always dwelling on past trauma, regret and guilt.
However, as Eckart Tolle argues in The Power of Now, this focus on past and future is a root cause of our violent civilization. By nursing painful memories, we feed the desire for personal vengeance. History keeps alive ethnic and racial memories of past wrongs that often explode into fresh violence, thus feeding a perpetual vicious cycle. Similarly, violence often arises from desires or fears for the future. The Vietnam war was sparked by fear of future expansion by China. Intervention in Iraq was due as much to the desire for secure oil supplies as by fear of WMDs.
Living so much in the past and future prevents us, individually and as a culture, from living fully in the present. Yet this is the only time we actually have, as all major religions have proclaimed. The Buddha taught that the root of suffering lies in constant wanting and craving. And Jesus urged us to take no thought for tomorrow, and to learn from the example of the flower and birds which are cared for by God.
Despite our cowboy ethic that peace grows out of the barrel of a gun, security cannot be gained by violence. Violence breeds violence. We can create peace and security only by accepting the feared stranger not just as our brother, but as part of our selves; by healing the pain and suffering; through love, trust, justice, understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness. Examples from many parts of the world show it is possible.
I concluded the last two sections with the image of a pendulum that has swung too far one way, and whose balance needs to be restored. In this case, perhaps one pole is unquestioning acceptance of the meaning and purpose of life that is promulgated by religious authorities, and the other pole is reliance on individual exploration and discovery. In the last few centuries, the pendulum has swung from authority to individuality, and now perhaps needs to swing back towards the centre. Perhaps what we need is a range of alternative, authoritative and reliable traditions from which individuals can choose on the basis of critical evaluation and what resonates most strongly with their inner selves.
Towards a Worldview of Peace
In this last section, I want to revisit the themes of truth, individuality, meaning and purpose in order to start building a more coherent worldview of peace. It seems appropriate to start with some thoughts on the nature of knowledge and our relationship to truth.
If belief in absolute Truth leads to violence, then peace requires us to let go of attachment to our particular version of Truth. It requires us to accept the existence of multiple truths, and to recognize that each culture, each one of us, knows no more than a tiny fraction of a more complex reality. Peace requires us to be humble and tolerant, open to paradox and error in all that we think we know, and open to the wonderful diversity of human knowledge. What would it mean to follow such a path in practice? Here are a few guidelines that I find helpful:
• Try to remain non-attached to what you know, and to maintain an attitude that “I currently believe this to be true while accepting that I may be wrong.”
• Remain open to the potential validity of any new belief, information, theory, perception or experience, whatever its source.
• Recognize that all human knowledge, including science, is founded on unprovable beliefs, and is molded by the way the brain works, the language we use, and other cultural and personal factors. Hence, pure objectivity is impossible, and all knowledge is subjective to some extent.
• Accept that all human knowledge is partial due to biological and cultural limitations. Hence, apparently contradictory perceptions and worldviews may actually be complementary images of a more complex whole.
• Accept nothing on trust or authority. Question all knowledge deeply regardless of whether it comes from science and the intellect, or from intuition, direct experience, relationships, spiritual insights and traditions, or any other source.
• Engage in cooperative inquiry and collective critical evaluation to minimize the risk of individual delusion and personal bias.
• Test potential knowledge for its reliability not only in predicting events in the material world, but also for its influence on manifestation of universal values such as love, compassion, wisdom and justice.
• While continually testing the validity of your knowledge, trust your inner intuition when you choose what to believe and what to reject.
At this point, I would like to introduce some ideas from Gnostic cosmology, not because they are any true r than alternative beliefs but because they make sense to me, and carry fewer emotional and intellectual overtones than better known cosmologies. Gnostics recognised that there is a Mystery at the heart of existence; that no matter how far back we trace cause and effect there will always remain the questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Where did THAT come from?”
Gnostics believed that this Mystery is One; an undivided whole that is pregnant with potential consciousness. In some indefinable way, this Mystery wanted to know itself, to become self-aware. But self-awareness requires both a knower and what is known, an observer and what is observed, a subject and object, a witness and experience. Hence, in order to know itself, the Mystery had to split into two, thus introducing duality into the primal Oneness. This was the split between God and Goddess, Spirit and soul, One and many, Being and becoming, eternal Perfection and evolution. This first split was followed by a cascade of further divisions through which Cosmic Consciousness brought the universe into existence, shaping the potential of the Mystery into energy, matter, life and consciousness as we know it.
This myth suggests that the cosmos has a purpose - to achieve full self-awareness in which every part, every being, knows its true nature and relationship to the whole. The path to this goal was left undefined at creation because there are many ways that cosmic self-knowledge can come about. Also, predetermining the path would have rendered illusory the self-awareness achieved by the created beings. Hence, Cosmic Consciousness left us creative freedom of action as true participants in an on-going co-creative evolutionary process.
There is remarkable unanimity amongst scientists, philosophers and spiritual traditions that our perceived self, our sense of identity, is an illusion. Who we are is a collection of stories that we have woven from the multiple strands of our being and our roles in the world. But our existence as separate beings is possible only in and through our connections and relationships with each other and with nature. As our awareness of this ‘interbeing’ grows, so our sense of self enlarges from ‘skin-encapsulated ego’ to ‘person-in-environment-and-society’. We integrate more and more into our perception of who we are until we realize that we are one with Cosmic Consciousness.
That realization brings awareness that our creative freedom and power are real. We are free to experiment and innovate, to make mistakes and learn from them, to create evil, suffering and hatred as well as good, happiness and love. And as co-creators with all sentient beings and Cosmic Consciousness, we share responsibility for guiding the future of our world towards the manifestation of love, truth, compassion, wisdom, justice, peace and other universal values, and for awakening all beings to our true nature as Consciousness.
Here lie the foundations for a worldview of peace.