Advancing religion to save the future -Part III
Posted on November 27th, 2009

H. L. D. Mahindapala

At the core of the current controversy on the environment is also the role of science and technology. This argument invariably invokes the metaphor of Frankenstein “”…” the metaphor of science growing into a monster which man cannot control. But Judge Weeramantry is not an obscurantist who goes against all science. He acknowledges the benevolent contribution of science to advance knowledge and its corollary of elevating the quality of life to levels not known in history. His argument, however, is that science and technology should not be allowed exceed moral limits and run wild without ethical considerations.

“Many of the world’s environmental problems,” he states, “result from the fact that modern science and technology have tended to become a power unto themselves, restrained by moral and spiritual principles.” (187). He quotes from Redemptor Hominis of Pope John Paul II to emphasize this point: “We seem to be increasingly aware that the exploitation of the earth, the plant on which we are living, demands rational and honest planning. At the same time, exploitation of the earth not only for industrial but also military purposes and the uncontrolled development of technology outside the framework of a long-rang authentically humanistic plan often bring with a threat to man’s natural environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and the remove him from nature.” (p. 188)

In his book, Tread Lightly on the Earth, Judge Weeramantry draws strands from all the five major religions “”…” Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity “”…” to drive home the point that spiritual tenets, more than raw secularism, have, in their core values, “shared environmental wisdom and this is as an aspect that urgently needs communication to the global public.” (p.11).

For instance, the defining of man’s role as a trustee of planet earth and not its owner with unfettered powers to exploit its resources for selfish gain is derived from the major religions. From Buddhism he draws the concept of trusteeship which he encoded into a legally valid principle in the case between Hungary and Slovakia over the damming of the waters of the Danube resulting in environmental damage. In his judgment on this case at the International Court of Justice he quoted Mahinda, the Buddhist missionary, who told the king that he is merely the trustee and not the owner of the territory.

The concept of trusteeship surfaces as a common principle in other religions too. In Islam man is seen as “God’s vice-regent on earth”. The doctrine of trust, says, Judge Weeramantry, “is closely associated with the concept of vice-regency. Responsible trusteeship is a major theological concept which, just as in Christianity and Judaism, plays an important role in determining how humans should use and react to the environment.” (p227). In Christianity the same concept emerges as “the stewardship theory”. The good steward is inherent in the concept of the good shepherd, argues Judge Weeramantry. All in all, the Buddhist concept of a “trustee”, the Islamic concept of God’s “vice-regent on earth”, or the Christian concept of a “good shepherd” all converge to convey the responsibilities of man to his environment.

Referring to Hinduism he points out that an “important feature of the Hindu worldview is that the supreme deity resides in all things. “¦”¦.Indeed the whole universe is looked upon as the body of God, thus making it a deep obligation of every individual to show due respect for it.” (p. 38).

The Hindu view is that man is a part of nature and the man who destroys nature is like the man who is cutting the branch on which he sits. Besides, in Hinduism God is present in everything in creation and he who destroys nature destroys God.

In his chapter on Christianity Judge Weeramantry deals with a controversial aspect of Christianity which assumed (erroneously) that God has placed man at the peak of creation to be the master to do whatever he wants. This “dominion theory” derives its text mainly from Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on earth.”

Judge Weeramantry argues against this “mastery” or “despotic” interpretation of Genesis. “Such a view,” says Judge Weeramantry, “left man to do as he pleased with the environment of which he was lord and master and all the other Christian teachings regarding the humility and caring attitudes that Christians should display tended to be relegated to the background. This was by no means the official attitude adopted by the church, but the lack of stress of Christian virtue in the context of the environment, permitted such attitudes to be widely held and practised.”(p. 167). He adds: “The dominion theory long held sway, as the other theories took time to emerge in the absence of a stimulus to formulate them or bring them to the forefront.” (Ibid).

The main thrust of Judge Weeramantry’s latest book is to restore the pristine values enshrined in religion. By and large, he sees science and technology as the key factors that go against the preservation of the environment and, from a legal point of view, the rights of future generations. The future is seen as a sacred entity that must be protected from the depredations of the present. But the forces of modernity are working relentlessly against the future.

“Two of the principal forces at work in the modern age,” he argues, “which are causing extensive and irreparable damage to the environment, are science and technology, on the one hand, and the massive strengths of commercial and economic forces on the other. Acting in combination as they often do, their strength is overwhelming especially in the poorer countries.” (p.220)

He strengthens his argument for keeping science and technology within an ethical framework by tracing the contributions of Islam to modern science. He says:” The surge of scientific research and learning in the Islamic world did much to transmit the spirit of scientific inquiry into the West. Whether in mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, optics, agriculture, engineering or any other branches of science, Islamic knowledge blossom during the dark ages in Europe and helped to rekindle the torch of scientific learning in the West, leading later to the resurgence of Western science and eventually to the industrial revolution.”

The critical turning point in science and technology came at this juncture and Judge Weeramantry focuses on this divergence as his central theme. He says: “There was, however, principal difference between science as it developed in the West and science as it developed in Islam. Whereas science was always kept within the boundaries of ethics and religion in the Islamic system, in the West science launched out on a career of its own and was scarcely restrained by moral or spiritual concerns. This has been one of the principal causes of environmental damage in the world today and it is an urgent need once more to bring science within ethical and moral restraints as one of the preconditions to avoiding environmental disaster.” (p 220 “”…” 221).

 Man, in short, has broken his bonds with nature and this aspect has been a perennial concern of the “eco-spirituals” found in all cultures. The grand poet of nature, William Wordsworth, expressed, with child-like reverence, man’s relationship to his environment in his famous poem, which began: “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began, / So it now I am a man, / So be it when I shall grow old / Or let me die! / The child is the father of the man: / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety.”

 The grieving now is for the loss of “natural piety” “”…” a poetic phrase that encapsulates the spiritual ties to nature. Restoration of “natural piety” is also the essence in Judge Weeramantry’s book. Man began his journey on earth by worshipping nature. The original man was an integral part of nature. But as he advanced he tended to distance himself from nature and rely on science and technology which alienated him from his natural surroundings. The asphalt jungle replaced the natural habitat of the rain forests. On his way to the industrial age man lost his “natural piety” and if the future is in going back to it then the road to that destination runs through religion, argues Judge Weeramantry.

 The book ends with the hope of establishing a Universal Convention on Environmental Rights and Duties. As a jurist he regrets that international law is lagging behind without taking action to protect the endangered future. Commenting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights he says it spoke only of rights and not duties. He also adds that it was “only a non-binding Declaration as opposed to a binding Convention.”

 Judge Weeramantry stresses emphatically that a Universal Convention on Environmental Rights and Duties is long overdue. He sees it as a guarantee for the future generations who have no legal protection. He emphasizes that they too have rights. But not many are concerned about future generations because they don’t have votes. Nevertheless, “we are pillaging their birth rights and irreversibly damaging their inheritance.” (p. 258).

He concludes by arguing: “The most powerful force for resisting this is the united teachings of all the world’s religions”¦.The pathway to the integration of these joint religious teachings into international law needs to be explored. This is an urgent legal responsibility lying upon the lawyers, the legal systems and the judiciaries of the entire world.” (p.258).

 Incorporating religion into law as a formidable force to combat the threats to the environment is a sine qua non to rein in individual nations refusing to recognize the anthropogenic (man-made) causes of global warming. Judge Weeramantry has raised his voice in time for the Copenhagen summit to take note of a legally binding contract.

 By and large, the current intellectual climate is to ignore religion as a viable force that can address issues like the threat to environment. Judge Weeramantry combines both law and religion as the new force that can contain the impending threat of global warming. He sees religion playing a more dynamic role if it is restored to its original status as a law-maker. In his book, Tread Lightly on Earth, he has marshaled substantial evidence from primary religious sources to emphasize the urgent need to go back to the roots of human ethics if humanity is to advance into the future.


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