Every morning, as I drive to work, I listen to news stories about a looming clash of civilizations. I reach my workplace, leave my car and radio news behind, and step into a world where people of diverse nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and belief systems work together in harmony towards a common goal. In this world, Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists are on the same team, like one another and often become friends. I am a physician-scientist, and have the privilege of directing a group of dedicated researchers working on new treatments for cancer. In our world, we value people for their contributions to knowledge and human health, not for their faith, ethnicity or culture. I asked myself: why is it easier for us to look beyond differences that in the “real” world cause continuous conflict and death? It comes down to the way we think. A good scientist must be rational, educated, and above all, open-minded. At all times, we must be open to novel ideas and ready to have our views challenged. If reality contradicts our theories, we must be prepared to change them. And Mother Nature has its way of keeping us humble, by constantly showing us that we don’t have all the answers. Truth is not something we own, but something we seek, through common effort, one experiment at a time. It is virtually impossible to be a good scientist and be biased or prejudiced, and good habits carry over into everyday life. There must be some bad apples somewhere, but in 30 years of careers I haven’t met any professional scientists who are religiously, ideologically or culturally intolerant.
This I believe: Reason, not faith or ideology, is the ultimate enemy of fanaticism. Where critical minds are free to ask rational questions there is no room for blind hatred. Ignorance breeds prejudice and intolerance. This is why religious extremists loath reason and flourish amidst ignorance. Faith in any of the world’s great religions can inspire us and give us strong moral foundations, but by itself it cannot unite humanity. As long as each religion claims to possess the ultimate Truth, different communities can at best tolerate one another, while still hoping that the “true” word of God eventually prevails. And when faith isn’t tempered by reason, intolerance and violence follow.
Too often we forget that the American and French Revolutions, through which the West began to reject tyranny and embraced democracy, had deep roots in the Enlightenment’s rationalist philosophy. A new global Enlightenment, in which knowledge and ideas are shared as widely as possible, would do more to spread freedom and tolerance than centuries of war.
My life experience has taught me that our hearts can inspire us and move us, but only our minds can light the road to peace. This I believe….at least until proven otherwise!
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