Friday, April 08, 2011

Einstein on Cosmic Religion

I want to quote this passage of Albert Einstein, which was published in
"Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms,”
(Mineola, N.T.: Dover, first published in 1931)

p 46: The religions of all the civilized peoples, especially those of the Orient, are principally moral religions. An important advance in the life of a people is the transformation of the religion of fear into the moral religion. But one must avoid the prejudice that regards the religions of primitive peoples as pure fear religions and those of the civilized races as pure moral religions. All are mixed forms, though the moral element predominates in the higher levels of social life. Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of the idea of God.

Only exceptionally gifted individuals or especially noble communities rise essentially above this level; in these there is found a third level of religious experience, even if it is seldom found in a pure form. I will call it the cosmic religious sense. This is hard to make clear to those who do not experience it, since it does not involve an anthropomorphic idea of God; the individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. He feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance. indications of this cosmic religious sense can be found even on earlier levels of development—for example, in the Psalms of David and in the Prophets. The cosmic element is much stronger in Buddhism, as, in particular, Schopenhauer’s magnificent essays have shown us.

The religious geniuses of all times have been distinguished by this comic religious sense, which recognizes neither dogmas nor God made in man’s image. Consequently there cannot be a church whose chief doctrines are based on the cosmic religious experience. It comes about, therefore, that precisely among the heretics of all ages we find men who were inspired by this highest religious experience; often they appeared to their contemporaries as atheists, but sometimes also as saints. Viewed from this angle, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are near to one another.

How can this cosmic religious experience be communicated from man to man, if it cannot lead to a definite conception of God or to a theology? It seems to me that the most important function of art and of science is to arouse and keep alive this feeling in those who are receptive.

Thus we reach an interpretation of the religion of science to religion which is very different from the customary view. From the study of history, one is inclined to regard religion and science as irreconcilable antagonists, and this for a reason that is very easily seen. For any one who is pervaded with the sense of causal law in all that happens, who accepts in real earnest the assumption of causality, the idea of a Being who interferes with the sequence of events in the world is absolutely impossible. Neither the religion of fear nor the social-moral religion can have any hold on him A God who rewards and punishes is for him unthinkable, because man acts in accordance with an inner and outer necessity, and would, in the eyes of God, be as little responsible as an inanimate object is for the movements which it makes.

Science, in consequence, has been accused of undermining morals—but wrongly. The ethical behavior of man is better based on sympathy, education, and social relationships, and requires no support from religion. Man’s plight would, indeed, be sad if he had to be kept in order through fear of punishment and hope of rewards after death.

It is, therefore, quite natural that the churches have always fought against science and have persecuted its supporters. But, on the other hand, I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and the noblest driving force behind scientific research. No one who does not appreciate the terrific exertions, and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer creations in scientific thought cannot come into being, can judge the strength of the feeling out of which alone such work, turned away as it is from immediate practical life, can grow. What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed in the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens, in long years of lonely work!

Anyone who only knows scientific research in its practical applications may easily come to a wrong interpretation of the state of mind of the men who, surrounded by skeptical contemporaries, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered over all countries in all centuries. Only those who have dedicated their lives to similar ends can have a living conception of the inspiration which gave these men the power to remain loyal to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is the cosmic religious sense which grants this power.

A contemporary has rightly said that the only deeply religious people of our largely materialistic age are the earnest men of research.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Nonviolence: A CBC Radio series (Including with me)

Mary Wiens, a producer for CBC's “Metro Morning” radio show, produced a series of seven-minute programs about nonviolent struggle, which were recently broadcast over the course of a week. She came to my home and interviewed me, among others. The whole series is now available for  you to hear on-line. I am in the first and third segments, if that matters. I think the whole series is a valuable contribution, reminding listeners that nonviolent struggle requires planning and commitment.

Here's the link to the whole series of five segments;


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CBC Interviews Me About Russia

CBC News producer Jennifer Clibbon, who has lived and worked in Russia periodically since the mid-1980s, published this interview with me on the CBC web site. (See She was especially interested in the state of civil society and the future of democratic reform in Russia today. 

CBC News: Gorbachev has been uncharacteristically critical of the regime of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in recent weeks, calling it arrogant and undemocratic. After years of being quiescent when Putin was president, why do you think he is positioning himself as an opponent now?

Metta Spencer: I think he was so relieved initially to see [former president Boris] Yeltsin replaced that he was willing to give Putin the benefit of all doubts for a long time, especially since Putin never said anything rude about Gorbachev himself. Also, we must bear in mind how popular Putin was — and remains. Yes, he cheats in elections, but even if he did not, he would probably win; about 70 per cent of the population say they basically approve of what he has done.

Gorbachev said once that there are even some benefits to having an authoritarian regime, though he didn't specify what he meant by that. I've heard other Russians say they admire the orderliness that Putin imposed after the utter chaos of Yeltsin's rule.

Of course, the economy has done far better under Putin than under Yeltsin or Gorbachev, so people are appreciative. In reality, most of the easier economic situation that came with Putin occurred because of the increasing price of oil.

Possibly, the proximate reason for Gorbachev's irritation with Putin occurred when he tried to form a new social democratic party. Putin refused to register it. Of course, no opposition parties are allowed much publicity on TV or the press, but it was pretty shocking to have Gorbachev's proposed party refused permission even to form.

In any case, clearly, Gorbachev has made up for lost time in criticizing the Putin-Medvedev tandem government. If his aides used to be mild in criticizing them to me, today, they are vigorous critics, primarily complaining about the loss of freedom of speech and the press under Putin, as compared to Gorbachev's earlier nemesis, Yeltsin.

Among pro-democracy, peace and other grassroots activists in Russia, what are the primary concerns about the direction of democratic reform?

It's not the direction of reform that worries them. It's the total absence of reform. Protesters go out into the street and get beaten up or even jailed, as, indeed, happened to a former deputy prime minister of Russia, Boris Nemtsov, a few months ago. Then they go out into the streets and demonstrate again — and again. They are remarkably courageous.

Unfortunately, although President Medvedev sounds like a Western liberal democrat in his speeches, there is no evidence that his words have any effect in the practical workings of the Russian state. One may hope that a brand new law designed to reform the crooked police system will improve the quality of law enforcement, but the best-known human rights leaders — such as Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, Lev Ponomarev, Oleg Orlov, and Garry Kasparov — all consider the changes merely cosmetic or imitation. We shall learn the results soon enough.

What's the state of NGO and grassroots activism today in Russia? Which groups are the most effective and why?

There are quite a few civil society organizations. However, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin became worried about the prospect of a similar movement against his regime, and he correctly identified NGOs as potential sources of opposition. Hence, he introduced laws prohibiting those groups that do any political work from accepting foreign funds.

On the other hand, there are non-politically active organizations that the regime wants to encourage. For the most part, these are volunteer groups that perform social services of some kind that the government might otherwise have to provide: aid to disabled persons, restoration of park lands, and the like. A couple of years ago, a measure was passed that provides governmental funding to some civil society organizations. That has helped significantly.

As he turns 80, we have a chance to recall Gorbachev's career and achievements. He has been called a "world changer." What, in your view, are his primary accomplishments?

He changed the world's map and probably saved most human beings from a fiery death in a nuclear inferno. He stopped controlling the Eastern European countries and enabled them to create their own democratic regimes.

He began the process of democratizing the Soviet Union by holding the first truly free elections to legislative bodies. Eschewing violent methods of rule, he allowed civil society organizations to emerge and express new ideas, including nationalistic values that in the end destroyed the unity of the state. He reduced militarization — especially the nuclear arms race — and supported multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

He supported the rule of law and the rights of human beings everywhere. He began the work of revising the Soviet constitution with the New Union Treaty, which would have guaranteed no special role for officials of the Communist Party. However much of a mess Russia is today, it is nowhere near as tyrannical as the Soviet Union in which Gorbachev himself had spent most of his life.

In Russia, Gorbachev is not viewed as favourably as in the West. Critics point to the fact that he did crack down on national secessionist movements, defended the supremacy of the Communist Party and continued harassment of dissidents. How would you assess this difference in opinion?

Very few people were killed in police actions against separatist movements. I remember seeing him wade into crowds in the Baltic states, seeking to persuade citizens in face-to-face dialogue that they should remain within the Soviet Union. When he failed to persuade them, he allowed them to go.

As for the other republics, there had been a referendum a short time before the Union broke up, and a substantial majority of the population in all those areas expressed a preference to stay in the Union. It was not Gorbachev but Yeltsin who broke up the Soviet Union — and it was animated by personal animosity, not a considered reasonable response.

I know many former dissidents. After Gorbachev came to power, most of them chose to leave the country and were permitted to do so. Moreover, I know Fyodor Burlatsky quite well. He was put in charge of the De Burght Conference, which negotiated new rules of religious freedom. He asked Gorbachev to free all prisoners who were being incarcerated because of their religious commitments, and Gorbachev did so.

It is not accurate to say that he continued harassment of dissidents. Those dissidents who remained in the country were joined by a multitude of formerly acquiescent citizens who wanted to be regarded as dissidents; they formed an organization called Democratic Russia and followed both Yeltsin and Sakharov in opposing Gorbachev.

As for defending the supremacy of the Communist Party, that was the farthest thing from Gorbachev's intention. As early as 1986, he was holding meetings with advisers to plan a transition to a democratic system of governance in which the [Communist Party] would be only one of several parties and in which it would have no special role to play beyond running candidates for office.

He did not favor abolishing Article 6 of the constitution at the point when the radical democrats asked for it. That would have stripped the party of its special role. However, at that point, the radical democrats were a minority and could not have carried the motion. To attempt such an action at that early date would have provoked the entrenched party members to fight against all reforms. Gorbachev's preferred approach was to wait until the New Union Treaty could be negotiated, which would have had exactly the effect of ousting the old-guard party officials. Unfortunately, those officials understood what was about to happen to them, and only a day or so before the New Union Treaty was to be adopted, they attempted the August coup.

You have been a peace activist since the 1960s. How important is Gorbachev's legacy in nuclear disarmament and the end of the Cold War?

There has never been a political leader in history who has understood so much about the dangers of warfare and the urgency of replacing it with peaceful forms of governance. It was Gorbachev — definitely not [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan — who started the initiatives toward nuclear disarmament. He was willing to get rid of all existing nuclear weapons and plan ways of preventing new ones from being built.
I have no doubt that he has saved humankind from a nuclear Holocaust that would certainly have taken place by now. It will be the work of our generation and probably the next one to fulfill his visionary plans, which can give civilization a chance to survive and flourish. No politician in history deserves more praise and gratitude. Indeed, I can think of no one who even comes close.

Pundits have talked of a new Cold War under Putin and Medvedev and focused on the behind-the-scenes rearmament and crackdown on grassroots activism. Do you think this is overstated?

One should never be complacent. Certainly, there is mistrust between the Russian government — and even the Russian people — and liberal Westerners. I don't consider this so-called new Cold War to be as dangerous as the old one, but Putin and Medvedev intend to re-assert their 'sphere of interest' by showing that no more states that had belonged to the former Soviet Union will be able to join NATO. In a way, I don't blame them.

I don't think there should be spheres of interest that any superpower can dominate, but I also think that the U.S. should not have pushed its alliance up to the borders of Russia. There is plenty of blame to go around for the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West, but I would allocate quite a big portion of it to the United States, both for expanding NATO and for setting up missile defence systems that would weaken Russia's defensive system.

But the U.S. cannot be blamed for the crackdown on grassroots activism. I believe in supporting pro-democracy movements abroad to carry out non-violent actions in pursuit of political rights and civil liberties. I think our government should always support our own values, though we should not meddle by directly trying to influence the outcome of partisan conflicts abroad. For example, we can help support a free media abroad but not fund political parties, in my opinion. All pro-democracy political movements must be led by the people themselves, not by foreigners.

Gorbachev warned about the possibility of civil unrest in Russia similar to the kind we are seeing in the Arab world right now? Are the conditions really ripe for that kind of a popular explosion in Russia?

I almost wish it were true that Russians want freedom enough to struggle non-violently for it, in the style of the Egyptian youth. But so far as I can tell, there is general acceptance of authoritarianism in Russia, even by most young people. I think that travel abroad would help sensitize them to the opportunities that are being denied them. And on a large scale, I would like to see hundreds or thousands of Skype discussion groups set up between Westerners and Russians, each one on a specific topic of interest to certain individuals and designed to take place once a month for a year.

You'd have four music teachers in Omsk, say, talking to four music teachers in Sudbury for an hour every month. After one year, thousands of Russians would have a real sense of what freedom is like. They'd have foreign friends — and so would we. I think they would want more democracy for themselves and would have some better sense of how to pursue it.


Dilemmas of Nuclear Power

As a member of the steering committee of the International Peace Bureau, I went to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago for a meeting. I knew that some members already expected us to call for nuclear reactors to be shut down, world-wide, and I wasn’t ready to vote on that issue. I said that it would take me another month of serious study to reach a decision for myself, so the matter was referred to a committee for further study. Though I’m not on the committee, I will have to vote at the next meeting, if not before. Until now I had delayed taking a position because I know how complex the issue is, and I doubt that I can become sufficiently knowledgeable to trust my own conclusions.

But I’ve been reading and re-reading articles. Even now my judgment has to be tentative, for I may change my mind, but here’s the way the situation looks to me now.

The existing nuclear power plants around the world are not equally risky, but we must recognize that not a one of them can be called really safe. If the risk of such catastrophes as Chernobyl and Fukushima were the only factors to take into account, almost everyone would agree to shut them down. There are other inherent dangers in nuclear power as well, such as the challenge of hiding of radioactive wastes away for tens of thousands of years, and the danger that some of the wastes may be stolen and used for a nuclear weapon by terrorists or some enemy state. The potential for proliferation of weaponry should give everyone serious concerns about proceeding with these plants.

But there are three other types risk that must be considered and balanced against the nuclear ones:
  1. the impending shortage of fuel on which our standard of living (perhaps even the survival of billions of human beings) depend;
  2. the risks of alternative sources of energy, such as the health hazards of burning coal and the environmental dangers of “fracking” the earth to remove natural gas; and
  3. looming climate crisis, which also threatens the survival of billions of us.
If we reject nuclear power completely, can we develop other sources of fuel quickly enough to sustain modern civilization? And if we reject nuclear power, will our use of other sources of energy heat the planet so much that its self-regulatory feedback system will be ruined?

Different analysts reach different conclusions. Optimistic studies say that it is barely possible, but even they do not say it will be easy to get along without nuclear power. I will refer here to several articles from the Internet, plus one in The Economist of March 26th, pp 79-81.

At present only about 14 percent of the world’s energy comes from nuclear sources, though the amount varies significantly from one country to another. In France it is 80 percent; in the US, 20 percent, in Japan, 30 percent. It would not be difficult to make up the difference if we had to shut all power plants down, but there would be several disadvantages. For example, we might depend on coal, which when burned emits soot, sulfur and mercury, already killing far more people per kilowatt hour than nuclear does. It also would warm the planet appreciably, whereas we must reduce global warming to less than 2 degrees C, mainly by reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 44 billion tonnes by 2020.

The most ambitious actions that countries could take would bring the emissions down to about 49 billion donnes, leaving a gap of 5 billion tonnes. Nuclear power can reduce emissions by only about 2 billion tonnes—but that’s a significant amount when we consider the devastating effects on the planet of failing to limit warming.

However, nuclear power is expensive. A Canadian researcher, Trevor Findlay, has reviewed the prospects for a “nuclear renaissance”—the renewed growth of that industry, and has decided that it is unlikely to occur. When planners begin comparing the real costs of various types of energy, they often change their minds and abandon plans for a new power reactor. That was true even before the Fukushima disaster, and now if there are to be new plants they will probably cost even more because additional safety features must be built in.

The most promising alternative to nuclear power would be natural gas, which is mostly methane. According to The Economist, it will do more than renewables to limit the world’s carbon emissions. It emits far less CO2 than coal and 30-40 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline-driven cars. Natural gas has become plentiful recently because of new technologies of extraction. It is possible to drill into a seam of shale and then drill sideways, curling around as necessary to reach the gas. Fortunately, methane also costs less and pollutes less than petroleum engines. But it too has disadvantages—including its toxicity, its explosiveness, and the costliness of the pipelines that it requires. Still, because it is plentiful, it is going to be used more in the future and it is hard to argue against that prospect, especially since it can be used as a “baseload” fuel, unlike the renewables solar or wind power, which are hard to store and are produced only when the sun shines or the wind blows.

But natural gas will not save us. So far as I can ascertain, the world is highly unlikely to reduce carbon emissions enough to restrain climate change to bearable levels. It is actually too late now to make the changes that are required. We will have to choose between burning coal, with its detrimental health and climatic effects, or nuclear, with other detrimental effects on health, the environment, and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. And even the use of coal and nuclear will probably not suffice to limit climate change.

Yet I do not despair yet. There are several grounds for hope. If future carbon emissions remain disastrously high, there are ways of removing it from the ambient atmosphere and sequestering it. A huge campaign of re-forestation would go far toward that goal, and changes in agricultural practices can also help a great deal. For example, no-till farming keeps the carbon in the soil instead of exposing it to the atmosphere. Moreover, the widespread but appropriate production and burial of biochar would enable us to sequester about 12 percent as much carbon dioxide each year as we emit through the use of fossil fuels.

Moreover, there are grounds for hope even if we find it necessary to use nuclear power. Nuclear technology has been moving through several stages of improvement. The existing power plants in the world are Generation Two. There are well-developed designs for certain Generation Three plants, though none have been built yet. And within twenty years or even less, Generation Four plants can be ready.

It is these fourth generation reactors that give cause for hope. As the eminent climate scientist James Hansen has noted,

“They can burn nuclear waste, turning our biggest headache into an asset. The much smaller volume of waste from fourth generation reactors has a lifetime of a few centuries, rather than tens of thousands of years. The fact that fourth generation reactors will be able to use the waste from third generation plants changes the nuclear story fundamentally, making the combination of third and fourth generation plants a much more attractive energy option than third generation itself would have been.”

The most promising of these upcoming forms of nuclear power is the “thorium reactor.” A ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium and 3.5 million tons of coal. It is an abundant metal and a highly efficient fuel source, all forms of which can be used as fuel—unlike natural uranium, which must be highly refined before it can be used in nuclear reactors. The best use of thorium would be in a network of tiny underground nuclear reactors, too small to require the enormous security system that a full-sized nuclear power plant needs.

Thorium solves the non-proliferation problem, for its reactors produce only a small amount of plutonium. Even traces of unburned U-233 in a thorium reactor are more difficult to convert to a usable nuclear weapon than Uranium 235 or Plutonium 239. The waste from burning thorium in a reactor is dramatically less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste. Such waste would only need to be locked up for about five percent as long as most nuclear waste.

Unlike uranium and plutonium, thorium is not fissile. It cannot sustain a nuclear reaction once it has been started but fizzles out unless it receives ongoing boosts to keep it going. For this it could be mixed with other fuels or kept running by an ongoing particle beam. If that particle beam stops, the whole reactor would stop; it could not melt down. There is no chance of a Chernobyl-type accident. It can dispose of weapons–grade plutonium and can also be developed as a fuel for many conventional reactors to prevent production of any further plutonium as a by-product.

It would seem, then, that the fourth generation reactors solve all the problems that alarm us. Their fuel sources are abundant and safe; they can be used to burn up the waste products remaining from current nuclear reactors; they will produce much less waste than today and it can be more easily managed; and they are not suitable ingredients for nuclear weapons. If that is so, and especially since they will enable us to cut carbon dioxide emissions markedly and limit climate change, why should we object to them?

The existing nuclear power plants are dangerous. No more of them should be built, and some of them should be dismantled—which will happen to many of them anyway because of their age.  But I cannot in conscience argue against the development of fourth generation nuclear power plants. We are going to need all possible ways of getting by with the fuel resources available to us, and keeping our planet from cooking. Fourth generation nuclear plants seem potentially useful for that purpose. Unless some new information comes my way that challenges the findings I’ve mentioned above, I will vote at the next IPB meeting to support the production of fourth generation nuclear power.

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