Science Religion and Development
Efforts to promote the discourse on science, religion and development in Uganda began in 2001 in response to the growing recognition in different quarters of Ugandan society, including the highest levels of government, of a need to re-examine the role of science and religion in building a prosperous society.
Convulsed by political and civil turmoil for decades following its independence in 1962, the hopes and aspirations of the government and people of Uganda have been focused on reaping the promised fruits of development, particularly in the years of relative peace since the late 1980s. In areas such as economics, public health, agriculture, technology, education, governance, and the advancement of women, Ugandans have poured their energies into development projects that they hope will lead to the betterment of their society. From programs of structural adjustment, technical assistance, and market liberalization directed from the top to a wide array of grassroots initiatives, the results of development in Uganda have been despite high hopes and good intentions limited and uneven. This has caused many to question whether the current path can possibly lead to enduring change and prosperity for the generality of the country's people.For Ugandans, many of whom hold strong convictions about the spiritual values that should govern society and relations between Uganda people, the inadequacies of the social theories underpinning development practice, the fragmentation of thought perpetuated by the modern education system, and the mounting disparities and social ills they continue to witness have been the cause of deep-seated frustration and unease.
On the whole, the participants felt that the challenge was to conceive of science as one of the two knowledge systems (the other being religion) that builds the capacity of individuals and communities to transform themselves and their society. They clarified that this does not require all people to become experts in a particular scientific discipline. Rather it means that every individual must have a certain level of understanding of the different branches of science and a conversance with the scientific method of investigation in order to engage in the systematic and structured reflection and action required to contribute to the advancement of civilization.
In their discussions on religion, participants enthusiastically sought to explore its potential for the transformation of the individual and society in Uganda. The people of Uganda, they mentioned, were deeply religious and a testimony to this was the country's motto, For God and my country. Given these conditions, many felt that religion must have already played a constructive role in shaping positive attitudes and approaches related to different arenas of life. In their efforts to understand these influences and ways in which they can be enhanced, participants focused on a small number of areas including economic activity.Mainstream economic theory characterizes the human being as a self interested economic agent or a politicized social actor seeking power and advantage. Participants noted, however, that from the perspective of religion, the human being has a spiritual nature which is the source of such motivations as showing forth love, seeking truth, and desiring to serve others. Therefore, if one were to approach economics from a spiritual perspective, one would uphold the values of cooperation, reciprocity and concern for others rather than competition and the pursuit of self interest. Such behavior in turn, it was observed, would lead to a change in the way economic activity is conceived. Rather than being understood in terms of a relentless quest for unlimited profits, economics would come to be seen as an expression of mutuality and interdependence and as a set of practices that increases reciprocity amongst people. Elaborating further on this vision, they explained that from this perspective social and economic interactions would also be understood in terms of their contribution to the creation and development of social relationships. In this way, they felt, economic activity will be most dynamic and effective in creating prosperity when those involved ensure that their actions yield positive results for all of the participants in economic exchange.he participants in the discourse also explored the likelihood that certain religious beliefs that are irrational and superstitious served a useful purpose in the society of the past. Some shared the example of certain African religious beliefs that forbade people from entering certain heavily-wooded areas of the forest for fear of angering the spirits. To the participants, the probable wisdom behind such a belief was readily apparent today. At a time when people were heavily dependent on the natural resources of the forests for their survival, such beliefs helped prevent logging and preserved the natural habitat of those areas. While maintaining that religion has been a source of tremendous social good, many felt that they still had questions to answer with regard to its application in the field of development: Are all religious beliefs that result in some form of good for the society equally valid? What is the touchstone for knowing the validity of a religious belief? How can one tell whether a belief about a spiritual aspect of reality is true or mere superstition? The answer to these questions, some felt, would be found in the field of action and in consultation with the community whereby the significance and application of spiritual principles and values could be identified and validated.
Uganda has been going through a process of transformation and searching, said a participant from Makerere University. At all levels of society we are looking for new ways of doing things. And not only for the sake of new ways, but to meet the real needs in the communities. His words echo the prevalent mood within Uganda’s development community that sees the need for a revision of both the goals of development and the approaches used in attempting to achieve them. The exclusive focus on economic prosperity has, in the opinion of many, exacerbated social problems. Despite the fact that Uganda has been lauded in the recent past for the growth of its economy, participants felt that the disparities between the rich and poor have actually grown since the 1950s and 1960s. In the opinion of many, as long as development theory and practice continues to focus on the material aspect of human reality, greed and self interest will always be considered the factors that motivate human behavior. This assumption, in turn, becomes self fulfilling and leads to the creation of a society where individuals invest all their efforts in accumulating ever greater wealth without a sense of social obligation. The only way to create a just society, participants felt, is to acknowledge the existence of the spiritual dimension of human reality and to channel spiritual impulses, which have for centuries guided human behavior in the path of nobility, principled conduct and altruism, and toward the goal of individual and social advancement. These are the impulses that lead people to sacrifice for the well-being of others, to serve society, to feel compassion, to love and to strive for justice. The goal of development, then, would have to be both material and spiritual prosperity achieved through drawing on the knowledge systems of science and religion.
Participants felt that combining the knowledge systems of religion and science opens new possibilities in the search for means to em- power the poor to take charge of their own development. Particular attention was given to the poor and women in development discourse. With regard to the poor, participants observed that the powerful ideologies that guide much of economic thought and practice in the world today favor the rich. While a consumerist society encourages the rich to immerse themselves deeper in a sea of self indulgence, it absolves them of any feeling of guilt about the plight of the masses of humanity who lack the means for a dignified existence by making it seem that each person is responsible for his or her own position in the world. According to such a perspective, the participants explained, if the poor are poor it is because they are lazy, immoral, irresponsible or inefficient. Through such Social Darwinism, wealth becomes equated with virtue and poverty with vice. The poor are thus doubly oppressed. Not only do they lack the material means for a dignified existence but they are also morally and socially stigmatized. In their opinion, the way to change such perceptions is through acknowledging the spiritual dimension of human reality. Such a perspective enabled people to recognize that the social, cultural and spiritual wealth that the poor possess are the precious resources of society. They pointed out that among those who lack material resources, one often finds strong bonds of mutuality and reciprocity. When material resources cannot be relied on as a source of security, people nurture and draw upon their social and spiritual resources. The participants felt that when viewed from this perspective, the poor will be greatly valued in development discourse for the social, moral and spiritual contributions they can make towards the advancement of society.