Magazine article Science & Spirit

A Little Philosophy for the United Nations: Finding Religion's Role in a Global Project

Magazine article Science & Spirit

A Little Philosophy for the United Nations: Finding Religion's Role in a Global Project

Article excerpt

The United Nations in New York City is a beehive of departments and a phonebook worth of officious titles. But it lacks one office in particular: U.N. philosopher of community.


That seemed to change for a moment in March when the Canadian thinker Charles Taylor arrived at the Church Center for the United Nations to receive the annual Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. In the days since, Taylor's message has been that religion needs to be a key element in the U.N.'s effort to end extreme hunger and poverty by 2015.

In 2000, the United Nations convinced every country and major development organization to back eight goals--the Millennium Development Goals--designed to meet the needs of the world's poor. Taylor, who has been called a philosopher of community, argues that the United Nations must acknowledge and enlist the forces of world religions for these humanitarian and political aims to succeed.

Taylor, 75, received the annual Templeton Prize for his lifelong contribution to spiritual progress through his writings on philosophy and politics. The former Oxford and McGill University professor now teaches law and philosophy at Northwestern University near Chicago.

As impressive as the Millennium Development Goals may be, Taylor said in an interview with Science & Spirit, they exclude such concepts as people finding "meaning" in their lives. For a purely secular project, that "makes sense," he said. But because the U.N. goals must have an impact in religious cultures, they will likely come up short or hit unexpected obstacles.

These goals are reducing disease and child mortality; eliminating extreme poverty and hunger; and promoting primary education, gender equality, maternal health, environmental sustainability, and global partnerships. Taylor and others argued that these goals are challenging enough without adding an obstacle by overlooking the religious lives of the people involved in both providing and receiving aid.

In the Western world, spiritual impoverishment may handicap the U.N. plan for "first world" countries to contribute resources to the developing world. Taylor and other philosophers said they wonder if the wealthy West has the values necessary to carry out that mission.

Although "we in the West do give billions in aid, Western self-centeredness prevents more aid from being transferred from us to them--and it is 'us' and 'them' for the most part," said Trent Dougherty, a religion and science philosophy fellow at the University of Rochester. In other words, it is easy to conclude that the prosperous part of the world is not really motivated to cure problems elsewhere.

Taylor said he believes the West's self-absorption hampers its sympathy for the desperate parts of the world. A society of preoccupied individuals becomes passive toward poverty. "This malaise, which arises partly out of modern individualism, is very much a Western--or Northwestern--phenomenon," Taylor said.

James Tully, a fellow countryman of Taylor's and a political scientist at the University of Victoria, is another critic of the way that Western "prosperity malaise" breeds indifference to other nations.

The rush to individualism rather than community, Tully said, results in the "inability and unwillingness of Westerners to see that they are historically responsible for the horrendous inequalities between the global North and South."

Dougherty cited Millennium Development Goal No. 8 as an example of something the West is not prepared for: a global partnership for third-world development. The West cannot be an effective partner unless it sees itself as part of a world community, he said.

Finding a balance between individuals and community is a constant challenge for any political system, Taylor said. The political result in most countries is to separate people into homogenous groups, rather than to create a functioning social diversity. …

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