Defining Pi

September 11, 2001: The Start of World War III?

It’s a funny thing about religion. It seems either to bring out the very best in people or else the very worst. One the one hand, charities, schools, universities, hospitals, almshouses, the abolition of slavery, temples, architecture, music and cultural contributions beyond counting. On the other hand, religious wards, persecutions, inquisitions, crusades, torture, human sacrifice, and conflicts in Northern Ireland, Palestine, the Sudan, Tibet, Indonesia, and now Afghanistan and the World Trade Centre.

Both science and religion seem to agree that there are unchanging governing principles which explain what goes on in the universe, and that, based on these, we can plan our actions, whether in engineering a building or creating a ‘just society’. The devil, though, is in the details. Science tends to work from the viewpoint of scepticism; religion, from that of belief.

We can turn our thoughts to mathematics to illustrate what is going on. We’re all familiar with the idea of Pi – a symbol representing the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle. Finding out more about Pi has kept men busy over the centuries.

In defining Pi, we’re dealing with an irrational number, and the decimals can go on for ever without ever coming to a final figure.

Yet, when all that is said and done, we can use one of several approximations quite effectively when it comes to practical living. We just have to realize that we are using an approximation, and that we don’t have quite the whole picture. Isn’t there a parallel here with the religious scene? Isn’t it reasonable to say that the whole design of the universe, and the reason for it unrolling the way it does, is something like Pi—a concept that human minds can conceive, but can never fully define?

Faced with this, we have scientists on one hand who call themselves atheists, because they don’t believe in a God that I couldn’t believe in either. What they forget is that the approximations we do have lie in the direction of truth and can function quite well in day to day living even if they are not exact.

But then we have the fundamentalists and religious fanatics, who insist that the approximations they have regarding the nature of God are the one, full complete and sober truth, and that those who disagree, or those who have other answers, are dangerous imposters and rivals, who should be condemned to outer darkness.

Most religions of the world actually agree on quite a number of points, such as on a single invisible creative force behind our material universe. On the right of the Creator to expect obedience from the created order. On the need for human beings to “do as they would be done by.” On the need to go beyond material gain and satisfaction in order to achieve personal fulfillment. Christianity adds a bit more about suffering, loving and forgiving enemies that is not found in some other faiths—and not always expressed by those calling themselves ‘Christian’ either.

In such a context, many religious wars and much evangelism and denominational rivalry appear to be the same as if the believers in Pi as the square root of 10 were squaring off against the believers in Pi as 3.142—“each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.”

So where does all of this take us in connection with the events at the World Trade Centre?

Just to the thought that Allah the Compassionate and Merciful is likely not in favour of the treacherous murder of large numbers of innocent people, even if the majority of them are Infidels, and the cause is a Holy War.

And also to the thought that the response to such an attack had better avoid the same use of force against the innocent, and even against those we disagree with, if we are to stand by the principles the ‘Christian’ nations of the West purport to stand for.

– Anglican Messenger, April 2002