Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Religion, Science, and Bigotry

Any candidate who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old is almost certainly unfit to hold public office.

As Austin Cline at About Atheism reported in, “Montana Governor a Bigot for Dismissing 4000 Year Old Earth” , There is a Republican candidate in Montana who thinks that this is a bigoted statement. It represents prejudice against those who hold a different view - a view that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old - substantially for religious reasons.

"The Earth is less than 10,000 years old" is not a religious statement. It is a scientific statement. It falls in the same category as "smoking causes lung cancer," or "unprotected sex with multiple partners increases one's chance of catching and spreading many types of diseases," and "If we remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, the people will greet us as liberators and peacefully establish a democratic government within months after our arrival, and the war will pay for itself."

In other words, one of the key traits that a politician must have is an ability to come to conclusions relevant to making policy decisions based on the best available evidence. It means that he has to be able to look at the evidence, determine the difference between good evidence and bad, and do a better than average job of determining what conclusions follow from that evidence.

The candidate who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old demonstrates that he is incapable, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence, to base his conclusions on that evidence.

This suggests that he is almost certainly unfit for public office.

The reason that I say, almost certainly because it is not strictly impossible for somebody to compartmentalize such a belief that, in every other issue that may come before the legislature, he actually can base his conclusions on the evidence. However, it is unlikely. The evidence as to the age of the Earth touches on geology, chemistry, physics, biology, and climatology. All of these have relevance to a number of real-world problems. An inability to understand or accept how this evidence proves that the earth is over 4 billion years old strongly suggests an inability to understand or accept important scientific facts relevant to other issues.

For example, the history of the Bush Administration has been a history of politicians who are incapable of drawing reasonable real-world conclusions from the available evidence. They believe what they want to believe. If the evidence suggests that they are wrong, then they rewrite the evidence to say that they are right.

Unfortunately, the laws of nature do not yield to human arrogance. A politicians faith that he can act in ignore the laws of nature (discoverable by science) is only going to get the country into trouble. They can assert that their faith will allow them to work miracles and that the voters do not need to concern themselves with scientific facts. Yet, history will inevitably show that they were, in fact, bound by the laws of nature and all of their attempts to thwart those laws had failed. Most importantly, those errors will almost certainly cause real-world people to endure real-world suffering and death. These are the consequences of electing politicians who cannot deal with the real world.

I have argued before that I am not at all concerned with whether my neighbor believes in God. My only concern is with whether my neighbor is a danger to others. If he worships a God that tells him to go out of his home and do harm to others - whether it is by crashing an airplane into a skyscraper or by crashing a law into peoples' lives that causes suffering and death (such as laws against women driving, laws barring women from getting an education, laws executing people who change religion, or laws against stem cell research), it is the fact that this person is harming others that is the problem. Their belief in God is a side issue.

When it comes to studying a virus such as HIV or Parkinson's Disease and determining a cure or a preventative treatment, again, it does not matter if the scientist believes in God, as long as he can follow the research to reasoned and justified conclusions that allow us to develop a cure. If his religion gets in the way of his research - if he is incapable of seeing a treatment because his religion has blinded him to it, or he puts more faith in the power of a treatment than the laws of nature allows - then he is doing real-world harm to real-world people.

Those who are guided by faith to harm others are like those of a primitive tribe that throws virgins into a volcano because they think it will save the village. These actions will scarcely affect the volcano. The volcano will either destroy the village, or it will not. The only consequence of the priest's actions is that it changes the two outcomes from 'destroyed village' or 'not destroyed village' to 'destroyed village and a number of dead virgins' or 'not destroyed village and a number of dead virgins.'

The best course for the village to take is to find those who can design experiments that will help them to explain and predict how volcanoes behave. The better they become at predicting and explaining how volcanoes behave, the better the villagers will be at saving themselves and their property. One thing the village does not need is a tribal shaman telling the villagers to ignore what the scientist says about the volcano.

The scientific contest, as it were, is a contest to come up with the simplest way to predict and explain how volcanoes behave. They score their contest by creating theories that they can use to predict the results of certain events. Those who become the best predictors of other experiments are the leaders. Scientists have to prove that they can do a better job of saving the village.

If, for religious reasons, there are still villagers who believe that tossing virgins into the volcano is good public policy, we may decide, in the name of religious liberty, to let the virgins amongst them voluntarily jump into the volcano if it is important enough to them. We should protect this option, perhaps, by a Constitutional Amendment barring the government from prohibiting the 'free exercise of religion.'

At the same time, the State certainly has good reason to prevent these volcano worshippers from throwing others into the volcano against their will. Society has good reason to prevent these villagers from turning their religion into law, giving the government the power to decide which versions to sacrifice and punishing those who do not go along with these ceremonies. We can express the value of this prohibition as well through a Constitutional Amendment that bans the government from establishing a religion.

When it comes to public policy, the policy we need to use is one of basing conclusions on the best available evidence - including those who have proved themselves at being the best at explaining and predicting what happens in the real world through their understanding of the laws of nature.

Faith-based policies from politicians who think that the laws of nature are optional have cost nearly 3,000 American lives and maimed nearly 20,000 others. They have also cost between 50,000 to 650,000 Iraqi lives (though many Americans consider this irrelevant due to the fact that Iraqi lives have no value). Faith-based policies have cost us over $400 billion that could have been spent on fighting malaria and AIDS in Africa, in educating children in scientific laws so that they could do a better job of choosing their government policies, or promoting alternative energy. Faith-based policies have ignored global-warming science in a way that threatens to cost the real-world loss of significant portions of all of our coastal cities.

[Imagine the effect that it would have had on the Islamic Jihadists and global warming if, instead of spending 3,000 lives and $400 billion fighting a war in Afghanistan, we had spent that money (and not spent any lives) converting America to alternative energy sources other than Mid-East oil. These are the imaginings of those who base their policy choices on reason and who have no faith that the laws of nature can be violated.]

It is not religious bigotry to insist that politicians base their conclusions on the best evidence available. Politicians need to understand the real-world consequences of real-world actions. This means that politicians must understand, explain, and predict how the laws of nature will carry those actions forward to affect future events. This means that politicians must understand what the scientists have discovered.

The politician who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old has failed that test, and will almost certainly fail to understand, explain, or accurately predict the consequences of his legislative decisions, to the detriment of us all.


Anonymous said...

He's entitled to his belief. So let the voters decide. He does have ground on which his belief is supported but you should know there are at least three theroies of origins among Christians...Here are some websites you might check out so you will be aware of two of them. (presents evidence for a young earth) (belief in an old earth creation) R. Hoeppner

Anonymous said...

The one I like is

King Aardvark said...

Don't ya just love it when creationists and other evangelical Christians just assume that atheists don't know anything about Christian beliefs, and feel the need to point us to preschool-level primers about the stuff? After all, we're only atheists because we haven't heard about Jesus yet, and once we do, we'll throw away all our science books and pray for 14 hours a day.