I have spent the last couple of weeks focusing rather exclusively on the relationship between religion and ethics. I think that it is time for something of a reality check.
Near the start of my series on Beyond Belief 2006, I discussed a presentation from Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine) in my posting, “Michael Shermer: The Art of Political Compromise”. In that posting, I mentioned that if a person could only work with those that they agree with on every matter, than nobody would ever work with anybody else. Politics is the art of forming alliances among the best 51% against the worst 49%.
This suggests that if one has an interest in practical problem solving, it may be worthwhile to look at the most important problems that need addressing – things that 51% of the people can be brought together to help solve. These are the problems that the other 49% either care nothing about, or who are actively seeking to make those problems worse because it profits them (in terms of power, wealth, or personal satisfaction) to see those problems grow.
In this list of people who cause more harm than they prevent, I add those who are enthusiastic about death and destruction from disasters that are either natural or man-made, because they have been taught to view this as a sign from heaven that the end days are near. These people are to be counted as those who find personal satisfaction in events that inflict harm on others.
One thing to be said about the best 51% is that they are not all atheists, or even agnostics. Atheists do not even make up 51% of the population. So, if one is going to talk about an alliance of the best 51%, then that alliance is going to include a lot of theists.
Furthermore, not all atheists are going to make it into the alliance of the best 51%. There is nothing in atheism that entails virtue, and not all vice is motivated by religion. There have been some extremely destructive and violent belief systems that included elements that said that no God exists.
So, solving real problems requires making alliances and working with people who are not atheists – working with the best of those who believe in God. This does not mean agreeing with them. This does not even mean ‘tolerating’ them in the sense that one refuses to say, “I think you are mistaken.” It simply means getting together and saying, I think we have more important problems to worry about.”
What are those more serious problems to worry about?
I am going to have to put, at the top of the list, any problem that threatens to end the human race, and any person who obstructs policies that will reduce the odds of that destruction. In this case, it really does not matter what the threat is – whether it comes from outer space or from earth – the defense against these harms are the same. It requires spreading out – disbursing human civilization around this solar system and, eventually, to other solar systems.
The “bottom 49%” in this case are those who insist that we solve the problems of earth before we invest any money on space development. For one thing, there will always be problems on Earth as long as humans live on this planet. Consequently, this philosophy is comparable to saying, “humans should never move off of Earth.” This is absurd. Earth will, some day, become a lifeless planet. We cannot tell if it will happen within the next 100 years or the next 1 billion. However, it will happen. At that time, this race with its problems will cease to exist. I guess, this, at least, will solve all of our problems – which apparently is what these people are after.
A corollary to this concern is the need to collect data and to figure out how the earth works, and what our biggest threats really are. Defending ourselves from a threat is best accomplished by understanding the threat – how it works – and how to protect ourselves from it. This means an investment in data collection and interpretation, by the best minds in the field of science. This also means a willingness to listen to what they have to say. It would do no good for the scientists to identify a threat, only to have the politicians ignore them because their campaign contributors find it more profitable (in the short run) to ignore the threat than to take it seriously.
After the survival of the human race (or some descendent of the human race), the next issue is to make sure that we live well. This means identifying those risks that can do damage on a global scale, even if they do not wipe out humanity. This includes a range of options from a major asteroid or comet strike (not one so large that it kills all the humans), to a global pandemic, to a global natural disaster such as a super volcano. The worst scenarios of global warming, that have sea levels eventually rising in excess of 200 feet. Yes, this will take time. However, driving a growing population of humans onto less and less land will be extremely harmful at any speed.
The bottom 49% - the worst of the worst in this case – are those who are willing to risk this destruction because it is personally profitable for them to do so. The people of Exxon-Mobile and other companies who are content to see whole countries destroyed so long as it is profitable for them to do so clearly fall into the category of the worst of the worst. The level of destruction they are willing to allow, and the reasons that they are willing to allow it, make Hitler and Stalin look like boy scouts.
Both of these first two topics identify another group to add to the “bottom 49%”. These are people who think that we can avoid these problems by making human sacrifices to their God, rather than by a study of science and the development of theories that explain and predict how the real world works. There are still those who think that we can ward off hurricanes and terrorist strikes if only we make the proper human sacrifices on their religious altar. Their so-called morals legislation ultimately has the effect of adding misery and suffering to the real world, while diverting attention from real problems, and getting in the way of real-world solutions.
Make no mistake about it. These are the actions of people causing real world suffering and death for no good real-world reason.
The alliance of the best 51% against the worst 49% must be an alliance of those capable of respecting and understanding how the real world works, recognizing real-world risks, and coming up with real-world solutions.
In addition to the concerns of space development and earth science, I must add the field of medical science as one that demands our attention. In this area, the best 51% are those who advocate promoting our understanding of biology and medicine. The bottom 49% are those who get in the way of advances in this area. This bottom 49% are the defenders of disease, suffering, and death, who have likely ruined far more lives than all of the worst dictators that have ever existed.
The fourth category that I want to present for distinguishing the best 51% from the worst 49% is defined by those who lie, engineer false beliefs, market confusion, and engage in intellectually reckless, and intellectually lazy behavior. Again, we need a real-world understanding of what is around us if we are going to avoid the worst pitfalls in store for us. Those who market in deception – who make their money lying to others or engineering false beliefs and confusion – are only working to blind people from the pitfalls that await them.
The moral character of such a person is no different than that of somebody who will blindfold children and set them out into a field full of traps, waiting for an explosion or a blade to deprive that child of limb or life. They blind the child with ignorance and confusion. In the fog that these deceivers create, they hope to manipulate the victim into action (or inaction) that profits themselves or their client. For such a person, it does not matter much what happens to the victim. All that matters is that the client profit – at whatever cost (to others).
In all four of these concerns – human survival, earth-monitoring, health research, and crimes against truth – there are degrees of guilt or innocence. Some are better than others. Many do well in each of these categories to some degree, but fail only in limited areas. In all of these, there is a best 51% that can be united against the worst 49%.
The trick is to know where to find that line, and how to draw those on the near side of it into an alliance. It means looking around and determining if one is in too small of an alliance, and finding others who may join – finding out what qualities are to be found in an alliance of the best 51%.
In this quest, belief in God (or not) simply is not the most important issue on the planet. It does not even rank near the top. There are more important things to worry about. It would be tragic to be sitting here debating exclusively belief in God, while some threatening harm cuts a wide swath of damage through human civilization – perhaps even ending it entirely.