This is the 12th in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"
You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post
And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.
In the panel discussion on politics and science, This Is Your Brain on Politics Sam Harris responded to some of the comments that Chris Mooney made regarding the policy of being concilatory towards evangelicals.
Harris sought to point out some of the costs of being conciliatory towards religion. He drew an analogy towards witchcraft and, in Africa, we have a "pandemic" of children being accused of witchcraft and being killed or otherwise made to suffer. Religion, according to Harris, is as bad or worse than witchcraft and, being conciliatory towards religion, is being conciliatory towards something that causes great harm.
Harris did agree with the "energy war" that others had talked about. However, he said that the enemy on the other side is not just the pump, but Islamic despotisms who have no need to invest in the economic capital of its people because of the economic capital of its oil.
Chris Mooney resonded to Harris' remarks by saying:
It is interesting that you bring up the energy issue at the end because what we have on that is we have evangelicals mobilizing to create concern among their own members about global climate change, and that is actually an important trend in the evangelical community, and they are defining the mission to deal with protecting the environment in the context of biblical stewardship, which is a message that resonates for them. And, this is the question for me, Do you really want to alienate those kind of views when the planet is at stake? No. Not in the context of American politics, no.
So, here’s my question. What is involved in this project of not alienating the evangelical community?
Are we seeking to make a bargain whereby atheists and secularists concede that they are unfit to hold political office and positions of public trust in order to buy evangelical support on climate change?
"Okay, for those evangelicals who have decided to become the good guys on the issue of climate change, we will no longer publicly challenge your claim to moral superiority – that only a person of faith can have morals, that only a person of faith is fit to lead the country, that only a person of faith should be considered a true American."
And does our bargain involve conceding the issue of creationism being taught in public schools as fact. "Okay, in order not to offend you so that you do not turn away from promoting an effective response for climate change, we will grant your wish that science classes teach that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, that evolution is a lie, and that God created everybody as the only scientific theory that actually works."
Does our bargain include refusing to challenge evangelicals on issues such as gay marriage? Are we being asked to throw not only ourselves, but homosexuals, under the evangelical bus? Is this part of what is involved in the decision not to alienate the evangelical community?
Do we buy their political support with faith-based initiatives where the government once again levies a tithe on American income and gives the money directly to the church?
Do we purchase their cooperation by putting the American military under the authority of the church, filling its officer corps with people who think that the purpose of the military is to fight for God and who cannot distinguish between fighting to defend the United States and fighting the perceived enemies of the evangelical religion?
As an ethicist, I have defended the proposition that the enemy is not "religion" per se. The proposition "God (almost certainly) exists" carries absolutely no moral implications about what we should or should not do – in exactly the same way that "God (almost certainly) does not exist" says nothing about what we should or should not do. It is all the stuff one adds to "God exists" or "God does not exists" that carries the moral weight. We can debate moral facts without mentioning God in the same way that we can debate ways of growing food or designing bridges without mentioning God.
However, Mooney is not talking about "religion" as a generic and abstract belief that a God exists. Mooney is specifically saying that we should not alienate evangelicals. That is to say, we should purchase political cooperation from evangelicals on the issue of climate change. However, that requires giving them something in return. Mooney does not mention which harms we should close our eyes to – which portions of the population we should turn our back on – in order to purchase evangelical support for a global warming initiative.
Mooney went on to say that we must close our eyes and turn our back on some of the victims of evangelical falsehoods is because the planet is at stake. Clearly, what good is it to get gay marriage legalized in this country if it comes at the cost destroying the planet. “Yes, the human race will be extinct in 100 years because we could not get evangelicals to work with us on climate change. However, at least for those 100 years gays will be allowed to freely marry. That is our victory.”
It would be a hollow victory indeed.
However, if this is an accurate description of our current situation, then the current situation is one in which evangelicals are willing to hold human survival hostage to its political ambitions – willing to tell the rest of us, "Concede to our demands or we will end the human race."
If this is the demand that they are making on us, perhaps we do have to give in to their demands. Perhaps Mooney is right and we must silence our criticism of the harms done by evangelical errors and prejudice in order to save the planet.
However, this does not say anything positive about the ethics of the evangelical community. We may be forced to say that they are good people in order to get their political cooperation in saving the planet. However, this is like being forced to say (and to teach the next generation) that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.
The fact that we are forced to say it does not make it true.
In fact, in this case, if we are forced to say it, then it is because we are dealing with people of which it is not true.
Finally, I must point out before I go . . . the evangelical community is just now starting to motivate its people to do something about climate change. The scientific community had motivated its people 30 years ago. Should we really praise a group that held up action on this vital issue for 30 years because it conflicted with their political and social ambitions?