Assume that there was an atheist candidate running for public office.
One of the things that candidate will have to do is give a speech on religion. Kennedy - the first Catholic President - had to do it. Romney had to give one as well -and he substantially blew his. People will have questions, and the candidate should be ready to answer them.
Well - in imagining such a speech, I imagine it going something like this.
I believe that there is no god. Some of you disagree with me on that point. The reason I am here is to talk about that disagreement in the context of my candidacy.
The first thing I want you to do is to turn to the person to your right or your left. It does not matter who that person is. It could be your spouse, your child, or your parent. It could be your best friend since the fourth grade, or the army buddy who saved your life and whose life you saved a dozen times. It could be your identical twin. It does not matter. I guarantee that there us some matter on which you and that person disagree.
If there is anybody who cannot get along with others with whom they disagree, that person is going to have a sad and lonely life. And, probably, a short life. Look at how many ways we depend on each other just to survive.
We all disagree with each other on something.
Here is another thing I can tell you with near certainty. If we make a list of the things on which we disagree, I guarantee you that there will be at least one item on that list where you are right and I am wrong. I guarantee it.
I do not know what those mystery facts are. If I knew, I would change my mind, and they would no longer be points of disagreement.
That is why it is important for me to listen.
This is why freedom of speech is so important. It is utter arrogance for anybody to say that they are so absolutely infallible that they have permission to use a gun, or a bomb, or the law, to silence those who disagree with them - or to force others to act as if they agree. I need to hear what others have to say. That is the only way that I can learn.
Freedom of speech requires a freedom to criticize. Some people seem to have gotten the idea that freedom of speech means a freedom FROM criticism. They address criticism by saying, "You have no right to question my beliefs. When you question my beliefs, you show me disrespect. Showing me disrespect is wrong. Therefore, you must not criticize."
I do not agree.
In fact, I think that the position I just described is absurd. How can anybody possibly come to the conclusion that the right to freedom of speech means that all critics must sit down and shut up. Criticism IS speech. The right to freedom of speech IS the right to criticize the beliefs of others. Taking away the right to criticize is not protecting freedom of speech - it is destroying freedom of speech.
So, between me and every one of you, we are bound to find a list of things over which we disagree. In some of those cases, inevitably, there is at least one in which you are right and I am wrong. The only way for me to know what those cases are is to listen to what you say. A person should never silence their critics. A person should never be so arrogant so as to say, "If you criticize my beliefs, then you disrespect me as a person; therefore, you must not criticize my beliefs."
The next question to ask, when there is a difference of opinion, is whether that difference is important . . . or, more to the point, whether that difference should be considered important.
I have a little story to tell that will explain my answer.
Let us assume that we were all in an airplane together. We are flying across the Pacific. We are off course. We crash on some island and there is no hope for an immediate rescue.
What are our priorities?
Priority number one: Come to universal agreement on whether a god exists and, if so, on the properties of that god.
Take care of the sick and injured, find water, find food, obtain shelter, and provide for our security. We need to protect ourselves and each other from nature itself - hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and freezing temperatures. We may need to protect ourselves and each other from hostile tribes. We definitely need to protect ourselves and each other from the predators and parasites among us.
It is best that we divide into teams and that jobs are assigned to those with the best skills and appropriate education. Those with medical experience start tending to the sick and injured, those who know plants can take a team to harvest plants, we can send out a hunting party, and send a team to capturing rainwater or collect water from a stream and boil it, or to dig a well.
A fire . . . Yes. That is important. We will need a source of energy - a source that will last, one that will not destroy our food and water supply or destroy our health.
Speaking more generally, one of the things we will need to do is to make sure that we will not run out of things we need. We will need to care for our environment to make sure we can continue to live off of it in the future.
We can debate God when our chores are done.
Well, there is seven billion of us crash-landed on this island in space called Earth. We need to take care of the sick and injured, obtain clean water, food, shelter - some more than others. We have not met any potentially hostile tribes - and, with luck, we never will. But it remains a possibility. However, we do need protection from nature, and we need protection from the predators and parasites among us.
As your candidate, these are my priorities. This is what I believe we should focus on.
You have a right to know how my beliefs will impact my decisions on how we obtain these goals.
Well, I will ask the scientists to look around us. I will ask them to tell us where we can find clean water or how we can make it. I will ask them to tell us which plants we can safely eat, and which will help us to care for the sick and injured. One of the things that scientists are great at is making predictions. I will ask them to establish systems to warn us when nature is about to strike, and when our actions have potential long-term costs. I will ask them where we can find sources of energy and how to use it efficiently. I will also ask them to tell me how we can identify predators and parasites among us, from DNA testing to polygraphs to psychological profiling.
And I will listen to what they have to say.
You have a right to know how my beliefs will affect my policies.
I believe that we live in a universe that does not care about our survival. It could wipe us out in an instant without a twinge of regret. We can destroy ourselves - there is no supernatural force protecting us from us. Some people claim that we can be reckless - as a species - because God will save us from the worst that could happen. No, that's not true. We must be careful. We must learn about the universe so that we can see these threats before they strike and so that we can prevent the harms - and harvest the benefits - they contain.
We can make mistakes. There is nothing out there that will save us from our own folly. We need to know and understand the real world. We need to discover the forces that threaten us while there is still time to prepare a response. We can make horrible mistakes - mistakes of commission, and mistakes of omission. We need to make sure that we avoid those mistakes.
You have a right to know how my beliefs will affect my policies.
I believe that markets work. Markets carry information - allowing people to react to more data faster than any political system could dream to match. Let us assume that a new technology is announced tomorrow at 9:00 AM eastern time that will double the efficiency of solar cells and halve their cost.
It will take the political system a considerable amount of time to respond to this new information - if ever. And the response will not necessarily be positive. There will be entrenched special interests with more of a desire to suppress this new technology than to support it.
However, if this technology were announced at 9:00, the market itself will start to respond by 9:00:01. What does it take to build these solar cells? The market will immediately start to bid those resources away from the least useful alternatives for those resources - which means identifying the least useful alternatives. It will immediately provide an incentive for people to go out and find more of those resources. It will immediately stop investment in more expensive alternatives - directing money and resources into producing the products that this new technology makes available.
Markets work, where they are allowed to operate.
But markets are not perfect. There are some problems with markets.
Sometimes, it is just too expensive to create a market and we have to live with the fact that some goods are public goods. The oceans, the air we breathe, and the climate are public goods - like it or not. We cannot divide the climate into chunks of private property and bid for them on the open market.
Also, markets allow those with a great deal of money to bid resources away from those with little money - even though the people with little money have a more highly valued use for those resources. A rich person can bid a bottle of water to use to shampoo her dog away from a poor person would have used it to care for her sick child. The rich person's willingness to spend $2000 for that bottle of water does not prove that the shampooed dog has more overall value than the relief of a sick child's thirst where the mother only has $2 to spend.
I believe that markets are vitally important in directing the use of resources. I believe they are not perfect. You have the right to know that.
Do I care that you pray or go to church?
There are more vital things to worry about.
On the question of whether or not some god exists, I disagree with what some of you believe. And you disagree with what I believe.
However, I hope that we can agree on the need to work together to provide clean water, good food, medical care, energy, security from the forces of nature, and security from human predators and parasites among us. I hope we can agree that solving these problems requires a right to freedom of speech that includes the right to freedom to criticize. It requires using the ability of free markets to transmit information and to respond to changes faster than any bureaucracy can hope to match, and the wisdom to know that, for some vital resources, we cannot efficiently set up markets and markets create a few problems we need to watch out for.