Monday, July 02, 2007


Last week, I wrote a series on the wrongness of teaching religion to children where I assumed without argument that religions teach false beliefs and bad desires. I am aware that many theists would not accept this assumption – assuming, instead, that their religions teach true beliefs and good desires.

Yet, even they must concede one point – that insofar as other religions teach things that are different from theirs, that other religions (meaning, the vast majority of religious teaching going on in the world) teaches false beliefs and bad desires.

I did not feel any compelling need to argue that ‘one or more gods exist’ is almost certainly false, just as I would not have felt compelled to argue that 2 _ 2 = 4 or ‘water’ = H2O, if it should become relevant. Others have already proved this case, and I do not need to repeat the arguments here. (I would not have space to do so even if I wanted to.)

Some people might not be convinced of these arguments, but that is no objection to their merit.

Another relevant fact is there are more important things to be doing with one’s life than arguing about the existence of a God. I imagine a case in which the Titanic is sinking and the officers in charge of the boat having a debate over what implications this has for the idea that there is a divine protector. People are dying every day – from war, from malaria, from AIDS, from malnutrition. Future generations are at risk from staggering debt, global warming, insufficient energy, political tyrants with no respect for individual rights, drugs, natural and man-made disasters of all types imaginable.

My argument is: Let’s get everybody into the lifeboats. Then, when we are safe, we can afford the luxury of idle philosophical debates.

If there are people on the boat who believe that a benevolent God will protect them and they don’t need any lifeboats, then I would answer, “Leave them. That leaves more room for the rest of us.”

The problem comes from another faction that believes that God has commanded them from allowing anybody on the lifeboats – that argues that even deploying the lifeboats shows a lack of faith in God’s good will that God will become angry. As a result, they seek to prohibit others from using the lifeboats. Now we have a problem. Now we have a group of people who believe in God putting the lives of others at risk.

“I am not going to require that you occupy the lifeboats if you think your God will be happier with you if you do not leave. But do not dare to stand in the way of our getting on those lifeboats.”

Of course, the religious zealots tell us that if we occupy the lifeboats that we are interfering with their religious practices. They have a right to exercise their religious beliefs and, as it turns out, their religious beliefs compel then to prohibit the rest of us from occupying the life boats. Their religious beliefs tell them to require that we show unquestioned faith that God will prevent the boat from sinking, if only we believed strongly enough.

If the boat continues to sink, it is because some amongst us are not believing strongly enough. They would need to be ferreted out and eliminated. It is because of those non-believers that God has not yet stopped the boat from sinking.

And if anybody should protest, then, “You are not showing proper respect for my religion.”

It is as if the woman, accused of witchcraft, takes advantage of an opportunity to escape so that she would not be burned at the stake. The next thing you know, she is being condemned ‘for not showing proper respect for the religious views of others in your community, who, after all, have a right to practice their religion, even if their religion includes the practice of burning you at the stake.’

Or, even if their religion commands them to prevent people from using the lifeboats.

Or, even if their religion compels them to prevent people from obtaining the benefits of medical advances gained through embryonic stem cell research, or to use methods for preventing pregnancy other than not having sex, or to obtain the benefits and stability of entering into a government recognized contract of marriage, or of protecting the planet from the long range (post-rapture) harms from global warming or other disaster.

In this case, there are still reasons to think that it is somewhat irrational to focus on a debate over whether or not those god or gods actually exist. When the religious people line up to prevent access to the lifeboats, the better response is to simply say, “Get the frack out of the way!” Or, to adopt and enforce a rule that says, “Your free exercise of your religion ends where it interferes with my harmless exercise of liberty,” which includes the liberty of entering into the lifeboats.

“If you want to prevent people from entering the lifeboats, you need to come up with something stronger than, ‘Because my God said so!” You need an argument that has its foundation on evidence-based thinking, something that does not depend on faith, that you can show to others.”

“Do not use the benefits of embryonic stem cell research, do not have abortions, do not use condoms or other methods of preventing pregnancy and disease while having sex, do not have sex with members of the same gender, refuse blood transfusions and ignore all findings regarding the science of the brain, pray in schools (contrary to hate-mongering myth this has never been outlawed), pray whenever or wherever you want, but do not prevent those who base their decisions on evidence from pursuing the options that evidence-based thinking recommends.”

Prudence also suggests that if we are going to have a conflict between those who want to man the lifeboats, and those who want to block access to the lifeboats and force everybody to show their faith that God will keep the ship afloat, that we are going to want as many people on our side as we can get. This suggests that it is not particularly wise to turn to somebody who is initially on our side, who wants to man the lifeboats, and say, “You also believe in God. Get over there an help them stop us from getting to the lifeboats.” This is the, “If you are not for us, you are against us,” philosophy that some people have seen to adopt, where they want to force anybody with any sympathy for the idea of a God to join the opposition – we certainly cannot allow them to associate with us.

Demanding that fellow travelers join the “prevent use of the lifeboat” faction, when they are more than happy to agree to the use of the lifeboats, is simply a symptom of making belief in God the focus of the debate, rather than the saving of lives. Because saving as many people as possible is made subordinate to the belief in God argument, allies in the ‘save as many people as possible’ cause have been turned into enemies in the ‘belief in God’ conflict. It is a distraction.

This does not imply that it is wrong to present and defend the hypothesis, “The proposition that one or more gods exist is almost certainly false.” Certainly, an individual should be permitted to defend that proposition just as he may defend the proposition, “The proposition that Tyrannosaurus Rex was predominantly a scavenger is probably false.” The idea that this might offend and upset those who believe that T-Rex was a hunter is irrelevant – no morally virtuous person would be offended by such a claim. It’s just useful to remember that when the life, health, and well-being of people are at stake, these types of disagreements would not prevent good people from working together to protect life, health, and well-being.

1 comment:

Martin Freedman said...

Excellent! One of your best posts to date. Will circulate it amongst my Brights mates (I call myself a naturalist BTW - if labels are needed at all) some of whom often act anti-religious just because it is religion and miss the point which you capture here and I try to make elsewhere.