Sunday, May 04, 2008

Religious Beliefs and Human Survival

I do not consider religion to be inherently bad. Instead, I look at individual religious beliefs and judge them to be good or bad depending on the degree that it causes believers to behave in ways harmful to others. A belief that there is a god that wants us to feed the hungry and care for the sick is not on my list of problem beliefs. A belief that there is a god that commands the believer to kill anybody who questions that belief is a problem.

Two religious beliefs are a threat to the long-term well-being of the human race. One of them gets a great deal of attention – it is the belief that God will soon bring an end to the human race anyway. It is a belief that the Rapture (or some other religion’s equivalent) is just around the corner, so we need not worry about how our actions today will affect the planet 100 years from now. People who hold this belief risk engaging in behavior that will thwart a great many desires 100 years from now.

Last week, I heard the flip side of this belief. I was with a group of people in which I brought up a recent study that showed that there is a risk of Mercury hitting Earth sometime in the future. According to computer models, Jupiter pulls on Mercury little by little, tugging it out of orbit, until it crosses Earth’s orbit. At that time, there is a risk of an actual collision. (Jupiter also pulls on Venus and Earth, but we are so much larger than Mercury that Jupiter’s effects are minimal.)

This lead to a discussion of threats to the human race.

We have most of the inner solar system mapped and see no threat in the near term (the next few thousand years) from any asteroid crossing the Earth’s orbit. However, we are still at risk of an impact from a long-period comet, coming to Earth from the fringes of the solar system and giving us a few months warning (if any at all) before hitting.

It turns out that the Earth is looking straight down on a system that is at risk of giving off a very strong gamma ray burst. These star systems shoot a burst of gamma rays straight out of their north and south magnetic poles, and we are in a straight line from this system’s pole.

In 2 billion years, the sun will be so hot that life as we know it will be impossible on Earth. In 3.5 billion years the Andromeda galaxy will hit the Milky Way galaxy in a collision that will send the sun on a wild trip – possibly passing uncomfortably close to the center of one of these two galaxies. In 7.5 billion years the Earth will probably be a smudge on the surface of the red giant that the sun has become.

This discussion did not consider the harms that could come to us as a result of a new disease, or (human induced) climate change, or simply as a result of violence and our lack of incentives for taking care of the earth and each other.

In discussing all of these possibilities, one speaker said that we have nothing to worry about because God would not allow anything like that to happen to us.

Honestly, I cannot say whether this individual was serious or if he was being satirical. However, there are people who think this way. It is a very dangerous way of thinking, because it leaves us vulnerable to harms that we could have otherwise avoided. It is much like thinking, “A loving God would never allow anything bad to happen to my child, so I do not need to worry about protecting her from harm.” The parent who does such a thing is guilty of negligence – perhaps negligent homicide, depending of the consequence of doing nothing while waiting for God’s protection.

We condemn the parent who prays over a sick child while the child dies, when modern medicine could have easily saved her life. It is a great deal worse to have whole groups of people praying for the survival of civilization, when we could be taking real-world actions that will serve to greatly reduce the risks we face into the indefinite future.

These are beliefs that deserve our condemnation.

Now, I want to remind the reader of a principle I have defended in this blog and used several times – the right to freedom of religion is not a right to freedom from criticism. It is a right to freedom from violence. In saying that these beliefs are to be condemned I am not threatening anybody’s freedom of religion – because I have not proposed using any form of violence against those who hold this belief.

In fact, I would not use violence, because imposed on people through violence rather than through reason is poorly grounded. It is not only important that people give the impression that they have a belief to avoid certain penalties, it is important that they understand why the belief is worthy of condemnation. The latter person is a much better neighbor than the former.

I would like to see legislation proposed that will help to preserve the survival of the human race. Then, when people challenge that legislation on the grounds that the human race has no long-range survival prospects to worry about, or that God will take care of everything so we don’t have to, use this to illustrate how some religions warp the minds of their followers in ways that threaten the human race.

Though, again, the comments must be focused on those who are actually guilty, and not broadened into bigotry by using this as an attack on all religion. The accusations must remain narrowly focused on those who are actually guilty. But those who are actually guilty of promoting beliefs that threaten human survival should be called out to answer for it.

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