Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Democratic Forum on Morals and the Common Good

The Democratic Party’s assumption that a non-believer has nothing to contribute to a forum on morality and the common good is, so far, one of the three greatest examples of anti-atheist bigotry of the year so far.

I want to address the issue today by writing what I would say if I were given the honor of participating in such a forum.

I will begin with a simple fact.

We live in a universe that is entirely indifferent as to whether or not we survive as individuals, or as a species.

Insofar as we do survive, the universe does not care one iota whether we live in comfort or in agony or at any point in between.

On the individual level, we see evidence of this all around us. Tsunamis, earthquakes, fire, lightning, cancer, heart attacks, AIDS, SARS, malaria, strokes, all threaten us. A simple, momentary lapse in judgment where one reaches a little too far while on the top of a ladder should not be the type of crime that warrants a death sentence. But people die. They choke to death, bleed to death, drown, and impale themselves.

At any moment either we ourselves or somebody we love can be taken. And even if they are not taken, be caused to suffer great harm, by a universe that cares nothing about how we feel.

Nature’s indifference to our survival or quality of life not only applies to each of us as individuals, but all of us as a species. Nature has driven to extinction over 99 percent of the species that have come into existence on this planet. Our species can easily find itself on that list. Even in our own lifetime as a species – even within the last 2000 years – countless species have gone extinct. Nature did not care enough to save them.

If we want to survive, and we want to live well, as individuals and as a species, it is up to us. We need to provide for our own welfare and for our own survival.

Let us assume, for a moment, that those of us in this room are on a ship. We encounter a fierce storm. Perhaps we should imagine a storm that shreds time and space itself. When it is over, we find ourselves shipwrecked on an island. We have good reason to believe that nobody is going to come to rescue us. For all we know, we are alone.

What are our first priorities?

Should we immediately go to work debating the issue of whether a god exists, and do nothing else until we have unanimous agreement on all matters of religion?

If that is our goal, then that day will come on the day that all of us have died except one person. On that day, and not one day sooner, there will be no more disputes about what different people believe. With that option, we would be sentencing ourselves to a quick death as individuals and as a species.

Depending on the environment we find ourselves in, our first priority would be to find shelter. If, on the other hand, we assume a fairly comfortable environment, our first priority would be to care for the sick and injured – those who will die within moments without our help.

After that, our priorities are water, food, and security from whatever forces would do us harm – from disease, predators, accident, natural disaster, and each other.

We may discover that we have come aground on an island that simply does not have enough shelter or water or food for everybody. As I said, we live in a universe that is indifferent to our survival. It is under no obligation to provide us with enough clean water and nourishing food for everybody. It is under no obligation to provide us with food or water at all.

If our island happens to have enough food and water for everybody, then we are lucky. If not, then we will need to make decisions about who will live and who will die.

Here we are. There are over six billion of us, crash-landed on an island called Earth, surrounded by a vast and lifeless sea called ‘space’. We have been listening for signs of rescue for decades now, but we have not heard anything yet, and probably will hear nothing for the foreseeable future. We are on our own.

We clearly do not have enough clean water to go around. We need to organize ways to get more, and ways to ration what we have.

We have enough food (for now), but it is poorly distributed. Many of us are going hungry because we do not have an efficient system for getting the food from where it is harvested to those who need it to survive. Perhaps more precisely, we have a way of distributing it, but people keep getting in the way. For all practical purposes, this amounts to the same thing.

We are not yet safe from disease or injury. Every day of every year our community of survivors is attacked by diseases and injured through natural disasters. We need to take care of those afflicted while, at the same time, we learn what we can to prevent even more people from being afflicted.

We need to put resources to work to fight malaria, and to do a better job of learning how to track hurricanes and predict earthquakes.

We have a lot of work that needs doing.

Sitting around debating the existence of God is something that can be saved for the spare time that all of us need once in a while, when we gather with friends and family and relax for a bit. Then, we have the luxury of spending a few minutes debating whose religion is better than whose. Yet, when the discussion is over, we should be putting our attention once again into finding drinking water, better distributing food, and securing ourselves from diseases and natural disasters.

How do we do this? What tool do we have with a proven track record for providing us with water, food, immunizations and treatments for disease, hurricane tracking systems, and designing buildings that stand up to other natural disasters.

It’s science.

It’s the practice of taking measurements – of putting processes side by side in order to determine which does the better job of providing clean water, growing more food, preventing or curing more disease, more accurately predicting the courses of hurricanes, and proving how well or how poorly a building design will hold up against natural disasters.

Science will tell us what threats exist that could wipe out the human race, and science will tell us how to protect ourselves from them, provided that we do our homework. It will protect our children, and give them a way to protect their children, as long as we teach them to use its methods.

It doesn’t matter what God you believe in. If 90% of the people who get disease D and do nothing die within a month, and if 90% of the people who get disease D and undergo treatment T survive and suffer no adverse side effects, then this is a fact that transcends all religion.

It’s a fact – and it is a fact we can use to keep 80 out of 100 people alive who would have otherwise died.

We have work to do.

We have people to feed, diseases to cure, natural disasters to avoid. We have evidence-driven ways to determine which ways to grow food, cure disease, and predict natural disasters are better than others.

We can worry about this God stuff in our spare time – when people are not dying and otherwise suffering from the want of our attention.


anticant said...

A splendid post, Alonzo! I'm putting a link to it on Stephen Law's blog, where another of those interminable discussions about whether or not Christianity is "true" is rambling on.

Anonymous said...

Great arguments. But that's not how life actually works. If it were, you'd be out feeding the poor rather than arguing your points.

(If you don't respond to this I'll assume you're out feeding the poor, in which case I'll look sheepish.)

Anonymous said...

I agree, this is a good post, but some of its directions seem misguided and pander to religious aims.

For example, holding up science as a way of "growing more food" and "finding more water" simply facilitate the population explosions that have been mandated by Christian, Judaic, and Islamic injunctions that men and women reproduce.

There is an objective obligation to species continuance to limit population to the available resources. The Big Three religions ignore this, yet it is simply irrational to do so.

We should feed the people who are here now, but we should not continue to destroy the Earth so as to keep increasing our population in the future. Species crash when they exceed the limits of their environments.

Coogan said...

Excellent! Cectic recently had a comic I think illustrates the disconnect some religious folks have about the nature of "god's intent for us."

I had this discussion with my wife (an avowed God believer) last night. Her point is God (capital G) gave us big brains--why don't we use them to the best of our abilities? I'm pretty sure there is no deity, but I'm right there with her on the using our brains part.

Prayer is the placebo effect. Worthless as a tool for survival. Any other reliance on "faith" instead of ourselves, in my opinion, is also worthless.

Facts are god's native language. The universe is not trying to deceive us--that's only us doing that.

My blog, FWIW

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing, probably not as successful as a speech. I had to start skimming once to ship analogy began just to keep reading. The problem with this is that pure science doesn't have much regard for the general good. Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, weak people and animals die off, the strongest and most adaptable survive. Science does not call for goodwill. Religion typically does, at least the "Big Three" as one person referenced.

As for coogan's comment about prayer as a placebo effect, do you feel the same about meditation? Thoughtfulness? Self-examination? This is essentially what prayer is or seems to be, if you take away the ritualistic repetition prescribed in the Catholic doctrine to keep the clergy in the power position between God and the "common-folk".

I know my response is a bit late, but this was just recently forwarded to me =D