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“The Earth will end only when God declares its time to be over” July 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics, Religion.

This is Illinois congressman John Shimkus, speaking at a 2009 hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment:

Good news! There’s no need to worry about climate change, since we know that “man will not destroy this Earth” – the Bible says so! I won’t even bother going into how inexcusably stupid and irresponsible Shimkus’s position is, because many religious people probably already agree with me that this idiot should never have been elected to any position of power. However, religious moderates (and many secular people as well) seem to think that the phenomenon he exemplifies is not religion’s fault, and that “sensible” religious people hold no responsibility for the misuse of scripture by some dimwit. I think they are wrong about this, and that the situation we are in is quite a bit more sinister than they are willing to admit.

Moderates seem to think that religious beliefs are somehow different from all our other beliefs about the world; that religious faith is a private matter, which can be kept separate from scientific thinking and rational decision making. A politician’s belief in the divinity of the Bible, for instance, need not affect his public policy. This is simply false. There’s no way around it: if you really believe in a personal God who oversees history, who wants us to behave in a certain way, who will send a messiah to right all wrongs at the end of times, and so on, these beliefs will inevitably influence the decisions you make. Our beliefs about how the world really is are what we use to guide our actions.

Therefore, we must ask ourselves how it is possible for educated people at the top ranks of our society in the 21st century to believe such ridiculous things. After all, Shimkus’s proposition is no different from suggesting that we base our national policy on tea-leaf reading, Nostradamus’s prophecies, or Ouija boards. And yet we don’t see many congressmen supporting those ideas – because they would be ridiculed and marginalized and never would have achieved a position of power in the first place. That is a good thing. The problem is that religious beliefs are given a free pass in our society. While moderates realize there is something wrong with Shimkus’s logic, they still insist on respect for his underlying premise: that the Judeo-Chrisitian God exists, and that the Bible is his “infallible, unchanging, perfect” word. They don’t want people’s core religious beliefs criticized. But you can’t have it both ways.

It really matters what people believe. Insofar as you really believe something, it inevitably constrains your thought processes and affects your decision making. That is why we cannot afford not to care what our neighbors believe, religious matters included. Religious beliefs cannot be kept separate from secular beliefs: there is only one realm of reality, which we try to map in our minds. Either the Bible is divine or it isn’t; either the story it tells is factual or it is not. In all areas, we must demand that people provide good reasons for what they believe. People like Shimkus need to be treated exactly like people who believe Elvis is alive: rather than respecting and legitimizing irrational beliefs accepted on faith, they should be criticized and ridiculed, publicly and incessantly, until superstition withers in the bright light of reality.

If anyone reading this happens to live in Illinois, you know where to start.


1. michaeleriksson - July 20, 2010

That even non-religious politicians “play nice” with the Christians is unsurprising: The proportion of voters who have fundamentalist, born-again, whatnot, opinions is too large to be lost without pain; the “moderately Christian” population, in turn, is very large; and in the end, many modern politicians want to be elected and re-elected more than they want to do what is best for the country/people.

However, in several of the more detailed issues, I can only partially agree. Most notably, the overall long-term trend is towards greater secularisation of both society and politics, which makes me optimistic for the future. For another example, consider “Either the Bible is divine or it isn’t; either the story it tells is factual or it is not.”: No, it is quite possible that only parts of it are truly factual or divine (assuming, arguendo, that God exists); it is possible that parts are mis-renderings and -understandings of a divine will; it is possible that parts need to be re-interpreted in light of new knowledge (say that the persons and events in Eden are allegorical in nature); etc.

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