Thursday, December 29, 2016

Religion and politics

By Mathew Goldstein

Is modern knowledge a pure, stand-alone, collection of information disconnected from conclusions about how the universe functions?  Of course not.  That question is ridiculous for entertaining an obviously untenable fiction.  Yet religious believers depend on arguments that modern knowledge is irrelevant or wrong when their religious beliefs clash with modern knowledge.  This has political consequences.

Should health insurance cover contraception?  If we live in a natural universe then the answer is yes.  If we live in a supernatural universe then the answer to this question, and for that matter the best answer to almost any other question regarding government policy, and individual decisions, depends on what it is claimed a supernatural entity wants, as was revealed to us in various texts, according to the interpretations of some religious authorities.

Some people who self-identify as secularists say that because our government is defined as secular it does not matter what anyone thinks regarding deities because it is legally forbidden for lawmakers to even consider such claims.  After all, any claim that asserts god says such and such is automatically religious.  So there is no practical problem here.

Such secularists are wrong.  There is still a problem.  One remaining problem is that the definition of secular depends on utilizing modern knowledge as our decision making foundation.  Yet this principle of basing decision making on modern knowledge is itself rejected by many religious people.  Furthermore, it cannot be otherwise.  Religious people must reject at least some modern knowledge because otherwise they cannot maintain their mutually exclusive religious beliefs.  They may deny this conflict between their beliefs and modern knowledge, but this conflict is there, and their mistaken denial does not make the problem go away.

When some secularists campaign for an end to establishment of monotheism they are criticized by some of their fellow secularists.  The criticisms go like this: There are more important issues!  We cannot win!

The "there are more important issues" complaint is bogus.  Ok, there are more important issues.  We agree.  So what?  There are always more important issues.  No one claims this is a most important issue.  That is not a reasonable standard or demand.  It is hypocritical.  No one can claim that they only focus on the most important issues.  The only valid standard is this:  What is better versus what is worse.  When we advocate for what is better against what is worse then we have met our civic obligations to ourselves and to everyone else.

The "we cannot win complaint" gets more to the heart of the problem.  This is about fear, fear of the unknown.  And it is reasonable to fear popular bigotry, hatred, intolerance, resentment.  Hell, I have experienced this too much in my own life.  So what do we do?

A good place to start is to acknowledge the fact that popular opinion matters.  Then we can tackle popular opinion as the problem that it is.  The other thing we should acknowledge is that there is no easy way to do this.  We cannot tip toe around the tulips here.  Addressing the public opinion problem entails confronting it head on.  People who insist otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking.  We should get off of our high horses and engage. We should not leave the public space to conservative and liberal theists debating between themselves.  We should actively argue against theism.  The best kind of citizen (contra Boy Scouts of America) debates other citizens to correct popular misperceptions that we live in a supernatural universe.

Debating the issues at the higher levels alone is a bad strategy.  That approach simply fails to address the underlying motivations for the disagreements which are sometimes rooted in opposing understandings of how the universe functions.  It cannot be overemphasized that people who make decisions, and advocate for policies, that match their understanding of how the universe functions are correct to be doing that.  We should be unembarrassed about focusing on that lower level, on people's understanding of how the universe functions, and in particular on the natural versus supernatural universe disagreement.

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