Sunday, February 14, 2010

The negative effects of religious thinking.

Of course I'm interested in the climate change debate. I do worry about the future of humanity, and - barring the occasional slide into deep cynicism where I think that global extinction may be the only real option - I hope that the future of humanity is better and brighter for the majority of those future people than it is for the majority of people living today. I hope for a more enlightened, more humane world where the kind of things that precipitate my cynical slides don't happen.

I'm no expert on the climate change debate, and so I'll refrain from engaging with this heated (no pun intended) issue at this point. All I will say is that on an issue like this it seems rational to me for us to err on the side of caution - the nightmare scenario isn't just that we'll not have to all use public transport in 50 years, the nightmare scenario is that we might not actually be around in 50 years, or, if we are, the only kind of life we can hope for is going to be characterised by war, famine, disease. Pretty much hell on earth. If there is a fair chance of this happening without change, even if all the evidence isn't in just yet, or is contentious, it still seems a serious enough threat to human life to warrant a move towards prevention.

Some people don't think this way though. And not because they don't believe that the evidence points to the conclusion that global warming is a real phenomenon, not because they don't believe in the peak oil scenario, or because they aren't aware of the water crisis.
They could be entirely convinced of any of these and yet choose to do absolutely nothing about them.

These individuals choose inaction not because they are in any sense evil, they choose this kind of inaction because of a particularly pernicious religious logic which finds it's foundations in a reading of the last book in the Christian Bible, the book of Revelation.
I'm sure most people are aware that there are some people who interpret Revelation as the history of the future. When I was younger I remember of being terrified of "end times", I thought of it as a kind of horror story, one that I was always assured was just around the corner. I was lucky that I grew up in an a-religious family, I can only imagine the nightmares of children whose parents are fond of end-times-mongering.

But the nightmares of children is the least worrying aspect of this reading of Revelation. There are potentially dire political, economic, and environmental consequences to thinking
Richard Holloway, in his book "How to read the Bible", warns us about the implications of this kind of thinking in a discussion of Jerry Fallwell's views on the depletion of the planet's resources. Fallwell was of the opinion that we might as well use up what resources we have because of Jesus' imminent return. Fallwell was not just some isolated crackpot hillbilly, but someone with real political clout. And even if the views of someone like Fallwell don't affect policy directly, he has (or had, at least) hundred's of thousands of followers - it encourages inaction against these potentially devastating threats to humanity.

Another recent example stupidity of similarly biblical proportions, is to be found in last week's issue of "The Economist" where "Lexinton", while discussing a new carbon capping bill proposed by Maria Cantwell, mentions the Illinoisan congressman John Shimkus who believes that there is no reason to worry about global warming because when the water's had retreated, and Noah's watery excursion came to it's happy end, God had promised to never "curse the ground because of man ... And never again will [he] destroy all living creatures". There it is, in black and white, Man can't cause the destruction of life on Earth, God said so. So relax.

This kind of "negative" effect of religious thinking is not nearly highlighted enough in debates about religion and their public role. It seems to me that the kind of inaction encouraged by this logic can be devastating, in the long run. Religion doesn't only have to affect political, economic, and ecological policy directly, but can be just as (in)-effective in formation of policy by the kinds of things that they discourage. Irrationality, even if it is private irrationality, will almost always have negative consequences.