I’m an atheist. I know where we’ll all end up: death, extinction, oblivion. So I’m sure as hell going to emphasize how I live my life, how I make my conclusions, and how I regard my place in the universe as far more important than my final fate. I’m not interested in authoritarian short-cuts that substitute wish-fulfillment fantasies for truth, and one thing I definitely do not want to do is lie to myself.
Those are the thoughts I was thinking on reading this review of Stedman’s book, Faitheist, and while watching this lecture by Sir Ghillean Prance, a British ecologist. They’re very different discussions about very different phenomena, but I agree with the general message of both the book and the lecture while utterly detesting how they get there. They are wasting my time and they are misleading people — they are failing to provide the tools that will help people guide themselves to a rational conclusion and a correct answer.
We all know of Stedman here. He’s an atheist, and his book is all about social justice and working with religious people to achieve the goal of helping the poor, the needy, the disadvantaged. I can agree entirely with that goal; I think atheists ought to recognize the reality that they share the world with 7 billion people, each of whom has just as much right to be here as they do, and that a just solution to the world’s problems does not deny the needs of a majority, or even a significant minority, of the people who live there.
While Stedman has part of the answer right — we need to work with everyone to achieve that goal — his path to it is a combination of contradiction and emotion. Everyone, sure, except those meanie-head atheists who he will undercut at every opportunity, because that’s his scheme for notoriety, to be the good atheist, the one who loves Christians and despises atheists. He’s the left-wing version of S.E. Cupp. And how will he persuade people to his vision? By being the gosh-darned nicest, sweetest, gentlest person he can be, and by sucking up to faith (oh, excuse me: “interfaith”) leaders, who will never ever get the kind of criticism he delivers to atheists.
We will never get the critical thinking I consider the ideal of rationalism from a Stedman — even when he’s fighting for a cause I consider eminently defensible by rational means. While an atheist by definition, Stedman is not an atheist by principle. He’s an atheist by feeling (which, admittedly, is true of a great many atheists — just not as often by atheists who try to justify their position with a book).
Meanwhile, Ghillean Prance is an excellent biologist, with data and real concerns about the state of the planet. He discusses the evidence for climate change, its effect on natural populations, the consequences of environmental degradation and habitat destruction, and also deplores the selfishness of our current economic inequities — inequities that are widening rather than be corrected.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how much I agree with his conclusion. But what ruins it for me is how he gets there.
“We should be taking care of the earth and not destroying it,” says Sir Ghillean. “The Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it – not to destroy it.”
In this guest lecture, Sir Ghillean discusses the positive role faith leaders are playing in the environmental movement – from the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church (dubbed ‘the Green Patriarch’ by Al Gore), who has brought together faith leaders from around the world to discuss environmental issues, to His Holiness the Dalai Lama who speaks of an ethical approach to environmental protection.
Environmental ethics are, Sir Ghillean says, a part of Christianity and Judaism. He points to Job 12:7-8 as an example:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” (Job, 12:7-8 NIV)
He asserts that his Christianity is compatible with his scientific/ecological views, and of course it is. But it’s because the religious justifications are endlessly malleable, and you can wrap it around any conclusion you want. There are industrialists bulldozing the rain forests right now who will tell you that their holy book tells them that it is their right to do so; there are people murdering other people because their holy book says to kill the infidel; there are people treating their own children as subhuman because their dogma does not allow them to tolerate people with different sexual desires. To tell people that they should accept scientific observations because their magic book and their sacred leaders say so is a betrayal of scientific thought.
And, man, this guy loves to quote the Bible.
It is through the combination of his faith and career that Sir Ghillean sees the case for environmental sustainability as a moral one. He quotes Isaiah 24:5 to make his case, but points out that there are similar messages and beliefs across the major world religions.
“The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.” (Isaiah 24:5 NIV)
Whilst Isaiah was talking about moral defilement rather than ecological damage, Sir Ghillean believes that the message here and the impacts of climate change cover the intersection of ethics and ecology.
“It’s the poor who suffer the most from this climate change,” he says. “In some places the rich are getting even richer and the poor poorer. When there’s 1.4 per cent of the world’s wealth with 20 per cent of the population, it is something we should truly be ashamed about.”
If Christianity (and religiosity in general) is so good at convincing people of the importance of charity and fairness, explain the Republican party.
Isn’t it obvious that religion is not a tool for spreading goodness and kindness? That some individuals do so is not argument that their little granfalloon is responsible. That’s true of religion, but it’s also true of science and atheism, as we know all too well.
If you’re trying to persuade people to do the right thing because they’re Christians, or atheists, or ecologists, you’re making a fallacious argument: you’re trying to rope them into a cause by invoking the tribe or authority. Those things are not an appeal to reason! It’s easily subverted: the whole tribe can go marching off to war with another tribe, or the authority can be wrong and send everyone chasing the wrong answer, and the only check we can possibly have on that is if everyone is taught to think for themselves. A quote from the Bible or Darwin can be pretty words to illustrate an argument, but they are not necessarily arguments in themselves.
I entirely endorse the concerns and scientific solutions Ghillean Prance advocates, but not because he’s a Christian. It’s because the data that we’re changing the world for the worse is strong, and because I can respect the beauty and richness of the natural world — not because the Bible tells me I should, but because I know enough about how that world works to see the relationships of all those elements to each other and to me. If I want to see further and do better, I won’t achieve that by burying my nose in a holy book, and advocating greater absorption in magical thinking is going to actively interfere with our appreciation of reality.
I similarly endorse greater involvement in social justice and equality. It’s not because Jesus was a politically progressive social worker or because atheism says I must: it’s because of empathy and the ability to identify with other human beings, and recognizing that all 7 billion of us are on this planet together and that I cannot demand of others what they cannot also demand of me. Philosophy and ethics should shape how we behave not a deified science or imaginary magical being.
Another faulty argument that is fundamental to religion is the idea that you should follow the precepts of your faith because you will be rewarded after you die — an evil argument right at the heart of Christianity. No, you won’t; you’ll be dead, as will we all be, whether we’re paragons of virtue or monsters of vice. The only good arguments are ones that explain the consequences on living human beings — that the paths we take have to be their own rewards.