Combating religion in politics

Part of the reason that the religious right has been able to achieve its current prominence in national politics is because even those who do not believe that god exists (at least in any personal form) have refrained from saying so openly in the hope that they will not alienate ‘moderate’ religionists. This accommodationist strategy of trying to isolate the religious extremists has not worked. All it has done is enable the religious extremists to advance their message under the protection of ‘respect for religion’ that has curtailed the ability to criticize these religious extremists in a fundamental way.

In the long run, the best way to combat the religious message of the Perrys and Bachmanns and Santorums is not to point out that they have the wrong idea about god’s intentions, an argument which they can easily deflect, but to tell them that before we can take their religious claims seriously on public issues, they need to explain why they think that a god exists at all. We should not allow them to simply assume its existence and talk about what he/she/it wants.

What I find really revealing is that although politicians love to talk about their religion, no one in the media ever asks them why they believe in the existence of a god at all. This is the case even if the interviewer is unsympathetic to the politician and would like to pose difficult questions. I think it is because journalists know that no answer can be given that does not make you look gullible and that this would become immediately obvious and cause much embarrassment and would cause an outcry and accusations of anti-religious bias. So everyone colludes to maintain the façade that assertions about religion require no substantiation.

Via Jerry Coyne, I came across this interview of Richard Dawkins on BBC in which the interviewer, referring to the 40% or so of Americans who take the Bible literally and think the Earth is 6,000 years old, asks him flatly “Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?” No interviewer in the US would dare ask such a question that so casually denigrates people who believe such things.

It is not necessary to be knowledgeable about science to be a political leader. But one has to be grounded in reality. To assume that religious texts such as the Bible or Koran are literally true and that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that evolution is not the process by which we got here, is to be so deluded that the speaker’s grip on reality should be seriously questioned. Such a person is so wedded to dogma that he or she is unfit for any responsible position that requires the weighing of evidence and the integration of expert opinion. But in the US if some belief is based on religion then people still pretend that it is reasonable, however ridiculous it, however objectively absurd, and however much it flies in the face of reality.

If a politician said that they believed in fairies, it would be political suicide because fairies are not protected by the religious shield and people would look askance. Even claims of UFO sightings are treated with scorn and derision though there is nothing about extraterrestrial life and spacecraft that intrinsically violate the laws of science. They simply lack credible evidence. But say you believe in angels and you are asked no further questions, even though one would be hard pressed to explain the distinction between fairies and angels.

Most mainstream journalism in the US is so hopelessly degraded that their idea of good practice is to balance one politician’s assertions with another person’s opposite assertions. And even this is not done when it comes to religious assertions, which are almost always left unchallenged. One of the rare exceptions was when CBS News’s Bob Schieffer asked Michele Bachmann whether she really believed that god used the weather to send people messages. She ducked the question and he allowed her to filibuster. It was clear that she was talking nonsense but US journalistic conventions prevented him from making it explicit.

Journalists should be always asking politicians to back up any assertions with evidence, whatever the topic, and then examine and report on the quality of the proffered evidence and the validity of the inferred conclusions. But I’m a dreamer.