September 2, 2015

When Religious Belief Limits Our Effectiveness

The Day After Tomorrow"Why do you damned atheists care so much what we Christians believe? Why is it any concern of yours? Why do you continue to obsess about religion at all if you don't believe it?"

I finally got around to watching The Day After Tomorrow. For those not familiar with this film, the plot involves global warming resulting in catastrophic weather which ultimately leads to the next ice age. Despite the impressive special effects, it wasn't all that great and certainly doesn't break any new ground. However, watching it did get me thinking about how people would actually respond if something like this were to happen.

Aside from the universal panic and all that would come with it, it seems that there would be at least two rather different ways of understanding such a predicament and responding to it. First, there might be the sort of response depicted in the movie - a fairly rational, scientific sort of understanding leading to pragmatic action (e.g., evacuations, planning for the future, use of technology, etc.). Second, I have little doubt that there would be a religious response. Many Christians in the U.S. would view such an event in biblical terms (e.g., end of the world, second coming, etc.) and act in accordance with this perspective (praying, attempting to appease their imagined gods, etc.). It is difficult to imagine how this would be even mildly productive; it is easy to imagine how it would interfere with the former approach.

If hypothetical scenarios like this don't do much for you, consider the alternative approaches we see with regard to stem cell research today. The rational scientific side thinks this research might have promise in improving the lives of many people. The conservative Christian side seeks to prevent anyone from benefiting from this research by banning it altogether. And because of the manner in which they have been able to influence our government, we all pay the price.

Atheists are often asked about the harm in religious belief. "Somebody wants to believe something crazy, so what?" Aside from its irrationality, the harm of religion often seems to rest in the manner in which many of the religious seek to interfere with reality-based efforts aimed at improving our situation. That is, they actively work to limit our progress.

Come back to global warming for a moment. If a sizable portion of the population has convinced themselves that they are living in the "end times" and that the return of Jesus is imminent, why would they have any motivation whatsoever to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or do anything else that might reduce the impact of global warming? They wouldn't. And if they won't, it should be fairly obvious how this interferes with what the rest of us can do.

This post was initially published in May of 2005 and has been revised and expanded.

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