August 11, 2017

Nuclear Threats and Climate Change: The Toxicity of End Times Theology

Consider the important decisions facing those in the highest levels of the U.S. government with regard to North Korea's nuclear program and/or the scientific consensus pointing to the role of human behavior in the global climate crisis. In both cases, the sort of decisions made are likely to affect all of us. Thus, I think we have a shared interest in wanting such decisions to be made by rational actors. I find it terrifying to think that these decisions are likely to be made by people who have embraced the "end times" theology of fundamentalist Christianity, some of whom seem to be eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus and who might even be motivated to hasten the apocalypse they imagine.

Over the years, I have written many times about how those who don't believe we have a future should not be placed in charge of it. This strikes me as one of the most obvious truths there is, but we in the U.S. have certainly not embraced it. We continue to elect fundamentalist Christians who have little motivation to think long-term because they expect Revelations to unfold any day now. Such beliefs, assuming that they are sincere and that one is unable or unwilling to make important decisions without being influenced by them, should be disqualifying.

How can we expect a leader who is certain that none of us will be here in 5-10 years to do anything positive for the environment? We can't. And how can we expect a leader to govern with our best interests in mind when he or she seeks to hasten ancient biblical prophecies? I don't think we can. And that means that it might not be much of a stretch to say that our future may depend on keeping such fanatics out of office.

The situation with North Korea would be scary no matter what. It is made far scarier by the realization that we may have less-than-fully-rational actors in charge of both sides. Throwing "end times" theology into the mix leaves us with little confidence that our side is even interested in keeping us safe. And while climate change appears to be less urgent than the threat of a major war, its seriousness has been compounded by the lack of progress we've made toward doing anything about it. Adding "end times" theology into the mix makes it far less likely that we will ever take meaningful action to preserve the planet for future generations.

Most of my atheist readers are familiar with Sam Harris and are probably aware of some of what he has written about the dangers of Muslim extremists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. The basic idea is that everything we have relied on with regard to diplomacy and the deterrent effect of mutually assured destruction goes out the window if we find ourselves facing an enemy who has embraced death. The prospect of facing an enemy who welcomes annihilation is more than a little unsettling. But what if our own leaders have bought into a similarly apocalyptic religious ideology?

Many people in the U.S. are perfectly willing to scold ordinary Muslims living in other countries over their failure to either reform Islam or prevent the Muslim extremists from taking power. I've been one of them. But where is the outrage over ordinary Christians living in the U.S. over their failure to minimize the influence of Christian extremism or prevent Christian extremists from taking power? And it is not like we atheists are somehow blameless here either, especially when so few of us are even willing to vote.

The "true believers" (i.e., religious extremists of any kind) should not be anywhere near the halls of power. They should not be governing, and they should not be exerting influence on those who are governing. Their "end times" nonsense is toxic. If we cannot see that in the context of a nuclear threat or climate change, I'm not sure we ever will.
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