How do you separate harmless belief in religion or superstition and … well, harmful belief in religion or superstition? We have been having a bit of a go-round* between some of my regular blog readers, including my Catholic but not anti-Evolution niece whose daughter recently acted in a commercial for the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Sondrah and I respectfully agree to disagree about certain issues, but clearly do agree on the importance of having real science, and not creationism, taught in public schools. That is what a lot of people who think of themselves as religious prefer, although we have seen a severe erosion of that pro-science form of religiosity over recent decades. My question is, how does a religious community (or populace) stop itself from going over what are, at least to me, some pretty clear lines that divide believing in God and a few other religious concepts from doing something that is just plain, and specifically harmful?

For the sake of clarity, I’ll give an example. Suppose a person is religious and thus believes in Satan1. Add to this the idea that Satan can possess a person and make them into an atheist. So then, if this religious person meets an atheist, they may feel justified in killing them because they are possessed by Satan. That would be crossing a line, to say the least. And, that is not a fictional example.

The Creation Museum has crossed the line a couple of times in its treatment of selected citizen. The Creation Museum had an affair recently that was crashed by a couple of guys who wanted to pretend to be a couple of overtly gay guys, to see what the museum would do. The museum got wind of this plot because it was blogged in advance, and did not let them into the private affair. Interestingly no one has asked the question, to my knowledge, was it OK for these two guys to fake being a gay couple (or gay, or a couple) in order to make a gay-rights related point? That’s probably a side issue. A more relevant issue has become: Was it OK or not for the Creation Museum to exclude someone because they said in advance that they were going to be “flaming” at the event in order to test the institution’s level of tolerance?

In my opinion, it may have been perfectly OK for an institution to exclude anyone they want from their event for whatever reason they want, as long as they are a private club that has legally restricted membership. The Creation Museum falls a bit short in that area, however. The Museum has received considerable public financial support, as it presents itself legally as a religious organization for tax breaks. Recently, the Creation Museum has made a move to receive the kind of state-sponsored public funding that a private corporation typically receives as an incentive to build a new facility (a “Noah’s Ark” theme park). In my view, this makes the Creation Museum part of the public trust in Kentucky, and thus subject to the tenor and practice, if not the specific law, of a non-discriminatory democratic political entity (the United States and in particular, Kentucky). In other words, the Creation Museum should not be funding anti-US terrorists, engaged in child sexual abuse, or excluding Blacks, Jews, Atheists or Gays, from events or treating such groups in a discriminatory manner, in any capacity, either at a “closed” fund raising event or in their public exhibits during business hours. The fact, if true, that they can do some of these things legally is not related to my point. There are a lot of things one may do legally that one should not do, and picking on an entire class of people because you have your own private religious beliefs that seem to justify such biased behavior is not OK, even if legal.

When an atheist/humanist student group from near the Creation Museum and PZ Myers went to the museum about a year and a half ago, the museum implemented extra security and sent a note demanding special behavior of the students and PZ. In other words, atheists/humanists were treated differently from other people on their visit to the museum. In a related event, PZ Myers was excluded, because he is an outspoken atheist, from viewing the movie “Expelled” even though he was actually in the movie, by the movie’s producers, at an opening for which he had legally and correctly obtained tickets. That was an act of a creationist group discriminating against a person because of his creed. The fact that Richard Dawkins was with PZ at the time, and the belief-police sent to throw out PZ did not notice that, and Dawkins went unharassed into the movie theater is … well, maybe God was trying to send a message to the creationists or something.2 And, when the Creation Museum decided to exclude ticket-bearing semipseudogays from their fund-raising dinner, they were also acting in a discriminatory fashion. Which, perhaps, was OK in that case simply because they had intelligence that these guys were “troublemakers” and one could understand why one would exclude troublemakers at a fund-raising event. It remains to be seen what the museum really knew and what really happened at the event. What we do know is that the Creation Museum and creationists in general have a track record of intolerance, and worse, active intolerance.

But so what? Who cares about these inane first world problems anyway? We mostly accept the fact that we only pretend to live in a democratic, open society in which everyone is treated equally when it comes to basic rights and we only pretend that we disdain harassment or oppression on the basis of color, creed, ethnicity, bla bla bla. I only mention these things because they demonstrate the problem with that line between religious beliefs and behavior that we must consider wrong. It is said, by Christians, that it is against Christianity to be gay, and it appears that with a few exceptions that everyone knows are odd, gay people are viewed by the various US based Christian organizations (churches, museums, political action committees, etc.) as sinners because they are gay. The only difference between one group of anti-gay Christians and another is whether they are just out and out anti-gay, or if they embrace gay people and try to cure, or de-sin, or otherwise save them. Here, the belief is against homosexuality, but the crossing the line is taking that belief on the road and actively treating gay people as lesser forms of citizen in a country where that is frowned upon, even if the laws in backwater states like Kentucky have not yet caught up to the rest of civilization.

But let’s move from the case of a couple of guys pretending to be gay (or maybe one of them was gay) to a different example where the very existence of an entire culture is at risk because of crossing that line between having a harmless religious belief (like some water is holy and you pay extra for it) and a harmful religious belief (like water can’t harm you even when it covers your village and kills the crops). In this case, the belief that climate change caused sea level rise can’t flood you out because God promised, in the Bible, to not do that, ever.

Have a look at the island of Kiribati:

Kiribati is a nation 811 square kilometers (188th largest) in size spread over 3,500,000 square kilometers of land. In other words, it is a country the size of Kansas City, Missouri, spread out over an area about the size of the Congo (which is the 63rd largest country in the world). Straddling the equator, it is on the International Date Line (making it the only country in all four hemispheres), which made it the western most country in the world until a recent realignment of the date line, which then made Kiribati the easternmost country in the world.

The maximum elevation of Kiribati is 81 meters above sea level, but half of the island nation is below 2 meters above the sea. Meanwhile, climate-change induced sea level rise is expected to increase the elevation of the Pacific Ocean by at least 1 meter perhaps as soon as 2050, certainly by 2100. When sea level rises, the sea cuts horizontally into the land through erosion, so a 1 meter rise in sea level could destroy half of the land surface of Kiribati, totally wiping out dozens of its islands. On the other hand, when sea level rises coral reef formations rise with it, so many of these islands will also rise up. The bad news is that mostly submerged reefs and atolls surrounding dry land may rise at the same time that the dry land is inundated. (Do ignore the AGW denialists who claim that Kiribati will increase in size with sea level rise because of coral growth, especially because the same factors that cause sea level rise are also killing the coral.)

In any event, the nation of Kiribati will certainly have its entire landscape re-shaped in ways that may result in most or all of the nation becoming uninhabitable, and along the way, bad storms and tsunamis will have increasingly devastating effects. There is a very good chance that when sea level rise stops (and it will stop eventually) and a few hundred more years has passed, Kiribati will look much like it does now. This is sort of like how when you tear down an apartment building and build a new, similar apartment building in the same place the before and after may look quite similar. However, anyone living in the apartments/on the islands would not survive the process unscathed if they were to remain in place.

This isn’t just a prediction of the future. This is a process observed now. For instance, the Kiribatan village of Tebunginako was swallowed up by the sea in the last 30 years, with rising sea levels first destroying the crops with salt water, then making the well water undrinkable, then flooding the village. Then, a large storm came along and wiped out what was left. There is only water now where the village once stood.

That’s the science. What does the religion say?

According to the Old Testament, God caused a great flood that destroyed all life on earth except that saved by Noah who followed God’s instruction in building a boat and stocking it with representatives of almost all living things. Following the flood, God promised Noah that he (God) would never flood the earth again.

This promise has been taken by influential individuals including government leaders in Kiribati to mean that they need not worry about rising sea level affecting their island nation in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

“I’m not easily taken by global scientists prophesizing the future,” says Teburoro Tito, the country’s former president and now a member of Parliament.

Tito says he believes in the Biblical account of Noah’s ark. …

… while Tito does acknowledge that global warming is affecting the planet and that he has noticed some impacts, he says rising sea levels are not as serious a threat as … others are making them out to be.

“Saying we’re going to be under the water, that I don’t believe,” Tito says. “Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that.”

source

There are ninety thousand Kiribatians. Twenty three are not members of a church. (That’s 23 people, not 23 percent.) So, religiosity is high, and among the religious (mostly Christian) there is widespread belief mirroring Tito’s.

This is an example of crossing the line from harmless religious beliefs (“God will be mad if I don’t genuflect before the Monstrance”) and harmful religious beliefs (“The best science tells us we are in danger, but that just can’t be because of something stated in an ancient story”).

I don’t think it is possible to reliably predict when this line will be crossed. The consequences can be devastating. This is why religion needs to always be viewed with suspicion, religious leaders should never be given power, appeasement of religious groups should be sparing at best but generally avoided, and secular institutions should be privileged over religious ones.

_____________________________________

1Satan. Not Satin.

2Not.

Comments

  1. #1 ST
    February 16, 2011

    This is a fundamental topic for those of us who stand against unthoughtful, unquestioning religious belief and superstition. Please explore it further. I would like to read other examples you can think up.

  2. #2 bananacat
    February 16, 2011

    This sort of reminds me of a debate assignment in my college ethics class. One team actually, genuinely argued that the school should not impose stricter screenings for cheating, because logically students wouldn’t cheat because they worked hard to get into college and wouldn’t want to get kicked out.

    But some students do cheat, and this island is being flooded.

  3. #3 mememine69
    February 16, 2011

    Making a virtue out of NO EVIDIENCE is religion defined.
    Real planet lovers are former climate change believers and continued defense and support of Climate Change’s unstoppable warming is hurting the planet as it divides environmental efforts and stalls progressive social reforms. The UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of needed population control. Obama blew off climate change in his Feb. speech and none of his thousands of consensus scientists raised a fuss over it. They were paid, they don‘t care. Real scientists would be marching in the streets. This IS after all the biggest emergency ever, unstoppable warming, not bad weather. Why are the scientists not leading this insanity, instead of the politicians promising to lower the seas with taxes? If climate change was true these scientists would be on every news cast and every front page and on every talk radio show. This was our Iraq War of climate WMD’s. System Change, not climate change.

  4. #4 Kierra
    February 16, 2011

    Regardless of religious belief, I don’t understand why “God won’t flood the whole earth again” equals “God won’t flood our tiny little patch of earth.” I mean, do they argue that floods never happen anywhere? That wasn’t taught in my bible class.

  5. #5 Daniel J. Andrews
    February 16, 2011

    The U.S. has their own Kiribatian-style politicians too. John Shimkus said he doesn’t think global warming will destroy the world, that man will not destroy the world, and that flooding won’t destroy the world (okay, we’ll give him the last one since even if all the ice melts, the world won’t be completely flooded–although the very fact that he thinks scientists are saying the world will be flooded shows how ignorant he is of the basic science).
    releasingreligion.blogspot.com/2010/11/god-wont-allow-global-warming.html

    And he’s not alone. James contradiction-what-contradiction? Ihofe thinks global warming is just natural variation (isn’t happening at all, is really cooling) because God is still up there in control and doesn’t matter what we do because God is looking after it (wonder if he applies this logic to dumping pollution into the air, water, and soil?–no worries, God is in control).

    I think the shameful thing is that they’re using their religion as an excuse for their political ideological bent which dictates a business as usual approach. They can’t justify it with facts so they resort to hijacking religion to back up their point of view.
    –dan

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    February 16, 2011

    Kierra, though it did not make it into the post, that very thought was on my mind since I learned of this issue. Who do they think they are exactly?

  7. #7 wockrassa
    February 16, 2011

    I’m torn on this one, actually. While I sympathize with the people of Kiribati and how they’re trapped because of AGW, I have to recognize as well that they are choosing their response to it. No one is making them stay. We’re seeing natural selection here, and their religious fervor might well find itself naturally-selected against.

    They’re also applying a myopic interpretation to the flood myth. The whole world isn’t going to be flooded as a result of AGW-triggered sea level rise, but it’s irrefutable that the arable landmass of Kiribati is going to vanish under the sea.

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind.

  8. #8 Calli Arcale
    February 16, 2011

    What I don’t get is why perfectly sane people can say this:

    “Saying we’re going to be under the water, that I don’t believe,” Tito says. “Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that.”

    and still believe in the flood (an event in which they believe God absolutely allowed people to perish just like that). It sorta kinda makes sense given that most Christians have a classical Medieval approach to history (the world was one way in ancient history, and now it’s a different way, which it will be until the end of days) but it still baffles me. Then again, I’m also baffled by belief in homeopathy, and frankly, this is in approximately that category.

  9. #9 Psy
    February 16, 2011

    Creationism and Intelligent Design are unsubstantiated assertions. The only place they have is a science class would be as an example of how not to write a science paper.

  10. #10 noncarborundum
    February 16, 2011

    “populous” != “populace”

  11. #11 Mrs Rosemary Konotey-Ahulu
    February 16, 2011

    How does one respond to these comments posted here? Who are these people who know what is going to happen in 2050? Does a PhD bestow that ability to look into the future?
    I think there is an increasing tendency today in our world to forget that man is a creature who is dependent on his creator for life. He gave you life, no one made you or me. He made beautiful,loving, kind,intelligent, generous people in his image. But we are human, we are finite, He is infinite. He rules here, you may disagree, but you must know that one day this life he gave you will end.You can rage at Him, spit in His face, call Him ‘silly’ as they did 2000 yrs. ago. Today 2011 there are millions, if not billions, of us who know that He is the Almighty Saviour, some are PhD’s who can be found answering hundreds of questions on http://www.creation.com Have a look you may be surprised at what you will find.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    February 16, 2011

    Are you Felix’s wife, Rosemary?

  13. #13 Timberwoof
    February 16, 2011

    Mrs Rosemary Konotey-Ahulu, the scientific method has been astonishingly good at predicting things. The PhDs who have been studying global climate change look at the trends and measurements taken over the past decades and project them into the future. Their thinking and conclusions are reasonable.

    I looked at that web site and I’m not surprised. http://creation.com/about-us#what_we_believe tells me what I need to know about them: “no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” That is not honest research, it is foolish, self-imposed blindness. Another way of putting that is, “Don’t bother me with the facts; I’d rather believe this ancient fairy tale.”

    Let me ask you: Who are these people to take a legend from thousands of years ago as literal truth and a scientific textbook? Would you rather trust a doctor who read in Genesis that God made Even from Adam’s rib, or one who has studied chemistry, biology, anatomy, and modern medicine?

  14. #14 Dan L
    February 17, 2011

    If someone wants to believe something that will kill them,
    then let them die. Suicide should not be illegal. There is
    no shortage of people.

  15. #15 Mike Haubrich
    February 17, 2011

    I think the shameful thing is that they’re using their religion as an excuse for their political ideological bent which dictates a business as usual approach. They can’t justify it with facts so they resort to hijacking religion to back up their point of view.

    Why do you think that this is a modern facet of some extreme religious view? This is at heart the reason that religion exists, to add external and supernatural authority to the political institutions of society. Religion deals in the scarce resources of salvation and authority (which is why each one assumes primacy over all others.)

    I was at a rally last week in the Minnesota Capitol building, and it was dominated by religious groups who knew better than other religious groups that their Creator was ON THEIR SIDE. They had no doubt, no question, that God wants the state to allow gays to marry. And there will be other rallies in the same rotunda which will feature speakers who will say that they know that their Creator created people pure and heterosexual and only sin can be responsible for homosexuality and that their Creator is ON THEIR SIDE.

    The leaders of Kiribati believe that their Creator is ON THEIR SIDE and more powerfful than man’s industry and will miraculously save them from the inevitable consequences of a warming climate and a warming sea that is taking in more carbon dioxide and becoming acidic and killing large reefs of coral. God won’t allow it because he loves his people. Even though this same God has been foolish enough to harm his people in Mexico City, in Haiti, in Iraq and places prone to massive earthquakes, he is going to spare them because they, are, um. them and God loves them.

    Politics and religion have always been slinky bedfellows, and to feign shock, shock, I tell you, that the denialists are using religion is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

  16. #16 Timberwoof
    February 17, 2011

    Dan, is it okay for a political leader to believe in something that will kill the people he is responsible for?

  17. #17 MacTurk
    February 17, 2011

    The problem is that they believe, and that this belief, to a large extent, defines themselves/justifies their personhood. Their beliefs are not susceptible to logical analysis, and indeed become less susceptible to logic and facts as the situation gets worse. “We must have stronger faith” they will say as more wells become salty, as more fields become unusable, as more villages vanish and as their population becomes totally dependent on food aid.

    And as the non-believers are such a small minority, with no political influence, nothing will be done except to increase the number of prayer services.

    Mind you, they can be as strong in their faith as they want, but I predict a growing tendency towards atheism as the water rises above their waists(artistic licence).

  18. #18 Nancyinwi
    February 17, 2011

    For some odd reason, I looked up Kiribati on Wikipedia (yeah, I know, Wikipedia) last week–according to that article, there are some Kiribatians taking sea rise seriously. The article states that in 2008, the islands asked NZ and Australia to accept their people as refugees when the time comes. In the article:” In June 2008, the Kiribati president Anote Tong said that the country has reached “the point of no return”; he added:” “To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that.”‘
    So, one can hope that religion notwithstanding, at least some people there are planning for the future.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    February 17, 2011

    Nancy, I remember that. I think what is happening here is a reversal. For some reasons, and I have my suspicions, leaders there are trying to crank down the concern about global warming.

  20. #20 Timberwoof
    February 17, 2011

    Mike Haubrich, no one is surprised that religionists are using their religion to justify their political actions. Are you asking us to not point out when it happens? If we say, “Some religious leaders fool their followers into believing dangerous things,” you will ask for evidence, right?

  21. #21 Stephanie Z
    February 17, 2011

    Timberwoof, I think you misunderstood Mike. He’s pointing out that this kind of political self-justification is one of the primary reasons for religion to exist, not an abuse of otherwise innocent religion.

  22. #22 Mike Haubrich
    February 17, 2011

    Yep, Stephanie’s got my number on this one.

  23. #23 Dan L
    February 17, 2011

    “Dan, is it okay for a political leader to believe in something that will kill the people he is responsible for?”

    I think the question is ill-formed. A political leader is not
    “responsible for his people”. He is not the daddy or mommy to
    “his people”. He is not God’s representative on earth. He is
    the decision making proxy of a collective, and that’s all.

    And some political systems don’t concern themselves with the
    welfare or desires or the consent of the governed.

    That said, I think it depends on the degree of the informed
    consent of the governed. Fully informed consent, then fully
    okay. Partial consent or partial information, then not fully
    okay. So it’s shades of gray, like everything else.

  24. #24 g724
    February 18, 2011

    I’m with those who say, let Darwin have them. The sane ones ought to be applying for asylum in Australia now, and natural selection can deal with the rest.

    Halfway around the world, another culture is locked within the grip of a religion known as Mammonism, based on worship of a ghostly deity known as The Invisible Hand, conducted in a special type of church known as The Market, and involving various rituals with a sacred substance known as Money that is said to confer special powers on those who have a lot of it.

    According to Mammonians, their deity, acting through their church, will prevent any harm from coming to them.

    So once again, I’m with those who say, let Darwin have them. The sane ones ought to be applying for asylum in Australia now, and natural selection can deal with the rest.

    And yes, I’m as serious as a heart attack about that.

  25. #25 Mike Haubrich
    February 19, 2011

    I think there is an increasing tendency today in our world to forget that man is a creature who is dependent on his creator for life. He gave you life, no one made you or me.

    Although I would rather not visualize the act, I have it on good authority that two people created me. Rosemary, you may have been formed from clay, but there are some pretty good ways of making babies if people want to learn how.

  26. #26 joem
    February 20, 2011

    May I remind you that the 20th was trashed by Nazis and Communists not by religious people.

    Blind faith is hardly restricted to the religious.

  27. #27 Stella
    February 27, 2011

    This article is a perfect example atheist religious fervor. If the man quoted in the article had been atheist instead of Christian, some fundamentalist Christian Could have written this overly hysterical, misleading, judgmental, arrogant, simpering article, except of course it would have been about what bad people atheists are.

    THe article that you took the quote from admittedly didn’t mention any proactive actions being taken, but they also did not go so far as you did to claim misleadingly that the leaders of the country would let their people drown. A person who was not a brainwashed religious atheist could have reasonable inferred from the article, that that was one man speaking his beliefs and that the article was not about the people’s eventual demise, but about how religion saturates the island in general.

    A person who was not an brainwashed religious atheist could also have used a simple tool called Google to find this article before trying to spread pointless false dogma:

    http://www.solomontimes.com/news.aspx?nwID=3584

    Listen, I know the Christians do the same thing to you, and that’s not right either, but do you really have to be come just like them? If you fight fair, you look better.

  28. #28 Stephanie Z
    February 27, 2011

    Stella, Tong =/= Tito; widespread =/= all.

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    February 27, 2011

    Stella, you are correct that there are kiribatois who prefer to not die in the climate change induced flood. One wonders why their voice has lately been hidden. Who’s paying off whom? And this has nothing whatsoever to do with atheism. This has everything to do with the particular brand of personal and social insanity we call religion.

  30. #30 Stella
    February 28, 2011

    You should apologize for misleading people and especially so harshly and arrogantly.

  31. #31 Stella
    February 28, 2011

    This guy wouldn’t apologize either.

    [Spam link to icky religious site removed by editor. Don't like me editing your comments? That's easy to fix. Go away and complain about it for the rest of your worthless life on some other blog.]

    What’s the big deal if you use a scientific forum to dishonestly attack an entire group of people who are facing monumental upheavals in their life? Hey, if you get to fantasize about them being selected against because you’re just those kinds of people, why would polluting science in the process bother you?

    So you’re not going to admit what you did, but I’m going to keep coming back here and checking on what you write. Every time you lie, I post about it. So you can keep wishing people would die if you want, just be honest about why you’re doing it.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    February 28, 2011

    Stella, are you serious? JEHTFDYTYA?

  33. #33 Stephanie Z
    February 28, 2011

    Stella, can you point to precisely what in Greg’s text (i.e., in Greg’s words) you claim is a lie? And explain which “entire group of people who are facing monumental upheavals in their life” you think he’s talking about?

  34. #34 Paco
    March 9, 2011

    So send a boat to pick up the 23 and leave the rest to their beliefs (and the sea gods). Problem solved.

  35. #35 Jason Thibeault
    March 9, 2011

    Stella: I believe Greg means, “JEWTFDYTYA?” I’m pretty sure he knows HOW you think you are.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    March 9, 2011

    Unless the A is something else…

  37. #37 Buy PHP Books
    March 10, 2011

    You and I are not that Intelligent to understand the Working Of the Universe.Only God Knows it because he regulates it,but yes,sometimes some things happen that you are bound to question the existence of God.

  38. #38 Lynn
    March 10, 2011

    Like Daniel (#5), the flood talk reminded me of Shimkus, too. I’d just add that he’s not just a religious lunatic who cites rainbows as evidence (harmless); he’s also the chairman of the U.S. Energy Subcommittee on Environment and Economy (harmful).

  39. #39 Samsara
    April 11, 2011

    Due to the publication of the final three books of the Harry Potter series, much of the controversy surrounding or ancient mysteries,Harry Potter has died down. Perhaps the initial heated reactions have cooled off, and conservatives have realized that Harry Potter’s success is just something they’ll have to live with. Or perhaps the depth and detail of the Harry Potter world is now too large to be digested into a simple anti-magic rhetoric. And yet, perhaps the most fascinating similarities between Jesus Christ and Harry Potter continue to be largely ignored – some of which were only revealed in the final book. Although these similarities are explored on many blogs and websites, experts disagree about the related implications.To get into more detailed information visit:
    Jesus Potter Harry Christ

  40. #40 tachu
    argentina
    January 30, 2013

    no, wait. It’s an intresting article, but I don’t agree with that last conclusion; “religious institutions can make terrible mistakes based on their beliefs, so secular institution should be preivileged?”… we should prove that secular institution are not to make terrible mistakes based on their beliefs, that is, their ideology, their economic model, whatever. Even their scientific advice !
    I insist, is a good point that we should be careful about that thin line you talk about, but the conclusion is just… ¿fallacious? (sorry about my english, hehe. I hope I made my point… either you agree or not.)

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