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.”
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.