Originally published 1/22/10
In 1967, when my favorite actor Alan Arkin was asked what he was doing to stop the Vietnam War, he simply stated, “I sit home and curse a lot.” That cynical quote always resonates with me; it succinctly describes the helplessness one feels when observing a situation over which he or she has no control. That is exactly how I feel when I hear evangelical Christian Pat Robertson say that Haiti had its recent earthquake because of a deal that it made with the devil. It is how I feel when a Muslim suicide bomber blows himself up in Israel.
It is how I feel when an Orthodox Jew refuses to carry an umbrella on a rainy Shabbat because it is considered work.
Now, wait a second. Isn’t there a difference between something as silly and harmless about refusing to carry an umbrella during a rainy Shabbat and blowing oneself up in a crowded street in Israel? No. The outcome may be different, but the motive is the same: FAITH, the belief in something without evidence. If faith is the driving force in a person’s life, why should one differentiate between faith in what is considered “work” on Shabbat and faith in being greeted in heaven with 72 virgins after an act of suicidal martyrdom– or believing that God causes natural disasters as a way to punish the world for sin?
Here we are in the 21st century– despite having science that explains why we have earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes– with a great deal of people believing that the recent earthquake in Haiti was an act of God. Same thing with Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami. Many people claim that these disasters actually strengthened their faith in God. Sounds nice and poetic, doesn’t it? Does it sound nice and poetic if a battered woman’s love for her abusive husband is strengthened every time he beats her? If these disasters are truly acts of God, then God is a sadist and I want nothing to do with him. I really do wonder if the same people who say that disasters strengthen their faith in God would just as easily allow themselves to be in an abusive relationship. Or is this just an example of doublethink that we humans are so frighteningly adept at?
It is faith that is impeding scientific progression. I get frustrated when somebody refuses to accept evolution when he or she knows nothing about it to begin with. “Why not live and let live?” I’m often asked. “So what if somebody believes that the earth is 6000 years old. It’s harmless. It doesn’t affect you.” Actually, yes, it does affect me. It affects all of us, even if in indirect ways. I think there is a logical path from the utter disrespect of science that comes with rejecting evolution and believing that the earth is 6000 years old to creating a society that makes it safe for a lot of dangerous ideas. If the belief in a young earth and an old earth are equally valid claims, why should we take science seriously when it makes any claim at all? Why should we take it seriously when it claims that HIV causes AIDS and that the virus cannot be transmitted casually?
Remember Ryan White, the poster boy for AIDS in the 1980s who contracted HIV through tainted batches of Factor VIII to treat his hemophilia? By the time Ryan was diagnosed, scientists had already identified HIV and understood how it could be spread. Despite that these findings were made public, people continued to believe that HIV could be spread through casual contact. This utter disregard for science led to people pulling their children out of the school that Ryan was attending, moving out of the neighborhood, and even firing a bullet through his window. And yes, this was a primarily American phenomenon. In much of Europe, there was no AIDS panic in the 1980s. In Finland, for example, if you say that you believe that the earth is 6000 years old, you might as well be saying that the earth is flat. As soon as HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS, it was not only made public to adults, but also to children as young as six in school textbooks. In countries where science is given more respect, why would there be an AIDS panic?
What about global warming? Again, if the belief that the earth is 6000 years old is just as valid as the belief that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, why should we take it seriously when scientists say that global warming is happening? Aren’t both positions equally valid?
This is the kind of danger that respect for faith is creating. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to browbeat a religious friend into accepting evolution or an old earth. But I am going to ask that friend if he understands the theory of evolution as well as recommend books on the subject. What else can I do? I may have to reluctantly accept a religious friend’s belief about evolution and the age of the earth, but I am still going to be scared for the future of humanity.
People have also pointed out to me that faith can have good effects on people: how can I possibly be right if millions of people say I’m wrong? An example I have been given a few times often involves a teenager who was a drug addict or suicidal until he or she found religion and gave it up. Again, if religion is keeping someone from slitting their wrists or shooting heroin, I’m not going to take that away from them. But I will wonder why it had to be religion that saved the person’s life. Couldn’t another structure have had a positive effect? What about exercising, which increases endorphin release in the brain (that, by the way, has an explanation that takes an understanding of evolution to grasp)? Or a martial arts class, which builds self-esteem and discipline? What about art classes? And so forth.
One question that is not asked in these situations is this: WHERE WERE THE PARENTS? I cannot pass judgment on every parent, but when I hear a story like the aforementioned, I wonder if the parents have failed their children by not giving them the proper tools to cope with problems that inevitably arise during the teenage years. If I had a child who was suicidal or a drug addict and then turned to religion in order to recover, I wouldn’t fight it: I would be glad that my child was no longer in immediate danger. But I would be secretly banging my head against the wall, wondering where I had failed as a parent that my child’s life spiraled out of control to the point in which he or she felt the need to turn to an invisible friend for comfort. I also would be concerned about the obvious possibilities of a child becoming fundamentalist and what kind of harm that could cause him or her later on in life.
I also want to point out that the same people who think it’s wonderful that a once-suicidal or drug-addicted child finds the Judeo-Christian God would likely be concerned if the child turned to an imaginary friend of their own creation, or even to another religion, such as Islam or Wicca. How much do you want to bet that these parents would put their child in therapy if that were the case?
I hope that I have adequately illustrated the dangers of faith. No longer can we remain silent in a world that finds religious conviction virtuous. We have to raise awareness of what science has to offer. Science explains plate tectonics, tropical storms, and why exercise is therapeutic for the mind. There are many wonderful books on these subjects.