Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Meek Shall Inherit What's Left of the Earth the Mean and Dumb Destroy

For this year's Blog Against Theocracy, I wanted to revisit some infamous remarks by Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) during a set of March 2009 hearings held by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment:

The key remarks are:

The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.

Shimkus has said plenty of other dumb things. However, these particular remarks were both dumb and theocratic, and therefore of greater concern. They're problematic – or dangerous – for at least three reasons.

One, environmental and energy policies for the United States should not be dictated by any religious text. The same goes for all public policy, but the problem is especially glaring for any policy involving science. (We'll deal with some caveats in a bit.) Shimkus was pushing a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Passing a law that said, "You can't regulate pollution because the Bible says so" would not pass constitutional muster.

Two, Shimkus is on shaky religious grounds as well. The passage he cites only refers to what the God of the Bible will or will not do - human beings are quite capable of destroying the planet all on their own. (More specifically, human beings are quite capable of destroying humanity, but the planet would survive.) Additionally, Shimkus is picking and choosing what he wants from the Bible in his Appeal to Religious Authority. He's not asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban eating shellfish, or asking Congress to abolish a few amendments to bring back slavery, or trying to outlaw certain types of clothing, or otherwise trying to enforce many other precepts in the Bible.

Three, assuming Shimkus is sincere in his stated beliefs, his religion makes him a less reflective, less responsible human being. He has spouted beliefs that dictate that he, and other human beings, and the government of the United States of America, do not need to act responsibly when it comes to energy and the environment, because God will sweep in to save the day.

Shimkus' views are not uniform among religious conservatives, but they are far from rare. At least one conservative pundit considers the global financial collapse a divine mystery rather than the completely predictable result of human skullduggery. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter has attacked environmental responsibility:

The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man's dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it's yours. That's our job: drilling, mining and stripping. Sweaters are the anti-Biblical view. Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars — that's the Biblical view.

Some biblical scholars argue that "dominion" is better translated as "stewardship," which better fits the spirit of many other Biblical passages (not to mention Adam's trade as a gardener or farmer). This is basically the stance of evangelical environmentalists, who oppose the views of Coulter and Shimkus. It's hard to imagine Jesus urging anyone to recklessly strip-mine, raze a forest or pollute the world. That fits better with the cult of Ayn Rand.

It can be useful to discuss religious beliefs, or atheism, less in terms of "What do you believe?" and "Why do you believe that?" and more in terms of "How do your beliefs shape your actions?" Some individuals approach religion in a way that makes them more reflective, more considerate of others, and more engaged in their communities. Many others approach religion in a way that makes them less reflective, less tolerant, and more reckless. I would argue that Shimkus, Coulter and their ilk on wrong on religious grounds, and it could be useful to challenge them in these terms. However, they're wrong for many other reasons, too. It's more important to note that, implicitly, they are preaching theocracy, religious rule – and even more importantly, to point out that they are preaching recklessness and irresponsibility. When some people say they believe "everything happens for a reason," what they really mean is, "you should try to make the best out of a bad situation." What others mean is, "you shouldn't question anything that happens, and you definitely shouldn't challenge the people choosing to screw you over"... or in this case, you shouldn't challenge the people despoiling the planet and polluting public air and water in the name of greed.

Public policy in the United States should not be dictated by any religious text. That doesn't mean that religious people can't participate in government, nor does it mean they can never cite religious passages in public, but the manner in which it's done is very important. Consider Stephen Colbert's remarks in September 2010 on behalf of migrant farm workers:

CONGRESSWOMAN JUDY CHU: Mr. Colbert, you could work on so many issues, why are you interested in this issue?

COLBERT: I like talking about people who don't have any power. And this seems like some of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave. And, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, these seem like the least of our brothers, right now. And I know that a lot of people are the least of my brothers because the economy is so hard, and I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that, but migrant workers suffer, and they have no rights.

(Notice we're back to tilling the land and taking care of the planet again.) Colbert references a famous passage from the Bible here, but look how he does it. He never mentions the Bible, nor Jesus. It wouldn't be utterly horrible if he did, but it's notable that he's trying not to proselytize. Instead, he's invoking a principle, one of compassion and the social contract, that a particular passage happens to express. Compassion is not a religious idea – while some religions emphasize it, compassion does not depend upon religion whatsoever. Colbert's biblical reference might carry additional weight for Christians, and it might also turn off some other listeners. That's a rhetorical choice. However, his argument is hardly dependant on his audience sharing his religious beliefs. He's outlining a grander principle.

That's in sharp contrast to what Shimkus says – an Appeal to Religious Authority. Shimkus' argument cannot hold unless the listener both shares a) Shimkus' religious beliefs, and b) his particular, idiotic interpretation of the Bible. While that makes it a poor argument due to its limited appeal, the main problem is that it's a theocratic argument. Shimkus is asking us to obey rather than question or debate. We shouldn't look at the scientific evidence, because God – according to Shimkus – says we shouldn't. (Shades of the Catholic Church and Galileo.) Even if America didn't have a separation of church and state, that'd be a horrible way to run a country. Put another way, Colbert is asking us to be more thoughtful, while Shimkus is asking us to be less so.

This fits into a common pattern, both with conservative arguments in general and environmental issues specifically: climate scientists are asking us to be more thoughtful about the planet, global warming, and empirical evidence, while climate change deniers are seeking to sow confusion and obfuscate careful study and decision-making.

There are many ways to challenge someone like Shimkus, and there are many reasons to do so. It can be entertaining and effective to refute fools and scoundrels who cite scripture with scripture. However, the more important battle is to fight back against theocracy and authoritarianism in general. As we've examined in previous years, theocrats are not fighting for religious freedom, which they already possess – they are fighting for privilege, and power over others. Shimkus is an authoritarian, and in addition to shilling unchecked corporate greed and pollution, he's preaching unquestioning obedience, ignorance, recklessness and irresponsibility. That's standard for movement conservatism. However, since this is Blog Against Theocracy weekend, let's remember that it's no accident that theocrats often shill horrible ideas; that's a feature, not a bug.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Awesome post, holmes!

Unknown said...

I wonder (and I'm not being sarcastic here, I genuinely wonder) if it's a coincidence that the far right generally uses religion (if not to pull back people's rights) to defend the most powerful interests in the country over everyone else. Do they believe it or are they bought? I could see cases for both. Of course, you could easily say that it doesn't matter - the effect is the same.

Excellent writing.

Marc McDonald said...

If the likes of Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, etc. really are "true" Christians and are going to heaven, then, for the record, I would much prefer to go to hell. I'd much prefer to spend eternity with the likes of God-doubting folks like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Steve Martin.