Sunday, December 23, 2007

Oops, I Diverged Into Politics

This is a rarity, but today's Facebook political debate is encouraging.

At the time of posting, 65% of respondants say that a candidates' religious belief should have no role in decision-making. 39,000 people have taken this position, many of them presumably old enough to vote (though Facebook isn't just for college students anymore, it tends to attract a somewhat older demographic than other networking sites due to its roots). 11% of those polled say that faith should have a "strong role" and 24% say that the role of faith should be "balanced with other considerations." As they say, two out of three ain't bad. Approximately 60,000 people have responded. The question is poorly worded if we want to get picky and technical, but I think most readers are going to interpret the question as being about religious faith--belief in the supernatural or divine. Given the predominance of Christianity in America, when most Americans speak of "faith" they're really talking about the Christian faith. The "postmodernist Christian" defense has commonly been to say that science is a form of faith, too, but this is a misguided straw man that shows little to no understanding of the principles of the scientific method. Anyway.

Separation of church and state issues aside, I personally think that faith should play no role whatsoever in decision-making on behalf of other people.

The major problem with using "faith" as a decision-making tool is that it is the ultimate defense. It can be used to justify any action. To question an action that another person has taken because of "faith" is a personal attack; it is impossible to separate the logic used to support the action from the person because ultimately the only reason that the person took the action is because "they felt it was right." Any debator knows immediately that this is an absurdly weak justification and cannot be used to support a position.

This has, historically, been a very bad justification. Americans spread from sea to shining sea because they believed God wanted them to do so. The Bible has been used to condone slavery (Ephesians 6:5-9; do note that that's the NEW Testament). Islamic terrorists, too, have faith that they are doing the will of God. The people behind Global Orgasm are convinced that it's going to heal the world's problems if we all just find time to make love, not war, at the same time (at least this isn't going to hurt anybody, as long as all involved partners are willing). The "yuck reaction," an appeal to emotion sometimes referred to as "the wisdom of repugnance," suggests that anything we feel is icky or wrong must be inherently distasteful, perhaps even against the personified will of the universe. But the yuck reaction has classically been a thin justification for oppression, used by racists, homophobes, and opponents of potentially valuable scientific progress (stem cell research and animal testing come to mind).

As a society, we are taught in America that faith is a personal matter, and it is wrong to belittle others because their faith differs from our own. What this means is that faith is the infalliable trump card for decision-makers in positions of power. It was the will of God, they say. It was manifest destiny. Kings throughout the ages have secured their seats of power by proclaiming themselves to be emissaries or manifestations of the divine. Surely they rule because it is the will of the greatest of deities, and their falls can be attributed to the loss of favor with the same. How can anyone not see the fallacious thinking here? If a man told you he invested in a particular stock because his horse told him to do so, you'd assume he was schizophrenic. Why can a government's leaders use an equally sound defense and get away with it?

If you're in a position of power, you had better be able to back up all of your major decisions with research and strong evidence. It is inexcusable to ignore evidence in favor of "gut feelings." To let faith affect decisions that will impact other people is sloppy and irresponsible; it should not be tolerated.

We have never had an openly atheist President in the United States. An atheist President would not be infallible. Indeed, he or she would be susceptible to the same kinds of potential mistakes that any leader is capable of making. It isn't important to me that our leader be an atheist. What I want is a leader who is a scientist, someone who bases his or her decisions on the hardest evidence available and on verifiable data instead of ethereal whispers and tomes so far removed from context as to be nearly useless for governing modern societies.

I'm willing to give the 24% who say faith and "other things" should be considered equally the benefit of the doubt because there are quite a few people who don't seem to realize that your personal feelings can be divorced from available evidence when making decisions. When you are governing a million people, sometimes the best decision for the masses is not the one you personally like the most. We don't have a direct democracy in America; we live in a republic. We elect our representatives to make decisions regarding what is best for all of us. Can't they have the maturity to set aside their personal feelings when drafting bills or voting on movements? Why are so few people able to divorce ideas from their sources and consider the ideas without letting the source bias their reasoning?

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