Belief and Politics

There has been a lot of talk recently, thanks to the candidacy of Mitt Romney, about the role of personal belief in politics. Jacob Weisberg, writing for Slate, asks if it is religious bigotry to not vote for Romney just because he is Mormon. He argues that this is a valid question because if Romney believes in a religion that is based upon a con-man’s lies, we, as the voters, should know about it and judge him on his gullibility. From a different perspective, Jerry Coyne, in his Edge article, discusses the various candidates’ view of evolution. He discusses Brownback’s claim that we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they’re compatible (Coyne’s paraphrase of Brownback). Coyne’s point is that if candidates reject science that they are uncomfortable with but that the scientific community strongly supports, we should seriously question if that candidate is worth our vote.

(Incidentally, one minor quibble with Coyne’s otherwise excellent article: He draws the analogy of not believing in evolution to be the same as not believing in atoms and states: …there is just as much evidence for the fact of evolution as there is for the existence of atoms. While I think that the scientific evidence in support of the theory of evolution is strong, atoms are directly observable by several techniques while evolution, to the best of my knowledge, is not directly observed.)

Both articles bring up the role of belief in politics and whether we, as the voting public, should take into account the belief of a candidate before voting for him or her. I would venture to say that both Weisberg and Coyne conclude that not only should we, but we absolutely must take belief into consideration. After all, personal belief plays a major role in people’s lives, informing their decisions and how they act. Just look at the role that religion and belief have played in Bush’s presidency.

Weisberg focuses specifically on Mormonism, feeling that Mormonism was essentially started by a con-man and that anyone who believes what Joseph Smith said is too gullible to deserve his vote. I think this is a little unfair, as the one major disadvantage of Mormonism compared to other religions is its age: it is young enough that a lot more is known about the people who started it than most main stream religions. For all we know, most religions were started by con-men (check out this description by Harlan Ellison on the origins of Scientology).

This, however, raises a bigger point: is anyone who has deep religious conviction then unfit for office? All religions have aspects to them that contradict modern scientific findings. Things that are either untestable or unverifiable. Things that they later have to recant as science uncovers new facts about the universe we live in, facts such as the age of the planet, the age of the universe, the origin of species, the Earth’s place in the universe, the origin of the universe, the nature of free will, the origin of a person’s orientation, and the list goes on. Weisberg points out that, just as he wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, he wouldn’t vote for a fundamentalist that truely believed the Earth was only 7000 years old. But what of a candidate that believed in a literal Garden of Eden? At what point do you draw the line between beliefs that are ok for a public servant to have and ones that are too out there?

Probably most dangerous is, as Coyne points out, those candidates that just plain deny science because it conflicts with their beliefs. This is the same attitude that caused the Church to lock up Galileo when he said the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. When this attitude prevails, it causes politicians to ignore scientific evidence and use their faith as a guide in times of difficulty. And this can have potentially disasterous results, as our delay in addressing Global Warming may soon show us.

Personal belief has a role in personal life, where the decisions are smaller scale. And faith is probably part of human nature, stemming from a need to place some kind of order on the world around us. But, when faith is the dominant mechanism for making decisions that affect millions and perhaps billions of people, it becomes dangerous. We don’t all agree on what faith is the correct one, which one better informs us about the world around us. Your faith doesn’t necessarily jive with mine. While science isn’t perfect, it has three advantages, in my mind, over faith. First, it is self-correcting. If I publish results that are suspect, other people will check and double-check them to verify if I have done a good job. Theories and hypotheses are updated and replaced as new evidence is found that does or does not support them. Second, science is relatively objective. All science has a bit of the researcher’s bias in it, but that is again the role of peer review, to uncover those biases and make the results as objective as possible. Finally, science is predictive. That is the ultimate test of scientific theories: once we have a theory, can we predict something new that can then be verified. Science can be tested, faith cannot.

A final point about the role of science in society: science, as a way of looking at the world, has spread throughout the world without any coersion on the part of missionaries or conquerors. It has done so on its own merits. It is thus, in some sense, the one view of the world that the world has come to some level of consensus on. People in all parts of the world have adopted, to varying degrees, a scientific outlook. And they have done this on their own initiative.

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