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Never discuss politics or religion? Think again

Yes, it makes us very mad to argue politics.  But we need to do it, anyway.
Yes, it makes us very mad to argue politics. But we need to do it, anyway.
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For many years, it’s been “popular wisdom” that we don’t talk politics or religion in polite company. Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are precisely the two things we must talk about. It is difficult to think of two subjects which impact each of our lives more on a day-to-day basis. To eschew these discussions is to choose social comfort over – let’s not sugar coat it – the good of every human on earth. Yes, I mean it that dramatically. To not argue politics, especially in America, is to choose comfort over the good of humanity.

Let’s take an easy topic: Climate change. America is far and away the biggest producer of emissions which are drastically changing the environment. You and I, and all other Americans, are a part of this. Every day. There are many reasons we are such carbon gluttons. We are a big country, and long drives use more carbon than short drives. Our infrastructure is heavily skewed towards individual rather than public transportation. We build very big houses for very small families. We are not pursuing enough alternatives like solar, which produce far fewer emissions (although kudos to President Obama for recently moving forward in a better direction). We are very wasteful. And here’s the important part: except for the geography of the United States, each of these factors is heavily influenced by politics. It would be next to impossible for us to make far-reaching changes without changing our laws and policies.

If this was just about us, one could almost be forgiven for shrugging it off, but we just observed that it’s not just us. Our lack of action on this one issue will affect billions of people for as far into the future as we can see.

Now, perhaps you disagree with me on some point. Maybe you think I’m wrong about how much we’re producing. Or maybe the seriousness of climate change. If you disagree, then it’s really important for you to mention it. Why? Because billions of people are depending on us getting this right. If climate change is not a problem, then we need to know it. There are thousands of scientists all over the world who think it is a huge deal, and are spending their whole careers trying to affect policy change. That’s a waste of amazing talent, time, and money which could be spent on feeding children or curing cancer. By not arguing against it, you are keeping people from helping others.

This brings us naturally to the next point in my argument. Politics is really just a placeholder for science. Yes, you read that right. Politics is really science. Here’s how it works. In our example, there is a correct scientific answer to climate change. It is, or it is not happening, and it is or is not a big problem. One of these is true, and the other is false. Everything about how we produce and consume energy is dependent on us basing our policy on the correct answer. The same is true for pretty much every political argument we can think of:

  • Minimum wage increases either hurt small businesses, or they do not.
  • Increasing wage gaps either stimulate or stagnate economies.
  • Current welfare payments are either enough, or not enough, to get people out of poverty.
  • The security changes since 9/11 in America either have or have not made us safer.
  • Marijuana either is or is not a threat to society.

Each of these issues, for which there is a correct answer, impacts how each of us live our lives. If there’s no good reason for us to criminalize marijuana, then nearly a million people are in jail for no good reason. If the billions of dollars spent on TSA and the Department of Homeland Security have been spent on a nearly non-existent threat, then that is billions that could have been spent on schools, or medicine, or food.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained it eloquently:

“Is it political if I tell you that if we burn coal, you’re going to warm the atmosphere? Or is that a statement of fact that you’ve made political? It’s a scientific statement. The fact that there are elements of society that have made it political, that’s a whole other thing.”

As simply as possible, politics is the place where we decide what to do with scientific findings. In today’s GOP, the answer is overwhelmingly to ignore them, and even to institute policy which directly contradicts them. If you or I decide not to join in this conversation, we are willfully and knowingly choosing to make science irrelevant. Scientists are busy doing science, and only a few of them, like Tyson, make it to the political stage. It is up to the rest of us to hold our lawmakers responsible for creating laws which reflect the truth as best we understand it.

Bill Maher had something to say along these lines, and while I might disagree with some of his positions (which I will debate when given the chance), I think he got it exactly right when he said this about politics:

“[F]reedom isn’t free. It shouldn’t be a bragging point that “Oh, I don’t get involved in politics,” as if that makes you somehow cleaner. No, that makes you derelict of duty in a republic. Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn’t insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable.”

And this observation, if we agree with it, is the nail in the coffin for one of the most infuriating arguments against debating politics. “I don’t have time to learn all this.” Actually, no. That’s not true. You can’t afford not to learn about the things that make your life what it is. The fact is, you don’t have time largely because our country’s laws make it very difficult to work a moderate amount and make a good living. If people like you had voted for the people who were respecting science, you’d have more free time to debate politics. America is the most overworked nation on earth, and we’re no farther ahead than any other country in terms of happiness. Most of us don’t even have more stuff to show for all our work. And there’s plenty of science to prove this. So no, I’m sorry, your lack of time is the proof that all of us must get involved in politics, and debate those who argue against science.

At the beginning of this piece, I said I would try to make the case that arguing politics is more important than arguing religion. To do that, I’ll first say that religion and politics are nearly inseparable in the U.S. today. We all know that the GOP is the party of Fundamentalist Jesus, and everything from birth control to abortion to welfare is being sold with a Biblical stamp of approval. When we argue about a policy which the religious support, we are directly challenging their religion, but more than that, we’re directly combating the effect of their religious beliefs. We’re trying to reduce the harm they’re doing.

It is often argued that religion does real harm, and reducing religion will eventually reduce the harm. I believe this is true, and that's why I believe we have to argue politics. By getting political now, we can find ways to reduce the harm now, and to some degree, it doesn't matter if people stay religious. By changing the laws of the land, we can render their religion less capable of doing harm. So I say, stop the bleeding first. Fix the practical harm being done largely by the religious. Once Christians no longer have the ability to legislate their version of morality, we can argue with them about whether Baby Jesus wants women to use birth control or have abortions.

So set a bookmark on your smartphone, and read about politics and science every chance you get. And when you hear someone say something you know isn’t true… debate them. And if you think I'm wrong about debating religion and politics, then let's debate that.

A previous version of this article appeared on Secularite.com