I am an atheist.

I wouldn’t call myself a "militant" atheist, as I don’t consider being an atheist a big part of my life or my self-image. I don’t believe there are furry three-eyed ghosts floating behind me at all times, but I don’t get militant about that either. Why bother?

However, in these times we live in, there’s a strange pressure to show extreme deference to religious proclamations, however expressed, no matter how absurd the content. Witness, for instance, the global media lovefest when the pope died, during which I read a quote from a bishop who said, "papal infallibility doesn’t mean you get it right every time." Oh? Gosh, that sounds kinda dumb to me. But I’m not allowed to say so.

I’m allowed to say that I have a "difference of values" with far-right religious folks about homosexuality, but I’m not allowed to say that finding justification for discrimination in a millennia-old Jewish holy book is %$@#! stupid and irrational.

But whatever. Most of the time, I can live with this — I reside in a secularist blue-state bubble anyway, and I figure the current wave of backwards medieval religious sentiment will pass in due time. Live and let live, I say.

But Richard Dawkins, author of celebrated evolution masterwork The Selfish Gene, does not share my attitude. He shows no deference and hedges no bets. This interview with Dawkins in Salon is, in that way, utterly refreshing. It reminds you how few people, despite the perpetual delusions of persecution on the part of modern-day right evangelicals, are willing to openly criticize the religious — despite their complete lack of restraint in criticizing us atheists.

My point? Glad you asked. The one thing I would ding Dawkins for is this exchange:

Are there environmental costs of a religious worldview?

There are many religious points of view where the conservation of the world is just as important as it is to scientists. But there are certain religious points of view where it is not. In those apocalyptic religions, people actually believe that because they read some dopey prophesy in the book of Revelation, the world is going to come to an end some time soon. People who believe that say, "We don’t need to bother about conserving forests or anything else because the end of the world is coming anyway." A few decades ago one would simply have laughed at that. Today you can’t laugh. These people are in power.

Eh. This is mostly a straw man (one unfortunately promulgated by this very site). I highly doubt that most people in power, no matter how religious, view the environment this way. One need not look beyond greed and cronyism to explain their behavior.

No, I think the environmental costs of a religious worldview have to do with the habits of mind it encourages. Consider the tragicomic fiasco currently taking place in Kansas.

The hearings in Topeka, scheduled to last several days, are focusing on two proposals. The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations.

"Not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations." This, my friends, is not "changing the definition" of science, it is abandoning science.

This is an extreme case, but once you start thinking of processes in the natural world as issuing from supernatural causes, you have left science behind. (The Kansas board, unlike many of their critics, if forthright about this.) And once you leave science behind — along with the mental habits of rigor, constant testing and retesting, comparison against empirical evidence, openness to new explanations — you don’t get it back.

And environmentalism relies crucially on science. Critics say the green movement uses science as a crutch when making its political case, and that’s valid. But the actual business of diagnosing problems, restoring ecosystems, researching and developing new technologies, etc., relies on science and scientific habits of mind.

The only sustainable way forward for humanity is to understand better how the natural world works, and to emulate it better in our lifestyles and technology.

To the extent science and its attendant habits are weakened in the public sphere … well, no matter how much you might think God told you to care for the earth, without scientific understanding you’re not going to know what exactly is happening, or what to do about it, and you’re going to be open to fuzzy-headed manipulation. You reverse the enlightenment and we are royally screwed.

Anyhoo, that’s what Dawkins should have said.

Me, I’m staying out of it.