Thursday, February 9, 2012

Reproductive Health Based on Science


In another context, I have argued that treating scripture as the last word in morality is as stupid as treating Hippocrates as the last word in medicine.

(See: Atheist Ethicist: Scripture as a Source of Moral Knowledge)

(Also Relevant: Atheist Ethicist: Faith Hospital.)

Imagine having our entire health network claim that there are no medical facts that have not appeared in the writings of Hippocrates, and nothing written in Hippocrates that is not a medical fact.

In fact, it is even more foolish to hold that the bible is the last word in morality.

Hippocrates at least was at least the model for medical knowledge in his age, and a wise and compassionate individual. Whereas scripture was not so much about morality as it was about securing the social and political power of priests and kings by securing the faithful, unreasoned, and unquestioning obedience of their subjects. They claim that the command is to obey God.

However, there is no God. There is only the person who claims to be able to tell you what God says. Consequently, what is presented as, "Obey God without question or justification or suffer the consequences in this world or the next," is, in practice, "Obey me or suffer the consequences."

When I assert that making scripture the last word in morality is worse than making Hippocrates the last word in medicine, I assume that readers will see that making Hippocrates the last word in medicine is a bad thing.

That may be optimistic.

What we get from scripture - in particular concerning matters of reproductive health - very much fits the description of taking the word of people far less intelligent than Hippocrates as the final word in medicine. We are, in fact, prescriptive primitive pre-historic remedies for our social ills.

Even the social and political elite, who shaped religion for their benefit, had some reason to prefer to be the elite in a healthy and well-ordered society unmarred by petty jealousies, than one that was riddled with disease and violence. Some of their "Obey me . . . ahem . . . I mean . . . obey God or suffer the consequences" commandments were actually geared to help them rule over a healthy and prosperous society. To do this, their commandments contained within it the medical facts and fictions of their age.

When we use these same prescriptions we are, in effect, declaring them to be the last and best words in matters of medicine, biology, and psychology - which is actually worse than declaring Hippocrates the last word in medicine.

Again, I am not claiming that these people were engaged in a conscious campaign to deceive people. It is more likely that they believed that their god or gods existed and wondered what qualities those beings had.

Naturally, they would start by assigning to those deities the qualities they wanted those deities to have. Their assignments faced no reality check in terms of truth so they could not be disproved. The only reality check they did face was whether their assertions would survive - which was a measure of their usefulness to the elite.

In this case, we not only get the virtue of blind obedience already mentioned, but other elements that help to secure power. There is good reason to view the demand that women be baby-making machines in such a society as a way to secure power.

The elite needs soldiers and servants, and societies were organized to fulfill that need. The more children, the more effectively they can be raised to be capable soldiers and servants for the elite, the better off the elite become. Therefore, god commands women to stay home and have children and to raise them according to scripture to become soldiers and servants of the elite, donating their time and labor as the elite dictate.

Limiting sexual partners limits the spread of disease and limits the petty jealousies that reduce the quality of the society over which the elites rule. It makes medical sense to command people to have few sexual partners - particularly in a primitive society that knows so little about medicine, biology, and psychology. It was not a stupid move.

Similarly, many of the remedies that Hippocrates prescribed were not foolish. They were wrong, but not foolishly wrong. They may have been the best remedies for that time, but it does not imply that we should not use our current knowledge to replace it with something better.

When we accept the absurdity that these prescriptions came from a perfectly wise and benevolent god, rather than from a social elite using the knowledge of their age to secure their position at the head of their own societies, we are actually claiming that the tribesmen of that age had both perfect virtue and perfect knowledge of medicine, biology, and psychology. We are accepting an absurdity, and we are basing social policy on that absurdity.

Where we know have a great deal of knowledge about the relationships between sexual behavior, brain structure, biology, and evolution, the primitive inventors of scripture did not even know that those relationships existed. I have been spending my time going over Sean Faircloth’s new atheist strategy. It includes ten policy objectives for the secular and atheist community. The second of those ten policy objectives is for reproductive information to be based on science – not on myth.

This means that when we go to discover what is known about the medical, biological, and psychological facts relevant to reproduction and reproductive health, we are not going to go to the ignorant tribesman who knew almost nothing about the world in which he lived. Instead, we are going to go to those who have libraries full of peer-reviewed literature that tells them what the facts are.

We are going to do this for the same reason that if we go to build a bridge or a communications satellite, we are not going to ask the primitive tribesmen who does not even have the capacity to read and write to determine the best way to go about it. We are going to ask the people who have stacks of material at their disposal telling them the facts of materials science, chemistry, and physics relevant to doing the job competently.

It is utterly foolish to consider an ancient Greek, no matter how gifted he was in his time, to be the last word ever on all matters of medicine. It is more foolish to go to an illiterate tribesman to have him design a complex bridge or communications satellite. And it is an extreme form of foolishness to go to ancient tribesmen who have been dead for a few thousand years as the last word in matters of reproductive health.

As Faircloth says, the new atheist political strategy should have, as one of its objectives, reproductive information based on science, not based on the superstitions of illiterate tribesmen who have been dead for a few thousand years.

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