Thursday, June 16, 2005

President Bush and Heritage Foundation Say Religion is Not Necessary

How the Abstinence-Only Controversy Shows that Scientists are Morally Proper:

I am aware of the fact that this is the kind of reasoning that got Socrates killed.  I'll probably get a UPS delivery of hemlock tomorrow morning.

First, a trip to the confessional: it was not Bush who said this, it was his press secretary, Ari Fleisher:
 Q Ari, the Associated Press reports that in reaction to what they termed your stern rebuke of Jerry Thacker, a group called Human Rights Campaign said that while this was a positive development, the Bush administration's "obsessive focus on abstinence as the solitary mechanism to prevent the transmission of HIV is not based on sound science."

And my question is, what is the Bush administration's response to this charge that you are obsessive and unscientific?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think from the President's point of view he has long made the case that abstinence is more than sound science, it's a sound practice, that abstinence has a proven track record of working. Now, this is part of an approach that includes, under the budget the President has submitted, other approaches as well, not just one approach or another approach.

But the President has indicated that he thinks that we need to have more of a focus in our school system on abstinence as an option for young people.
The Heritage Foundation backs this up.  In a long essay, they claim to have documented solid scientific evidence that abstinence-only sex education programs work.  They go on to discuss Virginity Pledge Programs; Not Me, Not Now; Operation Keepsake; Abstinence by Choice; Virginity Pledge Movement; Teen Aid and Teen Respect; Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS); Postponing Sexual Involvement (PSI); Project Taking Charge; and the Teen Aid Family Life Education Project.  

I am especially fond of the Virginity Pledge Movement.  It brings to mind an image of a prim young lady in an apron, polishing furniture with a certain household chemical, applying it adroitly with just the right movement, smiling at the camera.

The Heritage Foundation put an awful lot of work into this argument.  They even cite a particular study that supports their claims, proudly mentioning that it was published in JAMA*.  All of this hardly seems worth the effort.  There is a long history of government funding for abstinence-only education.  

It is not my intention here to refute this nonsense; the Union of Concerned Scientists has done that already:  
During President Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, for instance, with abstinence-only programs in place, the state ranked last in the nation in the decline of teen birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old females.
Incidentally, the UCS has a donation matching program running until July 15.  An anonymous donor will double any donation until then (up to a total of $300,000).  But I am not really trying to solicit donations for them; that is just an aside.  The fact that I gave them another $50 is not meant to imply endorsement.**

The point is this: although it mostly is irritating to hear this tripe from a President who -- with a straight face -- often promotes the virtues of Sound Science, it also is comforting in a way.  Every one of these proclamations contains the implicit message that scientific findings lead to morally proper conclusions.  

After another trip to the confessional, I admit that the title of this post is misleading:  Bush and the Heritage Foundation did not really say that religion is unnecessary.  But, they may as well have:  If it makes sense to promote science as the foundation of a morally proper course of action, then it would follow that all of those atheist scientists are not really amoral heathens.  So long as they do their science right, they may still be heathens, but at least they are morally proper heathens.  

If science leads one to Do The Right Thing, do we really need religion?

UPDATE:  You will be happy to know that, as of 6/19/05, no hemlock has arrived.  Also, I would like to point out that the line of reasoning presented here already has been established by others.  Pharyngula has an amusing version presented as fictional allegory.  The author, Dr. Myers, links to a post on Majikthise, in which Ms. Beyerstein discusses a professor who was denied a chairmanship because of allegations that he was the author of an essay promoting atheism.  Ms. Beyerstein, in turn, links to a formal philosophical explication of The Euthyphro Dilemma, which refutes the validity of divine command as a source of moral goodness.

* The American Medical Association later issued a policy statement indicating that abstinence-only programs don't work, as did The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA), and the American Psychological Association.  There are many others, but if I listed them all, this would no longer be a footnote.

** I am practicing doublespeak in case I ever get elected President.

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