Sunday, December 16, 2012

Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head

I scooped this one up from Facebook today.  Arthur C. Clarke knew a fair amount about science, but he got into trouble when he strayed beyond his field.  I've had occasion to make fun of him before, so today I'll settle for making fun of this statement.

Two questions: When did Religion "hijack" morality, and more important, from whom did it "hijack" it?  On its face the statement (from his 1991 "Credo") makes very little sense.  As I've pointed out before, a good many atheists talk about Religion as though it were an autonomous entity, virtually a person, that keeps us from being sane and rational.  But religion is a complex of practices, beliefs, and ideas that human beings invented. Saying that religion hijacked morality is like saying that a puppet turns around and punches its puppeteer in the nose, all by itself.  In fact the puppet can only do what a human being makes it do.  To add to the fun, religion (or politics, or science, or philosophy, or art) is like a puppet with billions of puppeteers who disagree with each other, often vehemently, about what the puppet should look like, or do, or say.  But it can't do anything without its puppeteers.

Historically, it's most likely that morality and religion were originally inseparable -- that people worked out moral systems within the context of religious belief and practice -- just as religion and science used to be, or religion and art, or religion and philosophy.  Clarke was disingenuously reversing who really tried to snatch morality from whom: it was scientists who tried to claim morality for Science and Rationality.  It's possible to doubt how much of an advance this was.  Scientists tended to accept a lot of religious morality uncritically; they just wanted to be in charge of enforcement.  So, instead of executing homosexuals or putting them in jail, as the irrational churchmen often wanted to do, scientists favored institutionalization with "treatment," ranging from lobotomies to electroshock to doses of hormones.  Scientists tended to agree that women should not go to college or enter the professions, since it was scientific fact that higher education drove women insane or made them sterile; the history of women in the sciences makes for depressing reading, and reveals the religious roots of science all too clearly.  Scientists continue to embarrass themselves on the subject of rape. The masturbation hysteria of the nineteenth century (and extending well into the twentieth) was the work, not of theologians, but of medical doctors.  Scientific racism is still with us, as is the readiness of scientists to provide politicians with ever more destructive weaponry.

Of course, scientists are not united on these issues, but neither are religious believers. The puppeteers are divided against themselves on just about everything.  That's not bad in itself; I consider it reassuring.  The trouble is that the puppeteers believe that the puppets have lives and minds of their own, which is the kind of irrational magical thinking that people like Clarke like to lament, while sharing it.

Clarke did say one thing I can agree with: "It is amazing how childishly gullible humans are."  It's confirmed by the people who made his remark about religion hijacking morality into a meme, and by those who are spreading it around the Internet.