Accommodationism: onward and downward

June 28, 2009 • 7:03 am

Well, God may have rested on Sundays, but atheists don’t. A mini-kerfuffle has begun with yesterday’s posting of science postdoc John Wilkins at his website Evolving Thoughts.  Wilkins listed six “points” for discussion, these being reasons why accommodationism is the proper strategy for addressing the faith/science dichotomy.  They are the usual mix of I-am-a-nice-guyness, religion-and-science-both-find-truth-ness, and the-atheists-are-so-uncivil-ness.

Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers throws cold water on the feebly smoking embers of  Wilkins’s arguments, writing with his usual pungency:  “I may not be perfectly rational, but my magic invisible monkeys are!” He takes Wilkins down point by point; here are my two favorites (Wilkins’s arguments in bold, P.Z.’s responses in plain type):

2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

Frankly, this is one of the more ludicrous arguments made by accommodationists. If carried to its logical conclusion, it would imply that we shouldn’t work to change any long-standing human behavior for, after all, it’s always been with us, so we should just learn to deal with it.  Had the accommodationists been around at the turn of the last century, they might have counseled us to forget trying to get equal rights for minorities and women: people have always discriminated, and we can’t do anything about it.  (And don’t tell me that this comparison is invidious because faith is much nicer than discrimination, because that’s not relevant. Anyway, faith continues to cause dissent, fighting, and murder throughout the world, not to mention the more passive forms of destruction like fighting against condoms in HIV-plagued countries.)

At any rate, we have ample evidence that societies can indeed become less religious: it’s happened over and over again in Europe.  Sweden and Denmark are now virtually atheistic countries, but they didn’t used to be.  France and Germany are on the way.  Don’t tell us that religion will always be with us.  I have faith — if that’s the right word! — that some day grownups will put away their childish faiths.   A corollary to the faith-will-always-be-with-us view is that atheists need to show the faithful how they can survive without religion. Well, that’s really not our responsibility, but clearly people can have full and meaningful lives without religion. See Ophelia Benson on this issue over at the Guardian website Comments are Free.

5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

Indeed.  Some time ago I ran a contest on this site, offering a free autographed book if anybody could come up with a “truth” about the world that was revealed uniquely by faith.  Nobody won — and it wasn’t for lack of trying!  The “truths” that are supposedly found by faith turn out to be nothing more than moral dictums like the Golden Rule.  This is not, of course,  a truth, but a guide to behavior (and rules like this come from secular ethics as well).  Religion is neither constructed in a way to promote the discovery of truth, nor is particularly good at finding it (think of the “truths” of Adam and Eve, the great flood, and the 6,000-year-old universe). And for every Golden Rule, there’s a “truth” like “adulterers should be stoned to death.” Finally, most of the “truths” of different religions are in irreconcilable conflict with one another.  Was Jesus the son of God? Christians adamantly agree; Muslims think that anyone holding that belief is doomed to eternal torment. Let me say it again:  asserting that science and faith are merely different ways of finding “truth” debases our very notion of what “truth” is.

In their more lucid moments, accommodationists recognize this, but you never see them attacking the common claim (made by, among others, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and others) that science and religion are merely different ways of seeking truth.

On his website Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford has two relevant posts.  The first is an analysis of Chris Mooney’s position on the faith/science dichotomy.

Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist – it’s difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world’s phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical . .

Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking – as far as I can work out – the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it’s bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up . . .

Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas – so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument. . .

I’ve given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney’s judgment.

Yes, that’s right.  Although Mooney has repeatedly claimed that he’s not telling any atheist to shut up, I can’t see that he’s saying anything else.  As far as I can make out, Mooney wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it’s strategically bad. If he is saying something else, what is it?

In another post, Blackford, who has always been properly concerned with definitions, goes after Wilkins’s characterization of “accommodationism” and “anti-accommodationism,” and suggests definitions that seem reasonable, at least to me.

Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

And then Blackford notes that although Chris Mooney and others deny that they were practicing a form of intellectual censorship, they really were:

John laments that the debate got nasty very quickly, but he blames this on the so-called exclusivists. Again, I just can’t see it. The recent phase of the debate began when Jerry Coyne wrote a civil, substantial, and very thoughtful review of books by Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller in The New Republic. Jerry has also criticised science organisations for at least hinting at the compatibility of science of religion (John agrees with Jerry on this point; i.e. John agrees that science organisations should not do this).

For his pains, Jerry was attacked very trenchantly by Chris Mooney. Worse, Barbara Forrest said that Coyne should shut up. She said that “secularists should not alienate religious moderates” and gave Coyne’s book review as an example of alienating the these people. If that is not telling someone to shut up, I don’t know what is. Chris Mooney expressed full agreement with Forrest (as he represented her – I’m relying on his representation of what she said).

If Forrest said what she is represented as saying, then she believes that Coyne should not have reviewed the books by Giberson and Miller the way he did. Only a completely favourable review would have been appropriate, and Coyne should have self-censored. If that is so, I could not have written my review of Francisco Ayala’s recent book in the way I did in Cosmos magazine last year. I should have censored myself. We would all have to censor ourselves, and not express reservations, whenever reviewing a book by what Forrest calls a religious moderate. Surely it is not unreasonable when we anti-accommodationists point out the absurdity of such a position.

Mooney also headed his post in a way that suggested that the people who thus “alienate” the faithful are not civil, though he later disclaimed the implication that Jerry Coyne had been uncivil in his review. But the clear implication was that Coyne’s review was an example of incivility (and it also follows that my review of Ayala’s book would be such an example).

I have to agree here (surprise!).  What is Mooney asking me to do?  I have tried long and hard to figure it out, but have failed.  If it’s something other than keeping my mouth shut about the irreconciliability of science and faith, I’d like to hear it. I can’t engage in debate when I don’t know what the other side is saying.

(n.b.  Chris Mooney thinks that Wilkins’s post is “brilliant”)

22 thoughts on “Accommodationism: onward and downward

  1. At first I thought that the attempt at censorship by the accommodationists was just doing damage to all the progressive work of the so-called (and mislabeled) New Atheists in their books, blogs, articles and lectures. I now see these discussions as being productive, since it is showcasing the accommodationist fears and attempts to stifle further progress.

    The wonderful articles by the likes of Coyne, Myers, Blackford, Krauss, etc. have pointed out the indefensible positions of accomadationists like Mooney, Wilkins, etc.

    My prediction is that the accomodationists will soon quiet down as they see that their positions can not be rationally defended, although they will not be able to admit it publicly because they think they will lose face.

    1. Unfortunately, it becomes rather difficult to conduct a respectable discussion over at Mr. Mooneys’ blog because such discussions are inevitably hijacked by the likes of the Kwok and Mr. McCarthy. I repeat here my suggestion that Mr. Mooney should consider limiting comments on threads by individuals such as these two, as Prof. Rosenhouse has done.

      1. You’re not kidding. Just slogging through the Lawrence Krauss thread was painful. Evey other post seemed to be a diatribe of ignorance from Kwok or McCarthy. I don’t comment much, or come back to comments because they are so hard to find and keep track of (sorry, I’m not getting spam from a comment), but that takes the cake.

      2. Now Farfarman has joined the party – it must be the only blog that still allows him to post. All they need is Robert O’Brien to complete the quartet.

    2. Yes, they sound like 3 stooges in desperate need of convincing themselves that their delusion is true. I wonder if they at least take the time to read each other? Do they think they are on the same page or does each think he’s more coherent than the others?

      They use so many words to say so little.

  2. Hey. Just found your blog through a link from Cosmic Variance. Hope you don’t mind, the below I originally wrote for a post of my own…

    It’s not clear to me that a forthright approach necessarily precludes the possibility of amicably working with people who don’t share the same understandings about science.

    If the point is to be practical and agreeable with, say, religious groups, why must I assume this is only possible by minimizing or obscuring the existence of points of contention? I find it hard to believe a common sense of humanity and respect couldn’t shine through before it got to that point. If it couldn’t, there probably was not much possibility for co-operation in the first place.

    The whole complaint seems to me to reduce to an atmospheric complaint over style which errs excessively toward caution and indifference.

    1. Are you advocating treating certain religious beliefs differently than we’d treat other unsupported conclusions and superstitions? If so, which ones and how. What are the practical means of what you are advising?

      If peoples’ beliefs are threatened by the words of scientists, then maybe it’s not the scientists that need to tone it down. Maybe they are doing their job and getting people to examine the superstitions they’ve come to “believe in”. Think: Galileo.

      If there are no supernatural “truths”, then isn’t it best if those who understand this help prepare the world for acceptance of this fact? Nobody needs to listen to any scientist and we aren’t walking into churches to shatter delusions. But in our classrooms and public lives we should have the same freedom of speech that religionists demand for themselves.

      1. I think you an josef are actually in agreement. I think you might have skipped over the “why must I assume” part (which is what I did the first time I read it).

  3. When one spends too much time involved in politics or in the legal system, truly bizarre notions may be developed. This particular case reminds me of Bill Clinton and the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland.

    “I did not tell that blogger, Jerry Coyne, to shut up”. “Shut up doesn’t mean ‘shut up’. When I use a phrase it means whatever I want it to.”

    Well, OK, he never actually said “shut up”, but as numerous people have pointed out, how can he mean anything *but* “shut up”?

    1. When one spends too much time doing politics, what also happens is that his ability to actually do useful work disappears. Because the way we do politics usually is by sweeping the inconvenient issues under the rug so that nobody sees them and not doing anything about them.

      My honest opinion is that on one side, it is good that we are having this debate, because it is at least a challenge to the default accommodationist position. However, I don’t see how anything productive is coming out of this, other than maybe boosting the sales of computer keyboards.

      So far it seems that both sides agree that they are working towards the same goal, putting religion in its proper place. However, the debates has focused on attacking each other’s general position on how this can be done while I have yet to see what exactly each side’s plan is.

      What I can say is that the way things seem to be now neither will succeed. The accomodationists have had their way for decades with the only result being that they have managed to keep religion out of school, while religion is as strong as ever. The non-accomodationists are writing books and blogging, and while this certainly has had more effect than being nice to religion, it will by no means make the religious stop believe. Because the overlap between the people who read books and the hardcore Christians is small, the overlap between those who will read books by Richard Dawkins or read Jerry Coyne’s blog is even smaller.

      So what is it that we actually do? I have yet to see a strategy that has any reasonable chance to work.

  4. I think you underestimate the power of those who are spreading the message that “faith is not a means of knowledge.”

    It is the best tool for busting through the “belief in belief” meme that pervades society.

    It is akin to declaring that the emperor is naked.

  5. Shame on you, Dr. Wilkins.
    You really should know better than this
    Taking your points in order:
    But far far too many religious followers are not interested in living in the real world.
    They demand that the world accomodste to their fantasies.
    Menawhile it is the DUTY of scientists to point out inconsistencies and falsehoods in the beliefs of the religious when it DOES come to the real world.
    Tha’s because the legislators themselves have been brainwashed.
    And Wrong.
    The last time science was killed by religion, we had the dark ages – we just have to point this out to the politicos …..
    This is called shilly-shallying.
    Unfortunately, given the recent damands for “respect” (like mafia gangsters) on the part of the religious, the only HONEST answer is: get lost.
    Religious bodies have done so, only by either going for a god-of-the-gaps, or by redefining “god” to the point of nothingness.
    And WHAT, precisely IS religion’s way of knowing?
    Bronze-Age Goathereder’s Myths?
    Dark-Ages Camelherders’ Myths?
    How and where and by what controllable measuring-stick is religion’s so-called “knowledge” arrived at?
    Correct – AND –
    Not even wrong.
    Ther IS a war of religion against science, and the scientists are accused of aggression when they defend themselves.

  6. Isn’t the difference here mainly a matter of agree? Every reasonable person can agree that some religions—Christian fundamentalism is an example—are incompatible with science. I think we should also be able to agree that some other religions (maybe some forms of Buddhism and Christian deism are examples) are compatible with what we know from science, though the religious claims may still be unsupported.

    1. Buddhism & Xtian Deism *still* make implicit and explicit claims about their gods having a measurable affect on the world, even if the count is less than the rabid fundies.

      These claims are NOT compatible with science.

      For a religion to be compatible with science, an adherent could make no claims whatsoever about their gods eliciting ANY measurable or tangible effect, ever!
      And that would be a mighty strange religion: worshipping a totally impotent god who has never done anything at all!

  7. If I can understand Chris Mooney’s piece correctly what he is saying is:
    1. Treat religious people with respect – respect being defined as not saying anything that will make them feel insulted about their most deeply held beliefs.
    2. Arguing with religious people regarding science should be done in a style where the argument is of a type that will convince them of the error of their thinking rather than ridiculing them.

    I have a couple of problems with this myself.
    First it is almost impossible to point out the error of thinking of religious people without making them feel insulted. While almost every religious person feels fine with the idea that some other modern religion is a simple superstition, akin to belief in Odin or Zeus, they feel insulted if the exact same charge is leveled at their own faith by a member of another or no particular faith.
    Second, Mooney assumes that the objective of the anti-accomodationalists is to change the mind of the religious.
    That’s certainly not my objective. I’m quite content letting the religious believe what they want for as long as they want – just so long as they keep it a private matter and don’t impose it on the rest of us. I suspect that sentiment is pretty common amongst other anti-accomodationalists.
    In my opinion the best way to approach the matter is to make it like the belief in Santa Claus amongst ten year olds.
    While its fine for a five year old to believe in the red robed sled flying gift merchant, its impossible for a ten year old since their peer group will point out the incongruities of one man visiting every home on Earth in one night and how the gifts always match just what the child’s parents can purchase in their local vicinity. Pointing out the problems the belief has with the empirical evidence should become second nature amongst the public at large and not some act of gross insult as the criticism of religious error seems to be in Mooneys mind.
    Finally, if Mooney actually wants to change the minds of the religious by means of respectful arguments perhaps he might do us the favor of providing an example or two to get us started.

    1. All one has to do to make say, a christian insulted, is to politely read some brief passages verbatim from their bible.
      I have seen it happen time and time again.

      Being artificially polite to them so as not to cause offense is a non-starter.
      They will always take unjustified offence if it means guarding their parasitic mind-meme from the slightest harm.

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