Russell Blackford on “knee-jerk atheism”

July 20, 2009 • 7:38 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford once again emphasizes the difference between criticizing religion and being truly “uncivil.”

I do agree that there are some people who could be said to believe in unbelief with a dogmatic and manifest sort of conviction: we even have words for them, such as “knee-jerk atheists”. There are people who will take what they imagine to be the atheist stance on any possible issue and will never be civil or thoughtful, even when dealing with the most liberal (and possibly non-literal) religionists (and I do agree that some are all-too-quick to accuse others of bad faith). . .

I do believe that religion should be challenged publicly, and I’m frankly amazed at the suggestion that nothing turns on the question of whether the epistemic content of the various religions is actually correct. Much, very much, turns on it. The Catholic Church and other religious organisations claim to be in a position to speak with great epistemic and moral authority. This enables them to pronounce in public on all sorts of issues, including abortion rights, censorship, gay rights, stem-cell research, IVF, and on and on. I can think of no more important issue for public consideration than whether or not these organisations really do possess the epistemic and moral authority that they claim – and which politicians and journalists are all too ready to assume they actually have.

There’s also a mini-kerfuffle about the new word “faitheist.”  Ironically, the faitheists themselves are using their moniker to prove that we’re uncivil.

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”)

Blackford 10, NOMA 0

June 14, 2009 • 7:41 am

Over at his website,  Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford (who has been out of town), finally weighs in on the debate about accommodationism. His tactic is to take on Steve Gould’s concept of NOMA, or religion and science as “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

There is more to be said about this, but I’d like to spend more time on another claim, the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, that science deals with the empirical world, where it has authority, while religion deals with questions of how we ought to live, essentially the realm of morality, where it has authority. Thus, science and religion have separate spheres of authority and that do not overlap. According to this view, we are entitled to tell religious leaders to keep out of such matters as the age of the Earth and whether Homo sapiens evolved from earlier forms of life. However, so the idea goes, scientists should not challenge the authority of religion in the moral realm.

In my view, this is comprehensively wrong.

(Snipped . . . a lot of good arguments)

. . . I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. I.e., it could have made accurate empirical claims if really in receipt of knowledge from an angel or a god.

Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. Once we know what we want to achieve from morality, science is at least as well placed as religion to tell us how to achieve it, though we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development.

However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!

Of course, NOMA is a contentious doctrine. While I have put the case that it is false, that does not entail that, for example, science organisations should say that it is false, or that school students should be taught that it is false. Nor, however, should it be promulgated to students and the public as true. While I’m convinced that religion has no special authority in matters of morality (or in matters involving a supposed supernatural realm if it comes to that), other intelligent and reasonable people may disagree with this assessment.

All I ask from science organisations and school curricula is neutrality on the point, but I am personally convinced that NOMA is a completely specious philosophical doctrine. Those of who are not already convinced of the claims of religion should not buy it, and we should in no way be convinced by its proponents that we ought to back away from our critique of religion. Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.

I reviewed Gould’s lame book on NOMA, Rocks of Ages, in the Times Literary Supplement some time ago (need I say I was critical?), but it doesn’t seem to be online these days. You can find other reviews here.

Accommodation vs. appeasement

May 28, 2009 • 6:19 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford has a useful classification of the forms of what I call “accommodationism” between science and faith.  A brief excerpt from his post:

. . . there seem to be a few ways that people try to make a truce between religion and science.

1. The NOMA theory – science is authoritative about empirical issues, while religion is authoritative about issues of morality, “meaning”, “purpose” and so on.

2. Natural and supernatural – science examines the “natural” world, while religion reports on a supposed “supernatural” realm involving gods, spooks, and so on.

3. God at work in the gaps – there is room for God to work in nature in ways that we can’t detect. Science is authoritative about the natural world, but not in a way that excludes the providence of God. . . .

. . . Of these, 3. is the one that is most likely to be damaging to science. Because it wants to locate a space for certain kinds of divine activities to be carried on in certain kinds of gaps, it could have some tendency to discourage research that aims to plug those gaps. Accordingly, it’s at least worthwhile drawing attention to the highly speculative nature of specific hypotheses about how God acts in the gaps (such as by using some sort of interference in quantum-level events in order to guide the process of evolution). Even if we can’t disprove such claims, we can emphasise that they are contrivances with no scientific backing. They are transparent attempts to preserve pet religious dogmas, and should in no sense be viewed as science. Their only basis is reasoning that: “Something like X or Y must be true or else religious doctrine R will be falsified. But I can’t admit that R is falsified, so something like X or Y must be true.”

But, while I can see why hard-pressed scientists get annoyed by this sort of thing, I actually have more sympathy for theists such as Francis Collins than I do for non-believers (atheists, agnostics, sceptics, whatever) who adopt a position such as 1. or 2. in order to grant authority to a religion whose doctrines they don’t actually believe. This is appeasement – it’s ceding important territory to religion without a fight. Religion does not deserve any grant of authority in the moral sphere – it has no such authority, and that should be the end of it. Nor does it have any plausible claim to reveal supernatural truths about such entities as gods and spooks. But it’s as if some non-believers are prepared to give religion whatever authority it wants as long as they are allowed to teach evolution.

I agree with Russell that #3 is the most dangerous to the integrity of science.  This is what I object to about BioLogos and all the forms of accommodationism in which a theistic God is supposed to interfere in nature (and evolution) in some unspecified way.  It pollutes the pure science by giving the public impression that scientists agree that is room for the supernatural in the evolutionary process and, indeed, that the supernatural has operated.  In this sense Collins is not a good scientist, for he’s accepting the existence of magic.  Darwin explicitly rejected this kind of pollution in a letter to Charles Lyell about natural selection:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement’, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

I again recommend reading Sam Harris’s review of Francis Collins’s book (“The Language of God”) to see the extent that Collins mixes science with faith.  And read Larry Moran’s post on Sandwalk about how Collins mixed science with God when announcing the sequence of the human genome.  Collins just can’t keep his yap shut about God when he’s talking about science to the public.  If you’re not offended by what Moran reports, imagine instead that Collins was an atheist, and pronounced that the human genome demonstrated at last that “there is no God.”

Russell Blackford on The National Academy of Sciences and its accommodationism

May 8, 2009 • 5:53 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford (owner of Felix) has a nice analysis of the National Academy of Sciences’ policy on reconciling religion and science, decrying their accommodationism.  Part of the NAS’s statement is below (these are NOT Russell’s words); you can hear the same tired old bromides falling into line.  When are we going to stop hearing that religion finds “another kind of truth” or enables us to “understand the world”?  It just ain’t so!

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

Russell handily eviscerates this accommodationism in his post, which I’ll let you read yourself. Just a couple of snippets to whet your appetite:

It is not so much that there is more than one way of knowing. Rather, there are different techniques for investigating different aspects or parts of reality. Not all aspects lend themselves to investigation through distinctively scientific techniques, and some lend themselves to investigation through other techniques (examining historical records, etc.). Still, we expect that knowledge and understanding obtained through different techniques will be consistent. Where lines of evidence obtained from different techniques show a convergence, we can be confident that we’re getting at the truth. . .

As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false. Unfortunately, the NAS statement doesn’t nail down what is involved here beyond saying that religious faith typically involves “supernatural forces or entities”. It is trivially and unhelpfully true that science cannot investigate such forces or entities if “supernatural” is defined to mean “that which science cannot investigate” (or in some other way that amounts to the same thing).

But it is false if it means that science is, in principle, unable to investigate claims about such paradigmatically “supernatural” things as ancestor spirits, water nymphs, fire demons, magic dragons, or astrological influences. If these things exist and behave in fairly regular ways – like lions, elephants, kangaroos, crocodiles, and the flow of water – then science can investigate them. Of course, if they did exist we might come to think of them as part of “nature”, but that’s just the point. There is no clear and meaningful line between “natural” and “supernatural”, such that science cannot investigate beyond that line. It is simply that certain kinds of things, notably disembodied intelligences, don’t actually seem to exist; in any event, hypotheses involving these things have had a lousy track record over centuries. It is usually good practice for scientists to avoid those kinds of hypotheses if they can (this is the grain of truth in “methodological naturalism”).

Nonetheless, there is no reason, in principle, why science cannot investigate claims about, say, ancestor spirits as long as the spirits in question are alleged to behave in ways that are reasonably regular and affect things that can be detected by our senses (possibly via scientific instruments). . .

Accommodationism, philosophy, and the meaning of life

May 1, 2009 • 1:11 pm

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford has a nice post on accommodationism, and how it has been deliberately but subtly integrated into the supposedly religion-neutral statements of organizations like the National Center for Science Education.  He’s a philosopher, so his analysis is much more finely reasoned than mine have been.  And lest you think that Russell is the Antichrist, just look at the nice picture of him and his cat that I posted two days ago.

Russell Blackford on science organizations and the compatibility issue

April 25, 2009 • 5:38 am

Over at his blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford has a nice post about the inappropriateness of scientific organizations taking a stand on what religions are compatible with evolution:

. . . . . .But what if I’m wrong about this? Perhaps there are Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) philosophers who can answer the point I’m making. Well, fine. But even if there are, official organisations representing science don’t – or shouldn’t – get to adjudicate between them and me. This is a highly contentious issue that falls outside the expertise of such bodies. In any event, individual scientists are entitled to have views on such philosophical issues, and it’s clear that many scientists take positions much like mine. Those scientists have every right to be angry that their official organisations – organisations that are supposed to be representing them – are taking a stand on the issue. . .

Science organisations should stick to the point that certain findings are the result of systematic, rational investigation of the world, supported overwhelmingly by several lines of converging evidence. In putting that case, they can be “religion blind”; they should present the evidence for the scientific picture, but that’s as far as they should go. They should not comment on what specific theological positions are or are not compatible with science. Leave that to the squabblings of philosophers and theologians, and, indeed, of individual scientists or other citizens. We can think and argue about it for ourselves.