Just a bit more on accommodationism

November 7, 2009 • 8:33 am

by Greg Mayer

Although Jerry’s a bit full up with the accommodationism issue, two recent items, by friends of WEIT, are worth noting. Ophelia Benson, well known to WEIT readers, has a piece in the Guardian,  and Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, editors of 50 Voices of Disbelief, with Russell also being well known to WEIT readers, have a piece in the Guardian as well. (Ophelia recently tangled with the  author of the New Statesman piece that seemed to claim UK courts had declared science to be a religion.)

Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Atheists turn Americans from science, strangle puppies

July 1, 2009 • 2:05 pm

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has begun reading and posting on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America, an analysis of why the American public is so scientifically illiterate (I’m going by the blurbs; I haven’t read it yet). According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, one of the main reasons for this illiteracy is — can you guess? — the ATHEISTS. Yes folks, our stridency and militancy have alienated flocks of Americans, turning them away from science. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens all get their licks, with special opprobrium reserved for P. Z. Myers. See link above for Ophelia’s first take, and the second is here.

I will reserve making my own comments until I read the book.

One other note: three liberal English theologians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have joined forces to prevent British citizens suffering from terminal illnesses to seek euthanasia in countries like Switzerland. Liberal religion harmless? Not in this case. See the link for Anthony Grayling’s take and the original news item.

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”)

Does religion have greater “epistemic authority” than science in some areas?

June 14, 2009 • 5:40 am

Take a look at this article by Tom Clark at Naturalism.org; it’s about the misguided notion that in some areas faith can give us genuine answers to questions before which science is impotent.   This is the NOMA (“nonoverlapping magisteria”) refrain that we hear constantly from organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Are there “ways of knowing” that are not only unique to faith, but provide real answers about the nature of the universe?  I have long thought  that this notion is completely misguided, a conclusion reached in the article. A snippet:

A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural. Some recent statements about the relationship of science and religion make this point:

Science is recognized internationally as the best way to find out about the natural world. But the natural world is not the only thing that human beings ask questions about…[M]ost people believe that there is a universe or world or something beyond or other than the material one, which is populated by gods, spirits, ancestors, or other non-material beings. Science doesn’t tell us anything about this world; this transcendent world is the provenance of religion. – Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 47, original emphasis.

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.  – National Science Teachers Association, in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science p. 124

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. . . . Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.  – National Academy of Science, also in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, p. 58

These statements suggest that faith-based religions, or more broadly, non-empirically based worldviews, might have domains of epistemic competence, for instance in knowing about the supernatural, paranormal or astrological. This in turn suggests that there might be reliable and objective understandings of these domains, lending support to the idea they actually exist. In the last quote above, the National Academy of Science (NAS) contrasts religious and scientific ways of knowing, and says science can’t pronounce on the nature and existence of the supernatural. This implies that religious ways of knowing can, and might be authoritative in confirming its existence the way science is when describing nature. But this is exactly what should not be conceded. By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist.

Note that Eugenie Scott’s quote (she’s director of the National Center for Science Education) clearly implies — if not states outright — that religion is able to tell us something true about the transcendent world.   Really? What is that?  Can it settle the question of whether Jesus or Mohammed was the real prophet? (Note that the Qur’an states flatly that anyone believing  Jesus to be the divine prophet will burn in hell for eternity.)  The “claims” of all major faiths are in direct conflict, so what are the “truths” they tell us?

Thanks for Tom Clark and Ophelia Benson for calling this to my attention. And be sure to bookmark Ophelia’s site, Butterflies and Wheels.