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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

More on accommodationism - the strange case of Aikin and Talisse

I'm a bit late getting to this, but I should comment on the piece by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse over at 3quarksdaily.

I think this piece is very unfortunate, not because I am unlikely to enjoy the authors' new book or because they strike me as stupid, or anything of that nature. However, they have painted themselves into the corner of accepting the label "accommodationist" when they seem to be nothing of the sort.

The term "accommodationism" applies to people who say, in a naive (or disingenuous), unqualified way that "science is compatible with religion". More particularly, it applies to people who think that it is possible to accommodate traditional religious beliefs, without any great intellectual strain, within a science-based view of reality.

Anti-accommodationists do not deny that there are vaguely religious views that avoid direct conflict with science - a non-literalist view, perhaps, or a very austere Deism - and we've said this many times. But we do see real problems, historically and philosophically, when religion encounters science. Some religious views are in blatant logical conflict with science because the space-time universe that they describe simply cannot be reconciled with the facts (the most obvious example is the fundamentalist Christian who believes that the Earth is only 6000 years old). Others are more subtly in conflict with reasonable inferences from the scientific picture - for example views that are held even by many supposedly "moderate" Christians to the effect that there is some kind of sharp discontinuity between Homo sapiens and other animals. In some cases, there may be no outright logical inconsistency, but certain religious views simply become highly implausible given our scientific picture of the world, as with the common elements of anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism that we find in many religious views. In other cases, longstanding theological problems, such as the Problem of Evil, are made more pressing or more difficult as we find out more about the world.

Moreover, anti-accommodationists note the way that religion needs to be constantly reinterpreted to maintain even logical consistency with our empirically-based secular knowledge. This process in itself leaves religious beliefs looking ad hoc and implausible.

We also tend to be very critical of specific philosophical theses that are supposed to leave religion a sphere of authority that is not threatened by science. For example, we tend to criticise Gould's NOMA theory rather harshly - but certainly not only that theory.

There is much more to be said about the anti-accommodationist critique, and much of it has been said in detail in one place or the other. But the upshot is that we say it's unsurprising that scientific knowledge tends to erode religion, or at least lead to a severe thinning out of its truth-claims. A scientific understanding of the world, combined with minimal reflection, leads quite naturally to scepticism about religion and to an overall picture of reality that is pretty much impossible to square with the old religious pictures. To refer to this as "compatibility" is absurd. In many cases it may be disingenuous; at best, it is woolly and misguided.

Anti-accommodationists are also prone to use the word "accommodationism" to describe anyone who accepts the views I've sketched above but who basically says that we should keep quiet about them, perhaps for political reasons.

Often, alas, it can be difficult to tell whether someone really thinks that science and religion are "compatible" ... or whether this is someone who just thinks that this is what we should say.

At any rate, by these definitions, Aikin and Talisse seem pretty clearly to be anti-accommodationists. They seem to think that traditional religious positions are false, their reasons for this seem like they might include perceived implausibilities in reconciling a scientific picture of the world in space and time with what religion has historically offered, and they don't seem to oppose criticism of religion (including criticisms whose premises include scientific findings). How can they be accommodationists, then? From what I can see so far, they are not.

This suggests that people communicating with them, or criticising them, not be in a hurry to call them something they are not. I take it that they mainly want to put their case against religion in a way that they hope will be persuasive to believers, and they think that this involves sounding - or being - reasonable. By that, I take it they mean not sounding too personally hostile.

As I've said before, I think there's a place for scorn and mockery in these debates, though I prefer it to be directed at the absurdities of religious doctrines and associated arguments than at individuals. However, there is also a place to direct it at individuals in some cases - especially those who possess power and influence. But at the same time, there's a place for persuasive advocacy that tries to reach opponents and get them to change their minds, and it's true that a low-key, non-hostile approach is often most effective. You'll see this from the best courtroom advocates, who are very selective in when they choose to display aggression (though they are capable of it when required).

So I don't have any reason to call these two authors accommodationists, but I do think that it's very unfortunate that they have (a) distanced themselves from their natural allies in their post (and, possibly in their book? I don't know yet), and (b) added to the popular myth of the gnasty gnu atheist who is thoughtless and uncivil when dealing with others.

I do hope they'll rethink this and change their approach to this issue. You can damage your own cause in many ways: in this case, accommodationism is only one way to throw your allies under the bus. Anti-accommodationists can do that, too.

20 comments:

josef johann said...

This is a very important point:

Often, alas, it can be difficult to tell whether someone really thinks that science and religion are "compatible" ... or whether this is someone who just thinks that this is what we should say.

Sometimes I suspect that accommodationists simply don't have a distinction between what the truth is and what the optimal political message is. "The truth will set you free" or something.

But often the truth is hard for the public to swallow. And often being truthful about things makes communication harder, not easier.

So in this case, it would be a fortunate coincidence if the truth happened to pose no obstacles to the political goal of increased public understanding as that's not what normally happens, especially with science.

But that's only kind of annoying. What really gets people upset about accommodationism is, I think, that the lack of clarity may be a signal that political strategizing and public communication leads people to walk backwards into this or that conception of what the truth happens to be.

NickM said...

Found this via Coyne's blog. My thought:

Blackford writes,

“I do hope they’ll rethink this and change their approach to this issue. You can damage your own cause in many ways: in this case, accommodationism is only one way to throw your allies under the bus. Anti-accommodationists can do that, too.”

It’s a little hard to take it seriously when Gnus make calls for solidarity. Attempting to turn allies into enemies, simply for not adhering to the harshest possible anti-religion line, is pretty much the defining feature of Gnu Atheism. Flexibility and acknowledging that there might be multiple reasonable points of view on religion and our reactions to it are pretty much treated as weaknesses rather than strengths.

Deepak Shetty said...

While I agree with your assessment , you are however stating an idealized version of anti-accomodationism aren't you?

Ken Pidcock said...

Aiken and Tallise accept the term accommodationist because they seem to think it applies to those who engage with religious believers in a way which manifests a proper regard for their cognitive capacities, and accordingly seeks to hear and address their best reasons and arguments. To me, that presents a naïve understanding of religious belief. Educated believers formulate their belief so that reasons and arguments are irrelevant. To believe against belief is valued.

I do hope that Aiken and Tallise are sincere in engaging religious believers. It should provide them with a better understanding of belief than they demonstrate here.

Russell Blackford said...

I think it's pretty clear what the term accommodationism originally meant. I also think that the interesting discussions involve the use of this term.

As for solidarity, I don't expect us to be clones of each other. Look at my criticisms of Sam Harris and his moral philosophy. We can have disagreements, even on important issues. But I also don't see the point of simply throwing allies under the bus - in this case by pandering to myths about them.

Marshall said...

I agree with you that A&T are presenting a good strong anti-accomodationist point of view, although taking the "good cop" role.

We affirm in *Reasonable Atheism* that we believe that distinctively religious beliefs are false, and that religious believers are therefore wrong. 

I suppose they go into more detail about what they mean by "distinctively religious beliefs", "false", why that justifies "wrong", and what is at stake. But when they've finished speaking, evidently the argument is over.

When you talk about "courtroom advocacy", isn't that "morality" in Richard Garner's evil sense? Scientific thought evolves without apology; why should not "religious" thought likewise evolve? Why should people think they can categorically tar "religion" with whatever old turkey feathers they have laying around?


Russell:
This suggests that people communicating with them, or criticising them, not be in a hurry to call them something they are not. I take it that they mainly want to put their case against religion in a way that they hope will be persuasive to believers, and they think that this involves sounding - or being - reasonable. By that, I take it they mean not sounding too personally hostile. 

They are good cops. And in case your goal is actually persuading, we have a saying out here: people don't care what you know until they know that you care.

But there is a point where "personal hostility" slides over into intellectual dishonesty and you can see why A&T want some distance. Here is an almost random pointer into a post today criticizing one of HuffPo's resident metaphysicians:

Jerry Coyne, WEIT Feb12:
Lanza uses his stature as a Genuine Scientist to sell complete garbage: the idea that because electrons sometimes seem to behave as waves, and sometimes as particles, we’ll one day be together with Jesus and our dead relatives.  (Granted, Lanza doesn’t mention religion, but of course that’s where this stuff is designed to resonate.)  

comment by stvs
Though the best way to address bullshit like this is with mocking contempt rather than correcting facts (because the bullshitter doesn’t care about the facts)

colloquy, Matt Penfold and Microrapter:
Oh good, a solipsist. That means I get to explain the way I treat solipsists.
I punch then in the face. It makes me feel better, and the solipsist must put it down as a self-inflicted injury

Ah, I see I’m not the only one who’s come up with that solution.

I lay no claims to originality for the thought. Indeed it is a rather obvious response to the irritation of solipsists.
 

Ophelia Benson said...

Aikin and Talisse really aren't hostile to gnu atheists or trying to throw them under the bus. I think the 3Q piece looks a little that way, but it's somewhat misleading.

They don't think atheists should pretend religious beliefs are reasonable; they do think atheists should give good arguments if/when they take on theist arguments. Their point is mostly not about being cuddly, it's about arguing properly.

Russell Blackford said...

When I talk about courtroom advocacy I talk about what approach is actually persuasive. You can have all the best arguments on your side and still fail to get through to your audience.

Ophelia, I like to think that they've simply got off on the wrong foot with this piece, and it may not have been all their fault if they were receiving hostile emails and that was what they reacted to. (Was it you who revealed that? I only glanced quickly at Jerry's thread.) I'd have been pissed off/alarmed in their situation.

But I do hope they won't publish more pieces like this, and that they'll get a better sense of what the "accommodationism" debate is really about - at least in the minds of people like you and me and Jerry. E.g, it's not about a requirement for Gnus to be gnasty.

I don't need to remind you, but maybe someone should remind them that much of this debate was triggered by the claim that Jerry should not have written that perfectly civil piece in The New Republic.

Anonymous said...

Nick Matzke said:

"It’s a little hard to take it seriously when Gnus make calls for solidarity. Attempting to turn allies into enemies, simply for not adhering to the harshest possible anti-religion line, is pretty much the defining feature of Gnu Atheism. "

Nick,

The only thing I see that is consistent with your posts across the blogosphere on this issue, is your repeated use of the same strawman argument over and over again.

I really do think there is something wrong with you, and I'm not the only one.

You really should think about what you're saying, closely.

You've been repeatedly (and by that I mean literally hundreds of times) corrected on this; there is NOBODY who fits the description of "New Atheist" you keep strawmanning, and when called on it, you spit irrational gibberish and run off to some other blog.

You really are showing some concerning signs of denial here.

Matti K. said...

I think Blackford makes a good point by asking a proper clarification for the concept of accommodationism. I agree: "accommodationism" describes the honest belief of compatibility of religion and science. Collins is a prime example of an accommodationist.

But there are also non-religious people who don't care about philosophical nuances in the science-religion-discussions. However, due to political reasons, they want to downplay the apparent incompatibility of religion and science. Prime examples woud be Mooney (Intersection) and DeDora (CFI). How should they be called?
Would "shutupist" be a good term?

Ophelia Benson said...

Russell, yes, I was the one who reported that the accusations of accommodationism were in emails; Bob Talisse told me that, I asked for permission to pass it on, and he gave it.

I did try to give them a better sense of what the "accommodationism" debate is really about in a comment on the 3Q piece. They say in the book however that they don't consider themselves to be accommodationists in any case, and that they are in fact antitheists. I think I'll do a post on that later today.

James Sweet said...

Heh, "shutupist", I like that. I posted awhile ago on my blog about the difference between what I called "strong accomodationism" and "weak accomodationism." In the latter case, the person is simply making a personal decision not to highlight conflicts between religion and reality. In the former case, the person wants everybody else to act that way too. I'm fine with one, not so fine with the other.

As far as the A&T piece, I was also sort of confused -- what's accomodationist about their position? Nothing! I wonder who accused them of that...

Marshall said...

Russell:
When I talk about courtroom advocacy I talk about what approach is actually persuasive. You can have all the best arguments on your side and still fail to get through to your audience.

Courtroom advocacy is very frankly adversarial. The explicit goal is not to get at the truth, or even to present the facts of the matter, but to get the best result for one's client by any means available. For instance by an irrelevant showing that a rape victim has been promiscuous. If religion is far too persuasive, which it clearly is in some pre-rational midbrain way, maybe it would be more effective (viz. political and educational agendas) to stay off that turf.

I should think the better model here would be the scientific peer-review process, where the goal is not only to select the best, but even to polish the best and make it better. (Although I'm sure any amount of personal politics gets into it in practice.) It's not a question of pulling punches, but neither is it a question of tagging people with assertions somebody else is making. A&T are correct that one essential for constructive engagement is (at least nominal) respect on all sides.

Hey, it's Sunday Morning. Hope everybody is having a good day doing something personally rewarding.

PS... what TNR article?? I said before, Jerry's Feb 1 post "A confab with the faithful" was perfectly civil and models a good process; ie, likely to provoke thought. Unlike what I quoted above.

Michael Fugate said...

Nick Matzke's problem is that if someone says they accept evolution, then all of their other religious beliefs - no matter how wacky - are off limits for criticism. It is the magic phrase and gives one a free pass to believe anything he or she wants without any evidence required. He will even go so far as to say no evidence can ever be found to challenge these beliefs - effectively putting them off limits - just for saying three simple words "I accept evolution." The bonus is one gets to define evolution any way he or she wants.

Russell Blackford said...

The article - well technically a book review, but it was quite long - where he reviewed those books by Miller and Giberson. He was then told by some, notably Chris Mooney, that he shouldn't have criticised the religious views of the authors concerned (even though he did it in a considered and civil tone). Various reasons were given as to why he shouldn't have said such things.

This set off the current round of the accommodationism wars.

My point is that Jerry was attacked for the substance of what he said, not because he said it in an uncivil way, which he didn't. Anti-accommodationism has never been about wanting to be uncivil or insisting that critics of religion act with incivility. It's a critique of the "religion and science are compatible" mantra.

Marshall said...

Seeing and Believing Feb 4, 2009. Thank you.

...People should be attacked for their substance, if at all. We should all be welcoming more of that .... :-) ... as long as it's a critique and not a pseudo-objective rejection, we're in business.

Michael De Dora said...

@Matti K., you wrote:

"But there are also non-religious people who don't care about philosophical nuances in the science-religion-discussions. However, due to political reasons, they want to downplay the apparent incompatibility of religion and science. Prime examples woud be Mooney (Intersection) and DeDora (CFI). How should they be called?"

Just to be clear, I certainly care about the philosophical nuances in the science-religion discussions, and I've never argued to downplay the incompatibility of religion and science.

Bob Seawright said...

"Moreover, anti-accommodationists note the way that religion needs to be constantly reinterpreted to maintain even logical consistency with our empirically-based secular knowledge. This process in itself leaves religious beliefs looking ad hoc and implausible."

I thought *science* was supposed to be constantly reinterpreted in light new evidence too. Why is that not a virtue?

Russell Blackford said...

No, that isn't what happens in science. A body of scientific theory that keeps having to be changed in ad hoc ways to accommodate the data is eventually considered a dead-end and abandoned. Someone who keeps making ad hoc changes to preserve the essentials of a theory is considered to be, at best, overly committed to the theory.

ventana said...

"for example views that are held even by many supposedly "moderate" Christians to the effect that there is some kind of sharp discontinuity between Homo sapiens and other animals. "

You are free to believe this is foolish, of course, but it would be more convincing if you could find some other species that support your position.