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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Philosophical virtues ... and a diversion about the accommodationism wars

(Republished from Talking Philosophy (2012). To some extent, this post is now of merely historical interest. Much of what is discussed has gone stale. Still, perhaps it's worth keeping the post here for the record. Also, most of it still strikes me as pretty much correct.)

Jean Kazez has a superb post over at In Living Color, where she discusses how philosophy can help inform us intellectually and raise the standard of public discussion. I especially like her third of a series of numbered points, so I’ll quote it in full:
One of the things I like most about teaching philosophy is that in a philosophy class people with hugely different viewpoints are expected to sit in a room together and discuss matters politely and reasonably. In my animal rights class, vegans talk to hunters–without anyone going berserk. In my course on the meaning of life, religious students talk about life with atheists–all in a mode of mutual respect. In a contemporary moral problems class, if you’re skilled, you can get pro-life and pro-choice students to talk to each other calmly, and even see eye-to-eye on some issues. This is great preparation for being part of an inclusive “community of reason,” one in which nobody’s sent into exile just for the “crime” of accommodationism, thinking one way or another about sexual harassment policies, etc.
Unfortunately, I can’t quote that excellent paragraph without distancing myself from one thing – namely the business about accommodationism.
Before I get to that … how you understand some of the acrimonious debates that have taken place in the recent past within the “community of reason”, and those that continue to take place, may depend on when and how you became involved in them, how you interpreted events at the time, and so on. One of the most annoying things that can happen in these debates is when Person X calls Person Y a liar (rather than mistaken, exaggerating, getting a distorted or one-sided impression, adopting an implausible interpretation, or whatever it might be) for disagreeing with Person X’s interpretation. I’ve seen this done to people on both my side and the other side of various debates I’ve been involved in.
Of course, some people do tell outright lies, as we saw with the “Tom Johnson” story a couple of years ago, when one participant in the accommodationism wars made up a story about gross, in-your-face, real-life incivility that he had witnessed from colleagues at his university. This story went far beyond the kind of exaggeration, embellishment, and self-serving interpretation and simplification that human beings indulge in pretty much all the time, more-or-less unconsciously (something that we all need to try to check in ourselves constantly, once we’re made aware of the phenomenon). Outright lies can certainly corrupt debate, as happened on this occasion, but they are likely to be a relatively small feature of most discussions, even on the internet where so many claims cannot easily be checked.
Thus all these issues can become complicated, most people start out as fairly well-meaning, and it’s best to maintain some degree of civility even when we think our opponents are getting things badly wrong. Our own perspectives may be skewed, and most times our opponents are not consciously dishonest.
With all that said about the limitations of our perspectives, it certainly did not appear from my perspective that anyone was “sent into exile” merely for being an “accommodationist” … which means, in context, for taking the philosophical line that science and religion are compatible in some interesting sense. From here, it looked more as if there was an aggressive and heavily-resourced attack on people who rocked the boat by arguing that science and religion are, in some interesting sense, not compatible. For example, there were claims (notably by Matthew Nisbet) that Richard Dawkins’ science-based critique of religion was unethical and that Dawkins should go silent in public debate, since he was, supposedly, harming the teaching of science. At least to me, those sorts of claims, attacking the very legitimacy of someone’s speech, seem outrageous.
Much of the anti-anti-accommodationist rhetoric was aggressive, and it was published in the mainstream mass media, on blogs with very high numbers of daily views, and in books with large sales. It was, and still is, supported by accommodationist policies promulgated by prestigious science organisations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The overall tendency during the accommodationism debates was for influential players to isolate and demonise atheists who employed scientifically informed arguments to support their critiques of religion.
Then we have the example of Chris Mooney arguing that certain critiques of theistic evolutionists should not be expressed in the public square – even if expressed in a civil and thoughtful (and reasonably charitable) way. This is a view that I have consistently opposed … and, alas, Jean and I have had plenty of arguments about it.
To take another example of the demonisation of anti-accommodationist authors, consider the book Unscientific America, written by Mooney with Sheril Kirshenbaum. Among other things, this includes what appears to me to be a philosophically weak discussion of the ideas of “philosophical naturalism” and “methodological naturalism”. That discussion segues into a claim that Dawkins and others are confused about the issues, and that they are deducing the non-existence of God from science’s practice of a merely methodological naturalism, a move by Dawkins et al. that the book’s authors condemn as “an intellectual error” … or even “a nasty bullying tactic” (page 104). Notice that the “bullying tactic” under discussion in this instance is not some kind of vilification of opponents, or even incivility of language. It is merely the use of an argument that Mooney and Kirshenbaum attribute to Dawkins (falsely, I believe), and that they happen to dispute.
I do actually agree with Jean Kazez that Mooney and others were subjected to a lot of incivility and sheer abuse in 2009 and 2010, and I was responsible for some of this myself (not a lot of it, but enough to look back on with regret). But it certainly does not appear from here that it was a case of sending into exile people who argued for the compatibility of religion and science. If anything, there was a strong push – in mass-market books, mainstream media, popular blogs, and the policies of science organisations – to neutralise writers who were unwilling to follow the accommodationist line, but who expressed their scientifically-informed criticisms of religion in an appropriately civil way. This attempt to neutralise certain thinkers and their arguments then produced an angry backlash, some of which (I concede) became far too personal.
I will doubtless hear from readers who deny that Dawkins was, in fact, appropriately civil in The God Delusion and his associated efforts to engage in a wide-ranging critique of religion. Even the book’s title will be attacked as uncivil by some people. But civility does not mean dropping all use of rhetoric, humour, and satire, or, if it comes to that, all expressions of passion or frustration.
Considering the unrelenting hostility and ignorance that he has encountered from many sides, Richard Dawkins has actually seemed to me a model of courtesy and patience throughout the recent difficult debates involving the New Atheism, accommodationism, and the religion/science relationship. If we’d all managed, on all sides, to comport ourselves with no more snark per unit of involvement than Dawkins allowed himself, there would have been a much more useful, as well as civil, debate.
All that said, I support the main point that Jean Kazez is making in the paragraph that I quoted. Formal study of philosophy does have the merit of forcing people to examine opposing ideas with charity – looking for what might be strong in them, or at least what others might find intellectually attractive, rather than for an absurd interpretation or for weaknesses around the edges – and to respond in a way that treats ideas on their intellectual merits rather than insulting, smearing, vilifying, shaming, or even just plain pigeon-holing opponents. Philosophical study also inculcates an idea of the very wide range of positions that might actually be on offer in respect of any particular issue, and the many routes by which a particular position might be reached by people who do not necessarily agree in their overall views and attitudes.
It would be nice to see a more philosophical approach to current debates, with less attempting to neutralise opponents through misrepresentation, piling on, smearing, prejudicial labeling, and with fewer attempts to silence or provoke opponents with insults and expressions of anger. I don’t know how much we’re likely to see a cultural change in that direction, but many people now seem to be calling for it. I hope we can maintain some focus on this in the current debates within our community of reason, and in the ones that inevitably lie ahead.

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