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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, April 27, 2009

PZ on accommodationism

I'm not going to blog at great length today, as the real world calls to me ... but this long post by PZ Myers makes telling points.

Let's all agree that Eugenie Scott and company are doing a fantastic job, and that any criticism of them should be constructive. I don't think there's anything destructive in my tone, but it looks as if any criticism at all upsets some people, no matter how carefully and respectfully it is phrased.

The fact is that there is a real temptation for the science organisations to stray from neutrality about issues such as whether science and (orthodox kinds of) religion are compatible. Political expediency tempts them to do that. People like Matt Nisbet encourage them enthusiastically.

Taner Edis has argued very candidly that it's a good thing when science organisations stray from neutrality and tell the noble (and expedient) lie that science and religion are compatible. I respect Taner's view, admire its frankness, and appreciate the difficulty he has in trying to win the sympathies of an Islamic audience when he communicates about science - but see what Jerry Coyne has to say over here about how expedient accommodationism has really been with Christian audiences in America over the past decades:

"As I’ve said before, 25 years of trying to sell evolution by asserting that it’s compatible with faith has had no effect on changing the minds of Americans. The percentage of Americans who accept evolution is about where it was a quarter-century ago — indeed, it’s a bit lower now. The battle to change minds is a stalemate. (In contrast, the evolution side has won repeatedly in court, but you don’t need to push accommodationism to do that. All you need to do is show that creationism or ID is religiously motivated.) I think that widespread acceptance of evolution in America may have to await the de-religionizing of our people, which may take a while. But, as one can see from Europe, it’s not impossible. The winning battle may be the battle against faith."

Disclaimer: I am not confronted by same day-to-day problems that face American science advocates. I'm humbled by that. I live in a relatively irreligious country. It would be arrogant of me to push this issue too hard, without at least acknowledging my opponents' points and the difficulties that they face. And just maybe Taner's position is correct at the end of the day, at least for the circumstances he faces. But even if that is so, it's going to take more honesty from other advocates of "necessary bullshit" before I'm convinced. In any event, I (and Jerry and PZ) are asking for neutrality. We're not asking the NCSE, or any other science body, to attack religion. The NCSE (for example) is not the right organisation to fight a battle against faith, and no one is saying that it is.

On the face of it, you'd think what Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and I are saying would be pretty reasonable. Why is our position so difficult to understand? Taner Edis gets it, but it seems from all the debate at cross-purposes in the blogosphere that most of our opponents can't get their heads around the simple concept of neutrality.


John Pieret said...

Before you get all hung up in Coyne's "statistic," let's not forget that, over that same period of time, more conservative forms of religion have gained greatly in membership in the US at the expense of the more liberal, science-friendly sects. There is a great danger, as any scientist certainly knows, in reaching conclusions based on single variables, especially in complex phenomena such as social reactions to science. A significant decline in acceptance of evolution could have easily been expected, given the changes in religious demographics.

On the other hand, there are also hopeful polls:

According to a 2006 study sponsored by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress and conducted by the firm Financial Dynamism ... [e]ighty percent of those questioned agree that "faith and science can and should coexist. We can respect our belief in God and our commitment to the dignity of every human life by using our scientific knowledge to help those who are sick or vulnerable." The same overwhelming number endorses the view that "stem cell research can be a force for moral good rather than a moral failing.

Why doesn't that count as part of the "accomodationist" results?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"In any event, I (and Jerry and PZ) are asking for neutrality."

Sorry to be blunt, but that doesn't seem to be what at least Jerry and PZ are really asking for. Rather, what they seem to be asking is for the NCSE, etc., to stop pointing out that there are ways of doing religion that don't conflict with evolutionary theory. It's hard to read Jerry Coyne's cigarette analogy as saying anything less than that. There are a couple problems with this:

1) It's essentially telling the NCSE to shut up (!) and refrain from saying a truth that is inconvenient to the agenda of Coyne, Myers, etc. (And yes, I said "truth." What part of "This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes" is false?)

2) In practice, it's not neutral. If the NCSE and similar organizations were silent on the matter, creationists would spin it as confirming their view that evolution is atheistic.

Also, the so-called "accomodationists" only accommodate so far. For Myers to write, "I also don't have to go out of my way to tell them some pretty excuse to allow them to continue to believe in talking snakes," is disingenuous, since even the "accomodationists" have made pretty clear that literal interpretations of Genesis' creation stories are a no-go.

Russell Blackford said...

Perceptions obviously vary, but I really don't know what John's couple of data points are meant to show.

J.J., I'm sorry but I'm coming to the conclusion that you and some others have no sense of tone or cumulative impact. Yes, it may be that every single sentence that the NCSE has written, taken in isolation, could be defended by relying on the fact that these sentences use weasel words: "some people think this", "many theologians say that", "lots of religious traditions believe X". The fact remains that the overwhelming impression created is that NOMA, or something very similar, is being endorsed (it is mentioned and described sympathetically and tendentiously, and there is NO suggestion that many scientists, philosophers, and theologians reject it). An overwhelming impression is given that some kind of moderate but orthodox theism is fully consistent, in every sense, with science.

If you read the whole thing - and there's quite a bit of it, including an extensive bibliography - without starting with an anti-Coyne, anti-Dawkins, etc., bias, I don't see how you can come to any other conclusion.

However, it's notoriously difficult to prove things to other people's satisfaction once issues of tone and overall effect are involved. If you read the material in the way I described and still disagree with me, fine. We can agree to disagree. Right now, I think that some of the defences of the NCSE material are narrow, legalistic and possibly disingenuous. I also think that the people who created the material deliberately sailed close to the wind: strongly suggesting a certain philosophical view (something NOMA-like) but always inserting appropriate weasel words so it could never be said that they explicitly endorsed that view.

But if you can't accept this, after honestly and open-mindedly reading the material, there's nothing more to say about it, beyond expressing my incredulity and asking my readers to go and look at it all, and judge for themselves.

The only other point to make is that even if some comforting bullshit is necessary - if we're convinced of this by Taner Edis, for example - there are ways of improving the comforting bullshit in a more neutral (and in some cases more accurate) direction. Reliance on scattered weasel words isn't enough.

I'm not going to get involved in a lengthy public exercise as to how the whole thing could be revised - that would become a full-time, unpaid job for me for some days if not weeks; it would be futile effort; and I have obvious misgivings about whether it's the right approach. But the folks at AAAS, NAS, and NCSE could at least talk to Coyne and Myers about the issue, something that it seems they've gone out of their way not to do even when Coyne made an overture.

In respect of the NCSE material, I don't accept that there are no changes, in addition to the scattered weasel words, that could improve the material, making it more palatable to people like me, without being disastrous from a PR viewpoint. I find it hard to believe that there are no genuinely useful suggestions or offers to help that Jerry Coyne (say) would have if they talked to him in some depth next time they're reviewing their strategy.

Talking to people doesn't hurt that much. I'd offer to talk to them myself, but I would at least need to have my expenses paid, and I don't really think the money to fly me to the US, put me up, and pay other expenses would be the best way for them to spend their limited funds. On the other hand, Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers are right there to talk to.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"An overwhelming impression is given that some kind of moderate but orthodox theism is fully consistent, in every sense, with science."

The overwhelming impression that I get is that the NCSE is encouraging believers to find a way to adjust their religious beliefs partially so as to be compatible with the science and is actively showing them ways of doing so. Coyne takes issue with that encouragement because he thinks that religious belief is harmful, period, and sees the NCSE as encouraging people to find different ways to harm themselves. I think he's also pissed because he does agree with the creationists that the theory of evolution poses a threat to religion, and doesn't like the idea of the NCSE mitigating that threat.

If I read Coyne correctly, then I think he's letting the best be the enemy of the good. The NCSE is engaging in harm reduction. The people to whom the NCSE is showing less virulent ways (that is, ways that involve less denial of reality) of being religious are going to be religious anyway. It's not as if an atheist is going to read Hess and think "Hey, maybe Christianity isn't so bad at all." Given the choice of a believer staying a believer or becoming an atheist, I'll take the latter. However, this option is often not on the table, while the option of partial adjustment of beliefs more often is.

I don't see Coyne as behaving all that differently from those who would oppose needle exchange on the grounds that it encourages drug abuse by mitigating some of its deleterious effects. Sure, having abusers kick the habit altogether would be better, but reducing harm is still reducing harm.

Russell Blackford said...

J.J. there's always room for discussion - I don't necessarily take as purist a line as Jerry, but whatever they do they would at least be well-advised to talk to him next time he offers.

I should also say, frankly, that I do think that evolution poses a threat to religion ... and I think this is a good thing. If that's Jerry's attitude, well, I share it. But I also realise that the NCSE can't be expected to make its decisions on that basis.

Richard Hoppe has now conceded my main point, so I'm kind of moving on - which doesn't mean the discussion has to close, of course, just that I'm likely to turn to posting on other issues.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I should also say, frankly, that I do think that evolution poses a threat to religion"

But not to the point of being a fatal objection in general. Obviously, religions that insist on a literal interpretation of their creation stories are right out. With the more liberal strains of Abrahamic religions, what you have amount to a particular case of the problem of evil, which is a problem that isn't much different with or without evolution.

"... and I think this is a good thing."

Considering that the threat has been a strong motivation for religious groups to distort science, I don't see what's so good about it.

John Pieret said...

Russell, I thought it was fairly obvious that, if a population moves significantly towards religious sects that generally reject evolution but the actual numbers of people who reject it remain stable, it is strong evidence that more than one factor is at work and Coyne's claim that the lack of movement shows that "accommodation" isn't working is, at least, overly simplistic. Coyne may have realized that now, as he's switched from making his own positive claims about the ineffectiveness of accommodation to demanding evidence from its advocates that it does have an effect.

Furthermore, although evolution may remain a problem (for reasons that may happen not be tractable to accommodation) that does not mean the perceived reasonableness of the scientific community might not have an effect in other areas, as in the polls I cited. Surely pointing out the complexities of the situation is something a philosopher can appreciate! ;-)

Russell Blackford said...

J.J., I do think that problem-of-evil type issues are made all the worse by evolution and the rest of the picture we have from science. Just the whole idea of human exceptionalism ... and other aspects of traditional religion, too ... are also made harder as a result of the evolutionary picture. Other aspects of science, such as neuroscience, make Cartesian dualism (and hence the immortality of the soul) and libertarian free will more difficult to defend. Evolution contributes to that as well (how did disembodied souls evolve?).

There's a lot more to say, but the total picture emerging from science, of which evolution is a key part, makes religion far less plausible than it was 400 years ago. I don't think I can say a lot more without starting to write a book.

I do happily agree with you that problems like this existed, in principle, even when we knew far less about the world. Absolutely no argument from me there. The commonsense picture of the world and the religious picture were always in an uneasy alliance that could come apart under logical scrutiny. On the other hand, religious ideas were adapted, to an extent, to the pre-scientific appearances. What I think has happened broadly, though, is that the scientific image tends to alter the commonsense image of the world in ways that make religion harder to defend. Science creates an image of the world to which religion has to adapt further, and not always successfully. Although I can't prove it, I'm confident that this has had something to do with the decline in religious belief throughout the Western world in the past two hundred years (though the biggest initial impact among the European intelligentsia may have come from close textual study of the Bible, which reveals it as not the inerrant holy book many might assume, and as not having the provenance traditionally claimed for it).

John, I'm not just being snarky at you. I really was wondering what those factoids were meant to prove (or evidence), because it wasn't clear to me when you presented them with just a rhetorical question at the end. For what it's worth, I'm not surprised that 80 per cent agreed with the very leading question about using medical knowledge to help the sick or vulnerable. The high figure for supporting stem cell research is pretty impressive, though. I don't know what to read into it, but it could be taken as evidence that a lot of religionists don't seriously think that early embryos are ensouled. But I'd love to know what reasons people had for giving their answers.

I hope it's been clear throughout this week's debate that I do appreciate the complexities of the situation, and also our lack of knowledge of exactly what the complexities. Haven't I been saying, worriedly, that it's just possible that Taner Edis is right after all?

You guys are fine to discuss these things with, and I always appreciate your contributions, but elsewhere in the blogosphere things seemed to go a bit crazy this week, with some folks becoming very hostile, and IMO losing their good judgment, in the face of what seemed to me rather tentative and constructive criticisms of the science organisations.

Richard Hoppe has won my respect by the way he was prepared to rethink his view as the week went on, but his initial post was quite inflammatory and did a lot of damage. He helped turn what could have been a quiet, thoughtful discussion about the criticisms, and what, if anything, the science organisations should do, into a war.

I know there's been a lot of back-patting over at Panda's Thumb - "arent' we all being reasonable?" - but the general tone of the debate didn't seem all that reasonable to me. Again and again, the positions of the critics were blatantly parodied and misrepresented.

I do understand that there's some merit to official organisations treating religion with courtesy and (in more senses than one) respect. I think some of the material goes too far, and I reserve my right to continue criticising it, but not in an inflammatory way. It may be too late for them to pull back from what they've done, at least to any great extent. However, I believe that in their enthusiasm to be seen as "reasonable" by religious believers they've crossed a line into overly accommodationist territory.

I'd like to see the issue of just how far accommodationist "we" should be discussed at in a constructive way conferences, rather than just on the internet, where discussion can so quickly lead to dogmatism, flaming, etc.