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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, October 18, 2010

Not accommodationist enough - Ruse on Kitcher

As I've been discussing, Philip Kitcher has written an article that contains criticism (though also some praise) directed at the core "New Atheist" writers, particularly Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Michael Ruse has now written a piece for the Huffington Post basically criticising Kitcher for being insufficiently accommodationist.

As an aside, I've been tending not to use the term "accommodationist". When the term entered circulation, I thought it referred to a propensity to try to reconcile the worldviews of religion and science, as Ruse does (he's an atheist but seems to think that there's no knock-out blow for theism from the direction of science ... or something like that) and as theists such as Ken Miller do (e.g. by suggesting ways in which evolution could be consistent with Christianity). The debate was about whether science allows room for religion. The word now seems to have taken on a meaning where it applies only to atheists and just means something like "soft on religion". I thought that the original meaning, as I understood it, was one that we needed a word for. Unfortunately we now don't seem to have a word for that, given the way the meme has spread and mutated.

Be that as it may, Ruse and Kitcher are both atheists. Kitcher has made some rather mild and perhaps even useful criticisms of Dawkins and company. In doing so, he has introduced concepts and terminology that look quite handy. For his pains, he's being criticised by Ruse for not being accommodationist soft enough:

The simple fact is (let's stay with Christians to keep the discussion simple) Christians believe that God exists, that He was Creator, and that He came to earth in the form of Jesus for our eternal salvation, dying on the Cross and rising on the third day to make this possible. They believe that these claims are true, period. They do not believe them in order to give life to their moral beliefs. Contrary to Kitcher, though what he thinks is preferable is not relevant here, Christians believe that morality follows from these beliefs not that these beliefs prop up morality.

I remember vividly growing up as a Quaker in the years after the Second World War. Back in those days, it was not easy to justify pacifism. The war against Hitler had been a deeply justifiable war and to deny this, to belittle the deaths of the young men who had fought to defeat the Nazis, seemed to many to be simply wrong. The main answer we Quakers had -- and we thought it a pretty good answer -- was that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount told us to turn the other cheek. That was it. That was enough. Jesus was the Son of God and what he said was final.

I personally agree with much that Kitcher says. Without empirical proof, religious existence claims depend on faith, and the trouble with faith is that different people with different cultures have different faith insights. For Kitcher (and for me) that is an end to matters. But the point is that the believer thinks that faith works and gives true insights. The believer also has arguments about the relativity. A Christian might argue that others are wrong. We don't accept African medicine. Why should we accept African religion? As a non-believer you may not think much of these arguments, but the point is that the Christian does. And unless you are prepared to give Christians the possibility of such an argument here, as I am and Kitcher is not, then they are not going to be interested.

I applaud Kitcher's attempt to move forward on the science and religion front. But, I am sorry, I just don't think that what he offers will work.

Ironically, though, Ruse makes a fairly strong point here. He says: Contrary to Kitcher ...Christians believe that morality follows from these beliefs not that these beliefs prop up morality. That seems to have a ring of truth, and there's a grain of truth in it.

However, I'm with Kitcher here. Kitcher freely admits that the direction goes as Ruse says it does for the people he calls religious believers. His point is that many religious adherents are not religious believers in this sense, and I'm sure he's correct about that.

Now, perhaps Ruse could respond that the great majority of religious adherents really are full-on religious believers. In the developing world that may be true. On a world scale it is likely to be true. Likewise, it may be true in the US - I said there's a grain of truth, didn't I? Very many Americans seem to believe stuff that can only be explained by a very full-blooded religious belief. I think one of the criticisms that can be made of Kitcher is that he hasn't counted numbers, so you'd think maybe his five categories are about equally well populated. But that won't be so; in any actual society, some categories may be far more populated than others. In America, there are many millions of people who believe all sorts of supernatural stuff, much of it plainly and directly incompatible with science. Score one to Ruse.

Nonetheless, Ruse needs to get out more and mix with a wider range of religious adherents outside of North America. I'm sure he'll find that there are many who fit into Kitcher's mythically self-conscious, doctrinally indefinite, and doctrinally entangled categories. I'm tempted (though I'm going to resist the temptation) to make a nuisance of myself with my own religious friends, here in Australia, to try to nail down where they belong, but my strong sense of it is that many of them would fall into the doctrinally indefinite and mythically self-conscious categories. In countries such as Denmark and Sweden, it seems that the majority of religious adherents are mythically self-conscious - they have no supernatural beliefs, but still identify as "Christians". For them, Christianity is mainly a system of morality (and a fairly liberal one at that).

In the upshot, a lot of work needs to be done to get a better sociological grip on all this, but things are not as simple as Ruse says. Moreover, if they were, that would be all the more reason to take a harder stance, rather than a softer one. The point of Kitcher's analysis is not to accommodate the true believers but to get a better understanding of religious people who are not out-and-out believers, so we (i.e. atheists like Kitcher, Dawkins, and Dennett ... and me) can think about how we ought to relate to them. Ruse would more or less cut off that exercise before we start. He asks us to assume that all the religious people we are dealing with are out-and-out believers, and then "accommodate" them.

Ruse misunderstands Kitcher's analysis in various ways, but one big problem is that he associates it with Gould's NOMA theory. But Gould's NOMA theory has no place in it for Kitcher's category of the full-on religious believers. Gould seems to think that religion by its very nature only makes claims about morality and the meaning of life. Kitcher never says anything so obviously false, not to mention silly. He merely says that some religious adherents are driven primarily by goals and values, rather than by supernatural beliefs. But he also acknowledges that others do, indeed, have supernatural beliefs that are doing the driving, and he argues that those beliefs are false.

Whether or not Kitcher's actual recommendations - which I haven't yet got to - are good or bad, or a mix, he's advanced the debate. He's given us tools to think about some of these dynamics. It's interesting to see him getting taken to task for not being, um, soft enough.

Edit: Link fixed.


Bruce said...

So Ruse is basically using a simplistic version of Dawkins' "New Atheist" definition of religion (not worthy of respect) from The God Delusion, to bash the conciliatory Kitcher for not being conciliatory enough. Ironic.

I'm increasingly worried that this absurd backlash against the "New Atheists" by other atheists, is for the most part motivated by deliberate self-interest.

Charles Sullivan said...

I think I prefer the term "compatibilist"
to "accommodationist" when it comes to attempts to reconcile the worldviews of science and religion per Ruse and Miller.

I don't know if this term has been used in connection with the religion/science debate, but as a philosopher you'll know that the term compatibilism has been used in philosophy (free will/determinism).

Eamon Knight said...

According to Ruse, John Shelby Spong is not a Christian (of course, many conservative Christians would agree).

Seconding what Charles Sullivan said: I thought "compatibilism" was already available for the claim that science and religion do not necessarily contradict each other. I'd prefer to use "accommodation" to describe the social/political/rhetorical aspects of dealing with religion, irrespective of whether (certain kinds of) religion are logically compatible with science. After all, we already talk about "accommodating" this or that person's religious requirements for a kosher diet, or not to work on certain days, or to wear certain headgear, even though we believe that those requirements are objectively absurd. Pragmatically deciding to refrain from pressing the deeper issues when discussing evolution with moderate believers would seem to fall under the same umbrella.

Charles Sullivan said...

I'm with Eamon's account of the use the word "accommodation".

It suggests a kind of patience, a way of aiding those who you feel the pragmatic need to put up with.

It's a borderline moral judgment term.

"Compatible" seems less evaluative, more factual, and less encumbered with moral judgment.

Perhaps the initial choice of "accommodationist" to mean the attempt to reconcile the worldviews of science and religion was a bad choice to begin with.

Bruce said...

I think I'll go with "compatibilist" as well, thanks Mr Sullivan. :D

I've been troubled by the term "accommodationist" with its political connotations, the two definitions Russell mentions, and the capacity for equivocation between the two.

I won't name the (prominent) blogger because I can't readily find the link quickly enough to show I'm not verballing them; but I can recall once reading them define "accommodationist" as synonymous with "compatibilist", then within a week, blasting someone who wasn't a "compatibilist" for being an "accommodationist". It was frustrating!

I find your clear terminology soothing.

Russell Blackford said...

To be fair to Ruse does actually define it to mean "compatibilist" in the sense some of y'all are talking about. That should be said for the record. But it gets confusing when he then accuses Kitcher of adopting something like the NOMA position, which is a "compatibilist" sort of position (but not the position Kitcher actually takes). Aaaarrgghh! Maybe I need to read it again in the morning.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "compatibilist" is all that great, since I think a lot of "accomodationists" might not fit it if taken strictly. To me, "compatibilist" implies that religion and science just are incompatible and can never be incompatible in any way, which would be an exceedingly strong NOMA position that almost certainly isn't true. An in-between position might be that science and religion CAN be made compatible without losing what makes them, well, them. But that doesn't seem to require a strong NOMA position, and allows for some things that can rightly be called religions to be incompatible with science (and vice versa).

Note that in that light I consider the incompatibilist position equally unlikely; there is no possible way that a religion that says "We shall conform to all scientific fact" is interestingly incompatible with science, but it clearly would still be a religion.

Eamon Knight said...

@verbosestoic: I don't think "compatibilist" is all that great, since I think a lot of "accomodationists" might not fit it if taken strictly.

I think that's fine: in my schema, accommodationism isn't a subset of compatibilism, it's orthogonal -- they deal with different aspects of the science/religion divide. Granted, it can be hard to be an incompatibilist and an accommodationist without behaving dishonestly (though Josh Rosenau seems willing to try).

Eamon Knight said...

Oh, and I forgot to add: I don't see why "compatibilist" has to construed as an all-or-nothing position. I would class myself as a fairly limited compatibilist (meaning: I think religion has to remain within fairly strict bounds to be compatible with science, most extant religions don't obey those rules, and those who take such refuge are engaged in a bit of a desperation move).

Anonymous said...


If you allow the compatibilist position to encompass everyone who does not think that science and religion are inherently incompatible -- meaning that they would have to think that if you have anything that is properly called science and properly called religion, they are incompatible -- you box them into an almost indefensible position. It is easy to point out that a religion that said "We will conform/adjust our religion -- through our normal mechanisms -- to conform to scientific fact" would be compatible with science, and yet might also disagree with it at times. But all the disagreements would clearly be temporary and not an indication of fundamental incompatiblity. All that might be left is the argument over methodology ... but that gets roundly defeated by looking at science and philosophy and noting that philosophy uses different methods than science to, but that it is ridiculous to say that they are incompatible.

And I think that the intermediate position isn't an orthogonal one, but an important distinction, in that the intermediate is committed to accepting that some religions are not compatible with science, thus rendering it immune from this "Well, what about THIS religion?" arguments that stronger compatibilism has to deal with.

This way, people in the middle get to avoid the baggage of the stronger claims and we can see the poverty of both strong claims directly, and they are mirrors as each other, like in the free will/compatibilist/determinist positions.