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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).

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Gnus can be nice

I'm elevating (and reworking a little) some of the content of my own comment on the other thread, since I think this is an important thing to try to get clear. The point is that neither the "New Atheism" nor an anti-accommodationist approach to the relationship between religion and science entails being gnasty.

The point of the "new Atheism" was never to act in a way that is in-your-face, nasty, uncivil, etc., such as "Tom Johnson" notoriously described in one of the recent internet debates. Likewise, the anti-accommodationist position was never that we should go around acting like that. By acting in a civil way towards religious people, at least when those people are themselves civil, Jerry is in no way abandoning his support for the work of, say, Richard Dawkins. Nor is he becoming an accommodationist.

To the extent that there is something worth calling the New Atheism it is about criticising religion in the sphere of popular discourse - in books aimed for a wide market, in newspapers, in television appearances, etc. - and not just in academic journals and books written for academics. That is what changed last decade.  It is about a forthright and popular atheism, but it is not about being literally aggressive. You can say, I suppose, that there's a sense in which it involves marketing atheism in an "aggressive" way - in the same sense that any other "product" can be marketed "aggressively" (in inverted commas). I.e., resources will be thrown at it. It will be made a priority, with an investment of energy to attract people's attention. But the New Atheism was never about literal aggression in the sense of being downright uncivil or nasty. This is part of the reason why the Tom Johnson story was so implausible. No one ever told people that they should behave in the way that "Johnson" described.

The anti-accommodationist aspect of some of our thinking is, as others are saying, about whether there is a place for religion within a scientific view of the world (or how far a scientifically-informed understanding of the world can accommodate religion). The idea has never been to claim that it is just impossible to find an arguably religious position that is at least formally consistent with science. Examples are a very austere kind of Deism and a highly non-literalist viewpoint that explains claims about supernatural events as metaphors.

Those of us who identify as anti-accommodationist don't deny that such positions exist. Our point is more that science tends to push thoughtful religious people into such positions rather than traditional positions that involve, say, a providential God and various supernatural events. (And, I now add, there is then a set of issues as to why the austere Deist or non-literalist views, which leave out much that made religion psychologically attractive in the first place, should be taken seriously.)

What we do say is that it's hopelessly misleading to go around saying "Science and religion are compatible." It would be more true to say that science tends to undermine all or most traditional forms of religion, making them less plausible, putting pressure on the religious to thin out their supernaturalist, providentialist views of the world, and so on. The result is that much in the way of actual religion really is threatened by the advance of science. Claiming otherwise is, we say, likely to be disingenuous (or, to be fair, simply mistaken).

We then have a great deal to say about the various ways in which science does this. In particular, we tend to criticise ideas such as NOMA, which seem to us to be full of problems. For example, NOMA gives a characterisation of religion that is totally untrue to the historical experience of the phenomenon.

None of this is about acting in ways that are uncivil.


Mark Jones said...

Thanks for elevating Russell; a very clear statement of anti-accommodationism, if that is what it must be called!

Sometimes I think the gnus are like cream cakes; gnaughty but gnice. Sadly the niceness is routinely ignored and the naughtiness exaggerated.

Thalamus said...

You're spot on! "New Atheism", if it is to mean anything, means this relatively recent outburst of confidence on the part of many non-believers, who have now, thanks to figures like Harris and Hitchens, worked up the courage to voice their views in a way that had always been frowned upon by people of faith especially here in America.

To be an Gnu Atheist today is to aknowledge the primacy and epistemological uniqueness of science and critical thinking over the formerly pervasive post-hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning and superstition.

Michael Fugate said...

As Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, one of the most troubling aspects is the pro-accommodationist and pro-NOMA stances of science organizations. The NAS has this in their pamphlet "Science, Evolution and Creationism" on page 12:
"Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding. But science is a way of knowing that differs from other ways in its dependence on empirical evidence and testable explanations. [...]

Science and religion are based on different aspects of the human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically, involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist."

Not a single thing about how religion contributes to knowing, understanding or experiencing anything.

Rieux said...

Except, of course, that religion claims (and has claimed for decades, if not millennia) special status under the very standards of civility you reference here: under widely held notions of propriety, openly making the sorts of arguments you sketch out is in and of itself uncivil. Under the standards enforced in much of the society we (well, I—I understand Oz is different) live in, the very idea that religious claims to truth are dubious cannot, even in principle, be asserted without violating basic notions of civilized discourse. Atheists' very ideas are ruled out of the social conversation before we even start.

It's one of the most prominent examples of the privilege enjoyed by religious ideas and those who hold them—not different in kind (though often different in degree) from white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, ableist privilege, and the like.

I would contend that nearly the entire accommodationist critique of Gnu Atheism is in fact an attempt to enforce unjust religious privilege on atheists who refuse to heed it; the dishonesty you highlight here (exemplified most recently by Josh Rosenau) is a simple matter of privilege-enforcers getting confused about which standards of discourse Gnus actually are interested in defying. Clearly, the logic goes, if Gnus are willing to violate the basic civility standard that no one is allowed to openly challenge religious claims (or, sometimes, to openly challenge the religious claims forwarded by allegedly "friendly" believers), then clearly they are opposed to any and all standards of civility. Thus Jerry Coyne is a hypocrite when he is polite to liberal Methodists.

I think just about every public atheist ought to talk about religious privilege more—perhaps a lot more. It seems to me that it's at the root of just about every dust-up about overt atheism that I've ever seen.

Mike Haubrich said...

Dammit, Rieux, you stole my thunder.

It is about violating privileged status of religion's place to say," well, you may have tools for objective evidence on your side, which is all well and good. We have knowledge passed down through centuries that things are contrary to what the tests and observations show."

When it comes to knowledge of how natural phenomena interact, science can only eliminate improbabilities and those improbabilities which haven't yet been disproven are very likely the truth. But science can't assert positively and with absolute certainty any given fact. All facts are open to being broken with science. Facts are not open to being broken when it comes to religious certainty. It is as written, it is as taught, it is as personally experienced.

In my understanding this is why religion and science are not compatible. People can be both good at science and religion, and when the science and religion contradict each other over natural phenomena, followers revel in the mystery and the miraculous exception.

Pointing this out, as gnus do, is "uncivil" even when delivered with the utmost politeness as it is often done.

It is decidedly not proper for science organizations to make accommodating statements to succor religious belief. Rosenau claims it is a political necessity, but history teaches that when political motivation interferes with science, bad science is done or taught.

What he also fails to realize is that some of the people he is talking to "on the ground" as he puts it, will sooner or later realize that they have been toyed with in order to mollify them into accepting science and especially evolution by natural processes. They will then be as angry at the NCSE as atheist who come from fundamentalist backgrounds and are angry at the lies creationists promulgated.

He will have, ironically, created Angry Atheists.

mccomplete said...

What do you think of the aggressive politics of some of the new atheists? Doesn't Dawkins advocate banning religious schools? As someone who advocates freedom as well as reason, doesn't that worry you? And doesn't Dawkins speak approvingly of (I forget his first name) Huxley, who suggested that we should prosecute parents for teaching religion to their children, like the Soviet Union did?

Also, I'm still bewildered by the claim that science undermines providentialism and supernaturalism. What empirical findings have there been (or could there be) that contradict the claim that God created and runs the world, or that miracles have happened in the past?

I understand that there are plenty of philosophical and theological objections to providentialism and supernaturalism, but I'm at a loss to think of scientific objections to these beliefs.

Russell Blackford said...

Dawkins does not advocate either of those things. On the assumption that you're making those claims in good faith, I'll say no more than that they are false and that you've been misinformed.

As for the specific objections to providentialism, etc., that wasn't the topic of the post, but one good place to begin would be Kitcher's recent book on evolution. Another would be my article in the Tangled Bank anthology edited by Chris Lynch.

PZ Myers said...

As one of the bad boys of the Gnu Atheism, I have to add that being in this crowd also does not entail being gnice, and a little gnastiness can be quite fun. And useful.

But you're entirely right. We've been demonized to a ridiculous degree.

flies said...


I'd like to hear from you WRT this quote from John Pieret:

But the question really is whether "a worldview based on science and reason" is the same thing as "science."

Is this a fair comment? You say,
The anti-accommodationist aspect of some of our thinking is, as others are saying, about whether there is a place for religion within a scientific view of the world (or how far a scientifically-informed understanding of the world can accommodate religion).

Is it fair for Pieret and Roseneau to draw a distinction between science and a scientific worldview?

Anonymous said...

Well, as perhaps the instigator of the comment, I'll shift my comment on the civil/uncivil/aggressive side over to here.

I used the term "aggressive" specifically so that I'd be totally fair to the debate. I think a lot of accomodationists in the "civil/uncivil" sense are indeed calling out a lack of civility, and in some cases can see that as kinda being the case. But some of the debates do seem to be about more direct aggression, and about some tendencies to stick discussion of religion in places where maybe it would be best to let the sleeping dog lie. Hence, "aggressive" covered all of it.

I'm not sure, Russell, that you actually meet the standards of what those sorts of accomodationists were going after, on either count. I don't think, in most cases, it's just speaking out that's getting people riled up -- although for some of them it probably is -- but is indeed more about a confrontational, aggressive, sometimes uncivil tone to the discussions.

But I still do see these positions as being distinct ones; you can argue over aggressive tone while having the exact same stance about the compatibility of science and faith.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, yes, you can. I agree with that.

Russell Blackford said...

On the bit about whether religion, or a particular religion, is incompatible with science or whether it is "only" incompatible with a view of the world that is informed by science ... well, I think that distinction involves a certain amount of sophistry. At a minimum, people who make this argument need to do a lot of explaining.

I also think that someone who says in public, "Religion and science are compatible" while secretly thinking "But religion and a worldview informed by science are not compatible" is being disingenuous. Surely the second should be just as scary for the religious as the first (whatever, exactly, the difference is supposed to be).

RosemaryLW said...

It seems that a quick summary of the NOLM stance would be to say that religion and science are compatible so long as neither steps into the other's domain; science does not try to test or theorize about things that are not physically manifested and religion does not try to explain physical manifestations.

Scientists would be happy with that, but there are few, if any, religious believers who would want to accept those restrictions.