About Me

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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).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Aikin-and-Talisse accommodationism kerfuffle

I'd like to return, over the next couple of days, to this piece by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse that was published by 3quarksdaily back in February. This is not because I want to have a further shot at Aikin and Talisse, but because what went on here seems to me like it may be a teachable moment, or at least a moment we can all learn from. The new book from these authors,  Reasonable Atheism, looks interesting, and it's one that I look forward to reading (especially if the publishers think to send me a review copy).

In particular, I'm not at all out of sympathy with the project of producing the best possible formulations and incremental developments of the case against theism and religion (which are not quite the same thing). The task that Aikin and Talisse appear to have set themselves is an important one that must go on. I also agree with their point that it's better to treat opponents with respect ... although I may be quicker than they are to discern limits to respect.

From everything I've seen so far, Aikin and Talisse are not accommodationists in any sense in which I'd want to employ that term, and I think it's unfortunate that they end up accepting the term, even when giving it a stipulated definition that would also make me, Richard Dawkins, and almost anyone else in the "New Atheist" camp an accommodationist. I'll return to this ... but in any even they are not what I understand by the word "accommodationists" and in my humble opinion it only creates confusion if someone applies the term to them or they embrace it. At the end of the day, they appear to be valuable allies in the ongoing struggle to reduce the social footprint of religion.

So let's assume - at least for the sake of argument, if you don't agree with the above - that Aikin and Talisse are good guys. What went wrong last month and what can we learn from this situation? By "we", I include Aikin and Talisse themselves. What could we all have done differently? I'm looking for constructive comments here.


Russell Blackford said...

In particular, Aikin and Talisse have recently defended their original piece. Without getting into an unconstructive argument, I plan to have a look at this.

zemiron said...

It seems like the base problem here is that people disagree with how certain terms have been presented. I think that Aikin and Talisse could have done a better job of researching accommodationism and New Atheism before their post. I think this would have helped solve the problem some.

I also wish everyone would just agree to define the terms they are using in a certain way. Then we could actually argue issues.

I also wanted to add that out of all of the Gnu Atheist blogs I read, I find your's the most interesting, enlightening, and generally helpful.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks. It's funny how this has come to be/be seen as an atheist/New Atheist blog. It does play that role, but would do so a lot less if not for all the annoying and unfair attacks on Gnus that I see ... and then have the urge to comment on.

It's really just intended to be my general blog, dealing with whatever is going on in my life and whatever interests me. But it ends up taking a somewhat different form.

Dave Ricks said...

The Boston Common is bounded by 5 streets, and even though I know that as a fact, when I walk around the Common, I still feel disoriented as if my mind is implicitly casting it in a framework of 4 sides. The long gentle curve in Tremont street is probably a factor in my confusion, making the 5 corners I turn add to more than 360 degrees.

My confusion with the Boston Common is geometrically simple, being 2D (confined to the surface of the Earth). Suppose we have a 3D space we partition into accommodationism versus anti-accommodationism (using Jerry Coyne's consistent concepts). Then we can slice across the 3D space along another direction to partition the space into respect versus disrespect. But we still need to consider social context (of where and when), as PZ Myers is confrontational on his web site, but not in his classroom (to my understanding).

My 3D space was intentionally inadequate to describe the options -- yet someone offering their intellectual leadership from a "think tank" may still cast the options in terms of two camps: "accommmodationists" and "confrontationists".

Well, when someone says there are two kinds of people, you know they're missing something.

K said...

I got the impression that accommodationism was meant to be a term for those who think that due to the desire to get believers on board with science, it's about playing down the incompatibility between science and religion while letting those voices who promote unity feature more prominently.

Dave Ricks said...

Kel, I like your blogger profile, I should make one.

Definitions of words aside, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne (and I) are concerned about this thing: A policy of science outreach asserting that science is compatible with religion. That policy (of asserting compatibility) prompted Sam Harris to write, "Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them". And it prompted Jerry Coyne to write, "I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution." Note the neutrality of that statement: Jerry wants scientific organizations to stick to being scientific -- to not play up religious incompatibility, and to not promote religious unity. Jerry's position seems different than either option in your comment.

So Harris and Coyne (and I) are against the policy of asserting compatibility. And we call the policy of asserting compatibility "accommodationism" (for lack of a better name). And we call our policy against asserting compatibility "anti-accommodationism" (for lack of a better name).

Our policy (that we call anti-accommodationism) is not the same as confrontational. Nor is it the same as disrespectful (as Jerry's talk with the First United Methodist Church of Chicago shows). So we're working in a multidimensional space that has at least three axes: 1) accommodationist vs. anti-accommodationist, 2) confrontational vs. non-confrontational, and 3) respectful vs. disrespectful. We also have dimensions of social context (that PZ Myers or Jerry Coyne may express personal opinions on their web sites that they do not express in their classrooms or their scientific societies).

All this is clear to me. But in one of my links above, John Shook collapses this array of options into only two options. Plus you get people like Josh Rosenau denying the fact that scientific organizations are asserting compatibility.

If you have better nomenclature for these concepts, let us know!