Nobody who has followed Dawkins’s work and writing could possibly think he’s an accommodationist
Or rather, he’s probably right. I’ve never been clear what “accommodationist” means, it seems to adapt itself in perfect Calvinball style to suit whatever enemy someone might have. Thus, when Eugenie Scott answers the question “Are science and religion compatible?”:
I don’t have to address that as a philosophical question, I can address that as an empirical question. It’s obvious that it is. Because there are many people who are scientists who are also people of faith. There are many theologians whose life it is, whose job it is to think about religious issues, who are enthusiastic accepters and supporters of science and who are excited by the things scientists discover. So it’s empirically obvious that there’s no necessary conflict between science and religion.
This is greeted with cries that she “dissembles,” and she is charged with making an argument that is “trivial, and insulting to anyone who can think.”
When Dawkins is asked a nearly identical question, “Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution?” and answers:
No, I don’t think they’re incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God–to name only Francis Collins as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind.
It’s greeted as calumny to suggest any link between his position and Genie’s. Her statement is taken as evidence that Genie is an accommodationist, a member of the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists, and worse. But to attach any such label to Richard, even to raise the question (that’s what the squiggly thing at the end of my previous post’s title signified), is apparently the height of dishonesty.
I’ve seen definitions of “accommodationism” that mean a person is personally religious and has no problem with science. This is clearly not the sense the term is generally used it, but it is certainly the most restrictive. It clearly doesn’t apply to me, to Genie, to Chris Mooney, and to a host of other people who are generally acknowledge to be accommodationists.
I’ve seen it used to mean that a person holds the belief that science and religion are compatible, even if he or she is not personally religious. This, of course, gets to the definition of “compatible,” which is fraught. In the quotations above, Genie and Richard both use it to mean something like “beliefs not crowding one another out or preventing one another from being believed simultaneously.” (Though one might quibble over whether science is properly called “belief.”) I wrote a blog post that defended this as a reasonable definition, but it is not the one endorsed by many in the debate.
There are folks who resist this definition because they think it’s trivial, and everyone accepts it. But no, they don’t. In the British Council international survey on evolution (via) conducted this summer, a quarter (27%) of Americans denied that “it is possible to believe in a God and evolution simultaneously.” Heck, barely 19% of Britons though that. India did best at that question with 85% thinking it’s possible and 2% thinking it’s not. In all cases, “neither agree nor disagree” was a sizable bloc, 19% in the US, 27% in the UK, and 13% in India.
That 27% in the U.S. basically corresponds to the size of the creationist population, with the undecided bloc splitting itself various ways, and a few people who think you could believe that, but don’t do it themselves. A significant chunk of the resistance to evolution that I hear at NCSE and that I heard before I got to NCSE originates in exactly this belief, that it is either/or as a totally practical matter. If it were truly undisputed, we’d be in a much better position to have some interesting discussion about, for instance, the philosophy behind it. And about the evidence backing evolution. For now, a lot of people will simply refuse to pick up Jerry’s or Richard’s excellent books, because they don’t care what the evidence is, they don’t want to hear it, because they do think that if evolution gets in, it’ll instantly stop them believing in God, and then they’ll go on murderous rampages. Getting past that resistance would help Richard and Jerry sell more books (which would be good), and to critically engage with the evidence for evolution (which would be great).
For myself, I don’t know what it means to say that science and religion are “epistemically compatible,” and I think that intentionally vague definitions do a lot of the work in this debate. Efforts to just use Google turn up: a few blog posts about this same fight, some philosophy papers that are clearly not germane, and other philosophy papers that are not epistemically compatible with anything in my experience. I need an “Epistemic Compatibility for Dummies,” if there’s to be a productive dialog here. It would be helpful indeed if a number of the participants on the debate would post clear definitions, as we may find varying meanings of the term even among critics of accommodationism. Absent a definition, I’d appreciate a few examples other than science/religion where epistemic compatibility can be established one way or another, to give a feel for how the term might be used in a less fraught context.
It seems like if one uses my analogy to compatibility and incompatibility of software applications in the post linked above, epistemic compatibility would either be meaningless or trivially reduce to the empirical definition. The issue there is that a program doesn’t “mean” anything to a processor, so as long as one program doesn’t crash the computer or write to a memory location the other program relies on or hog a given resource that the two need to share, they are compatible. I don’t like it, but with Parallels I can run Mac OS and Windows simultaneously. I can run Internet Exploder and Firefox simultaneously. And when a program is glitchy or an OS lets well-formed programs do bad things, you patch the software, equivalent to revising belief.
I freely admit that analogies on the internet suck, but I haven’t give up on them.
The nice thing about this analogy is that it doesn’t force you to treat “science” and “religion” as big abstract things with an existence outside human conceptions of them. Science may be real or it may not, and religion may be real or it may not. I don’t feel the need to take a position on every philosophical question ever asked simply to be able to talk to the public about why science is good, why evolution is good, why creationism suck hard, and why fundamentalism and other authoritarian forces suck even harder. I don’t care if Carnap is right or if John Flansburgh has the better argument. Flansburgh’s music is just as good either way. Similarly, I don’t really care that much whether it’s true that religion qua religion can never avoid stepping on science’s toes, and vice versa. There are reasonable arguments on each side, and I don’t think that either answer makes my life any different. No one’s shown me why I, or NCSE, or anyone else, absolutely must adopt a position on the matter or have asinine nicknames slapped on them. There were criticisms leveled that NCSE had actually taken a position, but bear in mind that NCSE’s website had been recently renovated, so errors were inevitable, and the passages singled out all appear to have been revised as a result to better reflect NCSE’s stated policy and to avoid taking a firm stand. Accusations that it’s improper for NCSE and NCSE staff to restrict themselves to the empirical question of compatibility are, I must point out, inconsistent with calls for NCSE or NCSE staff to adopt and endorse a firm position on philosophical compatibility.
Whether religion X is compatible with science is a question that can be much easier than such abstract questions about whatever we’re supposed to mean when talking about “religion” as some sort of monolithic entity, and narrower questions are much more relevant to daily life. Young earth creationism is not compatible with science. Both make certain claims about the world which conflict. Both propose mechanisms for testing identical sorts of claims about the world, and those methods conflict. YEC belief pretty much requires you to reject science. There are things like Omphalos or Last Thursdayism that are not incompatible with scientific results, but one could construct such a philosophy in a way that would still make science as a process a useful way to test claims about the current universe. Theories derived from empirical data would continue to produce correct results, and if the illusion of age is perfect, you can never know the difference, so what does it mean to talk about whether these philosophies are compatible or incompatible? It’s like arguing about brains in a jar or philosophical zombies. Interesting if you like that sort of thing, but not the makings of a blog war that’s barely paused in 3 years.
And those examples don’t even speak to a particular religion, let alone religion qua religion; YEC isn’t a religion, it’s a particular religious belief. There are folks who sit on the same pew in the same church and pray to what they think is the same Godand who disagree completely on the topic. So YECish incompatibilty doesn’t even go to show that some particular religion (setting aside all religion!) is epistemically incompatible with science.
By this standard, one could credibly argue that supply-side economics is incompatible with science, which (by the logic that tars all religion with the sins of particular beliefs or believers) might lead you to think that Republicanism or conservatism is incompatible with science. And at this point it feels like we’re using “epistemically incompatible with science” to mean “I don’t like it,” which is surely not what people actually mean, so let’s not pursue that argument.
To return to our original topic, I don’t think that a definition of “accommodationism” which requires a particular belief about epistemic compatibility is quite right, as I’m pretty sure I’m an apathistic agnostic on the matter, as I am on pretty much any religious question. And if we adopt the simple empirical method, then Genie and Richard are both accommodationists, which seems inconsistent with how the term is used.
So where does that leave us? What does accommodationism mean that doesn’t attribute beliefs to me and others that we don’t have, that matches the actual use the term gets, and that doesn’t boil down to “people insufficiently enthusiastic about The God Delusion” or similar works?
Not that the latter is totally unacceptable. There are clearly camps who’ve divided on the topic, and each needs a name. I think, as a practical matter, that stirring up this fight within the pro-science ranks just enables the creationists to go recruiting, and I’ve occasionally used the term “enabler” to describe the folks who oppose whatever accommodationism might be. I stopped because it felt cheap, trivializing, and divisive, but if we all agree that that’s how we want to behave toward one another, who am I to argue? Maybe accommodationist and faitheist are synonyms, even, with one just more obviously insulting than the other.