Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse are not accommodationists. At least, they say they aren’t, and that’s hard to evaluate, because “accommodationist” is a bad word, and to ensure that it stays a bad word, critics of accommodationists give it protean meanings. Sometimes it’s supposed to mean the belief that science and religion are compatible. Sometimes it’s just about atheists working with religious people toward shared goals. Other times, “accommodationist” seems to constitute the subset of anti-creationists who oppose gnu atheists. The label “accommodationist” has been thrust upon me vigorously enough that it may not be worth my while to try shaking it, even though I don’t know what it means, but I can see why Aikin and Talisse wouldn’t want to be saddled with this ill-defined and usually pejorative label.
Whether or not it convinces you that they aren’t accommodationists, their essay at 3 Quarks Daily does a nice job laying out an atheist approach to religion that makes sense to me (though I find it flawed in parts):
It is important to note that â¦ we are very much in agreement with the New Atheists [to a point]. Most religious claims are demonstrably false, and religionâs cultural influences have distorting effects on how believers assess the evidence. The religiosity of the background culture explains the persistence of religious belief.
But once this kind of explanation of the persistence of religious belief is adopted, the charge of accommodationism, as it is typically wielded, is rendered facile. One can wholeheartedly and unequivocally deny the truth of the religious believerâs commitments without thereby impugning his integrity as a cognitive agent. The claim that religious believers deserve respect, therefore, need not entail any degree of positive regard for religious belief; the call for respect rather is a call to respect religious believers. And respecting religious believers qua believers involves adopting the working presumption that, though they are mistaken and perhaps obviously so, they are nonetheless not stupid; instead, they are mistaken about what evidence there is and what weight it has.
The proper response to this state of affairs is to address religious believers as fellow rational agents, to elicit from them their best arguments and their conception of what evidence there is, and to make a case for oneâs own view. Correspondingly, it is foolish to begin with an effort to discredit the intellects of religious believers or to diagnose them as benighted, foolish, and intellectually cowardly.
They argue strongly for the value of dialog, of understanding your critics’ positions so as to be effective in evaluating their arguments and ultimately convincing them of your argument’s superiority, and more broadly for shaping a more civil and rationally-grounded society. I don’t necessarily agree that religion (or religious society) is to blame for the odd way some people treat evidence, but this essay doesn’t try to justify that claim, and I hope to see a review copy of the book and evaluate their argument in full. I tend to think the relationship is not of cause and effect, but of common causation, that cognitive biases inherent to the human mind and brain make some sorts of bad arguments incredibly hard to escape, and that irrationality of various forms, including some religions (probably all religions at their origin) persist today because of those underlying cognitive biases. But I agree that recognizing these biases and finding ways to overcome them without insulting people who’ve surrendered to them is key to rooting out bad ideas.
Some prominent gnu atheists have shown up in the comments to insist that Aikin and Talisse are wrong, that gnus think believers should be shown respect, even if their ideas should not be.
This is a nice idea, and applied imperfectly at best. Yesterday, for instance, I cited Richard Dawkins’ oddly dismissive attitude toward the ontological argument for god, and of Bertrand Russell’s acceptance of the argument. Elsewhere in The God Delusion, Dawkins criticizes Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria. Which is fine, there’s plenty there to argue about. But instead of offering a thoughtful critique, he says NOMA “sounds terrific â right up until you give it a moment’s thought.” No one who has read Gould or spent time with him could think that he was prone to doing things thoughtlessly, yet Dawkins seems not to have been taken aback by this inconsistency. Nor again, when he wrote “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages [arguing for NOMA].” Again, no one could credibly argue that Gould went around writing arguments that he didn’t believe in. Dawkins is entitled to disagree with NOMA â I’d guess most scholars in this field do, at least in part â but it’d be better for him and for his reader if he engaged with the reasons why a smart and honest writer like Gould would offer this argument, rather than dismissing the entire claim as thoughtless and unbelievable.
For a more recent examples, in which one gnu seems to have followed Aikin and Thalisse’s advice and another didn’t, let’s consider the case of Rob Knop. Knop has returned to blogging after a lengthy hiatus, and put up an piece about why he dislikes the term “gnu atheism. Jerry Coyne found the piece and criticized it. This is one of those “water is wet, the sky is blue” moments. What makes it interesting is the reasons he gives for considering Knop’s piece. First, consider the title: “A mushbrained attack on the Gnus.” This implication of organic brain disorder does not bode well for an analysis which will respect Knop while criticizing his ideas. The piece then delves deep into credentialism, saying the post is worth addressing “not because its author is a big presence on the internet, but because itâs an attack on atheism by a credentialled scientist.” It’s all about the person, not the ideas.
There’s no engagement with Knop’s ideas later. Coyne doesn’t bother addressing Knop’s argument against gnu atheism, except to complain that Knop doesn’t offer examples of the bad things Knop claims gnus do. As to Knop’s argument that gnu atheism might become associated with the Free Software Foundation’s GNU software suite, and thus discredit the free software movement, Coyne again dismisses it as a result of brain damage without engaging with the idea (he even misconstrues Knop’s argument). FSF and GNU have long been accused of a crypto-communism, and communism has a deep link to atheism in American discourse (unfortunately), so it isn’t totally implausible that IT managers might make this link and use it to oppose switching to free software. It may not be the most salient criticism of the term “gnu atheism,” but the gnus are building a brand, and these are things one thinks about under such circumstances.
If gnus want to say that they agree with the goal of respectful dialog, pieces like Coyne’s (and if you think other examples don’t exist, I can start a catalog) would be good places for them to try enforcing some internal discipline. Ophelia Benson managed to be snarky and dismissive of Knop’s piece while still engaging the ideas. Where Benson keeps the focus on what Knop says and why she thinks it’s wrong, Coyne’s piece begins with implications of brain disorder, segues to a silly credentialism, and offhandedly includes the oddly stilted observation that Knop “describes himself as a ‘Christian’ ” (as if there were cause for doubt on that point). It’s all about knocking Knop down, rather than examining his argument. This is a trend across many posts at Coyne’s blog, and it makes the protestations against Aikin and Talisse (see the comments at 3QuarksDaily) less than convincing.
Addendum: Coyne argues against Knop:
people like Knop are getting in the way of a cause that we care about: the inimical effects of religion. I deplore the effects of creationists on diluting biology education in America. But I deplore far more the effects of religion in making the world a worse place to live. A kid in Alabama who doesnât hear about human evolution is small potatoes next to a Muslim woman who gets her genitals mutilated, an African who gets AIDS because his priest wouldnât let him use condoms, or an Afghan girl who, seeking an education, gets her face permanently mutilated with acid.
He does this shortly after criticizing Knop for not citing examples, a criticism he repeats soon afterward as well. Note that Coyne does not show that Knop disagrees with Coyne’s concerns about creationism, genital mutilation, limited access to contraception, or acid attacks on women and girls seeking an education. Nor does Coyne cite examples of how Knop or anyone else is “getting in the way” of whatever efforts gnus have fielded against those blights. I doubt he could find any examples.
Critics of the gnus oppose those things too. We see that there are religious groups which also agree with those goals, and we see no reason not to work with them, and to attempt a respectful dialog with religious folks who might be uncertain about those issues. It is absurd, offensive, and dishonest to suggest that his critics are not also standing against torture and abuse and contraceptive-denial and the host of other human horrors inflicted by ignorance and authoritarianism and free market fundamentalism and also, yes, some religions. It is even worse to suggest that his critics are interfering with his work against those tragedies when we share the same goals on those issues.