Anyone who has been paying attention to the atheist blog-o-sphere in recent months is familiar with the issue of accommodationism. Anyone who has been following the atheist community at all knows a little about the issue of labels; Atheist, weak atheist/strong atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc. Within these, and many other, issues lie a multitude of canards about atheists and issues related to the philosophy of religion that atheists commonly talk about.
One of those issues that comes up by people attempting to be reasonable has been annoying me recently, although it certainly is nothing new. Just yesterday I was watching a documentary about one man’s search for whether God makes sense, called (appropriately) “Does God make sense?” In it, we see interviews in which religious leaders and atheists answer questions about belief, skepticism, etc. In the end, we get a sort of cop-out, a non-controversial moderation of opinion that will offend few and say little.
Does God makes sense? Our documentary narrator and interviewer concludes that both arguments have “circularities” and “endless regressions”; “Arguments? I love them all. But they all falter.” And finally, “I wish I were certain.”
Ah yes, this old canard! Both the atheists and the theists think they are certain, and that reasonable people are not certain so we therefore reasonable people cannot unambiguously side with any ‘extreme’. I’ve dealt with this before, somewhat, in talking about arrogance. I’ve also dealt with the canard of atheist and theist being the extremes of a continuum with moderate positions (say, here and here). But now I want to deal with another facet of this poorly cut piece of glass being passed off as a beautiful jewel. I want to deal with the idolization of the moderate.
Shared by large swath of people in our culture, there is a sense that it is somehow laudable, and perhaps a prerequisite for being considered respectable, to eschew the extremes. Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a prime example of this trend occurring in our culture. The idea is that those on the extremes are, well, extreme and therefore unreasonable. In order to be reasonable and sane we must keep a distance from both shores and sit comfortably somewhere in the middle, safe from controversy that might start a *gasp* conversation that may challenge others’ views. We may lean one way or the other, but be should sit near the middle.
But, as the atheist prophet and wordsmith PZ Myers so eloquently commented:
squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshiping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.
That is, sometimes the extreme is not a position of crazy. Sometimes the extreme position is just right. So when I see people trying to navigate the question of religion, god, etc and they conclude that the only reasonable position to be in is somewhere between the crazy theist fundamentalists and the crazy atheists, I want to ask why the atheist position is crazy.
And when I do, I get back either a look of perplexity upon being unable to identify examples of atheist fundamentalism or a bunch of positions that no atheist I know holds. In other words, the extreme they point to is a straw-man, if they can point to anything at all.
But hidden within this is an admittance that I find interesting. These moderates seem to recognize that the beliefs supported by religious fundamentalism–that is, supported by what the various scriptures actually say–are crazy. They seem to recognize that the faith that those on the side of religious belief are not-acceptable to reasonable people. They reject literalism, yes, but they also reject rejecting some watered-down version of that same faith (erroneously labeling that rejection as an equivalent faith). And, instead, they maintain a new kind of faith; a faith in the moderate, the in-between, the safe. They create the watered-down religiosity that they refuse to reject, in fact. It’s why they refuse to reject it; it’s their faith.
No, this is not to say that it is really safe, at least not in any way that will stand up to intellectual scrutiny. It has to do with the fact that it will be culturally safe because so many people accept (without evidence or question, usually) the canard that a moderate position between apparent extremes is preferable, respectable, and will not make you stand out at a party.
It’s politics, really. It’s an attempt to not be controversial. Again, it’s not an attempt to not actually hold a controversial opinion, just not to hold a controversial opinion around the people they hang out with; other moderates with the same faith. They have the numbers on their side, surely, and even when they don’t they will often appear rational. The religious crazies will at least be sated that they are not atheists (even if they are), and the atheist will be sated that they are not thanking Jesus before dinner (even if they are). You see, moderation is not so much about the opinion itself as it is about the being quiet among people with which they might otherwise have differences. They neither discuss or think much about such controversial issues, so they default to the position of moderation while dismissing strong opinions as non-preferable. They accommodate in order to get along.
Politics. Except that when the polemical politicians speak up, they simply regard them as more of the crazies, even if they are not. (And yes, they often are)
My mother is fond of the phrase “happy medium,” implying a pseudo- Aristotelian temperance of opinion. A very close friend is usually of a similar temperament, and tries to find some position of compromise; but being a government attorney, this is not surprising. And these skills are often good skills to have, and I employ them myself. But more is going on here, I think, than good practice of rationality. In some cases, I think it’s a kind of faith in the truth of moderation itself. I It is, I think, a cultural phenomenon that is perhaps as predictable and as common as it is, well, average.
And I, who will stand near the so-called “extreme” of opinions about theology and sexuality, look at the people trying to be moderate and see them as, well, conservative. This is essentially how I view accommodationism; as a position of being stuck in a respectful position in regards to religion mostly for the sake of appearing reasonable to the moderates of the world. And it is not that they are trying to be conservative; they are not intentionally trying to maintain the status quo in any way, they just simply stop progressing at some point, and became comfortable. Whether out of discomfort, fear, disinterest, or the occasional actual intent to stay where they are because they prefer it, it creates a cultural phenomenon that to those still progressing, looks like rigidity and sterility.
I will observe that I think that the liberalism of many generations often becomes the conservative of the next. Where sex outside of marriage was rebellious and liberal for a couple of generations ago, while I was growing up casual sex started to become normal. And now that I look at those with whom up I grew, I see them as being conservative sexually. You know, idealizing monogamy and all that. A close friend told me not so long ago that polyamory is not for adults. I find this funny and ironic.
I see those same people not being religious (although they may retain some emotional connection to some vague “spirituality”), and they are not willing to call themselves atheists or even to consider that my position, which they don’t understand and which they assume must be as crazy as the fundamentalist warning hellfire on the street-corner (without having any idea what that would imply), is reasonable.
Why can’t the position of the gnu atheist be reasonable? Simple. Because it is not moderate, and moderation is good. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new faith. It is a new faith of non-controversial, ‘let’s just live and let live’, mentality.
But it’s really always been this way, I think. But I think they often forget that there should perhaps be moderation in everything; including moderation.
Strong opinions are not always crazy. Sometimes they only seem extreme and strong because they reject things that really are ridiculous, and the contrast is glaring, loud, and diverting. Perhaps it is time for great, diverting, contrast to faith of all kinds. Perhaps it’s time for the anti-faith to arrive. But to be anti-faith is to be loud even in a whisper. But perhaps it’s time for more people to stop whispering and proclaim loudly that faith is not a benefit but a detriment to being reasonable. Perhaps it’s time to call out that accommodationists are accommodating something crazy, even if they are only half-way to crazy town.