I have been writing, reading, and thinking about the issue of accommodationism for some time. Type ‘accommodationism’ in the search box above for some context, as there are too many posts to link to here. I will say that I have tended to agree with Jerry Coyne’s views about the relationship between religion and science most of the time, and I tend to agree with PZ Myers more often than not.
Yesterday, PZ Myers put up a post about Michael Ruse which I largely agree with, but I want to address something, not because it makes me disagree with the point PZ makes, but because I think it takes a step back and gives some larger perspective on this issue. Here’s the relevant section from PZ’s post, quoting Ruse:
But wait! There are more paradoxes! One of the big problems with the New Atheism, says Ruse, is the way we idolize and support our leaders unquestioningly.
There are other aspects of the New Atheist movement that remind me of religion. One is the adulation by supporters and enthusiasts for the leaders of the movement. It is not just a matter of agreement or respect, but of a kind of worship. This certainly surrounds Dawkins, who is admittedly charismatic.
We worship Dawkins? And possibly Hitchens and Harris? Has he ever noticed how much we all freaking argue with each other? There are no saints and popes in the New Atheist movement.
Oh, wait, yes he has noticed. In the very next paragraph.
Freud describes a phenomenon that he calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, in which groups feud over distinctions that, to the outside, seem totally trivial. It is highly characteristic of religions: think of the squabbles about the meaning of the Eucharist, for instance, or the ways in which Presbyterians tear each other apart over the true meaning of predestination. For those not involved in the fights, the issues seem virtually nonsensical, and certainly wasting energies that should be spent on fighting common foes. But not for those within the combat zone.
The New Atheists show this phenomenon more than any group I have ever before encountered.
So which is it? Blind, unquestioning worship of our leaders, or incessant fractiousness and dissension? It doesn’t matter. Ruse is just spinning his wheel of deplorable sins and accusing us of whatever random flaw pops up.
I will point out that PZ has missed that these two ideas are not, in fact, in necessarily contradiction, even if Ruse’s argument is ridiculous (which it is). It is logically possible that people in the atheist movement idolize atheist leaders and that fractious arguments also result, just like with religion. All it would take is a hypothetical Dawkins follower to argue with a Sam Harris follower, insofar as Harris and Dawkins would disagree. And there are some people I have met who do seem to look up to some atheist “celebrities” with some level of idolization, but this is to be expected. We are human, with personal flaws, after all. The ideal, however, does not have anyone idolizing anyone. I, for example, respect some people more than others, but I’ve never been a person who idolizes anyone, and never get fanboyish around well-known people, nor do I understand why other people do.
And I agree that there are arguments within the community, but I see this as largely a good thing even though in some cases it is evidence of bad ideas remaining among atheists (such as misogyny and privilege). There is a lot of work to do before our culture matures emotionally, cognitively, and in terms of being aware of our privileges and biases. And as a result of that, many atheists will tend to be stuck behind their own blindness, and fractures will exist which we need to addressed in the form of criticism and education of those people. Hence Atheism+.
But what Ruse is identifying here is not so much that the atheist community is like religion, but that when groups of people gather for any common cause, belief, or lack of beliefs, they tend to have similar behavior patterns of idolization, arguing, etc. So yes, the atheist community has some behavioral issues which are reminiscent of religion, but once again the error is in mis-attributing such things to religion, when in fact religion is the result of human group behaviors not the cause of it. Ruse is showing how atheist communities are acting human, just like religious groups. Why does Ruse make the (apparently unconscious) assumption that these behaviors fundamentally belong to religion?
Our goal—as skeptics and atheists concerned with our culture, our beliefs, and our actions—should be to improve how we all think, behave, and interact. Those working on including social justice in their actions, whether atheist or religious, are taking a step in the right direction in such terms. But what new/gnu atheism is about, Michael Ruse, is about asking whether the views some group has are true or not. We must take as a given that we will err in how he think, behave, and interact, but the question which concerns us is whether our ideas are true, not whether our community is perfectly ideal.
That’s the long-term goal, and it will take time to get there. And, as I understand it, this is what efforts such as Atheism+ were developed to answer. Because if we want to address the human flaws and how they emerge in the atheist community, we have to understand how psychology turns into sociology; how our personal flaws turn into groupthink and tribalism. The problem with religion is not that it fractures, idolizes its leaders, and then fights among themselves. No, that’s a human problem which we all have to deal with. The problem with religion is that it isn’t true; that they are arguing over fantasies.
Skeptical atheists, at least, are arguing over what is true with a methodology which works; science. And if they are not using science and skepticism well enough, then we can use skeptical criticism to point out how and why. When does religion do that? Religion uses logic on top of the assumptions of its theology, but it rarely, if ever, appropriately uses empirical methodology and good skepticism.
Michael Ruse is stuck comparing religion to atheism in ways which must be true because they are activities done by humans. Where atheism and religion are alike, it is attributable to anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in). What Ruse misses, and what PZ does not articulate well in this case, is that what does separate religion from atheism is the concern for truth of worldviews rather than behavior of participants.
Because sure, some atheists go around idolizing people and arguing over small details, but our goal is to help them personally grow until they are mature, skeptical, knowledgeable people with good cultural and personal perspective. And unlike religion, we actually have real ways to achieve that because we do not have any scripture, doctrine, or limitations of criticism.
We have the best methods in our hands, no rules about where we cannot inquire, and only our personal flaws to hold us back. That tempered by caring about what is true, rather than what is comforting, preferable, or sanctioned is a good road to progress.