PZ Myers and Michael Ruse’s mis-attribution of the fault in our wars

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.

Alain de Botton and the costly middle-man of religion

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

-Steven Weinberg

A little background and setting

Alain de Botton in Philadelphia 3/11/2012

Yesterday, which was Sunday March 11th, 2012, for those of you reading this from the future, I went to see a free talk given by Alain de Botton about his book, Religion for Atheists.  There has been considerable conversation about de Botton over the lest couple of months, and after reading some of his work as well as much of the criticism (both for and against), I had already felt pretty strongly that I was not in favor of his view.  But I have not read the book and wanted to hear what he had to say for myself, with the possibility of asking a question (I was not able to).

In any case, this will not be an evaluation of the book itself.  Rather, this will be an evaluation of the talk he gave yesterday about the book.

I arrived a bit early, and easily found a seat in the second row, but to the side.  The auditorium filled up quite quickly, however, and there was almost no available seating by the time he was introduced.  The audience was primarily older, although quite a few people in their 20’s and 30’s were there as well.

Many were toting a copy of the book.

I saw few of the people I know from the local atheist community.  The significance of this I will have to leave until after I evaluate what de Botton said in his talk, as I think it will be a fact which illuminates an important problem for the atheist community as a whole.

For now, let’s skip the description of the scene and get to some of what de Botton said, and what I thought of it.

There is no god.  Where do we go from here?

As de Botton has done a lot of recently, he immediately mentioned and criticized the harshness and tone of the atheist critiques over the last decade.  While not always naming names, or even using the term “new atheist,” it was clear what types of people he has in mind; the new atheists such as Dawkins, Dennet, and the late and great Hitchens.

De Botton sees the new atheist criticisms as having a “disgust” for religion, and as an attempt to create and maintain a “complete separation” between religion and the secular ideal of reason.  he sees them going too far, and wishes to rebut their criticisms with a milder, reverent, approach.

He states, flatly and without reservation, that for him “God does not exist” while inviting anyone offended by this to exit at their leisure.  He admits there is much bad about religion, but wants to focus on the good in this discussion and leave the bad aside.  The issue for him is, in admitting unashamed atheism, “where do we go from here?”

And this has been a question which many of us in the atheist community have been pondering for some time.  I honestly don’t know to what extent de Botton has paid attention to the atheist community besides his surface familiarity with its harshness and overly aggressive criticism, but from his talk it is quite clear that he is quite bereft of sufficient perspective on the many points of conversation, especially those conversations among us more “aggressive” atheists.  Like most accommodationists, he is quite ignorant of our point of view, and has bought into a caricature  and a straw man, which he attacks like Don Quixote with his windmills.

The irony of distancing oneself from, while signing in harmony with, Richard Dawkins.

His ignorance came through quite early in his talk.  He says that when it comes to the question of whether a god actually exists, or truth of religion generally (an idea he finds “boring“) he admits that “the doctrines are impossible to believe, but…” and then goes on to list many things he likes about religion.  He mentions holidays, hymns, art, architecture, and many other admittedly nice things that coincide with religious institutions.  But I have heard Richard Dawkins, the man who is, in many people’s eyes, the most aggressive and militant of us, say pretty much the same thing.

Richard Dawkins really likes Christmas, for example.  He likes much about religious music, aesthetics, and even goes to church occasionally for the experience.  And Dawkins is not alone in this, although many of us also feel no affinity for those things (I’m one of them) we recognize that these things are often pretty, useful, and worth keeping around on their own merits.  I wonder if de Botton knows any of this.  I doubt it.

Thus, while de Botton is trying to distance himself from those aggressive atheists, he ends up saying something very similar to what many of them say.  When you fight straw men (or windmills), you will often get straw in the eye (or knocked over by windmill blades).  De Botton is, frankly, ignorant of what the objects of his criticism believe and say, and so much of his criticism falls flat.

He does go further in his accommodation to religion, of course, but his blindness to these facts, precisely where he is attempting to emphasize his distance from the aggressive types, is telling.

The “pick and mix” of the litter

Here’s what de Botton wants to do, essentially.  He wants to look at what religion is good at, what it does well, and pick them out for our usage as non-religious, I mean atheist of course, people.  He wants to “pick and mix” attributes, practices, etc from religion to improve the atheist experience, community, etc such that we can emulate what religion has done right in moving forward as atheists, rather than try to get rid of religion whole-cloth.

He recognizes that this is problematic for believers, but cannot understand how this would be a problem for atheists.  Why would an atheist care if another atheist found something useful in religion?  But here’s the thing; I don’t think any atheists should have an issue with this either.  From one point of view, he is exactly right; if we look at religion and find something good, there is no reason not to adopt that one thing (or several things), perpetuate it, or re-brand it for our use.  That is, there is no reason to not do something merely because it is something that some religion does.  That would be absurd.

Here’s what he is missing; by saying that we should be looking to religion for what it is doing right, he commits three critical errors.

  1. He is mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion.
  2. He is maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.
  3. He is, probably unknowingly, pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.

As for the first error, mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion, the error goes something like this.

As religions developed over the millennia, they inevitably co-develop with behavior patterns and subsequently become usurped by the religious traditions.  The intricacies of religious anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in, BTW) are too complicated to get into here, but suffice it to say that things such as morality, ritualistic behavior, and other in-group behavior pre-existed religious doctrine and institutions, and they were subsequently adopted and somewhat changed by those traditions.

And because religions usurped human behaviors for their use, they subsequently became associated with religion almost exclusively.  De Botton seems ignorant of this fact, and it leads him to urge us to look towards religion for these behaviors which he likes when he should be encouraging us to leave the superstition behind and allow these natural behaviors to form on their own, as they most-likely will.  It is almost like he is unaware that without religious beliefs (the doctrines he finds so unbelievable), the behaviors around those beliefs would all disappear.

Our natural behavior patterns, rituals, etc certainly would change sans religion, and some would likely disappear altogether (and good riddance!), but we don’t behave ritually because of religious tradition, we have maintained those behaviors because religion needs them to survive.  The behaviors which religion uses are deeper than the religions themselves, and will survive religion’s demise.

This leads right into the second error, that of maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.

By not avoiding the middle man and getting his preferred human behaviors through religion rather than just doing them because he likes them and finds them useful, he perpetuates the association between those behaviors/structures and the supernaturalism that even he is leaving behind.  He is strengthening their co-dependence in people’s lives, rather than divorcing them, as they should be divorced.

By doing so, he is also appealing to a lower aspect of our nature, what Nietzsche called the ‘metaphysical need,’ which keeps us pinned down to irrational thinking.  He wants us to maintain a reverence for the history of our behavior, even through the parts where it believed in and stuck to fantasy.  By doing so, he is helping to curtail human progress away from superstitious, medieval, and irrational thinking which many of us, skeptics specifically, are working to address as a cultural problem.

Again, this leads into the third error; pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.  Because he fails to see how these sets of behaviors are accessible to us without getting them from religion, he seems blinded to the fact that he has fished up some garbage with the fish.

Probably most egregious in this regard is his unabashed like for the concept of Original Sin.  He “likes” the idea of Original Sin, even as an atheist.  A cry from the audience (it was not me, but it was a person I know well who sat next to me) cried out “but it’s insulting” to which de Botton said nothing substantial in response.  De Botton thinks that the idea that we are fundamentally broken is preferable to thinking that we are ok.  It gives us humility, something to work on, etc.

And they say that we gnu atheists are unsophisticated theologically.  Here is an atheist philosopher defending one of the most decadent and morally bankrupt concepts—a McDonald’s of philosophical ideas—in the history of ideas, and he does so with a smile!  It is astounding how someone can be so unaware of the danger of this idea for people.  It’s not an idea that says “hey, you have some self-improvement to do” or “don’t be so arrogant!”

No.  It is an idea that we are, from the very bottom up and due to a mistake made a long time ago by a (mythological) woman who could not have known better or done otherwise,  fundamentally broken spiritually, intellectually, and physically and thus deserving of eternal punishment by a god who loves us unless we kiss his ass.  Even divorcing it of the theological content, it is perhaps the most despicable of ideas I have ever heard, and I have been listening to the GOP presidential debates!

Not to be repetitive…

Let’s be clear here; Alain de Botton wants us to emulate educational practices of religious traditions.  He wants us to repeat, emotionally charge lectures into sermon-like presentations, and use propaganda.

First, he straw-man’s secular education by describing is as “pouring in of information” and expecting it to stick in their minds.  He then sets up religion’s alternative technique of ‘education’ in the form of repetition, through ritual and structure. He wants to create a way to educate which focuses on having information given a temporal and logistical structure.  This is precisely what good teachers are already doing as part of their teaching curriculum and techniques.  Again, he wants to learn from religion where all he needs to do is look at what people are already doing without religion (necessarily).  And where we may learn from religion in this regard, we risk taking on manipulation, indoctrination, etc.  we are better not learning this from religion per se.

He also wants more sermons and less lectures, because they are exciting and emotionally engaging. he talks about the energy of a sermon, using a Pentecostal service as an example, and (fallaciously) compares them to a lecture, which is obviously boring.  Fallaciously beause he is giving a lecture, and not a sermon.

It makes me wonder if he has seen Sam Singleton do his atheist revival.  Probably not.

And he also wants us to stop thinking of propaganda as a bad thing, just because Goebbels and Stalin made it look bad….which, of course, is precisely what we are doing; disseminating information in the name of a cause.  We just are not doing it primarily with emotional manipulation, slogans (they’re easier to chant repeat), etc.  We are disseminating information in the name of a cause.

Our aggressiveness, which de Botton goes out of his way to deride, is precisely what propaganda, in its real sense, is.  Yes, the term has been associated with the underhanded, dishonest, manipulative techniques of the NAZIs and Stalin’s USSR, but we, again, already are using this tactic without getting it from religion, but from secular sources…precisely where religion and totalitarians get it from.  And then we hear from critics, ironically like de Botton, for doing so.


The important things

De Botton thinks that we are not spending sufficient time structuring our lives to deal with the important things.  I agree that far.  I have been advocating for being introspective, philosophical, and taking time to enjoy the finer and more subtle aspects of life for a long time, but I see what he is proposing as a atavism, not a step forward.

One of my complaints over the years has been that when most people get hit with some tragedy, have something to be thankful for, or just when they are feeling introspective or ‘spiritual’, most people don’t have experience with much of our history of culture such that they can express this type of experience of beauty, pain, or subtlety without appealing to the religion they grew up around.

Even if they are not very religious, the only outlet for such moments, for most people, is religion rather than the wealth of non-religious art, philosophy, and science which gives us insights into these things.

De Botton’s advice would have us perpetuate the poverty of our culture by continuing to associate the most base, unsophisticated, and untrue expressions of human creativity.  Religion is not the highest expression of what humans have to give, although for centuries intellectuals had nowhere else to go because of it’s oppressive nature.  Religion, specifically Christianity, is a true decadence of what is best within and between us as beings, and de Botton is only wedding atheists to an impoverished view, rather than help free them.

It’s truly unfortunate, his perochial view.

And what’s worse, is that the audience responded to him with resounding applause.  To loosely quote Star Wars…so this is how reason dies. to thunderous applause.

Some side thoughts about the future of the atheist movement

What I see coming now is a further split in the atheist community.  Accommodationists now have another dim bulb to follow through their darkness.  Those who stood and applauded Alain de Botton yesterday are the future of the critics of the new atheists and our goal to disseminate reason sans religion, faith, and theology.

The only upside is that most of them are old.

The major downside is that de Botton and his ilk will be around for a while to taint the progress of reason, skepticism, and secularism.  Their view is mediocre, trite, and atavistic.

All that is rare for the rare, I suppose.

Alain de Botton is not rare.  He is all too common.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accommodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.

Gnus: Is it too accommodating toward accommodationists to strive for a balance of values in this “war”?

My post the other day about facts and values got me thinking about another issue that I have done some thinking about concerning values.  Generally, there is little controversy about saying that someone can have the wrong facts.  The controversy is usually which facts are right or when to say so, not whether that a fact can be wrong.  Only in the deepest fringes of postmodern philosophy can one say that a fact cannot be wrong, and among the straw-man of the uber-accommodationist that they can never be stated.  But there is a more subtle question embedded in this issue.   What about values? Can the principles you accept as important or essential be wrong to have?

One value I have is honesty.  I believe that honesty is an important attribute to practice because it leads to interactions with people which engenders trust, which is a thing I have an interest in creating.  When I am trusted, and trust others, I live in a world of lesser anxiety.  And that, I think, is a good thing.  Yes, sometimes the truth is painful, and in times of emotional upheaval it can be put off or at least put in the background, but there must come a time when the truth has to be dealt with or live a life of denial and possible delusion.  I’m just sayin’….

My value of honesty, being a good means towards creating a more trusting and less anxious environment (assuming this is actually the case), is a good thing if trust and lesser anxiety are good things.  And, in general, the values I have are right to have iff the effects they have are worth striving for.  But for Thor’s sake what kind of world are we trying to create?  What would be good effects for us to evaluate our values?  Upon what criteria do we ultimately judge a value by? I don’t know.  Further, this is not a question that I am particularly interested in solving at the moment (although you may guess what kinds of answers I might give, if pressed).  I am more concerned with a related question.

Is criticizing a person’s values wrong?

This question is similar in many ways to the question of whether it is appropriate to question or criticize a person’s religious beliefs. In the same way that a religious belief is an integral aspect of a person’s life, so are their values.  And in many cases one’s values are tied to their religious beliefs, and vice-versa.  Values are also, like religious beliefs, shared things.  We tend to identify ourselves in terms of our values and use them to tie ourselves to others.  The people we associate with, call allies, and like will often have similar values as ourselves.   Often, when talking with someone you fervently disagree with, it is the difference of values which causes the inability to comprehend how they managed to come to a certain conclusion, way of life, or perspective.

One value,which I have seen in both religious and non-religious people, is what I will call self-deprecation.  This can take the form of depriving oneself on specific pleasures, causing oneself specific harm, etc.  By this I do NOT mean sado-masochism, which is a different animal (although perhaps not completely unrelated, but that’s a topic for another blog).   Within the evangelical and conservative Christian community this is somewhat common, especially when it comes to one’s sexuality.  Part of the problem in those types of cases is the putting off of pleasures in the belief that something greater comes in the future; whether it be the idealized bliss of the marriage bed or the eternal one of heaven (which are, from what I understand, associated in order to maintain the conservative view of sexuality).

Depriving of oneself of the pleasures of the world is, from the point of view of this hedonist, materialist, atheist, a waste of time and harmful to a healthy lifestyle.  This does not imply that we should never miss out on an opportunity to experience pleasure, just that the so-called “family values” espoused by social conservatism are, in my opinion, harmful and possibly unethical.  The values of “family values” are, in my oh-so humble opinion, the wrong values to have.

I am willing to say this because I think the universe is such-and -such a way, and the reasons for adopting such values are based upon an alternative and delusional worldview which is not supported by the facts.  As I said in my post about facts and values the other day, values are a kind of fact.  They are supported by beliefs about the world, and are things we believe to be true and important.  But if the worldview one holds is not justified, then the values dependent upon that worldview may be wrong, or at least not ideal.  They may, in fact, be detrimental to emotional, intellectual, and physical growth.  Take for example what happens when you believe that sickness and injury should be dealt with by prayer.  The values that are derived from such a worldview will often have direct consequences upon the health and welfare of such people.

Closer to home for me is the balance of two values that I have, but in different proportion from other atheists.  And many people will notice that these values have similar effects on different issues of political, social, and cultural importance.  They are what I will call truth and diplomacy.  I value more strongly the value of dealing with whether something is true or not over whether the answer I give will win me friends, votes, etc.  Others are more concerned with building metaphorical bridges when trying to reach out to people who are not already in agreement with their worldview.  Because of the shift in balance of these values they shift the tone, often resulting in a shift in consistency with what they may believe, in order not to alienate people.  And while I don’t think they see it as preferring politics over truth, that is often what it seems like from my point of view.  Surely the fact that many people simply accept that politicians lie tells us something about this phenomenon; diplomacy works, and truth is often an obstacle to achieving goals.  I know, I’m cynical.

Now, I do not think that there is some absolute right way to go about this balance.  I do not think that my honesty-oriented value is always better than the values of diplomacy, but I think that in some cases it is.  This implies, I think, that there are indeed some times when diplomacy is warranted, and even I, an unabashed and unapologetic gnu atheist, measure and hold my tongue depending on circumstances.  I never lie about my beliefs concerning religion, but there are times when I might soften a quip into a question or observation, suggest rather than blatantly criticize, but I never coddle or demonstrate faux respect for an idea which I do not respect.

That is, I think there is a point in the balance of truth and diplomacy where the scale simply falls over.  Those ‘accommodationsists’ of whom I am critical seem to me to be overly concerned with appearing respectful (or actually respecting an idea which I think they should not) and the straw-man new atheists they demonize go too far in not knowing the time and place, and the appropriate level of criticism therein.  The problem there is finding actual people, especially among the leaders of the atheist community, who are the analogs to these straw-men.  Are there people who are invited to speak at atheist conventions (if that is the appropriate criteria) who ferociously and incessantly attack beliefs, believers, or institutions without regard for what anyone has said, done, or supported?  In other words, are their criticisms unjustified?  You may think they should tone it down, but do you think the actual content is wrong?

And yes, there will be wiggle room in where that balance rests, as well as the extremity of their opinions*.  Certainly I am likely to be somewhat more or less confrontational than someone else, but the important thing, from my point of view, is honesty.  I am concerned that in striving to appear friendly, I don’t also appear dishonest or contradictory.  I don’t want to be seen as someone who says nice things about faith here, but elsewhere say how I think it’s ultimately delusional (even if I didn’t want to use that word, because it might offend someone).

People such a Chris Mooney argue that we should watch how we communicate so as to not chase moderate believers towards the sanctums of fundamentalism, while he  does not seem to comprehend that it is our lack of faith itself which alienates us from people, not the belief that their doctrines are inconsistent with science.  Does Mooney believe that the doctrines of religious groups, specifically Christianity on one case, are consistent with scientific theories like natural selection?  He might, but he seems uninterested in the truth of this question, which bothers me.  It is not that people like Mooney have to say, in every circumstance, that the doctrines of this and that faith are inconsistent with science (or whatever he believes personally).  Rather, the issue is that he does not have to be afraid to give an opinion he has if he actually believes it.

What I often see from many accommodationists, whether in anti-atheist or anti-gnu articles or in comments on various blogs, is a lack of shyness in terms of telling other atheists what they think about them, without regard for what the gnu atheist has said.  They do not appreciate the fact that there is a difference in balance between the values of truthfulness (I almost wrote “truthiness”) and the diplomacy which they find so important…except when talking to or about the gnus.  For people like myself, who actually believe that there is a fundamental incoherence about faith, religious doctrine, etc in relation to what we know about the universe, we simply want to be able to say so whenever we feel it is appropriate to do so.  My value is truth over diplomacy, but diplomacy is a value I have, even if it is secondary.

And, of course, the opinions of when it is appropriate will vary.  So long as it is to not ever say it unless you are talking with people you agree with (how would you know if you can’t say so?), I think we have room to talk.  So my question for those people whose balance is more accommodating than mine is this; are there times when I can say that things like faith and religious doctrines are incoherent or wrong?  And if so, when? Are there times when I can say these things to people who are religious?

And, to go meta, is there an appropriate time and place to say that your value of diplomacy might not be, if not outright wrong, overbalanced?

Is it going to far to say that the tone of accommodationists, in saying that our gnu beliefs are incompatible with their goals of effective communication,  is going to push gnus away from a moderate position towards atheist extremism?


*What we have here are two separate dimensions; 1) The strength of one’s views, and 2) the willingness or unwillingness to be confrontational about the beliefs one has.

Good Accommodationist cop, Bad Gnu Cop: How tribalism oversimplifies the issues


Here is a resource that may be helpful in tracing some aspects of the discussion about accommodationism, in case such a thing interests you.

I have been no friend to the so-called accommodationist camp of this discussion within the atheist community concerning our relationship with believers and our culture at large.   (Here are some examples).  I have clearly staked a claim as a ‘gnu atheist,’ but I will agree that I often am baffled by the so-called accommodationist’s position.  I mean that I really don’t even think I understand what it is..  I have a feeling that there are a number of behaviors that are called ‘accommodationist’ which differ greatly from each other, and I think it is time to parse what those things are.

I want to extend an invitation to people who have either self-identified as either a gnu or an accommodationist or have been labeled as such by others.  I want to hear your points of view.

First, a little background

A few days ago John Shook, author of a book (which I have not read but of which I have not heard good things) The God Debates posted this article up on CFI’s website. I read it and commented almost immediately, which led to some discussions that can be found in the comments section.

Them today, Jerry Coyne discussed Shook’s book and some of his other recent writing and gave him a general thumbs down (if I may summarize in such a terse manner).  I’ll add that I agree with Jerry Coyne here, and find that John Shook is not a very good writer, uses vague language, and is trying to draw parallels which I simply do not see justification for.  My guess is that this is an outgrowth of trying to express a point of view that seems contradictory and indefensible.  Shook’s post led to more conversation (in the comments section, again) which got me talking to people on different sides of this debate….


I think that what has started to happen in the last couple of years is a clear split in the atheist community about a number of things.  Many have commented on it, and I will not dwell too much on the history or points of said disagreement here.  But what I want to identify is a certain tribalism that is starting to make itself much more clear to me.  In the comments to Jerry Coyne’s post, I am seeing some people talking about what “side” someone is on, as if this is a clearly defined conflict with clear sides.

I think that Michael De Dora is partially right when he says, in a comment (#5) on Shook’s post)

The term “accomodationist,” in current use, means so many different things that it essentially means nothing.

Now, at first I disagreed with this sentiment (and I still do, but let’s not get sidetracked) as the record shows in that subsequent discussion.  I think that it is something that requires more discussion, and I extend the invitation to other people who are, or who have been branded with the title of, accommodationist.

I think he is right to the extent that because of the various obfuscations, differing uses, etc of the term ‘accommodationist,’ many people are not really clear on what it means.  But I do think that at first there was a use which was clear and which could still make a simple distinction between perspectives on this issue and which describes a real divide in opinions and not mere semantic games.


For me, the central criteria for accommodationism is where one stands on the issue of incompatibility between science and religion.  More specifically, the incompatibility between certain scientific issues (usually evolution) and religious believers.  How much are we willing to appease or accommodate (hence the term) people’s religious beliefs while trying to convince them of the overwhelming evidence for science and its powerful method.

That is, when it comes to scientific literacy and education, how do we deal with religion and the fact that there are incompatibilities between religious doctrines and scientific conclusions?  Do we overlook when liberal religious people don’t notice the contradiction or don’t think there is one?  Do we point out that we think that scientific conclusions make their world worldview look indefensible?

A secondary issue is that of the willingness to be confrontational.  New atheists are called strident, rude, and other words which I shall not repeat, while the other atheists are nice, they listen and don’t criticize even while they disagree, and they just go about their godless life almost unnoticed.

And whether one is more willing to be confrontational will not necessarily tell you their opinion about the question of incompatibility.  What happens, I think, is that confrontational gnus get attacked by confrontational accommodationists.  And from the point of view of the religious, the confrontational gnus look worse because they are saying that there actually is an incompatibility while the accommodationist talks up the compatibility.  Good cop bad cop, of a sort?

Here’s a little dialogue from an up-coming play I’m writing called Good Accommodationist, Bad Gnu:

“Hey, fella, that gnu cop is really riled up out there, saying this and that and how wrong you are.  If I let him in he’s gonna rough you up a bit, so I’ll keep him out there, away from you.  But I understand where you are coming from…you didn’t mean what you did and you didn’t know better.  No big deal, right?   Let’s be friends, help me out and I’ll help you out, ok?”

We all know that the “good” cop thinks this “fella” is guilty and is just trying to get a confession, but he’s being really nice  about it.  Will it work? Maybe.  But we have not heard from the other cop, what the guy did, and so all we hear is the “good” cop.  That’s how it is for much of the audience of people like Chris Mooney or the Templeton Foundation writers.  All they hear is the shouting coming from the other room (which they are not really listening to) and a calmer cop in their face, acting like their friend.

And this issue of confrontation is not unrelated to the issue of incompatibility.  The philosophical disagreement about compatibility of science and religion leads to the appearance of confrontationalism being the central difference between the ‘gnus’ and the ‘accommodationists’.  Allow me to try to parse that out:

  1. Atheists have been pointing out for a while that saying something critical about someone’s beliefs is often viewed as confrontational or rude, no matter how politely it is said.  Thus, even when an atheist is trying to not be confrontational, they appear to be confrontational.
  2. Having the opinion that religion/faith and the scientific method’s power to explain (including the so-called ‘scientism’) are incompatible is a position that will be critical of a very significant percentage of our culture.  To point it out is not, many say, diplomatic. It will not make us many friends, and it will chase moderates away from us towards fundamentalism, and fundamentalists towards a more strict literalism.
  3. Therefore, those with opinions about the incompatibility of science and religion are viewed as confrontational, even if they are not actually confrontational, because their position is undiplomatic.  To be undiplomatic is to be confrontational, it seems.
  4. Many atheists (including this one) believe that to pretend, while interacting with religious people (especially about science), that this incompatibility does not exist is to be short-sighted and is only telling a half-truth at best.  We feel that we don’t need to always sweeten the medicine.  And when we see religious scientists, we may say “sure the two things can exist in the same brain, but they are philosophically incompatible.”
  5. Other atheists believe that in order to make short-term gains in science education, the opposition of conservative and fundamentalist religious agendas, and to generally have a better relationship for communication with most of the religious world we need to not press them on their faith.  So they talk up, Templeton and HuffPo style, ways in which religion is a lot like science or naturalism and rarely talk about how they are incompatible.
  6. Many atheists with the perspective that this incompatibility should not be glossed over, appeased, or accommodated are frustrated because it is dishonest or demonstrably wrong.  In my case (and I think Coyne’s and PZ’s), this is due our watching some atheists not point out this incompatibility to the larger cultural audience even when they may agree that the incompatibility exists.  They are talking out of both sides of their mouths.
  7. There are other people out there (and perhaps John Shook is one of them), who believe that the incompatibility exists but insist on trying to draw similarities between naturalism and supernaturalism.  They do this, I believe, with good intentions; they are trying to further the dialogue with the religious world.
  8. Further, many these people often attack those who refuse to play this game of diplomacy.  They try to appease the largely religious (or religious-friendly) culture, which is most of their intended audience, while also publicly attacking the people who are not trying to appease the religious world.  Many of these people agree that religion and science are incompatible.
  9. And even if these attackers don’t agree with atheists like me on the incompatibility issue, they are still attacking other atheists.  They are trying to dissociate themselves from the so-called ‘new atheists’ who are seen as strident, aggressive, and rude (even when they are not).  They are widening the rift which is a difference of opinion about tactics which the public really does not understand nor really cares about.  They are making an internal issue public so they won’t look bad; the irony being they don’t really disagree very much about the general questions of gods, religions, and faith, just how we should address the public about such things.
  10. This is playing politics.  It comes across to me as dishonest, short-sighted, and it treats the public as if they were children rather than adults who can hear what people like Shook claim to actually believe but obfuscates with posts like the one linked above.  If you believe that the incompatibility exists, dont attempt Chopra-esque mental and linguistic gymnastics in order to show how they may be compatible.

All of this amounts to the development of tribalism.  We see the same thing in politics, especially here in the United States, and it turns into sides, rather than perspectives in a complex set of problems that may have a number of solutions, or at least sets of solutions that can be grouped into major categories.

Working towards an internal conversation

I would like to have more dialogue about this issue, and stop building more fences.  I want those who side with the gnu atheists to talk more with people they call, or who call themselves, accommodationists.  I want us to talk through these issues and find a way to either clearly define the boundaries and hack out the actual philosophical disagreements or to throw away the terms and just talk about the differences.  We may have to come up with new terms, although my guess is that the current ones will stick, as terms are wont to do.

There are probably many shades of grey in this discussion, and I am sure that I am not the extreme on either end of the spectrum, if it is, indeed a spectrum.  It’s probably more like a multi-dimensional graph with at least 2 axes; level of agreement with incompatibility and level of confrontationalism.  Picture a simple graph with the y-axis being the strength of their agreement with incompatibility, and the x-axis the level of confrontational behavior you are comfortable with.

I would be higher on both axes, while others would either be high on one, the other, or neither.  We need to recognize that this issue about accommodationism v. gnu atheism is not a simple binary position.  This is complex, and it’s time we talked and figured out what the issues are, the possible positions, and where we all stand.  And perhaps in doing so, we may get rid of the terms ‘accommodationist’ and  ‘gnu’/’new’ or we may simply add to them.

It may turn out that the various positions are incompatible and that the confrontational people on all sides will continue to be strident, but let’s at least figure out what each of us means when we define our positions and why we criticize each other.  I want to know what others think about this, and I want them to understand my point of view.  Right now, I don’t think anyone has a really clear picture of any side.  Even if nobody changes their position, I think some clarity may help us better understand our own position.

Respect: ideas, people, and rights. (A message for accommodationists and ecumenical theologians)

Edit: Me, being a horrible boyfriend, did not notice that my lovely lady-friend posted about respect yesterday.  She makes some good points as well.


One complaint from the religious and accommodationist alike is that we gnu atheists do not demonstrate respect for religion.  We say critical things about the doctrines of various beliefs, we are strident, and we are arrogant.  There are a number of points to be made in favor of a direct and critical approach (and many have made them in addition to my own comments), and one of them is to make a distinction between respect for an idea and respect for a person.  I want to take this idea and expand it a little; I would like to explore the distinction of respect for ideas, people, and rights.

Respect for Ideas
One issue I have with a number of people who are not comfortable with criticism of people’s beliefs is the issue of whether they actually respect another person’s beliefs.  Very often I will hear a person who does not share a religious belief with someone else say that they still respect their belief.   I am not sure this is true, at least in the sense I am using the word ‘respect’ here; I think what is being confused here is a respect for their right to believe what they want, not for the belief itself.  The issue for me, here, is whether it is possible, or even conceivable, to respect an idea that you don’t accept as true.

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead after having been tortured, crucified, and placed in a tomb.  I find this claim to be unbelievable.  The evidence that would be required to accept such an extraordinary claim are not present, the circular logic of the Bible being a trustworthy source is insufficient, and all I know about nature does not make such an event probable.  As a person who does not accept this belief as a possibility, is it meaningful to say that I can respect it?  Now, I must clarify; I am not saying that the belief should be mocked (necessarily), that a believer of such an idea should be disrespected, or anything like that.  I’m asking if the idea is itself respectable.   To put it more clearly, if the idea were encountered on its own, say if it were read on a piece of paper outside of the context of someone who may or may not believe in it, then could one think it respectable?

With this particular belief about Jesus, I would say that it is not respectable because it does not pass a rational test for probable occurrence.  But it is conceivable to have ideas that I don’t accept as true to be respectable in themselves.  Someone may have an idea that mint/chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla, and I don’t agree (I hate the combination of mint and chocolate).  But this opinion is respectable because it is consistent with probable facts (it is conceivable and probable that people like this combination of flavors) and it is an opinion based upon a distinct set of physiological states of body that differ from mine; some people just prefer other flavors of ice cream.

More to the point it is respectable for someone to believe that Jesus was a real historical person.  I also happen to not be convinced of this proposed fact, but it is not an extraordinary claim; even if the New Testament is fiction almost completely, it is possible that the mythological literature that resulted was based on a real person who may or may not have been named Jesus (or Yeshua) but whose last name was certainly not ‘Christ’ (as this is the Greek word for the Hebrew word which we use today as Messiah, or ‘annointed one’).  A person who inspired the letters of Paul, the gospels, etc could have really existed; I think this is a respectable position to hold, even if I disagree with it.

But religious ideas are not like opinions of taste, nor are they only about opinions about the existence of historical persons.  Even if Jesus (or Yeshua) existed, the stories of miracles, divinity, etc are still up for grabs and in need of evidence and argumentation to be respectable.  We have different emotional needs, desires, etc about how we live our lives, but religious claims are not just about our emotional needs and desires for fulfillment; they are claims about reality, indeed often about the nature of that reality, and not just historical facts about it.  While for many people the different religious perspectives are akin to the various needs and desires that human beings have, and talking about those differences is like exploring the varieties of human experience with their ‘spiritual’ side or whatever, they are more than that.  Religious beliefs are more than mere metaphors for many people, and even when they are metaphors they are often still contradictory and not respectable.  That is one of the differences between the gnu atheists and most other people; we care about what is true, not what feels good or fulfills some need.  So when we say that we don’t respect an idea, we are saying that we don’t accept the idea as probable or even believable.  We are not commenting (at least not necessarily) on whether the idea should not be meaningful to you or give you some access to poetic beauty, we are saying that the idea does not seem possible to be true and in coherence with reality.

Respect for people

Whether or not we respect the ideas that people have, it is also possible to respect the actual person.  I may disagree with you, agree with you, or perhaps be unsure whether we agree due to some uncertainty of your or my belief, but that little to do with what I think about you.  Now, I have criteria for what I think makes a good person.  For me, it is a desire to be self-challenging, honest, and so forth.  These qualities are things I respect in a person.  I prefer a Christian who is willing to have a frank and open discussion about religion to an atheist who thinks the issue should not be discussed ever.  I prefer a staunch conservative who will listen and respond to issues politic than a liberal who toes the party line and refuses to listen to another opinion.  I prefer people who are wiling to go beyond themselves than to surround myself with an echo-chamber of agreement and demonization of the other.  I want not only to challenge, but to be challenged.  And I want to be around similar people.

A respect for another person, from another person’s point of view, will probably differ depending on what values that person has.  Another person may judge someone else based upon the empathy, kindness, and selflessness.  But what is important to recognize here is that this judgment occurs.  All to often I hear that we should not judge other people (having grown up in a very liberal Quaker environment, I heard this nearly every day).  But this is simply not possible.  Even a Christian who believes that judgment is for their god to make and not them, they are making a judgment.  No, it’s not a final or meaningful judgment in a cosmic sense, but all people evaluate the behavior, opinions, and accomplishments of other people and make judgments about them.  To say otherwise is a form of delusion and is not being honest with themselves; so obviously someone who values honesty will not respect that.

We all judge one-another and we all have varying criteria for making such judgments.  Whether we have respect for other people will depend on these values and will have little to do with the ideas those people have, although their is a relationship between a person’s behaviors, temperament and their opinions to some degree.  The bottom line is that a person’s opinion about religious or political matters will not necessarily tell you if you will respect them.

Respect for people’s rights

I may not agree with you or even like you, but I would be willing to fight for your right to say what you believe openly.  I think that freedom of expression is just about the most important right we as people can defend.

I have respect for people’s rights to belief what they want.  Well, belief is not really subject to the will, so I have respect for what people do believe and to speak openly about those beliefs.  But this respect has to be 2-way; Religious believers of all kinds have the right to their beliefs and to express them.  At the same time, those of us who disagree, think those ideas harmful, etc have the right to have our criticism heard on equal terms.  That is, no governmental power need help disseminate either view, support either view, or even address either view.  Religion should not get any support from the state, nor should the criticism of it receive any support or be silenced by any state.  The state should be simply neutral on such questions, and either support all or neither (the latter being the simplest and probably most wise choice).

You have a right to believe in Jesus, Harvey the 8-foot invisible bunny, or Xenu the galactic emperor.  You have every right to hold whatever ritual you want to (so long as it is not breaking secular law, infringing the rights of non-believers, etc), believe whatever doctrines you want, and to talk about, publish books and other literature about, and even produce audio and video media about your beliefs.  We don’t have to listen, of course, but you can do those things.  And we also have the right to respond to those ideas with ideas of our own (And no, nobody has to listen to us either).  I’m simply not sure how much religious believers would be willing to fight for my right, as an atheist (especially of the gnu variety) to speak my opinions.  I know there are some out there who would, and I respect them (as people) for that, but I also know many would not be willing to do so, and they have some help from the accommodationists.

The respect for the rights of believers is a road of many ways.  You have the right to your beliefs, and I have mine; even if my belief is that you should not have yours or that yours is stupid.  Nobody has to implement my opinion or agree with it, but I have a right to it.  My beliefs are that religion is here to stay for a long time, but I should be able to say what I want about religion.  You don’t like that? I don’t really care.

The Combination of respects

All three of these types of respect differ in ways that will be expressed differently in response to different people and their ideas.

I don’t respect Fred Phelps’ ideas, him as a person, but I do respect his right to hold them and promulgate them.  I am severely annoyed by his tactics, but he and his family/church have a right to them and to say them.  Perhaps we should just ignore them, but we don’t and they keep at it.  Fuck Fred Phelps, but he has the right to be a fucktard and I have the right to ignore him or call him a fucktard.

I respect some of the ideas (especially about the truth of religion, which they rarely address) of many accommodationists.  I tend not to respect them as people, although there will be exceptions, because their temperament is one of dishonesty, faux respect, and politics-playing.  I respect their right to their beliefs.

I respect many of the ideas of the gnu atheists out there, but certainly not all.  what I appreciate is that this disagreement is welcome among the gnus (I hope in all cases).  Thus, I tend to respect them as people as well, but there will be exceptions to this of course.  I respect their right to their beliefs and will continue to fight for the right to say those ideas.

I don’t respect blasphemy laws.  There is no right not to be offended, and to try and make it illegal to say certain things about religious beliefs is short-sighted and harmful to free expression.

I don’t respect liberal theological attempts at universal ecumenicalist worldviews; I find them absurd and short-sighted as well.  Religious traditions have real differences and contradicting goals, interpretations, and values.  To try and ignore these and find what is in common is good for sharing of ideas towards understanding, but ultimately the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of beliefs becomes absurd because it diminishes the importance of the scriptural and traditional sources and makes them mere human ideas (which they are) which undercuts the very tradition they are trying to respect.  The progressive idea that religion is merely a means of self-expression and window into our own spiritual journeys is a relatively new idea, and it cannot be reconciled with all religious views, thus the enterprise is self-defeating.  By trying to respect religion, they are actually disrespecting what the majority of religious believers actually believe.

This is an irony that seems to be missed by intellectual and academic theologians who want the various institutions of religion to be the beautiful thing which they themselves have created out of the various corpses of the religious traditions they had to kill to attain such a perspective.  This type of humanism would be better as a secular activity, which is part of what accommodationists are trying to do.  But in both cases they are ignoring the truth that the religious traditions they have slain to get their worldview still exists around them and is being dragged through history by legions of literalists, moderates, and others who still really believe, not merely as a metaphor, that their god(s) are true and that their will(s) are absolute.  Dangerous ideas!

There are a plethora of ideas about religion out there, and such ideas are part of the larger conversation about religion.  But they need to be directly addressed, and not merely thrown aside or minimized in an attempt to create some ecumenical pulp that is but a shade of the source from which they were extracted.  This only seeks to kill the religion and the truth at the same time.  Good luck with that, accommodationists and ecumenical theologians.

I’ll finish with a short story about an event that I witnessed recently among some friends and acquaintances.  Some liberal Christian people I know held a book-burning recently.  They took some conservative books from their conservative parents and burned them in disgust for the ideas contained within.  This, in my opinion, is the exact opposite way to deal with ideas.  Do not destroy them, hide them, or simply ignore them; face them, challenge them, and demonstrate the absurdity of them.  If you can’t do that, perhaps that says something interesting in-itself.  Perhaps one of the reasons many liberal Christians simply toss aside or physically destroy the carriers of ideas held by conservative Christians is that in some way they cannot directly confront them; they are too much like their own.  And the conservative/literalists will tend to have a significant percentage of scripture to back up their discrimination of the queer community, even if they can’t back up their conservative politics.  Their is a real battle between what a lot of scripture says about things and what a lot of liberal religious people value, and so it is difficult for liberals to directly confront their conservative parents, neighbors, and acquaintances.  The only real way to do this is to simply leave religion behind and not use any authoritative source for truth.  Freethought is still the best option for either liberal or conservative values, as it does not tie you to any doctrines or truths.  You only need to follow the evidence, not any book.

I think that one of the reasons that liberal theologically-minded people, accommodationist atheists, and other mainstream people are so annoyed by both gnu atheists and many literalistic religious people is that we are actually concerned with what is actually true.  Many other people are concerned with what their emotional needs and desires are; what makes them comfortable.  I think this is part of the reason that the issue of respect gets so thorny.  People’s ideas are so-often a reflection of their values, and we are not supposed to disrespect people’s values.  But the truth is that I don’t respect many people’s values, and neither do they respect mine.  As liberal and progressive people, many literally do not respect each-others values, even when one of their values is to respect other people’s values.  This fact goes a long way for me, and perhaps is a bane for many others.

So, let’s stop the pretenses of respect and start really talking about our beliefs.  Respect, for me, starts with honesty, not treating other adults with different ideas like emotionally insecure children.  My disagreeing with your belief is not disrespect, but people trying to shut critics up is disrespect because they are not allowing us the right to our beliefs.  Respect is really only relevant when it infringes on the ability to practice what we believe, and ironically it is the accommodationist and the ecumenical types that do this while pointing the finger of blame at their target.

Oh, the irony!

Accommodationism: the facts don’t matter

I have been thinking a little the last couple of days how frustrating the whole gnu atheist/accommodationist conversation has been on the blogosphere in recent months.  As I have argued previously, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the tolerance-monkeys we call ‘accommodationists.’  I think they are more concerned with tone and appearance in a way that makes them dishonest and ironically disrespectful.  But why do they annoy me so?

Today I was thinking about it and it became crystal clear that it is the exact annoyance I experience while talking with a creationist.  I begin to see, as I argue with them, that the facts simply do not matter.  In each discussion, facts are ignored and sophomoric philosophical dribble are uttered in place of an actual conversation about what is true.  Content is almost completely ignored while tone, respect, and other misused terms are bandied about with like antidotes, but which end up being more homeopathic than anything.

Ha! Accommodationist arguments are homeopathic! They are nothing but water, but the vanishingly small amount of actual argument is presented as a strength.  I like that.  Feel free to borrow it at your leisure.

And what’s worse, is that not only do they not respond to the actual content, they fancy their own arguments as powerful.  Just like a creationist; an argument that displays more ignorance and made-up silliness while they often throw the same accusation towards their targets (that would be gnus like me).

Why don’t they address the content; facts? Because they can’t.

Respect? The defence to an atheist’s offence is defensiveness and offense

In talking with religious people, one thing I hear from many of them (conservative or liberal, devout or not)  is that their beliefs are personal.  These are things they believe truly, inside, and I have to respect that (that last bit is usually implied, rather than stated directly).

Well, OK.  So are my beliefs.  They are personal and I really believe them.  What does that have to do with respect?

Well, says the defender of such a person, it means that these beliefs are important to them and so we need to treat those people with respect.  And then we get into the whole argument about respect, distinguishing between having respect for the person and their beliefs, etc.  It is, says such a defender, not our place to tell them that their beliefs are wrong.

In such conversations there is a fair amount of talking past one-another, as well as a pinch of differing values and goals.  There is also a fair amount of those defenders missing the detrimental affects of such beliefs on people and society subsequently.  (BTW, I love this post about epistemological and moral values of new atheists)

I don’t want to discuss that issue specifically, but I want to raise another question instead.  When a Christian (or Moslem, Pagan, etc) receives questions or challenges about their beliefs, they often become defensive, offended, and become appalled at our lack of respect.  So, why don’t atheists react that way to their views being challenged?  Why do we, for the most part, welcome the discussion? And, perhaps most interestingly, why are we gnu atheists (in my experience) rarely challenged in a way that we have not heard before?  And why, further, do believers react as if they have never heard something like that before?

Could it be that the believers really have not thought those things atheists challenge them with before that moment?  Could it also be that atheists, specifically the gnu variety, have heard all (or at least most) of the challenges that a believer might bring up?  What does this say about the relative awareness and education about the philosophy of religion between atheists and believers? Well, at least one study has given a partial answer to this.

But more importantly, is it the case that the gnu atheists simply care more about challenging their own worldview? (perhaps not exclusively; I am sure there are quite a few non-gnus who share this quality as well).

All these questions paint the issue with a broad brush, certainly.  But I think a few observations are fair to point out:

Gnu atheists are more prone to critical examination of religious belief.  This is because they often started as religious and through education and thought found a way out eventually, a process which provides perspective, depth and breadth of thought on the topic, and a higher level of justified certainty than most believers have.  Others, like myself, never believed but grew up in a such a way as to be sensitive to the emotional, psychological, and intellectual affects of such beliefs.  We see how people are stunted by such a worldview and know humanity is capable of more (although perhaps only some).  Yes, there are some believers who have studied their beliefs, but it is much more rare that they have honestly studied the arguments of atheists or skeptics.  They have not taken the outsider test for faith, looking at their beliefs from the outside.  And even when they do try and see their beliefs from the outside point of view, it is often clear that they are missing the essential point of the criticism.   On the other hand, when you hear theists declare victory over atheists, more often than not they are pulling out the same old canards again and again.  This frustrates us quite often and possibly offends us (but only our hope for human rationality, not our sense of having been respected).

How often do we hear that we can’t disprove god? How often do we hear about Pol Pol, Hitler, and Stalin?  How often do we hear about TAG or Kalam? (let alone the Ontological argument, argument from design, etc?).  And if I hear Pascal’s wager again, I swear I’ll scream!  (“look at the trees!” *headdesk*)

Similarly, how often to believers hear the various replies to these arguments? And if they do hear them, how often are they really interested in hearing?  How many times have I seen eyes glazed over by anything I say in response to some lame attempt at apologetics? Too many!

I have said a number of times that if there is a god I want to know.  I think the question is important, and I want to know the truth about such things.  Despite this desire, I have found no reason to believe in such a proposed being, so I must conclude that one does not exist.  What other intellectually respectable choice do I have? I cannot prove that there is no god (except for very specific and well-defined gods which are logically impossible), but I see no reason to believe in one and so I do not.  This provisional conclusion is open for criticism and challenge, and I am baffled why most believers do not have this attitude towards their beliefs.  This personal thing that I conclude, these potential gods that I lack belief in, is as personal a thing as it gets.  So why am I not offended at being challenged?  And if I were offended, would the accommodationist assist me in defending my rights to believe what I want with the same vigor that they defend the believer now?  Would they demand respect of my beliefs with the same moral outrage? The irony, as I hope they might see, is that I would hope that they would not try to defend my respectability in this sense.  I don’t want the ‘respect’ they are offering.  Because acting as a shield to criticism is not respectful of people, it is only respectful of an opinion that may or may not be worthy of respect; we’ll only know upon analysis.

Analysis that the accommodationist tries to prevent in the name of respect.

The accommodationist’s flavor of respect is not actually respect, nor is it respectable.  From my point of view, it is ultimate disrespect for any pursuit of truth, human progress, or growth.

Accommodation; faith in moderation

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.

Of elections and accommodationists

So, the Democratic party has lost a few seats in the House of Representatives.  And so they maintained a majority in the Senate.  That was about what many expected, including myself.

And so many pundits were calling this election a referendum on Barack Obama.  That’s not really unexpected either.

But has Obama failed in his goals for change? Well, he has accomplished some.  Perhaps not enough for many of the more liberal-minded supporters who ushered him into office two years ago.  Why was his administration not able to do more? Well, some say that it is because of the attempts by Republicans to block legislative attempts, appointments, etc with those oh-so-spooky rules of Congress.  And some have pointed to some other causes; say Barack Obama’s desire to be bi-partisan.  It is a noble goal, perhaps, but one that may have been naive.  And I agree with some who say that it has only been two years, and those two years were mired with immense financial problems and wars over-seas.

Barack Obama seems to really believe, or at least wants to appear to believe (I know, I’m cynical…) that working with his political opponents is a means to healing the split that has grown in our culture and politics.  He does not want to simply use the steamroller of his political power to roll over them, because he wants a world, perhaps, where we work together.

And Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity had a similar message of working together, to stop demonizing the extremes, and to find a way to work together as Americans.

That is, the message of Hope in Barack Obama’s campaign, as well as Jon Stewart’s rally, is to find a way for people on all sides of these debates to find a way to accommodate their opponents, to treat them like, human beings, to….

Wait a minute.

That sounds really familiar.

Where have I heard that argument before?

Oh, right.  That’s the same argument that people such as Chris Mooney and Karl Giberson have been using in relation for how we should relate to the extremes of the religious world.  We need to build bridges, work with them on projects with which we agree, and we need to stop criticizing them so much.

And critics of their perspective, such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, have been pointing out that we need to look at the long-term and recognize that while communication is important with the extremes, there is a point where working with them will be useless.  There is a point where criticism simply is the only way, because the crazies are just crazy, and we need to work towards a world where their views are not automatically respected and allowed to hold sway without a fight.

And given the fact that the Republican party has been strongly influenced by the same ideas that are behind the religious extremes, perhaps this point should have been more obvious to all of us.  There are too many Republican candidates who reject the science of evolution, don’t seem to know what is in the constitution, and pander to a political movement that is not much more than an attempt to re-frame the old conservative points with a new wrapper.

It seems that the issue of accommodationism is larger than that of how atheists should deal with religious people.  Perhaps it is also relevant to how Democrats should have related to the Republican minority during the last two years.  The Democratic party tried to work with the Republicans, and look how well that worked.  They were called socialists even though Obama is a centrist, blocked at most attempts to do just about anything, and just sat and took it.  They have had no spine, no ferocity, and no recognizable rallying message.  Just like those atheist accommodationists who argue that we need to not be so, well, honest with religious conservatives.

Perhaps this should be a learning moment for the many accommodationists out there.  because while we cannot exactly be voted out of office in two years, we certainly can keep sitting back and allowing religious conservatives continue to push against science education and dominate the conversation until we start to notice that we don’t have a populace intelligent enough to think critically.

Oh crap, we are pretty much already there.

We have work to do, both politically and it terms of critical thinking, skepticism, and fighting against religious fundamentalism.