June 30, 2009

More on the new atheist-accommodationist split

As I wrote last week, quite a scuffle has broken out between the so-called 'accommodationists' (who feel that we should not offend 'liberal' religious people by pointing out that science and religion are incompatible) and the so-called 'new atheists' (who feel that this accommodationist strategy has been pursued for a long time with no success and should be abandoned).

New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, and others have argued that there is no justification for the belief that science and religion are compatible, and that professional science organizations like the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education should refrain from making statements to that effect and stick to simply advocating good science, avoiding all questions of religion altogether. The undoubted fact that there are many scientists who are religious and that there are many religious people who support science (and oppose fundamentalist versions of religion) only provides support for the uncontroversial idea that it is possible for people to simultaneously hold contradictory views in their minds, nothing more.

The 'new atheists' have been criticized by other nonbelievers like Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest who believe that the real danger to science comes from the 'bad religion' of religious fundamentalists, and that scientists should seek common cause with religious moderates who advocate 'good religion', and not alienate them by implying that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

As I wrote last year, what this argument reveals is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together to advance one set of issues they agree upon while staying true to their positions on other issues where they could well differ strongly. So it should be quite possible for the 'good religion' group to join forces with the new atheists to combat the bad social and political influence of the 'bad religion' group, while at the same time disagreeing with each other as to whether science and religion are compatible.

For the 'good religion' group to ask the new atheists to not debunk the idea of compatibility (for the sake of political expediency) makes as little sense as the new atheists asking the 'good religion' group to stop talking about their religious beliefs in order to avoid offending atheists. Each group should come into the coalition for the sake of an articulated common good (in this case combating the immediate and manifest evils of 'bad religion') while retaining the right to disagree on other issues. As veterans of coalition politics know, a united front always hides a divided rear. We just have to live with it.

The reason that this well-known aspect of coalition politics is not understood in this particular context is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated 'respect for religion' trope, which has been interpreted as requiring that one should not critique those religious beliefs that are strongly and sincerely held by 'good' people. This tradition has shielded mainstream religion from the kinds of deep critiques received by other irrational belief structures, like astrology or witchcraft. Because of such criticisms, neither of those latter beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore.

H. L. Mencken deplored this practice of deference to religion way back in 1925, when he wrote in The Baltimore Evening Sun in the wake of the Scopes trial:

[E]ven a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.

Salman Rushdie wrote something similar more recently:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Despite Mencken's protests, religion still retains, because of the strong pressure to not make criticisms of it, some of its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in. But what Mencken hoped for is now beginning to emerge. The new atheists are making a concerted effort to end the false notion that 'respect for religion' means freedom from criticism. It is a good sign that skeptics are getting more numerous and outspoken. Their voices are breaking through the protective veil that religious beliefs have shrouded themselves in for so long.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Jackson

Just after I heard the news of Michael Jackson's death, I realized that although he was a pop phenomenon who had an enormous number of fans, I was not even faintly familiar with even a single song of his. Somehow his entire music oeuvre has passed me by, showing just how out of touch I am with some elements of popular culture, which is a little odd since I know a lot of the music of his contemporaries, and grew up with the Motown sound.

Jackson was undoubtedly a tragic figure, and yet retained a curiously childlike innocence that was somehow appealing. Ishmael Reed describes the awful treatment Jackson received from the media, which seemed to delight in tearing him down just as they once built him up.


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