The following is a repost from 07/10/2009 on Accomodationism vs New Atheism. Given how well it worked for Stephanie Zvan and Greta Christina as first posts, maybe I should have led with this one. Or maybe I should write something new. I’m sure I have more to say about the nonsense that is the “New Atheist” label, and how “accomodationism” is really just rubbing everyone the wrong way with their crankiness that not everyone’s using their exact tactics of mollycoddling with one hand and slapping with the other.
I’m going to extend Greg Laden’s metaphor proclaiming (rightly, in my opinion) that the so-called “New Atheists” and the so-called “accommodationists” are in the same boat and bickering about what amounts to be the 1% difference between their philosophies. But first I’m going to set the stage for this rant, and I’m also going to do what a number of people in this Internet High Dudgeon have done — define all my terms (favorably to my argument, naturally).
Ever since crackergate, when PZ Myers pierced a cracker with a rusty nail and threw it away in an act of Great Import and Great Insult to the Catholic community, the atheist blogosphere has developed, in Greg’s words, a “great rift”. This rift divided those that think one should be respectful of others’ beliefs and quietly try to steer the religious toward science by example, even where their religious beliefs come into direct contradiction with science (so named “accommodationists”); and those that think there’s nothing special about religious beliefs and they should be discussed as heatedly as other ideas like who you’ll be voting for, or where to eat lunch (so named “New Atheists”). These two subfactions of atheistic thought have been clashing over their 1% difference, ignoring that the 99% difference that makes them science-loving atheists means they’re both pulling for the same end. That 1% makes up, entirely, what tactics to use and how accomodating (thus the name) one should be of belief systems that will inevitably (in the eyes of the New Atheists) come into direct conflict with our shared goals.
Recently, Chris Mooney of The Intersection wrote an article that raised my hackles, and crystallized my thoughts on this matter, when he suggested that we who argue on the side of science need to be careful not to alienate those religious moderates who accept some science already. To these people, Mooney says, we should defer; we should avoid shaking the foundations of their religion where they intersect with real science, because they have carefully built up walls to compartmentalize away their beliefs in the supernatural with their understanding of the natural and should these walls come down, who knows what side they may end up on? Mooney followed this up with a book (Full disclosure: Greg Laden’s partner code) in which he excoriated people like PZ Myers for not deferring enough to the religious’ irrationally held beliefs — like, say, that a piece of unleavened bread is somehow actually a piece of Jesus’ flesh and so doing something other than cannibalism is disrespectful of their “living God”. PZ cracked his knuckles and joined the fray with an unfavorable review of the book, on not only the basis that his own philosophy, blog, and commenters were directly insulted, but also that the book tells us everything that we already know about America being unscientific but doesn’t offer any good path forward (except for the paths forward that are put forth and roundly criticized by PZ anyway). Chris responded by attacking one of PZ’s commenters (without first identifying it as being a “representative”, meaning cherry-picked, comment, as opposed to PZ’s actual words, as Chris is a very busy man and doesn’t have time what with the book and all! — though six hours later he “clarified”), rather than answering the charges in PZ’s actual review; and in the meantime the existence of disgusting comments in Chris’ own threads apparently does not reflect upon him because he has filtered the word “bitch” now, suddenly and with great fanfare (despite his lack of time to answer PZ’s actual charges).
Enough setting the stage. I don’t want to poison the well too much in this one. The links speak for themselves.
Now, “New Atheist” needs definition as well, specifically because I don’t happen to believe there’s anything “new” about them. A “New Atheist” is merely an atheist who is not content to hide his/her beliefs so as to avoid raising the ire of the throngs of religious that surround us. They are “new” in that the main mode of atheists for the last fifty or so years has been to “not flaunt it” so as not to “annoy the religious”. Are you seeing any parallels with the homosexual rights movement yet, where conservatives say “I don’t have any problems with gays, as long as they don’t act gay in front of me”? Perhaps the parallel will serve to illustrate why so many atheists are upset by the 1% difference between them and Chris Mooney. Personally, I don’t much understand why atheists who happen to be “out”, so to speak, and happen to be particularly vociferous about their “out-ness”, have to also lead the religious by example, and show them that one can have a belief system that one does not have to advocate to others. In other words, the religious are the ones who proselytize, and we should show that we are better than them by being quiet and sitting down and letting the religious say their piece until we can meekly point them to the science and apologize for rattling their world views. What makes religion so special, in Douglas Adams’ words, that “it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy?”
My problem with deferring to the religious on religious matters is not that we should be civil with these people while shaking their belief systems — but that we should not merely be silent when the belief systems contradict that which is provable and in fact fundamental to our understanding of the universe. I absolutely agree that it is important to be civil while talking to someone — so that your meaning is not lost amongst the noise that an outright insult causes. However, sometimes the outright insult is what it takes to snap a person free from their own mode of argumentation, especially if their mode involves insults quite heavily.
We are all indeed on boats. The theists are in one boat, even those religious folks who understand and believe in evolution and science. The atheists are in another boat, both accomms and Nouveaus alike. These boats are tethered together on a lake, with the tether itself being the general public. Science is at one shore, and antiscience / faith / dogmatic religion on the other. These shores are mutually exclusive, despite some people’s claims; one cannot be on both shores at the same time, and if one IS on “both shores” it is because one is straddling the lake (and it’s a gigantic lake), and not merely on one of the side shores where the two beaches meet (because, let’s say, there’s jungles made up of tangled cognitive dissonance preventing one from doing so). Inside the boats, the “New Atheists” are paddling like the dickens to get both boats to the Science shore. They do not care that sometimes the splashing is getting occupants from the other boat wet occasionally. The accomodationists are asking the News to “please be careful not to splash the other boat, because we’re trying to convince them to stop rowing”. The “New Atheists” see this as “please stop trying so hard”.
Meanwhile, in the other boat, the people like Ken Miller, the religious moderates who believe in most (but not all) science, who are willing to take some things on faith in absence of evidence in a very unscientific manner, are either half-heartedly rowing or have abstained from rowing at all. They are mostly just along for the ride, and either don’t realize there’s even another boat or another shore behind them, or in some cases (like Miller), they realize it and see it, and are paddling toward the science shore with one oar and the religious shore with the other. They are not helping the situation at all for either party. These are the people the accomodationists are asking to stop rowing. They are in the minority on their boat. The remainder of their boat is made up of the very-religious who, while paddling like the dickens, are also, like the “New Atheists”, splashing the occupants of the other boat. And nobody is asking them to stop splashing, because to do so would get you summarily thrown out of the religious boat. The lake is littered with bodies that have been thrown overboard to sacrifice the “dead weight” from the religious boat, and as such, the religious boat has actually made some headway and the whole tethered rig is about a quarter closer to the religious shore than the science shore. Meanwhile, the very-religious keep trying to throw molotov cocktails over their shoulders in the form of poisoning children to the concept of science by attacking the education system, demonizing the scientific as evil sub-humans that are okay to kill now and then, and doing whatever is necessary to keep atheists from being listened to by the public. Once in a while they manage to light our boat on fire, but all the splashing keeps the fire from destroying the rig, just singing people now and then and maybe destroying an oar or two in the process.
Some of the atheists cry foul over this. Some try to make their own molotov cocktails, though the efforts invariably fail. The accommodationists demand that we not stoop to their level. People like PZ Myers mock the other side for having to throw cocktails, and people like Mooney keep elbowing the people like PZ in the head for it. Meanwhile, the religious are succeeding at pulling both our boats further and further toward the religious shore, wherein lies the promise of a new Dark Age.
The answer for us “New Atheists” is obviously not to throw Chris Mooney, or any other accomodationist, out of the boat. Nor is it to stop splashing so hard. Nor is it to stop asking the other side to stop rowing so hard. I don’t know what the actual answer IS, but one would think it would involve somehow stopping the religious from throwing molotov cocktails and countering their anti-scientific efforts in the real, as in non-metaphorical, world. It would also involve being a little more convincing, so that hopefully people like Ken Miller will eventually stop rowing one oar in the wrong direction.
And it would probably involve getting people like Mooney to stop elbowing people like PZ in the head repeatedly. And by my reading, any elbows thrown by PZ are in retaliation only.