The irrational core of accommodationism

In the previous post, I said that Robert Wright’s attempt at a compromise between accommodationists and new atheists is likely to be rejected by most religious believers because it requires them to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god, such as that he has magical powers.

Meanwhile what are atheists supposed to do as part of his grand bargain? His early hint that we should accept some notions of “higher purpose” pretty much gives the game away. According to the gospel of Wright later in his article, we are supposed to “acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.”

Wright’s compromise is going to be a nonstarter with new atheists also. Although he has phrased it as if it were a tiny concession, what he wants atheists to do is give up atheism and accept god’s existence. Even though he has just said that god is not necessary to understand how the world works, he want us to concede that god exists just because it is logically possible to reconcile some rarefied, noninterventionist form of god with science. This is what all accommodationists invariably end up saying. And as usual with accommodationists, he resorts to calling ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ those of us who don’t see the point in accepting the existence of some thing merely because it is allowed logically. (Steven Pinker, by contrast, is described by Wright as a ‘contented’ atheist’ because he says some things about the origins of the moral sense that might be construed as supporting Wright’s views.)

Wright makes the same logical error, made by so many apologists for god, of not distinguishing how to judge the validity of existence claims from those of universal claims, a flaw I have pointed out before. An existence claim (which is what Wright is making about god) requires positive evidence in its favor in order to be taken seriously, not merely protection from logical disqualification.

Another attempt at accommodationism is that of H. E. Baber, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and author of an article in the London Guardian newspaper. As usual with religious intellectuals, she begins by distancing herself from the wacky religious fundamentalists who believe in a god who is a peripatetic busybody who interferes everywhere all the time.

[L]ike most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in “guiding” evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live. (emphasis added)

Sound’s good to me. I agree with her 100% so far. So why does she call herself a Christian and not an atheist? As she herself says, “Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives “meaning,” or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.” Biologist Jerry Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution is True, gives the right answer to her question of “What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?” by saying that, if you had any brains, you’d answer “none.” (His post has a terrific title that says it all: What good is a slacker God?)

But Baber, like all religious intellectuals, shrinks from the obvious conclusion that her reasoning powers have led her to, and tries to find reasons as to why she should still believe in any god at all, let alone the Christian god, in the process inevitably sinking slowly into the logical quicksand that engulfs theology whenever it has deal with modern science. Here’s how she starts her descent into the logical morass.

Theists, like myself, claim that there is a conscious being, who is omnipotent and omniscient, who is not a part of the natural world and not to be identified with the cosmos in toto, but is incorporeal and transcendent.

Really? A conscious being who is not corporeal? A god who is both omnipotent and omniscient and yet does nothing at all? Coyne’s description of this as a ‘slacker God’ is becoming more and more apt. Mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out that believing that god is both omnipotent and omniscient leads to an immediate contradiction:

Being omniscient, God knows everything that will happen: He can predict the future trajectory of every snowflake, the sprouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions. But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do anything He wants, including behaving in ways different from those He’d predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible. He thus can’t be both omnipotent and omniscient. (Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up, 2008, p. 41.)

But that’s not all. Baber then digs herself in deeper. In explaining why she is still a believer, she shifts from a god who is a ‘conscious being’ (and you can’t get more real than that) to a god who is nothing more than an idea, a kind of Platonic ideal, in people’s minds.

God is an object of contemplation… I suppose what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

That’s what’s in it for me.

So in the same essay she says she believes in a god who is both (a) a conscious being who is omnipotent and omniscient and yet does nothing at all, and (b) an asymptotic idea to be contemplated by humans for his beauty, glory, and power, kind of like Donald Trump but with better hair.

Only a religious intellectual could say such things with a straight face and only because they have become so accustomed to the fact that as long as they say something that advocates the existence of god or puts god in a positive light, no one will point out that it either makes no sense or has no content. As Carl Sagan said in Broca’s Brain:

[R]eligions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.

That about sums it up.

(Next: The church of the accommodationists)
POST SCRIPT: Comedian Dara O’Brien on the prevalence of irrational ideas

The accommodationists try again

Robert Wright is a science writer and one of those accommodationists who is disturbed by the new atheists, people who say that science and religion are incompatible. He, like many accommodationists before him, wants to build a bridge between science and religion.

He has written a book The Evolution of God in which he argues that our image of god has evolved depending on the needs of society at any given time. For example, when times seemed to require that a tribe ruthlessly destroy its perceived enemies, the god that emerged was the jealous, vengeful, murderous, genocidal god so favored by Pat Robertson, John Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell, and the assorted end-timers. When times required peaceful co-existence, god became the love-thy-neighbor type now propagated by mainstream religions. Hence religious texts like the Bible that are accumulations of texts written over various times contain all these contradictory views of god.

All that is fine and dandy and uncontroversial. Once you accept that god is a human creation, it makes sense that the nature of that creation will sway with the prevailing political and social currents.

But Wright, like all accommodationists, shrinks from going all the way with this idea of god as purely a human invention. He wants to retain an independent existence for some kind of god but also wants to retain his scientific credibility. So he adopts the usual accommodationist strategy of blaming ‘extremists’ on both sides for creating a split between science and religion: On the one hand are the religious fundamentalists who insert god into those areas that are supposedly the proper domain of science, and on the other are the new atheists who say that the idea of god is totally superfluous and can be dispensed with.

As he says in a New York Times op-ed published on August 22, 2009:

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

Oh, these silly extremists, always causing trouble by being so stubborn. But not to worry! Wright has the solution, which he announces with great fanfare: “I bring good news!” The problem, as he sees it, is that both sides make the common mistake of underestimating natural selection’s creative power. All it requires to reach a consensus solution is for the extremists on both sides to each make some teensy-weensy concessions. What are they?

Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism.

Let’s see how Wright unpacks these two prescriptions for peaceful coexistence, starting with what he requires of religious believers:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever.

If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic. (emphasis added)

So as part of this grand bargain, he wants religious believers to give up the idea that god intervenes periodically in nature to create organisms or moral sensibilities or anything else, and instead accept that natural selection can do all that heavy lifting all by itself, and was designed to do so right from the beginning.

In other words, Wright is postulating a teleological (i.e. goal directed) view of evolution. He seems to be saying that this far-sighted god inserted into the natural selection algorithm itself everything that was necessary to eventually and inevitably produce some sort of sentient beings at least approximating humans that would have something like our moral sensibilities that gave us the ability to perceive what we now do about the existence of god. This is why the world seems to work perfectly well as if there is no god but god still exists.

This idea is not new. The lack of directionality and intentionality of natural selection was troubling back in Darwin’s time and led to the theory of orthogenesis, which suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983). But that view has long been rejected by almost all biologists as being incompatible with what we know about how evolution works, which is by natural selection acting on random mutations as a result of selection pressures. One does not need to postulate a hidden greater purpose or a hidden mechanism to produce the results that evolution did, so Wright’s requirement that god had to insert that mechanism is superfluous.

What Wright is postulating is something between strict deism (where god created the universe and its laws without any idea of what would happen subsequently, letting the chips fall where they may), and intelligent design creationism (where god has to directly intervene and nudge things along at critical intervals to get the results he wants). In other words, Wright creates ‘intelligent design lite’ that (to him, at least) tastes great and is less filling.

I suspect that most religious people will find that Wright’s compromise, as far as they are concerned, tastes lousy and not at all satisfying because he requires religious believers to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god. As biologist Jerry Coyne says in the course of a detailed critique of Wright’s article:

[T]his scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on, what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

But I’ll leave those problems to the religious people to deal with. In the next post, I’ll look at what he wants from us new atheists. (Sneak preview: Wright is wrong there too.)

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why ignorance is bliss

God tries to persuade Lucy (Lucifer) that it is good that people take solace in believing in magic, and why knowledge is bad and curiosity about how things work is to be discouraged. Note at the beginning that Lucy is reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.