The term accommodation is used in a wide variety of ways amongst atheists and humanists. We think this multitude of meanings has created a good bit of confusion[*]. We're philosophers, maybe we can help.
The specific uses of the term we are out to clarify are its uses as a special term of abuse between atheists -- specifically, as it takes the form of identifying a kind of backsliding on issues of great import. In the same way that 'counter-revolutionary' and 'appeasement' have their special sting for those who have had their bona fides as members of a movement challenged, 'accommodation' is the error of the atheist to be sufficiently stalwart in a climate that demands it. We think the term 'accommodation,' in the context of the broader science-wars and religion debates, admits of at least four distinct meanings. There are, perhaps, more variations on these themes, but these are the four most prominent classes in evidence. Of the four prominent classes, there are two broader classes, which we call institutional and dialectical accommodationism. Each of these two broader classes has two specific forms.
Institutional accommodationism is the practice of peaceful interaction between the natural sciences and religious accounts of reality within educational and research institutions. A strong form of institutional accommodationism is the view that science and religion can coexist within the curriculum and can coexist with each other in their respective research programs. They may even compliment one another, so says the strong institutional accommodationist.
Weak institutional accommodationism is the view that science and religion are incompatible, but institutions must nevertheless make room for both. And so, we must 'teach the debate' with evolution, creationism, and ID. The two research programs may conflict, but the search for truth is messy business, says the weak accommodationist, so we must encourage institutions that bring these programs together.
The other broader class of accommodation is the class of views about how the exchange with religious believers must be run. This is a class of views about the exchange of arguments, about how to hold oneself in the back-and-forth of debate, and so we call this class dialectical accommodation.
The strong dialectical accommodationist is one who holds that argumentative exchange must be welcoming. The reasoning behind this view is that disagreement is unpleasant enough, so it is required that those who disagree should do their best to not be disagreeable. As a consequence, requirements of etiquette constrain one's behavior in exchange -- one is never rude, one must take pains not to alienate one's audience. And so, the strong dialectical accommodatonist holds that atheists must be unfailingly nice.
Weak dialectical accommodationism is the view that one must treat those with whom one disagrees with minimal respect -- that is, one must have one's defaults set on interpreting and responding to what others say as expressions of their rationality. That is, if you are going to argue with someone and evaluate that person's reasons, you must first view this person as meeting minimal standards of rationality. This does not mean that we must be deferential, complimentary, or, really, nice at all. It only means that you don't get to believe that those with whom one disagrees are crazy, deranged, mentally ill, or cognitively challenged on the simple basis of the fact that they hold views you reject. Weak dialectical accommodationism is not about etiquette, it is about what it is to have a real disagreement and consequent argument.
It is clear that there can be various combinations of these views: one could be a strong institutional and weak dialectical accommodationist (and thereby hold that the two sides are institutionally compatible, but when there are arguments, they must be run only with minimal standards of rational critique), or one could be a weak institutional and a strong dialectical accommodationist (and thereby hold that institutions must make room for debate and the debate must be genteel). Further, neither kind of view, institutional or dialectical, entails the other. And so one could be weakly institutionally accommodating, but not dialectically accommodating at all (the thought may go that the two programs have nothing rational to say to each other, but we nevertheless must hold institutions accountable to both). And one could be strongly dialectically accommodating, but not institutionally accommodating in any way (and thereby holding that institutions needn't make room for both sides, but when the two meet, it must be done with maximum concern for feelings).
Now, we must situate ourselves in this matrix. We are decidedly not institutionally accommodating. We've both got publication records that show this (see our paper on philosophy of science and the Dover decision here). Further, we advance an argument for secularism in Reasonable Atheism. But we are also presenting a case for, as our subtitle runs, Respectful Disbelief. We are arguing for a form of dialectical accommodationism.
Specifically, we are weak or minimal dialectical accommodationists. Again, that view is that someone's being wrong does not mean that the person is stupid. Having bad evidence does not mean that someone's crazy. People in these positions do not need to be treated as though they are defective. The just need their views challenged, not their character impugned.
This does not mean that one must be nice. In fact, when one holds another in cognitive contempt, perhaps for fudging some data or suppressing some evidence or ignoring some important objection, one cannot be treating the other as though she or he is inept or stupid. If the person ignoring important data is inept, crazy or stupid, then you do not resent that person. Nor do you shame that person. You pity that person. The combination of holding people in cognitive contempt while asserting that they are crazy or mentally challenged is deeply inconsistent.
The only way you can consistently hold that someone has argued inappropriately and in a way that bespeaks a cognitive (or moral) vice is to hold that person as a rational agent. If you don't see people as rational, you can't see the things they say about their views as arguments to be criticized. If you don't see them as rational, the things they say are just noises. Since we view cases for religion in the public sphere, proofs for the existence of God, and criticism of atheism as arguments to be answered, we see religious believers as rational entities. They are rational, but wrong.
We prefer to call this weak form of dialectical accommodationism a minimal form of it, as it is the view that one must have one's defaults set on interpreting statements from others as being expressions of (or at least consequences of) their reasoning. If you accept that, then you have to see religious believers (and anyone with an argument for a view you find not only wrong but obviously so, for that matter) as meeting minimal standards for rationality. Only then does the act of criticism make sense.
Friday, February 18, 2011
The title of our book Reasonable Atheism perhaps has caused some to wonder or assume. Does being reasonable mean being civil or placid? Does the term reasonable atheism imply a contrast with some other—unreasonable—variety of atheism? Is reasonable synonymous with rational?
The answer to all above queries is “no.” Our use of the term reasonable derives from the political theory of John Rawls, particularly in its later articulation. We do not have the time to offer a proper analysis of the Rawls’s views. Our point is to signal that reasonableness is a term of art.
To get a handle on reasonableness, we may begin by speaking of “worldviews,” or "views," or “conceptions of the good life,” or (as Rawls called them) “comprehensive doctrines.” These are the very loosely constructed and not necessarily internally coherent views we carry around with us from day to day which speak to questions of what life is all about, what is of the highest importance, what we owe to each other, and what makes a life successful. Any minimally competent adult has such a view; and even the nihilist position that everything is for nothing counts as a “view” in this sense. The familiar range of moral conceptions—from various forms of naturalism, secularism, utilitarianism, and Kantianism to religious views such as natural law, divine command, and the rest—all count as “views” in our sense. Extremist doctrines that advocate violence against and the subjugation of infidels or dissenters also are “views” in this sense.
The differences among the various views at the level of their substantive commitments are of course important, and often drastic. Some think that the whole point of human life is to submit to the will of God; others hold that the good life is the life of maximizing satisfaction for the greatest number of sentient creatures; some hold that exercising oppressive power over others makes life good. And so on.
The point is that among this broad variety of views, there is a large subset of views which (1) satisfy some minimal criteria of rationality in that they are capable of being supported (in at least a prima facie way) by reasons, arguments, and evidence; and (2) include a moral prescription to socially tolerate other views which also uphold the value of social toleration. (Importantly, toleration in this context means something quite minimal: Jack tolerates Jill when, despite the differences in their conceptions of the good life, Jack is willing to regard Jill as a social equal—a fellow citizen, a free moral person, someone deserving of the full benefits of citizenship.) A view is reasonable if it fits this two-part description.
Reasonableness, then, is pretty cheap. Garden-variety views are almost always reasonable. However, many religious believers regard atheism as not only false but unreasonable; they accordingly tend to see atheists as unworthy of social toleration. Many hold that atheists are unfit for public office, unqualified to raise (or adopt) children, unable to serve properly as witnesses in trials, incapable of honesty and fidelity, and so on. The thought tends to run as follows: atheists reject the existence of God, and only those who believe in God could recognize the importance of moral rules; therefore, atheists are not only deeply wrong about religious matters, they are incapable of morality. Hence atheists are seen as immoral, untrustworthy, opportunistic, devious, and dangerous. Importantly, many religious believers see atheism as failing to satisfy the two-part criterion of reasonableness: they hold that atheism is not minimally rational and not able to uphold the value of social toleration. Atheists, they say, need not to be tolerated.
The aim of Reasonable Atheism is decidedly modest. Although we present a range of arguments against religious belief, and believe that these arguments suffice to demonstrate the falsity of religious commitments, the principal objective of our book is to provide religious believers with a decisive case for thinking that atheism is a reasonable view. That is, we endeavor to argue, often from religious believers’ own moral premises, that atheism is at least minimally rational and able to uphold the value of social toleration.
We aim not to prove that religious belief is false, or that religious believers are ipso facto stupid or irrational. Rather, we argue that religious believers’ commonly-held beliefs about atheists are false. We argue that atheism is reasonable. If our book succeeds, religious believers may continue to believe that atheism is false (we think that’s a mistake, of course), but they can no longer hold that atheists are immoral outsiders, undeserving of the full status of citizen.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Our book Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief publishes with Prometheus Books in April 2011. In addition to being professors who go about the typical business of academic research and publication, we are monthly columnists for the blog 3 Quarks Daily. On February 7th, 2011, we posted there a brief discussion of a kind of premature criticism that we have received of the book, apparently based on the sub-title alone, that we are “accommodationists.” This criticism came in the form of a handful of emails from sundry strangers who seem to agree that accommodationism is what one is guilty of when one believes that religious believers are deserving of respect rather than derision. We don’t take these correspondents to be serious interlocutors; they merely provided the occasion for thinking about what their understanding of accommodationism comes to.
In our post, we argued that this understanding of accommodationism is self-undermining, as it conflates two distinct kinds of epistemic evaluation: (1) belief evaluation, and (2) believer evaluation. With this conflation, the charge of accommodationism (as it was brought against us) requires those who wield it to at once see religious believers as epistemically contemptible and also utterly epistemically inept. But those who are utterly inept cannot be held responsible, and thus cannot rightly be held in contempt. And atheists should want to hold religious believers responsible for their beliefs. So atheists should be “accommodationists” in the sense employed by those who wrote emails criticizing our book (which they have not read). That’s of course just a sketch of what is already a too-short discussion of an important topic. If you’re at all interested in any of this, and see anything in this paragraph you’d like to take issue with, please go read the post.
We thought the point of our piece was clear, obvious, and uncontroversial. But many of those who identify with New Atheism read our post as if it were (incompetently) pressing some broader objection to New Atheism. And so in the comments on 3 Quarks and elsewhere various New Atheists have charged us with a range of sins, including strawmanning New Atheism; throwing New Atheists under the bus [*]; being insulting to New Atheism; advocating “anti-New-Atheism;” and (try not to laugh…) engaging in some kind of McCarthyism. We hold that our original piece does none of these things; in fact, the original post says almost nothing about New Atheism as such, and what it does say isn’t readily construed as particularly critical.
So we are now contemplating writing a follow-up post for 3QD about the various misunderstandings, misreadings and mistargeted criticisms of our original post. We’ll try our level best to be clearer this time, as part of the problem no doubt lies in the fact that we are not accustomed to writing blog-sized arguments. Perhaps we unwittingly raised the hackles of some who would otherwise agree with us. We don’t want to do that, but not because seek agreement with fellow atheists; we don’t. Rather, we seek criticisms of our actual views. So clarity is crucial. (We’ve even enlisted some help on this score from a prominent New Atheist who will help us to avoid distraction).
We will use this blog site to talk about the book and related matters, and to respond to critics. It seems that some New Atheists have found our attitude with respect to the Ontological Argument obviously objectionable, pseudo-intellectual, and perhaps evidence of senility. If you think the Ontological Argument is trash, you don’t understand it (or at best only understand the absolutely dumbest versions of it). To be sure, the argument fails. But not for the reasons most commonly cited. So maybe that’s a place to begin.