Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Just when you think you’re out, they drag you back in again

The debate on accommodationism vs new atheism, like the manufactured debate on creationism vs evolution, won’t end until faith itself does. It flares up in prominent spots of the web at least once a week when the sparks of the last inferno have barely cooled.

If I sound like I’m complaining, let me outline my position.  I don’t mind joining in the debate, although I’m weary of it.  I regret that we’ve been unable to settle it.  These flare-ups generally happen because an accommodationist complains about either a particular atheist’s rude behaviour (more on this shortly) or about atheist bad behaviour in general. 

The latter is a matter of special concern because the accusers rarely – if ever – substantiate their claims.  There are usually a lot of vague references to atheists who’ve screamed in the faces of believers, but nobody ever seems to come up with dates and times, let alone credible witnesses.  I suspect that the majority of the incidents are being manufactured or at least wildly exaggerated, but don’t particularly doubt that at least some accommodationists sincerely believe this is how atheists really tend to behave.  It’s unfortunate and insulting that they they are so keen to cling to anecdotes that happen to match their prejudices.

The former case is more complicated.  The incidents are often verifiably real or at least have some truth about them.  I part company with accommodationists not on the issue of what the accused atheist says, but on the implications of what they say.

Hypothetically, for example, suppose a prominent new atheist criticises the Catholic church’s behaviour over its covering-up and therefore enabling of (at least) many decades of child abuse within its ranks.

A new atheist would say that churches in general or faith-heads in particular are not immune to criticism, especially when they’re bang to rights, as in this case.

An accommodationist might say that faith-heads will see it as an attack on religion itself and therefore be less likely to support causes such as science funding or the battle against teaching creationism in schools.

The former shows a commitment to truth and egalitarianism, with religion receiving no special treatment and every claim and action by any organisation or individual open to equal scrutiny.  It means that the religious can still make whatever incorrect claims about the universe that they like, but that they no longer get to be outraged if others disagree.  It means that religion should no longer be assumed to automatically have a role in the public sphere and that any role they do play should be as open to scrutiny and question as that of any other organisation.

The latter shows a commitment to a narrower and (seemingly) more immediately pragmatic, yet political goal.  An example  of such a goal is the laudable one of defending educational systems against creationists.  Accommodationists argue that we need the religious on our side if we’re going to pull this off, so we should play nicely with them.  We should grant special privilege to religion in numerous acts of positive discrimination, because to do otherwise is to piss off the faith-heads, which might harm the cause.

I think the accommodationists are wrong for several reasons.

First, there’s no evidence at all that they’re right and that being outspoken about atheism isn’t helping.

Second, not everyone has the same cause or the same goals.  Being told pursue my own goals because they might harm someone else’s in some undefined way, unsupported by evidence, is a bit rich and moreso when it’s applied across the board to a very large group of people who are – after all – mostly just trying to speak up about their atheism.

Third, I find it unlikely indeed that pandering is a worthwhile and effective long-term strategy.  The entire problem – the entire reason that accommodationists think we need to pander in the first place - is that faith-heads have become used to it.  They expect undue respect because they’ve got away with it for so long.  They – and no other group – can play the outrage card when they hear something they don’t like, precisely because, like spoiled children, it’s worked for them in the past.  Pandering for short-term gain seems very likely to store up problems for the future.  It’s like paying an extortionist running a protection racket: at the very best, you’re buying time at increasingly hefty cost.

Fourth, although I understand the demands of political expedience in the real world, when it comes to science, a commitment to truth has to stand out as by far the most important thing.  We can’t pretend that science and religion are compatible, because to do so would be to admit truth isn’t important.  Science is about finding out what’s true – or at least, what seems right now to be true – about the universe.  Religion is about preserving through faith and ignorance what you’ve already decided to be true.  Different standards of evidence and rigour are needed for each and so the two are not compatible.  Pretending they are drastically reduces science’s message and ultimately its power to explain.  It pretends that there are different types of truth and that powerful organisations with long histories (especially long histories of violence and/or outrage) get to dictate what is true to very large numbers of people while demanding that those truths not be criticised by anyone else.

The debate comes down to the fact that faith-heads consider criticism that would be fair – even necessary - in any other sphere as an attack.  If we continue to allow them this expectation that critics remain silent, we’ll never, ever hear the end of it.  Any potential gains in short-term political goals – especially since there’s no evidence accommodation achieves this anyway – isn’t worth the cost.

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