a philosopher’s case for accommodationism

March 14, 2010

Philosophers always have something to say on just about any subject. It’s in their job description. So it’s not a big surprise that a philosopher would want to comment in the ongoing back and forth between vocal atheists and accommodationists, more specifically, Professor Massimo Pigliucci on his blog, Rationally Speaking. As you’d expect, there’s a great deal being said, but unfortunately, many of the core concepts used to justify his stance towards accommodationism are based on either wrong interpretations of what’s really being said and why, and a mix of truisms that don’t actually hold up in the real world. Worse yet, we’re treated to the same old patronizing implication that atheists and those who insist on a secular standard have a simplistic and naive worldview that simply fails to grasp the intricate complexities of accommodationism…

While that video was supposed to be a parody in good fun, it seems that accommodationists see the atheist movement as lacking ideas any more nuanced than expressed there. We can see this very clearly in Pigliucci’s post in which he solicits readers for their thoughts as to whether we should make concessions to religious groups, while at the same time dismissing the atheist opinion as narrow-minded, ignorant and in a venture towards extreme political correctness, even balks at the use of the accommodationist term.

A new word entered the atheist vocabulary of late: “accommodationist.” It is meant as a derogatory term toward those atheists and assorted rationalists who try to extend a metaphorical olive branch to moderate religionists and find common ground against the real danger, fundamentalism (of any kind, religious or not).

Since when has that term been derogatory? Accommodationists want to make accommodations for religious groups and this is why this term is used. Whether Pigliucci likes the term or not has nothing with do with how it’s meant. Sure, many atheists refer to this position as an erroneous one, but that doesn’t mean it’s a smear. I’d also like to point out that referring to “any kind of fundamentalism” is an appeal to the golden mean fallacy, a logical twist which assumes that the correct answer to any problem must lie between two extremes, which may work for a philosopher who tends to float in the clouds and focus on semantics, but not in science where many positions are either right or wrong according to the weight of objective evidence. Is Pigliucci saying that we should be extending an olive branch to people who insist that 2 + 2 = 5 because the real danger is sticking to the idea that the result is actually four according to the rules of math?

Contrary to what many people think, this isn’t a debate about pragmatic tactics in the culture wars, it is a matter of principle. Few people — possibly not even Dawkins — would disagree that, say, the fight for a true separation of church and state has to include a broad coalition of religious and non-religious groups, partly because the goal is in the interest of both parties, and partly because there simply wouldn’t be hope for just secular groups to prevail, considering that they represent a (sizable) minority of the population.

Why would secularism be in the interest of religious groups? Why would they possibly want to forgo the power to make laws or pass down edicts about everything on which they have an opinion? And if we’re talking solely about principle, why are readers being told that because secular groups are just too small to prevail against a religious majority? Oh no, we’re not talking strategy, we’re just talking about what it takes to win this thing. See, it’s completely different when we preface these points with a sentence saying it’s all a matter of principle. I’m not sure if the point here is to convince the reader that Pigliucci is only interested in the principle or just huddle with him in a strategy session, but it’s not making a good argument either way you look at it. On the one hand, there’s a reliance on the notion that the groups who benefit from dominating the public debate would decide to pull back since it was declared to be in their best interest to do so, and on the other hand, we have a bait-and- switch argument promising a discussion of core principles and ending with a textbook strategy session.

When Dawkins says that science can refute “the God hypothesis,” or Coyne claims that a 900-ft [figure of] Jesus appearing in London (why London?) would disprove atheism, they are making epistemological assertions that are founded on a naive understanding of philosophy of science (and it is interesting that both of these esteemed colleagues scoff at the very idea that philosophy has anything to contribute to the debate).

Why London? Maybe because Dawkins is British and said London off the top of his head. And he’s right. Were supernatural forces to very openly and bluntly reveal themselves, atheists would have no leg left to stand on. It should also be noted that in the context of fundamentalism that’s so opposed by atheists, this literal, simple manifestation of the supernatural as proof of religious beliefs makes perfect sense. Plenty of theology busybodies like to go around saying that no one takes their deities that close to heart, but considering that we have prayer sessions about controversial legislation and people will pray for everything from getting to a very important appointment on time, to a parking spot in a crowded mall, that’s just not true. Finally, I can’t see how metaphysical discussions about epistemology have anything to contribute to hard sciences where ideas stand and fall by the weight of evidence in favor of them rather than how much you talk. It’s one thing to debate questions to which we have no real answers, but once a good, logical answer is found we’re really just going around and chewing the rhetorical cud rather than contributing anything of substance.

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  • reggie

    I first saw the accommodationists while watching Meyers and Mooney go back and forth last year. I have since seen it is not that novel. But watching Mooney get manhandled by Meyers and Coyne, and no one else from the “faithiest” camp come up with better arguments than Ruse or Mooney, I have to say that I am glad my top three blogger agrees that accommodation is folly.

  • RaggMopp

    gfish, I know this is kind of a ricochet off your real point. Not that that’s any news, but this is my first premeditated offence. Honest.

    Anyway, do you know of or have you any source who might know of any philosophical movement that would back-up and come afresh at a whole philosophy clearly based on the fact that human beings are animals? Evolved primates. Wild animals. Wild in the truest sense, and in fact, some of the wildest animals on earth. We go where we damned please, and do as we damned please within the limitations of our capabilities, and the constraints of our troop, but we’re nowhere near domesticated. Most kill or destroy with some sense of purpose, but some are as gleefully thoughtless killers as Orca in mating season; as cats in the garden. And the most carefully domesticated slave human on earth is, nevertheless as dangerous as a monkey with a hand-grenade. It depends on who he sees as an enemy.

    I know of no such philosophy. And it seems to me that the philosophy departments of all the major universities are almost criminally negligent in this area. I know; they’re philosophy professors, not actual philosophers, but they churn out reams of their thoughts, like your accomodationist example, and some of them are awfully smart. But it seems to have escaped them that the fact of human evolution is no longer in doubt, and the mind and the brain are no longer easily distinguishable. There are neurobiologists who are convinced that the mind (thence the soul) are constructs of the physical brain. Why are philosophers sitting rotating (you know what I was thinking, but I had a moment of discretion – in deference to your enlightened attitude) while such earth shattering revelations come rolling over us? Maybe, they’re as baffled as I am, but I don’t have an IQ in the 200 range, so who’s remiss?

  • Matt

    First time reader here. You have an interesting blog, but are missing the point with this post. Massimo Pigliucci was a leading evolutionary geneticist before a recent career switch to philosophy, He definitely appreciates the value of evidence – wouldn’t have made it very far in science if he didn’t- and doesn’t “float in the clouds” or “focus on semantics”. He is not talking about the the type of accomodationism that says that religion and science are complementary ways of understanding the world.

    Pigliucci has been called an accomodationist because he is an atheist who wants to work with those moderate religious people who ALSO want a secular government and because he thinks scientific evidence against the existence of the supernatural on its own isn’t a good argument for atheism. Dawkins, Coyne, etc. think that scientific evidence alone is sufficient to prove/disprove the existence of one’s favorite diety. Their case for atheism is based entirely on the lack of positive evidence for any such deity.

    The problem with this is that religious ideas are not testable the way a scientific hypothesis is testable because a supernatural entity by definition can do whatever it wants regardless of whether that action obeys natural laws. In other words, a religious loony can say “Sure it looks like the world is more than 6000 years old, but it’s really not; God just made it look 4.5 billion years old to test our faith”, and science can’t reject this. Sure it’s a terrible argument, but no amount of data can disprove this. This is exactly why “hard sciences where ideas stand or fall based on the weight of the evidence” won’t work by itself- because science and religion are not playing on the same field. Instead, Pigliucci thinks one should base an argument for atheism on the foundation of philosophical naturalism and use scientific evidence of evolution, or an old universe, or whatever, as a strong, but supplementary argument against god. As he said, things like the argument from evil are quite persuasive arguments against the existence of god and cannot be wiggled out of quite so easily by the religious.