a blog by josef johann

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Accommodation responses

I wrote this as a comment to a post over at the Sensuous Curmudgeon. It seems to me fairly representative of the dispute as a whole, so, with small edits, I'm reproducing it here:

@LC, @Curmudgeon

If not turning these people away from supporting quality science education by refusing to adopt an aggressive atheist position is “condescending” and “patronizing” then that is just too bad. To do so would play right into the hands of the creationists, who love to paint the science establishment as a barrel full of atheist monkeys.

(First, I don’t agree with the premise that the effect is to “turn people away”, but its not the point I’m interested in.)

Regardless of whether a certain behavior “plays into the hands” of creationists, it is only propping up an argument that is going to be false anyway. At a certain point merely stating the truth takes priority over being sensitive to whether you are providing “ammunition” for false arguments.

I think we need to untether “aggressive behavior” from mere “factuality.” I think a cornerstone of the criticism of accommodationism is that it involves a measure of wishful thinking. You end up with problematic statements, like incompatibilities between faith and science being merely “alleged”, which happily prescribes non-engagement with our religious friends.

The principle, that we need to curtail our argumentative behavior bleeds over into the making of statements that are, if not literally false, obscuring legitimate issues. I suggest that, to whatever extent we are going to engage on these issues in the first place, it is necessarily going to involve truthfully laying out incompatibilities.

It may be the case that bringing these incompatibilities to the doorstep of our religious friends, when they haven’t asked for it and weren’t asking for a debate, is counter productive. That issue should, however, be seen as separate from the discussion as to whether these incompatibilities actually exist.

As examples, here are some points from Curmudgeon that, I think, have these problems:

Creationism is, and should remain, a denominational squabble, utterly inappropriate in science discussions.

The above point is great, but it’s represented as though it’s consistent with a hands-off approach. But we all know very well, that anyone who participates in creationist talk views their own issue as anything but a mere denominational squabble.

As to the existence of actual science-religion incompatibilities, we can never say that evolution is consistent with everyone’s understanding of his own religion…

Except that individual believers are often happy to help us on this point. And what happens when they insist in all earnestness that their religious view require a vigorous rejection of science? What should we say then? And what should we say about an accommodationist insisting that there is no incompatibility?

The way Curmudgeon represents this, it seems to me, is that he would indeed engage in such debate if only it were necessary. But, by a happy accident of fortune, it happens that we can’t discover anything about the reconcilability of a particular persons faith with the facts of (say) evolution. I respectfully submit that this is wishful thinking, embraced because of its preferable recommendation that we don’t kick up dust.

Some churches actually enjoy the fantasy that they’re under assault by an evil scientific opponent. If that’s their pleasure, we should leave them to play that game without our participation. Some day they may tire of imaginary martyrdom.

Except that such perceived victimization is often the vaulting-off point for religious ventures into science. It will often unfortunately be the case that their worldview is structured such that well-intended statements about science increase their sense of victimization, even when they are perfectly true. In such cases we are helpless but to continue inspiring them and it would be bizarre to respond to this by prioritizing co-operation over honesty.

I should add to this comment, that I understand I am saying something a bit different from PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, who were concerned with National Academy of Sciences and similar institutions maintaining neutrality over the subject of compatibility.

My comment comes in the context of the actual discussion the rest of us have been having on the actual issue of incompatibility. To the extent that we need to have a conversation, the above is (part of) what we should be saying.

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