10/9/09

Is Dawkins Getting More Accommodationist?

I've now noticed two things about The Greatest Show on Earth--and I admit I'm mostly just sitting and petting it so far (I love all the pictures, charts, and enticing section headings).  First, when you pet the book, it doesn't purr, but it does squeak.  The cover is made out of some sort of special paper that makes the butterflies shimmer.  Really, it squeaks.  Second, if you turn to page 6, Dawkins writes....
Let's first have some background, or it won't seem all that exciting what he writes.  The story starts with a post that Josh Rosenau wrote about how Dawkins seems to be getting more "accommodationist."  What this term denotes is a certain conciliatory outlook on the part of some non-believers.  Accommodating atheists don't disapprove of people who accept 99% of evolution, with a little bit of religion thrown in.  They're just thankful for the 99%.  Perhaps they go further and really approve.  Maybe they think religion and evolution really are logically compatible. Or maybe they just think a lot of supersmart people are in that  99% state of mind, and don't care to tangle with them.  Maybe it's just a pragmatic stance.  But the key thing is that accommodationists are satisfied with 99%.  In fact, they're even willing to sell evolution to religious people with the explicit message that 99% is enough. 
Then there's the other team, the unaccommodating atheists.  For them, 99% is not enough.  They think accepting evolution should be a stepping stone to giving up all of religion.  In fact, they note, that's the way things often work.  Young people take science classes, decide they've got to choose between science and religion, and choose science.  This is a natural sequence of events, according to the unaccommodating atheists, because science and religion really are deep down logically incompatible, they think.  They see accommodationists as agents of conservatism, holding people back from making the final leap to religion-free thinking.  In their eyes, "accommodationist" is pretty much a dirty word.  It's a lot like "appeaser" or "reactionary" or "Republican". (That was a joke.)
So getting back to Josh Rosenau's post.  When he suggested that Dawkins had gone over from UA to AA in his new book, the UAs naturally found that very, very annoying.   And when Chris Mooney piled on, they found that very, very, very annoying--presumably because Chris gets his ideas out to a larger audience (as in here).  And so some not very nice things have been said lately about them.  To cut to the chase, PZ Myers here says that the two of them are suffering from "traumatic brain damage."  He accuses them of "masturbatory wacking away at a straw man." Indeed, he goes further (children, look away).  He says Chris has been "fellating a straw man." (Good heavens!)  And then here, Ophelia Benson wonders "why Mooney apparently hates overt atheists so much" and calls him a "scapegoater and marginalizer and shunner and minority-punisher."  Sheesh!
Jerry Coyne pulled an "I know Richard Dawkins" (simultaneously channeling Woody Allen and Lloyd Bentsen) and posted words from the man himself, apparently conveyed in person and in an email message.  Dawkins says "Hell no" and that seemed to be the end of it.  But hold on.  Can we all get out our squeaky, brand new copies of The Greatest Show on Earth?  Because I think Dawkins forgot what he wrote on pg. 6. Here goes--the quote you've been waiting for.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an antireligious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution.

They may think God had a hand in starting the process off, and perhaps didn’t stay his hand in guiding its future progress. They probably think God cranked the Universe up in the first place, and solemnised its birth with a harmonious set of laws and physical constants calculated to fulfil some inscrutable purpose in which we were eventually to play a role.

But, grudgingly in some cases, happily in others, thoughtful and rational churchmen and women accept the evidence for evolution.

What we must not do is complacently assume that, because bishops and educated clergy accept evolution, so do their congregations.
And then he goes on to say that "thoughtful and rational churchmen and women" who accept evolution ought to get their congregations to accept it too. (You can read an extract from chapter 1 here.)
I'll have to read further to see what Dawkins says about the logical compatibility of religion and evolution, if he ever delves into the matter more deeply. But calling evolution-accepting religious people "thoughtful and rational" is pretty high praise.  This is not stuff from an unaccommodationist playbook.  Effectively, Dawkins is giving readers permission to be 99% about evolution. He's not holding his breath, waiting for every religious person to leap from evolution to atheism.
I really have to wonder what all that stuff about fellating strawmen and "I know Richard Dawkins" can possibly be about. I know Jerry Coyne read the new book, because he has an endorsement on the back of it.  Surely PZ Myers has read it too.  "Thoughtful and rational churchmen and women."  You think that's unaccommodating?  I don't think so.
Last but not least:  what about that Barack Obama!!!
____
Update:  When I have time I'll watch this video (which starts off amusingly).  Maybe it sheds some light on the issues of this post (and maybe not).

35 comments:

Tea Logar said...

You have GOT to be kidding me.

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, I have a comment policy now, and it's going to be seriously enforced in this thread. So you have to do better than that.

amos said...

Does your comment policy allow me to take a seat and listen?

Faust said...

How about a "strawman fluffer"? Oh man.

Re: Obama. I'm not sure. I almost think he should turn it down. The idea of someone who is escalating combat in Afgahnistan and who continues to preside over a war in Iraq and who has failed to meet his deadline in dismataling Gitmo is pretty hard to take as a candidate for the NPP. It's the Nobel PEACE Prize. Not the "THANK GOD YOU AREN'T GEORGE BUSH" prize.

amos said...

It's a very very accomodationist Nobel Peace Prize.

Jean Kazez said...

If I hadn't read PZ Myers this morning on fellating straw men (eww!), this post would have just been about Barack Obama. But you just have to say something when people are getting that absurd.

Exactly right-- it's the "Thank God you aren't George Bush prize." I do kind of feel a little bad for him, because it's got to be a little painful getting a prize and having everybody wonder why. But maybe it's an award for "promise"--and who wouldn't like to be seen as promising? I say--let's celebrate.

Jean Kazez said...

About Afghanistan...

I must confess that I am confused and really have no position at all about what he should do. Yes, he's taking his time with things, not making the quick changes he promised during the campaign.

Faust said...

Well I think there is real political danger for him here. The Right will try to use it as a bludgeon, the hard left will view it with a very dubious eye, and worst of all the Beltway Media is going to, on balance, be tempted to make it into something. We shall see how it pans out.

Obama is a vast improvement over Bush. But that's just not saying much I'm afraid. So far I think he's well on track to being as big a triangulator as Clinton. Not suprising with who his close advisors are. But this country has drifted so far to the right since Reaganomics won the ideological center that it's going to take some hard times before things change. And no. They aren't hard enough yet. It took 25% unemployment to get SS. The future is pretty hard to predict from where we are right now.

amos said...

From what I read in the chapter from the Times, Dawkins takes a pragmatic accomodationist position: it doesn't matter what you believe about God as long as you accept the theory of evolution as a fact. Dawkins even includes the Pope within the club of those who are kosher about evolution. For those who expect Dawkins to continue the unconditional war against all religion, "don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters". (Bob Dylan)

Jean Kazez said...

I would have said "pragmatic accommodationist" too, if it weren't for Dawkins's calling the evolution-accepting church leaders "thoughtful and rational." Rational! If he really thinks religion and evolution are incompatible, then you can't be rational and accept them both. Then again, maybe when he says they're "rational" he doesn't really mean it...he's just being pragmatic.

amos said...

Maybe by "rational", he means "reasonable".

Tea Logar said...

Accommodationists believe that religion and science are compatible. Dawkins doesn't. He believes that acommodationists exist, obviously, but even more obviously, this doesn't make *him* an accommodationist. Acknowledging that there are people out there who hold inconsistent beliefs hardly entails *holding those same beliefs*.

Jean, I just don't get it. You, being a philosopher, surely can tell the difference between these two? Am I missing something?

Tea Logar said...

I just realized that Dawkins here talks about the compatibility between religion and evolution, not religion and science, which is what the whole accommodationism debate is all about. I don't think anyone denies that many religious narratives are compatible with believing that species evolve over time, especially if you're careful to distinguish the theory of evolution from the old question of how life began in the first place.

But these are two very different debates. Accommodationists (esp. Mooney) claim that religious and scientific *ways of thinking* are in fact compatible. This is somehow not quite the same as saying that a book of stories can be interpreted so as to include the story of "Dinosaurs, Genes, and Fossils."

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, You're imputing some really weird reasoning to me.

Obviously I'm going with the definition of "accommodationist" that's in my post, not with your narrower definition. Here's what I wrote--

"What this term denotes is a certain conciliatory outlook on the part of some non-believers. Accommodating atheists don't disapprove of people who accept 99% of evolution, with a little bit of religion thrown in. They're just thankful for the 99%. Perhaps they go further and really approve. Maybe they think religion and evolution really are logically compatible. Or maybe they just think a lot of supersmart people are in that 99% state of mind, and don't care to tangle with them. Maybe it's just a pragmatic stance. But the key thing is that accommodationists are satisfied with 99%. In fact, they're even willing to sell evolution to religious people with the explicit message that 99% is enough."

My definition allows that different accommodationists can have a variety of attitudes and beliefs. The key thing is that they're accommodating. They can have different reasons for that, and different commitments on the issue of whether science and religion are logically compatible.

I think Dawkins is highly accommodating in that passage. As to what he think about the narrower issue of compatibility, he does write that evolution-accepting churchmen and women are thoughtful and RATIONAL! But I'm not going to make too much of that. The main thing is that he's accommodating. He's letting readers know they don't have to choose religion OR science. That's the essence of accommodationism, by my lights.

Tea Logar said...

But what good is your definition then? It's got nothing to do with the whole debate from a few months ago. Dawkins is also very accommodating of mixed marriage, for example, but it would be just a little weird for Mooney (or you) to claim victory on that basis.

What we're interested in is whether Mooney is right that religion and science are compatible, or whether the "New Atheists" are right that they're incompatible. That's religion and SCIENCE, not 'religion and theory of gravity', or 'religion and round earth theory', or 'religion and the theory of evolution'. 'Science' here doesn't stand for a body of knowledge, but rather for the method: evidence-based reasoning.

Also, rational people can hold inconsistent beliefs. This doesn't make those beliefs consistent, and it also doesn't necessarily make those people irrational - depends on the context and content of those beliefs.

In short: it's true, Dawkins "admits" that religion can be compatible with the theory of evolution (again: who doesn't?). He says nothing accommodating about religion and scientific thinking, though.

amos said...

Tea: You're mistaken. This debate has been about two types of accomodationism, the first being political or pragmatic accomodationism, that is, whether it is prudent to tell religious believers that their beliefs are not consistent with a scientific world-view and thus, turn them off to science. The second is philosophical accomodationism, the idea that super-natural religion or supernaturalism is not consistent with a scientific worldview. For example, I am a pragmatic accomodationist, but not a philosophical accomodationist.

amos said...

My error: philosophical accomodationism is the idea that supernatural religion or supernaturalism are consistent with a scientific worldview.

Tea Logar said...

amos,

Thank you, that's a good way of telling the two debates apart. So I guess Jean's point here is that Dawkins seems to show signs of pragmatic accommodationism. I guess that really is open to debate. (Although I insist that saying that religion is compatible with evolution doesn't entail saying that it's compatible with scientific worldview.)

Will think about it all. Good night!

amos said...

Good night to you. It's 19:18 here now.

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, Please, let's not be silly. I have a long paragraph there defining the term "accommodationist." Obviously someone doesn't qualify because they're very accommodating about mixed marriage. Why waste your time and mine with points that are merely rhetorical?

I see accommodationists as people who somehow or other are trying to make it easy for people to get more science without giving up religion. Unaccomodationists don't like this, as I said in the post, because they think it interferes with a natural transition that takes people from science to atheism.

I think you're wrong to suppose that every accommodationist has made up their mind that science and religion really are compatible. I just don't think that's so. For one, the compatibility issue is very hard and essentially philosophical. You could be uncertain about it, but quite sure you think the message should be sent that no choice need be made between science and religion. I think the main reason Chris Mooney is an accommodationist is not because he's so sure about the compatibility issue (he writes about that tentatively in his book), but because he thinks the accommodationist message is the most effective way to get a scientifically well informed electorate as quickly as possible. Perhaps he also thinks it just doesn't matter much whether the private mental hygiene of some people leaves something to be desired. The important thing is to get them on board with stuff like climate change, so they'll do something about it. That's what I think, anyway.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah...you went to bed while I was composing. Sweet dreams (not about accommodationism). Yeah, pragmatic. That's pretty much it.

Tea Logar said...

Still thinking about it ... :)

Jean Kazez said...

If the word "compatibilism" didn't already have a meaning in philosophy, I'd say there are really two debates here. One is between compatibilists and incompatibilists--it's about the narrower issue of whether science and religion are compatible. Then there's the debate between accomodationists and non-accomodationists, which is about values, strategy, goals, and possibly (but not necessarily) also about the compatibility of science and religion. I make this distinction because I think that while all compatibilists are accommodationists, it doesn't seem to me that all accommodationists are compatibilists.

Ophelia Benson said...

Dang - I hadn't seen this. I suppose it's too late to comment?

I'll give it a shot anyway. Jean, I just disagree with a lot of your description in the post. You make it about approving and disapproving, but that's not it. (Well it is in a sense, because that's what happens with disagreements, but that's not centrally it. That's not the part that matters.) And there's a lot of other attribution too, and I just don't sign up to it (and I know I'm included, since you mention and link to me). This for instance - "They think accepting evolution should be a stepping stone to giving up all of religion." No that's not it - I don't think that at all, or anything like it. I strongly doubt that any of the anti-accommodationists do. I think that people shouldn't assert that science and religion are perfectly compatible, because that leads to confusions and misunderstandings (not least because of the equivocation around the word, between factual compatibilty and logical or philosophical or epistemic compatibility). It's not about holding people back from making final leaps - it's about not confusing them. Really, it is. Saying we think "accepting evolution should be a stepping stone to giving up all of religion" is just a wild exaggeration as well as off the mark.

Then this bit - "And when Chris Mooney piled on, they found that very, very, very annoying--presumably because Chris gets his ideas out to a larger audience"

No. And there's no need to presume, surely, since we've explained it several hundred times. It's because Mooney has for months been using tendentious hostile inaccurate language - rhetoric - about what he calls "new atheists" and he gets that out to a larger audience, along with being very muddled and unclear and equivocal and evasive about the whole subject. This really is why we find Mooney's piling on very very very annoying.

And that's why I called him a scapegoater and the rest of it. It's because I really do think that that's what he's doing - I think that's the point of talking about "moving to the center" - I think he's determined to make "the new atheists" look weird and extreme (he did use that word, after all) and Unamerican to as many people as possible. I think this is a dangerous game - I don't think he should do it.

Seriously, don't you know what I mean? Don't you recognize that kind of rhetoric? It's exactly the same kind that Limbaugh and O'Reilly and co use about Obama and libbruls and feminists and...secularists and atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia,

I'm getting the "stepping stone" reading of what anti-accommodationists are thinking from a variety of places. For example, from a PZ Myers 2-part interview at Point of Inquiry. He says people who take evolution classes are likely to go from there to atheism... IF the accommodationists don't get to them first. (Not his words, but I think that's the basic idea.) I gather from that interview that the NCSE pitch to religious people bugs him so much precisely because it threatens to interfere with the de-religioning process.

I read Jerry Coyne that way too. He's very eager to get to "Rational America" (his phrase). I gather he has so much wrath about Josh Rosenau (which is otherwise inexplicable...who calls their former students nasty names?) because folks like him are impeding the trend in that direction.

If that's not what's going on, then I really can't understand all the wrath. After all, if it's really just all about a very subtle issue about whether religion and science are compatible, how could people have such strong feelings about it? That's really a very subtle matter. You could disagree about it amicably, or even disagree with yourself about it--shifting positions every other week.

So it just makes more sense to me to think anti-accommodationists want that progression toward atheism (for lots of reasons). They dislike (and yes, it does get personal, so "dislike" is the right word) accommodationists primarily for for interfering, not for having the wrong view of the "logic" of science and religion. In any event, I don't think accommodationists are necessarily "compatibilists". They can just have ideas about values, priorities, goals, etc that imply that science and religion shouldn't be presented to people as either-or.

That's my reading of things, anyway. It may not be an accurate picture of what's going on in all heads. I don't really see you as having exactly the same concerns as Myers, Coyne, etc., so I suppose I could have left the link to B&W out of there. But then, a link is really a compliment. It says "this person's ideas count."

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean,

Ah, I see. It occurred to me (too late, of course) that I really shouldn't have said 'we' in all those places (well, all two or three or whatever it was) since nobody elected me to speak for all "new atheists" and I don't know exactly what they think anyway. I was saying what I think.

I can explain my wrath, at any rate - but then I already have. There's a huge backlash under way, McCarthyizing (so to speak) atheists for daring to speak up instead of being politely silent while theists do all the talking. I think M&K have done a lot to help that along, and done it in various unfair ways. I think scolding Jerry Coyne for writing an article in The New Republic was the first shot in that battle, and I still think it was a very odd and very anti-intellectual thing to do. Anti-intellectualism always makes me wrathful.

I don't think the issue is all that subtle...it seems pretty basic to me. It probably seems a good deal more basic to people who've spent decades teaching biolgy in a culture where so many people resist the whole discipline on religious grounds.

amos said...

Ophelia: From your last sentence, "it seems a good deal more basic to people who've spent decades teaching biology in a culture where so many people resist the whole discipline on religious grounds", I don't see why you don't adopt what I call a pragmatic accomodationist position, that is, if people resist biology on religious grounds, as you affirm, explain to them that biology and a scientific worldview are consistent with their religious beliefs. I frankly don't think that supernatural religion (I'm not talking about Deism, Spinoza or Zen Buddhism) is consistent with a scientific worldview, but I see no reason to broadcast that fact in every secondary school biology class. After they pass high school biology and enter Harvard, then lay the bad (or good) news on them.

Ophelia Benson said...

amos, it's because I don't think it's true. I'm not a teacher, so I don't have that particular responsibility - but if I did, that would be why I couldn't and wouldn't adopt that position. I can't "explain to them" something that I think is flat wrong.

It doesn't follow from that that I would (or would think I had to, or should) "broadcast that fact in every secondary school biology class." I would just doggedly Teach The Science.

Tea Logar said...

I really resent that philosophers and scientists are being forced into roles of politicians - because that's what "pragmatic accommodationism" really entails in this debate. We're in the truth business, for heaven's sake! I can see why politicians have a problem with us "hurting the cause", but it's really, really sad (and wrath-generating!) when other philosophers and scientists tell us that we should be politicians, too (or else just shut up about it). If we give up, then who's going to uphold the high standards of reason and empirical evidence? And why should they even bother, if we're all so happy believing in fairy tales?

amos said...

Tea, Welcome back. My ex-wife's family, that is, my son's mother's family, is from Trieste, right in your neighborhood. No one is asking philosophers or scientists to become politicians. The issue about pragmatic accomodationism has nothing to do with philosophers: that's why I differentiated it from philosophical accomodationism. Pragmatic accomodationism is concerned with how science is presented to primary or secondary school students, not with how philosophers view it. The idea of pragmatic accomodationism is to present scientific topics to young students from religious backgrounds without broadcasting the fact that a scientific worldview and supernatural religions are not compatible. That's all.

Tea Logar said...

Well, Trieste is practically Slovenia! (It used to be before the WW2, anyway.)

What do you mean "without broadcasting"? Not bringing it up, or refusing to answer the kids' questions about whether these theories are compatible with their religion? Because they're going to ask, you know.

I would think only a die-hard utilitarian would recommend lying in such circumstances. Or perhaps a teacher in the bible belt who doesn't want to lose his job. But the point is, people who are supposed to represent scientific thinking SHOULDN'T lie about it on national TV and in newspapers. Yet, [I can't remember her name, but she's important] said on TV that religion and science are obviously compatible, and Coyne was demonized for broadcasting his view, not in schools, mind you, but in a newspaper for ADULTS. When can we finally broach it to them, when they're 90?

amos said...

I don't live in the U.S., where the creationism seems to be more of a menace, so I really can't specify situations where it would be better not to point out that a scientific worldview (methodological naturalism) and supernatural religion are not compatible, almost by definition. I recall that I did not agree with Mooney that the New Republic is not a fit forum to discuss the subject, since in my opinion, the New Republic is precisely a publication for educated adults, where such subjects should be discussed. There are other situations, however, where the subject of the incompatibility of a scientific worldview and supernatural religion should be avoided. If children ask questions, as you say, the teacher should use his or her good judgment. There are genuine questions which come from young minds in the process of awakening and there are questions which are nothing more than provocations from the local branch of the Stasi. I imagine that the Balkan Wars, seen from so close, must have influenced your view of religion.

Tea Logar said...

Actually, I didn't really care about religion at all until I got to the U.S. (2002) and realized that so many smart people believe in god, and above all, how incredibly unacceptable it is to question religion over there - it's almost considered rude to be an atheist!

In Slovenia, being an atheist is considered a natural state, and pretty much everyone (especially educated people) dislikes politicians who are led by their religion in their decisions. And no one would DREAM of teaching creationism (or any other religion-sensitive crap)in schools. Education is supposed to challenge, not nurture, superstition and irrationality.

The Balkan Wars... I don't know, maybe I'm naive, but that just never seemed to be about religion to me. People didn't give a damn about each other's religion until politicians made it seem important. They started acting as if it has some sort of LEGITIMACY, you see: that it's not merely a personal/traditional thing, but that it's a thing that's supposed to influence whom one can marry, befriend, care about, and who, on the other hand, is not human. I think religion was really used as a tool for nationalism; by and large, it was inflated nationalism that made it possible for former brothers to kill each other.

But like I said, this is not based on much other evidence besides my own observations and limited experience.

amos said...

Religion does seem to have a strangely dominant role in the U.S. The last two presidents of Chile have been declared agnostics, and no one, not even the Catholic Church, appears to be upset by that. As to creationism, since what is taught in schools is established by the Education Ministry, children are supposed to learn evolutionary biology. Whether they really learn it or not is another question. I would not want to imagine what the majority of Chileans believe about the creation of the world, if they have an opinion and they may not, but in any case, no major group or political party pushes creationism here. In any case, the U.S. is the homeland of crack pot theories: creationism, birthers, conspiracy theories of all kinds, while in Chile people suffer from a lack of theories, be they correct or not, or a lack of clear opinions.

Jean Kazez said...

It would be awful if all philosophers and scientists always thought of themselves as "politicians"...I agree. But people like Dawkins (in the new book) are clearly trying to influence the public and public policy. He wants to strengthen the hand of people trying to keep creationism out of US schools. Given that goal, I think being pragmatic is a good idea. Evolution has some powerful allies in religious people, and absolutely must, if it's going to keep its place in science classrooms. I think it makes sense for Dawkins to keep that in mind..and he does. I really don't think it's an accident that he talks about "rational and thoughtful churchmen and women" as early as page 6. Not only is that respectful phrase pragmatic, but I think Dawkins (no dummy!) surely does see what a complex and difficult issue it is whether there are some forms of religion that can (rationally) be adopted, on top of science.