Are atheist accommodationists hypocritical?

Jerry Coyne finds philosophers very, very, very vexing when they try to reconcile science and religion.  He suspects it's always "political"--
In my estimation, all atheist philosophers who try to reconcile religion and science are doing so for political reasons—as are organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education that engage in the same activity.  It takes a profound hypocrisy to try to reconcile for others things that you can’t reconcile for yourself.
Don't think so!  It's true that most philosophers (70%) are atheists, and that almost all accept science as an important source of knowledge.  But if you reject theism and accept science, it certainly doesn't follow that you reject theism because you accept science.  You might reject theism for reasons completely independent of the reasons you have for accepting science. In fact, I think that's the state of mind of many philosophers.  Many reject theism because of the argument from evil.  Or they reject theism because none of the usual arguments for God are successful, and they think the default, when it comes to a fanciful construct, is disbelief.  So although they accept no religious propositions themselves, it's genuinely an open question, for them, whether you could accept some, and yet accept all of science.

There's nothing at all unusual about philosophers wondering if A can be reconciled with B, but also rejecting A. Theist philosophers can reasonably wonder whether atheism and objective morality can be reconciled, but of course reject atheism.  That's a first class question for anyone who "does" metaethics--not a question just for those who accept the atheist starting point.  If there were a "political" aspect to the question, for theists, that wouldn't be bad either. Perhaps, though a theist, it bothers you to see your atheist friends being beaten up as morality-challenged.  So you care about and promote the idea that atheism can be reconciled with objective morality, even though the reconciliation plays no role in your own life. Hypocrisy? No, obviously not.

Is it any different when atheists try to stop their theist friends being beaten up as science-challenged?  Of course, if the effort is disingenuous, that's one thing.  Maybe you think your theist friends are science-challenged, and you're just trying to be nice.  But if not, not.  I think what some atheist philosophers believe is that a little bit of religion (certainly not all of it) can be combined with all of science, and that's what they insist upon--not more.  That's not hypocritical or disingenuous. In fact, it might even be the truth.


Aeolus said...

I agree. Another calm, sensible post from you on this matter.

Deepak Shetty said...

There's nothing at all unusual about philosophers wondering if A can be reconciled with B, but also rejecting A.
But that's not Coyne's point
Why does Ruse try to provide an explanation that he himself believes is wrong (shouldn't he be focusing on what he believes)?

For e.g. if you are vegetarian and you believe that it is more moral to be a vegetarian - would you make that case - or would you try to make the case that it is more moral to be non - vegetarian (because the majority is non vegetarian and you don't want their feelings to get hurt or something)

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, I would speculate that Coyne thinks this way because he's projecting--he knows what it's like to be a scientist-atheist, but doesn't know what it's like to be a philosopher-atheist. Compare and contrast:

I imagine many scientists have the experience of being religious, then doing science, and seeing science drive out their religiosity. For these people, science and religion can't be reconciled. It would certainly be odd for them to promote the idea that they can.

But that's not the life-story of philosopher atheists, or at least it's often not. Personally, I've never been religious. But some philosophers are religious, and what drives out their religiosity is philosophy. They come across the argument from evil, or they encounter Aquinas's 5 proofs and think they're all terrible. As a result they become atheists. For these people it's genuinely an open question how much religion can be reconciled with science, because science played no role in their becoming unreligious. They don't both think science and religion are incompatible, and go around promoting their compatibility--as the word "hypocrite" suggests.

Deepak, I'm not a Ruse expert, so I'm focusing on what Coyne says about "all atheist philosophers", not specifically Ruse. No, all atheist philosophers do not simultaneously think religion and science are irreconcilable, and go around saying they're reconcilable. I think the accusation is just nonsense, born of imagining that philosophers come to atheism in the way Coyne and other scientists do. Just not so, as I explained in the post and above.

Deepak Shetty said...

born of imagining that philosophers come to atheism in the way Coyne and other scientists do.
I don't see how this is relevant. if you believe God doesn't exist - how can his actions be reconciled with anything (other than an intellectual exercise what if he existed)?
And why would you go about touting this reconciliation instead of the reasons behind your disbelief

Jean Kazez said...

Deepak, I think your points were addressed in my post and subsequent comment.

Deepak Shetty said...

I dont think you have
a) Let's say you don't believe in UFOs.
b) Let's say you believe it is a genuine question whether the existence of UFO's(that you dont believe exist) and their frequent sightings can be reconciled with the general lack of evidence.

If you stop here - then yes there is no hypocrisy (but one might ask that if you just want to make up stuff - and you have to - because how do you know what aliens can and cannot do or what constraints they operate under - you might be better of writing fiction - more money in it). You prefer to end here.

But that's not where this ends.
c) Lets say you take your half baked, evidence free , made up theories about this reconciliation to people who strongly believe in UFOs and spend a good amount of your time and effort telling them , that yes indeed their beliefs are completely inline with the evidence (you just need a minor tweak or two)

This is where someone rational wonders why aren't you focusing on a) - whats your motivation in doing c) ?If you truly believe in a) then the reconciliation is meaningless.

How you arrived at a) is irrelevant to the discussion (surely there are atheist philosophers who believe science is incompatible with religion and who have arrived at their atheism due to causes other than science?)

Jean Kazez said...


I do think it's inherently interesting how Coyne came up with this rather amazing assertion--that all atheist philosophers who argue for science-religion compatibility are hypocrites, and don't really believe in it. How would he know? How's he getting into their private thoughts to discover the discrepancy? I certainly know of no polls that would confirm Coyne in his suspicions. In fact, from my interactions with philosophers over the years, I'd say he's probably wrong. Philosophers tend to be pretty ingenious at figuring out how to reconcile things that seem to be in tension--I would imagine many or most philosophers would say that you can combine science with at least some religion. So I'm trying to understand how such a smart guy made such a big mistake--and my best guess is that he made it because he supposed that philosophers come to atheism in the way that scientists do. That is, science drives away religion for them--deep down they find the two irreconcilable. But I don't think that's the way it works--I think philosophers often come to atheism along a different route than scientists do. It's a genuinely open question for many philosophers how religion and science are related to each other.

About UFOs: yeah, it's pointless to worry about them, and spend much time on what's compatible or incompatible with them. But God is much more venerable than that, and philosophers do think alot about what's compatible/incompatible with God. For example, a standard topic in metaethics is about the relationship between God and morality. You could have any religious outlook you like, and still find that an interesting, meaty topic.

As I said in the post, there are certainly theists who are at pains to argue that atheism and morality are compatible (though they find atheism impossible to accept). I don't find it any more bizarre that some atheists are at pains to argue that religion (of some sorts) and science are compatible. To some extent both projects are "politically" motivated--theists want to acquit atheists of the charge of having an ethics problem; atheists want to acquit theists of having a science problem. Those strike me as noble aspirations in both cases, and not remotely a question of hypocrisy.

Deepak Shetty said...

that all atheist philosophers who argue for science-religion compatibility are hypocrites, and don't really believe in it.

Michael Ruse at http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/does-darwinian-randomness-make-christianity-impossible/50043
Do I believe any of this? Not really, but that is not the point.
Sober doesn't find a supernatural god supernaturally guiding mutations plausible, but nevertheless makes that case - so Coyne's claim isn't that amazing

I suppose you are responding to the "all" in Coyne's claim.

To which I'd that an atheistic philosopher who finds the concept of God implausible , must , by definition, find any actions of this God implausible too (theistic philosophers don't have this problem). So when (s)he tries to state what this God could have done - (s)he doesn't believe it himself - how could (s)he? But the case is being made for the believer isn't it - I don't believe this - but you could! Surely there is an element of double standard here.

Philosophers tend to be pretty ingenious at figuring out how to reconcile things that seem to be in tension
But Coyne's not stating that there is no ingenuity - he's stating that the philosopher doesn't believe it - not in the sense that his solution doesn't reconcile the problem - but in the sense he doesn't believe in God and hence cant really believe in the reconciliation.

About UFOs: yeah, it's pointless to worry about them,
What, in principle , is the difference?

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think you're right that atheists can't make the contrary to fact supposition that God does exist, and see what would follow. They do it all the time. In fact, that's how some of the reasoning for atheism works. You suppose there's a God who's all-powerful and all-good. You then ask what the world would have to be like on that supposition. You then notice the world isn't like that.

Or you suppose there's a God and consider whether he could make just anything right, or anything wrong. That sort of reasoning is involved in defeating the divine command theory of morality.

Supposing there's a God, whether you believe it or not, is a perfectly respectable thing to do, unless you happen to have certain views, like Georges Rey's view about the total incoherence of the concept. But many philosophers don't have that view.

I think we ought to take it at face value that people like Ruse and Sober do think we can suppose there's a God, and they don't think this rules out evolution. To think they're basically lying about their own beliefs is, honestly, just absurdly uncharitable.

Re: UFOs. It makes sense to spend more time on God because of the inherent intriguingness of the concept, the role it plays in the philosophical thinking of the last 2500 years, and because billions of people believe in God. That seems like a pretty impressive pile of reasons.