Sunday, June 27, 2010

Religious Moderates and Accomodationism

A bunch of atheist bloggers have been talking about accomodationism recently, starting off with Jen's (aka Blag Hag) review of the Communicating Science Symposium at the Evolution 2010 conference in Portland, OR.  The talk on Communicating Evolution turned out to be a Francis Collins / BioLogos accomodationism love-fest, spouting on about how we shouldn't make religious people cry.  PZ and Jerry Coyne (the latter of which was at the conference) have responded to her post, and I'm not above following the atheist blog bandwagon for scraps.  

Jen already hit on the fact that accomodationism has nothing to do with discovering the truth, and more about winning as many people to the pro-evolution side as possible.  To me, it's rather insulting to but the kiddie gloves on when discussing the real consequences of our knowledge of science.  It's like tee-ball, where everyone gets up to bat, there's no score, and everyone gets the same trophy at the end of the season.  It's probably a good idea for those five-year-olds to teach them the basics and not crush their self-esteem, but if you continue to treat them that way, they never learn about sportsmanship, which is not just about playing nice, but also hard (but fair) competition, which is pointless when you're allowed to run around the bases with no consequences whatsoever, and leads to kids who aren't equipped to deal with adversity.

But these posts also got me thinking about other things as well.  Acommodationists are quick to try and claim the middle ground for liberal religious people, between fundamentalists who believe every word of their respective holy book, and fundamentalist atheists, which is on my list as one of the most idiotic phrases I've ever heard.  Fundamentalism refers to a strict adherence to a set of dogmatic principles regardless of evidence to the contrary, of which I've rarely met an atheist with this quality.  At least in my experience, atheists are much more likely to explain their reasoning and evidence for holding a particular position, and many have named ways in which they could be shown to be mistaken.  You may disagree with the interpretation of evidence and its importance, but that doesn't make the other a fundamentalist.  What acommodationists mean when they say "fundamentalist atheist" is that they defend their position, and don't simply slink away when someone disagrees with them about a magical sky fairy (or faerie, if you're into that sort of spelling).  

But even if there were fundamentalist atheists, for argument's sake, the accomodationist argument relies on liberal religious people, in fact, being more scientific* than their fundamentalist counterparts when it comes to beliefs about nature and god, and therefore should be respected as simply a different opinion by other scientists.  Of course demanding respect for your position a priori is the antithesis of scientific.  By presenting evidence for their beliefs, and demanding it of others, atheists are being scientific.  I'm not suggesting that atheists have to ram arguments down the throat of theists whenever the opportunity arises, but in my experience, that is rarely the case, particularly in scientific settings (the flame wars in online forums and blogs can be a bit much, but that's the case for just about every subject imaginable).

Even comparing liberal religious people to fundamentalists, there is no guarantee that someone from one group is going to be more scientific about a specific belief than someone form the other group, if we really consider what that means.  We can laugh about young-earth creationists who think that the Earth was created after the advent of agriculture, but it seems that these wacky beliefs is due to their attempt at reconciling their evidence for a god (i.e., the Bible), with evidence from the rest of the world.  The core belief that god exists is generally based on the same evidence for both the liberal and fundamentalist believers.  There are some who have more sophisticated sounding arguments (Catholics are good at this), but when you ask them to explain it, it ends up either being the same arguments normal folk use with gussied-up language, or meaningless nonsense.  The difference is that liberals are more willing to accept both evidence from their holy book along with evidence from the natural world, generally leading to believing some more conventional things about nature, but balanced by the incoherence between beliefs about nature and god.  So the specific beliefs about god are more similar between liberals and fundamentalists than one might initially think.  

The problem is science relies on holding your beliefs with as little regard to your own personal emotional response to the consequences as possible.  And religious people seem to hold their beliefs based on their emotional attachment, rather than evidence from the outside world, regardless if you're a fundamentalist or not.  There are some religious people who really have thought about their beliefs objectively, and still came to the conclusion that god exists.  However, those that I've met are not going to cry about atheists who disagree with them asking questions and having arguments about these beliefs, because that's what a scientific person does.  If you're not willing to discuss and defend your beliefs about a particular subject, that's fine.  But don't complain when others, who may or may not disagree with you, do.  

Note that by scientific, I don't mean smart, sophisticated or right.  I just mean that one puts evidence (by experimentation or other means) over emotion and intuition when holding beliefs about the nature of things.  We all have been wrong, even when we base our beliefs on evidence.  But to me, it's the best way we have for learning about the world. 
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