Saturday, July 18, 2009

My opinion on Accomodationgate

Here I am getting all of this traffic from PZ's site as a result of a discussion about the faithiest controversy/Mooneybaum incident/Accomodationgate, and I don't even have a single post about it on my blog. Okay, time to fix that.

I've offered my opinion in the comments on various blogs, so I'll just resummarize it here -- this time with pictures!

On the issue itself, I fall in the so-called "New Atheist" camp, in the sense that I do not think religion and science are compatible1, and I don't think there is some sort of social responsibility and/or critical pragmatic imperative that ought to prevent me from saying so. Others have expounded on this position at great lengths, so I won't bother to rehash any of that.

Perhaps the more unique take I have on it is that I think that, strategically, it is important that we have both "New Atheists" and accomodationists -- and maybe even desirable that the accomodationists distance themselves from us, though certainly not as loudly or as shrilly as Mooneybaum feel compelled to do.

Modern atheists often draw an analogy to the gay rights movement, and while we certainly do not face the level of discrimination that gay people did and still do (the state of NY has never barred Atheist Marriage, AFAIK...), I think there are a number of areas where the analogy is apt. Certainly the Out Campaign is an idea I support, as you can see a few hundred pixels to your right.

This is Dawkins and PZ...
Another place where I think the analogy is apt is the answer to the question, What kind of people are necessary to enact social change? Riddle me this: In the case of the gay rights movement, which archetype is more responsible for the progress over the past decades? Is it the guy marching in the Pride parade wearing almost nothing except a few bits of leather, at all times being unashamedly himself? Or is it the nice quiet lesbian couple that lives next door, where your mom didn't even realize they were gay until you pointed it out to her?

...and this is Mooney and Kirshenbaum. Dunno who the kid is...
Answer: Both. Social change is not possible without "loud and proud" elements -- whether they be gay or atheist -- to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. To coin a phrase, "We're here, we're godless, get used to it." At the same time social change is not possible without people who are so moderate that the other side can't even really find anything about them to criticize. The same way your conservative mother might say, "Patty and Selma are gay? But they act so normal! Huh, I guess it's not true that all gay people are evil," we should hope that a young fundie might say, "Chris Mooney is an atheist? But he is so holier-than-thou!" Oh wait, that didn't come out right, but you get my point...

So, even though I disagree with the NCSE's position on accomodationism, I am secretly glad that they do it. It probably is strategically desirable, but only if at the same time you have us vocal atheists saying, "Uh, no that's not quite right." If the accomodationist position were the only active one, it would be a strategic dud, because the other side would always be paddling harder.

I think the accomodationists and the "New Atheists" actually compliment each other quite well. As entertaining as this little blogowar is (and now you can buy the book! When is the movie coming out, Mooney?), I really hope it just kinda quietly goes away. It doesn't do anybody any favors. Well, except me, because I indirectly managed to get a lot of blog hits from it, but I don't think that was Mooney's or Coyne's original intention...

1That is, I think religion as most people understand it is logically contradictory to science -- not that a reasonable person couldn't believe both... I think I'm a reasonable person, and I believe a number of irrational things, e.g. that my wife and I were meant to be together, that my son is the smartest four-month-old on the planet, that anybody will still be interested in my blog after next week... The differences are 1) I know these beliefs are irrational, 2) I don't try to convince anybody else of my own personal irrationalities, and 3) I don't pretend they are compatible with a scientific worldview, so that if it eventually becomes undesirable or dangerous to continue to hold these irrational beliefs I will have no trouble discarding them. In fact, if theists would apply those three criteria to their beliefs, I don't think there'd be much of a role for the so-called "New Atheists", because what would we have to complain about?


  1. Hello, PZ's Horde here! Actually, more of a PZ camp follower. Excellent post! I think you have brought an interesting dimension to this discussion. I agree that we do need 'accomodationists' for smoothing to road for atheism in general, and 'scorched earthers' to give the movement (to the extent it is a movement) some oomph and momentum.

    --Tom Coward

    Well done!

  2. Nice post! You are right, of course. Maybe also it's good for the likes of PZ to be shot at from all side - keeps him keen and 'shrill' LOL.

  3. Interesting idea about the complimentarity of accomodationist athesits and unabashedly antitheistic atheists. I fall into the latter camp, but I can sympathize with the former, as they are not trying to offend. I think the accomodationists give the "feel-good" effects of religion by harping on and on about tolerance towards others, but at the same time, actually being tolerant of the religious while treating the outspoken atheists just as the religious would. It shifts the "in-group/out-group" boundaries just a little; enough to let us really loud mouthed atheists in.

    Functionally, I like the accomodationists, they help me out, but ideologically, I think they miss the point completely.

  4. Interesting post, Jay (yes, I am done sulking.) ;)

    I guess I fall more under accomodationist. I no longer believe in any god, although, like almost every agnostic/atheist I know, if any god appeared before me I would accept the proof. I don't make fun of other people's beliefs. I realize not everyone is the same. I won't replace science with faith, and try not to allow any one in my family to do so. But I can't change people's minds for them. I can only present the evidence I have.

  5. Wow.. you got annointed by our Squid Overlord.. and not me.

    I'm going to pray to Gorak.. the Lord of my Faith to smite you and redirect your traffic to my blog.

    You will not enjoy the smiting..

  6. I'm also here from PZ.

    I agree completely with the positive effect of the "strategy" such as it is- in other contexts this was mentioned in terms of the concept "overton's window". Even if you vocalize a position more "extreme", it will make other positions in the direction appear more acceptable by comparison.

  7. @Dawn: I think we'd agree more than we think, though you call yourself an accomodationist. Certainly I think the probability of changing anyone's mind is very small -- though I know of it happening -- and I agree it is not right to directly mock an individual's beliefs, with the caveat that if they start trying to spread/promote their beliefs they have implicitly made it fair game for criticism and mockery. I think it's okay to poke fun at a belief system in general, and if people end up getting offended, well... a lot of shit offends me. So-called "New Country" would be right up at the top of the list (I like old-school country, and I absolutely love new country music that doesn't suck, but that's not the same). But I do realize that Kenny Chesney is probably not explicitly trying to personally offend me in particular, so I suppose I will just have to get over it. And by the same token, I would hope a random religious person stumbling across my blog would get over it too...

  8. Dawn: "if any god appeared before me I would accept the proof"

    How would you recognize a god appearing before you?

  9. @Bjorn (sorry, can't do the slashes): Good question, and one I don't really have an answer to. Guess I would have to say it would take him/her/it performing true miracles, in front of lots of people with video recorders, and not have it be replicable by any of the world's talented magicians. Certainly, just because some one claimed to be a god, that is not sufficient. I also know many miracles can be duplicated. Guess that god person would have to heal a few amputees. And I have a few friends who have actually lost arms or legs from disease, so if theirs regenerated, I would accept that as proof.

    @Jay: You definitely said what I wanted to say, more elegantly. Thanks. :)

  10. Re: What would be the proof? I agree with Dawn that Healing amputees would definitely be a pretty convincing miracle. Which is why, of course, it's never happened or even been claimed. :) Although, that would not prove the whole shebang, i.e. if someone was able to heal amputees at will, I would have to pay close attention to what he or she said, but I wouldn't necessarily have to believe everything they said unconditionally. To accept that the person was a deity or an agent of a deity would require some pretty extraordinary proof.

    The second part of this question is, what would you do about it? If the deity in question was anything like Yahweh or Jesus or Allah, I think the answer is far from obvious. Would you actually want to worship a god who mercilessly tortured one of his most devout followers on a dare? I suppose if this god turned out to be truly omnipotent and was able to show that the threat of eternal hellfire was credible, a rational person would be forced to comply with His evil agenda rather than face permanent torture. But if there were the slightest hope of defeating such a vindictive bastard as Yahweh, I think it would be incumbent on humanity to at least try.

    A really interesting and entertaining short story on this topic is Judgment Passed by Jerry Oltion, which can be found in the compilation Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. Basically, a group of agnostic and atheist astronauts on a long-term mission in deep space return to Earth to find that while they were gone, Jesus returned and raptured everybody away. They find themselves alone on Earth and faced with the predicament of how exactly they should react to this new development.

  11. Nicely written. I was arguing almost exactly the same point, with one exeption. You said you hope it just quietly goes away, and that it's not helping anyone. This point I disagree with.

    When you have a blogowar like this, its bound to get people talking, and talking is what we want. If it spreads out beyond our own fold, it's even better. I think having Mooneybaum on one side, and PZ on the other live on Larry King would be the best possible outcome.

  12. Late to this party...

    *kicks around empty beer cans*

    a rational person would be forced to comply with His evil agenda

    This also raises a 1984-style specter: does an omnipotent Yaweh demand only outward conformity, or total, conscious, heart-and-soul conversion into a subjugated vassal? The former hints that he is either sloppy or not truly omnipotent, and the latter, perhaps only because it seems too horrible to contemplate, seems impossible to me. I say this because when I was religious, I tried and failed to be the latter: anytime I did something 'good', I felt I couldn't escape the notion that I was chiefly doing it because God wanted me to, and moreover, God knew that I knew that, and hated me for it. It seemed he required me to simultaneously destroy my own sense of self, and yet willingly give myself to him (then I read 1984, and figured that fit my idea of God perfectly. I soon began letting go...). I dunno, maybe it's a Catholic thing.

  13. @Bart: You know, you might be right now that I think about it. I worry that it just makes the whole community seem petty and ascerbic, but maybe the benefits of increased dialog outweigh all that? Hmmm....

    @MrFire: Ah, yeah, good point. I also kind of felt that way growing up (Mormon, not Catholic, so I think it is a common feature...) I think at this point, I'm going to just be glad I don't have to actually answer these questions :)

  14. James, if you like new amurricana/alt country that doesn't suck, check out James many ways, his writing combines the bemused understanding of human nature of Steinbeck, the social consciousness of Woody or early Dylan, and some mean ass Teleblaster licks. IMHO. you'll also like how he has as much love for the xtianfundies as you or i do and satirizes them mercilessly....

    el payaso del mar