Jun 10 2009

Dr. Accommodationist or: How I Should Learn to Shut Up and Love the Religious Moderates

(with sincere apologies to Stanley Kubrick.)

I recently read DuWayne Brayton’s blog post “Just Who Are We Accommodating and Why Should I Participate?“. DuWayne’s post responds to an issue regarding atheists and the accommodation of persons who profess a religious faith, yet say that they also accept evolution. This reconciliation of science (evolution in particular) and religion, and its accommodation (or not) by atheists, has recently been the subject of a back and forth discussion between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne. Several others have weighed in on the subject as well. Chris also posted a response to DuWayne entitled “Words to a Fellow Atheist“.

I have enormous respect for Chris Mooney (and his blog-mate and co-author, Sheril Kirshenbaum), Jerry Coyne, DuWayne Brayton, and the other parties involved in the discussion. Remember, folks: disagreement in no way implies a lack of respect. I don’t have the educational background to match the primary participants in this discussion, but I do have opinions on the matter, and I set up this blog as a way for me to share those opinions.

Chris Mooney’s post “Civility and the New Atheists” included some points from a talk that Barbara Forrest presented at the C.P. Snow conference at Michigan State University. Chris was also a member of the panel at that conference. Barbara Forrest is professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the first legal case involving intelligent design, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, in 2005.

In her talk, Barbara Forrest tackled the science vs. religion issue, and Chris summarized some of her points. Chris stated (emphasis mine):

Like Forrest, I believe that in a society of diverse faiths—one that is also comprised of many nontheists—public policy must be based upon secular arguments and facts we can all agree on. You can’t base public policy on religion because it is impossible for the everyone in such a diverse society to agree about religion—period. This is the classic liberal argument for the separation of church and state.

This is the first point I have difficulty with. I definitely agree that public policy must be based on secular arguments and facts, but we can’t even get people to agree what the facts are. Fact: We sent men to the Moon. You would think everyone could agree on this. It is a fact, right? Yes, it is a fact, but there are still a lot of people out there who refuse to believe it, even when confronted with the overwhelming evidence. Just take a look at Phil Plait‘s “Yes, We Really Did Go to the Moon” for links to both sides of this “debate”.

Of course, I probably shouldn’t take Chris’s words so literally. I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that all public policy should be based on facts that we all can agree on. A consensus on most matters of public policy would be impossible to achieve. Unfortunately, many people would also disagree with the proposition that policy should be based on secular arguments. There are those who think that America must be a Christian nation; that biblical creation must be taught in our public schools; that non-Christians must be kept out of public office; that rather than a separation of church and state, the church must be the state.

But Chris wasn’t talking about religious extremists/fundamentalists. His post was about religious moderates. Chris thinks that New Atheists™ are rather uncivil to those who are reconciling their religious beliefs with scientific knowledge, particularly evolution. Chris thinks that religious moderates could be some of the best allies that atheism can have.

Chris continues with points from Forrest’s talk and concludes his post:

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:

  1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.
  2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?
  3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need are “epistemological and civic humility”—providing the groundwork for “civic friendship.” To which I can only say: Amen.

Chris says, “Religion is a very private matter.” If this were true, we would not even be having a discussion about this. Let’s change that to “Religion is usually a very private matter for religious moderates.” I’m much happier with the statement phrased that way. As to the admonition to “be nice”, I’m generally a very nice guy. I don’t roam the streets looking for religious fundamentalists to browbeat. When it comes to religious moderates, I most likely never know of their religious beliefs, and they don’t know about my atheism. That’s fine with me.

“So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians…when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?” I try not to (Honestly, I’m working on it!) criticize the Christians. I try to criticize religious belief. Many Christians are unable to separate themselves from their faith. Any criticism of a tenet of their religious faith is taken as a personal attack against them. If someone can weigh the information about evolution vs creationism (which is a tenet of their faith) and decide that evolution is true, why would they not be able to deal with criticism of any other part of their beliefs?

“Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence.” I agree. I cannot honestly say, “There is no God.” That’s why I usually say, “I don’t believe in any god or gods,” or, “There is no evidence for the existence of a god or gods, so he/she/it/they probably do not exist.” “So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?” I don’t intend to try to prove anyone wrong about the existence of god. I don’t have to: They’re the believer, and the burden of proof is on them. If they say “I believe in God,” that’s fine. They can believe all they want, and I’m going to chuckle at them behind their back. If they say “I know there is a God,” then I’m going to ask them to prove it. Their belief in an omniscient, benevolent, kind and loving (yet jealous and vengeful!) god is every bit as rational as an adult’s continued belief in the Tooth Fairy, and every bit as useful. It also deserves just as much of my respect: none. I can still respect them as a person, and I do have a lot of respect for the majority of the religious people that I know.

So why would I continue to drive that wedge? These are nice people, and they’re supporting the teaching of science, which is something I also support. Why can’t we get together on this? We can. And I can be very civil about it. But, those same nice people had best not have a very thin skin, because in promoting the teaching of science over mystical mumbo-jumbo from bronze-age mythology, I’m going to be trampling on some of their precious religious beliefs. If they really, honestly can’t deal with that, then perhaps they have some serious thinking to do about what they believe, and what they know.

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