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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Bankruptcy of Accommodationism

As I mentioned two weeks ago, a there was a minor maelstrom within the intersection of science and atheist bloggers centered on the debate between Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum on one side and PZ Myers on the other. A great deal was written, said, and commented upon in a startlingly large number of blog posts. While I have some strong thoughts on many aspects of the debate, there is one area in particular that I think was glossed over to the detriment of the debate. Incidentally, the reason I think it was glossed over is because I believe it is a fatal flaw in the accomodationist stance being advanced by Kirshenbaum and Mooney. It was mentioned briefly by their critics, but without any engagement it seemed to be forgotten under the deluge of the rest of the argument.

Essentially, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are arguing that there is no conflict between science and religion, and therefore outspoken atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are damaging the cause of science by alienating people with moderate religious perspectives in the fight against fundamentalist religion (which they do admit conflicts with science). I am going to decline to comment on whether the actions of Dawkins and Myers actually does damage the cause of science as a whole (as I have only anecdotal evidence on the matter, but that would seem to be all Mooney and Kirshenbaum have on the matter as well), and instead focus on the philosophical underpinnings of their position. Mooney tried to defend the accommodationist approach by an appeal to the argument set forth by Eugenie Scott. She tries to empirically justify the compatibility of science and religion by pointing out the existence of a number of religious scientists. Of course, any discussion on this matter inevitably brings up Ken Miller, as he is a distinguished biologist, stalwart critic of intelligent design, and outspoken Catholic. Miller has publicly stated, however, that when religious claims are in direct conflict with science, religion must adapt. Likewise, Mooney and Kirshenbaum quote the Dalai Lama as saying, "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change." However, in the very same article that they quote the Dalai Lama, they also point out that survey results show that 64% of Americans would hold onto a cherished religious belief that conflicted with science, thereby rejecting or ignoring scientific results. Thus, Mooney and Kirshenbaum's stance basically boils down to the idea that there is no conflict between religion and science as long as they don't make conflicting statements about the world, and, when they do make conflicting claims, you accept the claims of science over religion. Since religions (beyond, as I have mentioned before, deism) have a tendency to make empirical claims, though, you frequently run into trouble, and have to make the choice between science and religion. You redefine your religious beliefs as a metaphor or a nebulous philosophical outlook, or you shift it slightly back into the gaps of our current knowledge, or you reject the science. What Mooney and Kirshenbaum do is focus only on the first group of people and say, "See, there is no conflict between religion and science." Dismissing the 64% of people who are in the last group, though, as a lamentable state of affairs that will only get better by pretending they don't exist is disengenous at best. It is basically advocating for religious belief only of a certain kind (the kind that is mutable and open to changes in scientific knowledge), but doing so an indirect manner. As far as I am aware, they do not once address how holding up the small group of religious people who accept scientific claims over religious ones as examples of how science and religion are without conflict will help reduce the numbers of people who come down on the side of religious claims over scientific ones without still expressly telling people that their religious beliefs are wrong. Thus, Mooney and Kirshenbaum's strategy is stealthier and less confrontational than the "New Atheist" stance, but it is still telling people they are wrong if they reject science for religious reasons. The only difference that I can see is accomodationists are telling people they are wrong in a much more round-about manner that is easier to ignore.