Accommodationism and Atheism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Atheist-advertising-campa-0011 Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with
accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.

In our case, the charge of accommodationism as a failure of critical nerve is misplaced; anyone who actually reads our book will find that we pull no punches. But we also think that, as it is commonly employed in atheist circles, the idea of accommodationism involves a conflation between two kinds of evaluation which should be kept distinct. Some clarification is in order.

When it is aimed at rational persuasion, argumentation has two closely related objectives. The first is the obvious aim of demonstrating that the view that one favors is true. We engage in argument in order to make explicit the grounds upon which we base our beliefs; in making them believe explicit, we simultaneously provide support for our beliefs. The second aim of argumentation is easily overlooked. When we argue, we also engage in a diagnostic project. We aim not only to demonstrate the truth of our own view; we additionally endeavor to understand how our opponent arrived at her view, how she conceives of the relation between her view and her evidence. Put another way, in argumentation, we aim to discover where our opponent has gone wrong. Being able to identify others’ errors is often a crucial part of persuading them to change their views. Furthermore, being able to diagnose our opponents’ mistakes is intimately related to fully grasping our own views. Knowing an issue means not only knowing the right answers, but also where the wrong turns are. As Mill observed, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

This dual-aspiration of argumentation maps on to the elementary distinction in epistemology between truth and justification. Consider: One can believe what is true and have good reasons for believing as one does; one can believe what is true on the basis of bad reasons; one can believe what is false, but on the basis of good reasons; and one can believe what is false for bad reasons. It is by means of the distinction between what is true and the quality of one’s reasons that we are able to distinguish between, say, knowing that Kennedy died in 1963 and correctly guessing that he did. This distinction also enables us to make sense of the claim that, despite getting nearly everything wrong, Aristotle was a great mind.

This distinction also enables us to recognize that there are two distinct kinds of epistemic evaluation: belief-evaluation and believer-evaluation. Evaluating beliefs is a matter of seeing what evidence there is for holding them. Evaluating believers is a matter of examining whether the evidence someone has indeed supports the belief he or she holds (and if so, to what extent). It makes perfect sense to say that Aristotle’s physics is wrong (a belief evaluation), even though he was a brilliant natural scientist (a believer evaluation). Given the evidence he had and the tools at his disposal for gathering evidence, Aristotle was highly justified in holding his (false) beliefs. He was entirely wrong, yet frighteningly smart.

These distinctions help us to see that the diagnostic ambition of argumentation involves the attempt to devise a responsible believer evaluation of one’s interlocutor. Part of what is involved in the attempt to rationally persuade someone is to try to disclose what evidence he has and how he sees his evidence as providing support for his view. In doing this, we may discover that he has an insufficient conception of what evidence there is; or maybe he has misinterpreted the evidence; or maybe he has simply drawn the wrong conclusion from a proper understanding of the evidence; and so on. This endeavor makes the difference between the project of rationally persuading an interlocutor and simply persuading them; it also makes the difference between rational persuasion and browbeating.

This much is elementary. Yet the distinction between being wrong and being stupid is essential to our cognitive lives. We affirm in Reasonable Atheism that we believe that distinctively religious beliefs are false, and that religious believers are therefore wrong. Yet having false beliefs does not make one stupid; it simply makes one wrong. The stupid person is one who believes against what he takes to be evidence. And, as it turns out, there are very few stupid people. Yet there is a lot of false believing going on; in fact, we hold that in matters of religion, there is a lot of belief in what is demonstrably and obviously false. What could explain this?

The answer is straightforward. Religious believers have an inflated sense of the strength of the evidence in support of their view and a correspondingly deflated estimation of the power of atheist arguments. It is worth noting that this kind of distortion is precisely what one should expect in a society that fits the description offered by the New Atheists. They say, correctly, that our society is infused with religiosity and superstition, that religion “poisons everything” and amounts to a collective delusion. Given this, it is no mystery why religious belief is so widespread and persistent. The social ubiquity of religiosity causes individuals to overestimate the strength of the case for religion.

It is important to note that so far, we are very much in agreement with the New Atheists. Most religious claims are demonstrably false, and religion’s cultural influences have distorting effects on how believers assess the evidence. The religiosity of the background culture explains the persistence of religious belief.

But once this kind of explanation of the persistence of religious belief is adopted, the charge of accommodationism, as it is typically wielded, is rendered facile. One can wholeheartedly and unequivocally deny the truth of the religious believer’s commitments without thereby impugning his integrity as a cognitive agent. The claim that religious believers deserve respect, therefore, need not entail any degree of positive regard for religious belief; the call for respect rather is a call to respect religious believers. And respecting religious believers qua believers involves adopting the working presumption that, though they are mistaken and perhaps obviously so, they are nonetheless not stupid; instead, they are mistaken about what evidence there is and what weight it has.

The proper response to this state of affairs is to address religious believers as fellow rational agents, to elicit from them their best arguments and their conception of what evidence there is, and to make a case for one’s own view. Correspondingly, it is foolish to begin with an effort to discredit the intellects of religious believers or to diagnose them as benighted, foolish, and intellectually cowardly. To be sure, there are plenty of religious believers who fit these descriptions. But there are plenty of atheists who do too. It is here we part ways with the New Atheists, as what makes one a fool is not what one believes, but rather how one’s beliefs are related to one’s evidence.

A further point follows. Part of what fuels the charge of accommodationism is the view that religious believers should be treated with contempt. The view has it that those who are contemptible are not worthy of respect. This seems true as far as it goes. But notice that to hold a person in contempt is to ascribe to him a capacity for responsibility. Accordingly, we do not hold the mentally deranged in contempt for their delusional beliefs; rather, we see their beliefs as symptoms of their illness. To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do. It is hence to see them as wrong but, importantly, not stupid. Thus it is a confusion to regard religious believers as both contemptible and cognitively beyond-the-pale. Atheists must decide whether to proceed as if religious belief is a kind of mental disability or rather an error. If we choose the former, it is a mistake to see religious belief as a failure of intellectual responsibility; if we choose the latter, we must engage with religious believers in a way which manifests a proper regard for their cognitive capacities, and accordingly seeks to hear and address their best reasons and arguments. In Reasonable Atheism, we take this latter path. If this amounts to accommodationism, then atheists should be accommodationists. We, at least, will gladly accept the term.