Take Two: Accommodationism and Atheism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Reasonable-Atheism-Aikin-Scott-F-9781616143831 To our surprise, our February 3 Quarks Daily post has generated a good deal of comment from those who identify as New (or “Gnu”) Atheists, nearly all of it critical. It’s not that we don’t like criticism– we are philosophers, and criticism is our business. Our surprise rather derives from the way in which much of the criticism has been targeted. In fact, it seems to us that much of the criticism is mistargeted. Criticism that misses its mark is not a kind of criticism; it’s no criticism at all. And we’re happy to be criticized. So we’d like to clarify.

Our post began with a statement of fact. Reasonable Atheism is not yet available, yet we have been charged with accommodationism. What we failed to note is that shortly after Prometheus Books distributed a catalog announcing the publication of Reasonable Atheism, we received a handful of emails decrying our forthcoming book as accommodationist drivel. The author of one email characterized accommodationism as consisting in the very thought that religious believers are owed respect. In the first paragraph of our original post, we encapsulated the charge of accommodationism as it was brought in these emails. These provided the occasion for thinking about the charge of accommodationism.

We have been criticized for not citing our sources. For the record, most of the emails we received came from people who did not include surnames. Who are these people? We have no idea. And we’d like not to encourage them. Yet some critics have assumed that if we have been charged with accommodationism, and then have sought to respond to that particular way of wielding the charge, it must be that we believe that New Atheists are in some sense guilty of… well… something.

So the defenses of New Atheism kicked into gear. We were read as attacking New Atheism as such. Due to the fact that the meaning of accommodationism is contested, we were criticized by those who hold a different view of what the charge means for attacking a straw man. (That we have published on this fallacy was not lost on some. See Feb 7, 2011 2:41:45 PM.) We were then portrayed as complaining about the tone or demeanor of the New Atheists, as if we were merely whining, or “crying Gnu” (Feb 7, 2011 2:41:45 PM.) as one commenter put it. We have since been branded purveyors of “anti-New Atheism.”

But a careful reading of the piece cannot sustain the reading many of these critics have proposed. The piece attempts no criticism of New Atheism as such. As it proposes no inference from premises to a conclusion about New Atheism, it cannot be an instance of a fallacy, straw man or otherwise. Moreover, it does not contend that New Atheists use the charge of accommodationism in some uniform way, and does not propose that the way the charge had been used in the emails we received is prominent. (Yet, as threads on the blogs that discuss our piece will demonstrate, this understanding of accommodationism is among those in currency.) Indeed, our original post was not about New Atheism at all, but rather about a conflation in at least one way of understanding accommodationism. We've tried elsewhere to disambiguate the senses of accommodationism in current parlance.

Our claim, to be clear, is that the epistemic evaluation of beliefs is a task that is conceptually distinct from the epistemic evaluation of believers. Of course, the two tasks are not unrelated. But the aim of determining the truth of a statement is distinct from that of assigning epistemic blame or praise to a cognitive agent. The former is simply a matter of determining what the best evidence suggests. The latter is inherently a matter of assessing what the agent believes in light of the evidence she has, and her grasp of the evidence.

Our identification and analysis of that conflation, has gone almost entirely without comment. And where there has been mention of it, the comments confirm the need to make the distinction explicit.

To cite one example, P.Z. Myers includes in his response the claim that we have overlooked “the possibility that we’re dealing with bad ideas held for irrational reasons.” (Feb 7, 2011 10:36:49 PM) He thereby places his foot firmly in the bucket. The terms he italicizes in the phrases “bad ideas” and “irrational reasons” admit of the ambiguity we described. To explain, Abby’s idea can be bad for at least two reasons: (1) it is false, or (2) it is unsupported by the evidence Abby has. Myers’ term “irrational reason” is difficult to parse, since, typically it is agents and their actions that are assessable as rational or not; however, we suspect that Myers’ intended meaning is this: an irrational reason is one that an agent ought not endorse (or cite, or employ when drawing inferences, etc.). Thus clarified, “irrational reasons” similarly involves the imprecision we identify. Abby’s reason can be “irrational” for being (1) based on a false assessment of the relevant facts, or (2) unsupported by Abby’s own conception of the relevant facts.

We affirm that in the case of religious beliefs, we are dealing with bad ideas in the first sense: religious beliefs are false. And we affirm that in the case of the reasons that religious believers offer in support of their religious beliefs, we are dealing with “irrational reasons” in the first sense: those reasons are based in a false assessment of the relevant facts. What we deny is that in the case of religious beliefs and religious reasons, we are necessarily dealing with bad ideas and “irrational reasons” in their second senses.

Based on what they take to be the evidence, religious believers are often not irrational (second sense) for holding their beliefs. That’s a natural consequence of the fact that contemporary society is inundated with religiosity. The fact that religious believers typically are not irrational (second sense) is a good thing for atheists: non-irrational religious believers are cognitively salvageable, moveable by evidence, capable of being convinced by argument, and so on.

If New Atheists share with us (as we think they do) the view that religious belief is morally pernicious, they should agree with us (we think they do) that atheism is in part a movement aimed at the moral improvement of society. But if atheists regard religious believers as epistemically irreparable and irrational in some more deep and sweeping sense, then, given the sheer numbers of religious believers, society itself is morally irreparable; thus our efforts as atheists– New, Gnu, Old, and otherwise– are futile. If New Atheists agree with us (we think they do) that our efforts to challenge, refute, and disprove religious claims (and correspondingly to dissuade and dislodge religious believers from their beliefs) are not futile, then we all must hold that society is not morally beyond repair. Importantly, if New Atheists agree with us (we think they do) that social change in the direction of moral improvement must be won by means of the rational persuasion of our fellows citizens (who are by and large religious believers) rather than brute force or by propaganda, then argumentation must commence. But that requires actual argumentative engagement with religious believers. In good faith, with presumptions of rationality. Argumentation and reasoning, like inquiry more generally, has its own ethics. Our claim is that the distinction between belief evaluation and believer evaluation is crucial to the ethics of argumentation. If that amounts to accomodation, we've said that we are accomodationists.

If the majority of New Atheists agree with us about these points, so much the better for us all. It is nonetheless worth affirming this publicly, because at least one version of the charge of accommodationism– perhaps not the most prominent, maybe not the one endorsed by the most visible New Atheists, but certainly one that is expressed by people who identify as New Atheists– denies that one can be a religious believer and yet not be irrational or stupid. And that’s simply an error.

Of course, that argumentation involves believer-evaluations does not entail that no one is epistemically beyond-the-pale and not worth arguing with. To be sure, there are persons who are epistemically blameworthy precisely because of their neglect of the available evidence, their willful ignorance, and their deliberate misconduct in argument. And, in cases of certain extreme beliefs, one can responsibly base a believer-evaluation on the content of what one’s interlocutor believes. Our point is that the distinction between responsible and irresponsible believers does not map neatly on to the distinction between true and false beliefs. We hold, additionally, that the distinction between responsible and irresponsible believers does not map neatly on to the distinction between atheists and religious believers. Again, we think that the atheist attitude should be as follows: being a religious believer doesn’t make you irrational or stupid; it just makes you wrong.