Monday, June 8, 2009

Just Who Are We Accommodating and Why Should I Participate?

I like Chris Mooney.  He's well spoken, civil and seems to truly strive to avoid being nasty to those he disagrees with - even when he disagrees voraciously and occasionally even when people he disagrees with are rather nasty to him.  Now it may seem strange to those who know me and know I am quite capable of being a raging asshole, no apologies.  But I accept that unleashing the asshole within isn't always productive and can appreciate that some people either don't have much of an inner asshole, or simply manage better than I to keep it under wraps.  Either way, I have to respect those who are polite and reasoned to a fault. 

I do however, have a problem with Chris' rhetoric about theists who accept evolution.  Put simply, he seems to think that there is a marked lack of civility on the part of the so called "new atheists," when it comes to attacking the faith component, of those who reconcile their theism with evolution and science.  He also seems to think that there are a lot of factual errors to the arguments of the new atheists and ultimately, that attacking that reconciliation is a bad strategic move.   I know more than a little about this issue of reconciling theism and science, or more accurately, theism and reality.  I am less than a year out from having finally ending my twenty some year battle to maintain my faith, in the face of science and indeed other aspects of reality that aren't strictly science related. In all honesty, I think that his problems with incivility and ultimately strategy are both ill-founded.  And while I think that the issue of factual errors is a little less clear, I tend to disagree with the accommodationist position - both from the theists themselves and the atheists who defend them.

This is not to say that I don't still believe that it is important for some voices to be heard supporting the accommodationist viewpoint.  Both because I believe that people should speak their mind, even if I think they're wrong and because I think that there are people who need to hear from people like Chris and other non-theists who accept that one can be a theist and still accept science.  But I also think it's important to have other voices clearly stating that they think the accommodation is a load of crap.  Because first and foremost, there are at least some of us who think it is and because not being critical, would leave a lot of people in a position to continue thinking that they should stick to their faith, even though they are having to commit to rather precarious epistemological assumptions.  For some, probably even most people, this isn't a problem - they simply don't care enough about any of it to really think about what they actually believe.  Then there are those who do think about it...A lot.

At it's heart, my support of those arguing that theism and faith are not nearly as compatible as many accommodationists insist they are, is the impact their arguments have had on ending my thirty year, abusive relationship with my faith.  While I have accepted evolution for roughly twenty years and accepted that homosexuals are human beings and deserving of complete equality for about the same, I spent a great deal of those intervening years trying desperately to reconcile it all.  And there have been a great many times over the years, when I have been terrified that I might be wrong, or that I was approaching the questions wrong or that the increasing doubts were enough in themselves, to relegate me to eternal damnation.  No matter how cavalier I was at times, there was always a nagging fear, an essential terror - because the stakes were so very high.  There were also times when I just accepted that if I'm wrong, I'm still right and would rather face eternal suffering, than spend eternity with a capricious, hateful and at times genocidal god.  There were times when I simply hated my god for selfishly relegating people I cared about to eternal suffering, or for allowing so much suffering to exist in his supposed creation.  And most importantly, there was almost always an underlying self-loathing that was in turns, because I was too weak in my faith or too strong in my faith.

Put simply, my faith made me a seriously fucked up mess.

And while it is impossible to actually be definitive about the number of people who have that same experience, I know that there are a lot of us out there.  I will not just sit idly by and leave it at that.  I am going to do what I can to help others who have spent immense amounts of time dealing with the same fucked up mess, that their faith has made of their heads and ultimately their lives, get past that mess and find peace in a life after faith.  But in doing that, I am going to do something that goes hard against the accommodationist grain.  I am going to challenge the notion that one can reasonably reconcile most theistic dogma, with evolution, with gay rights, with really, the vast majority of what we accept in modern society - things that even die-hard fundamentalist, Christian biblical literalists accept.  And I am not going to feel some compulsion to be nice about it either.  Because while I'm not out looking for a fight, I am not going to back down, simply because someone invokes the notion that religion/faith/spirituality is a private matter.  That these are somehow "hands off" topics.  They aren't hands off, when someone else chooses to throw their faith in my face.  They aren't hands off, when someone decides to jump into a conversation I am having with other people, to disagree with me.  They aren't hands off, simply because in the course of a discussion, someone feels that my very act of saying I believe they are wrong, offends them.  I don't throw my beliefs in the faces of others, so if they want to discuss this, they're going to have to accept that they may not like where the discussion goes.

And when they start in with what they think I need to know, to find my faith again, I am probably going to get really uncivil with them.  I give a fair warning when someone starts that line with me - after that, I am likely to get rather mean.  Or when they start with the notion that my lack of religious/spiritual belief offends them, I am quite likely to laugh in their face, in a markedly uncivil fashion.  I honestly don't give a shit if this smacks of "they started it" type rhetoric.  I am not of the opinion that simply because someone isn't being overtly rude, I need to maintain the same.  Frankly, I find the notion of pretending to be polite, when in reality one is being an asshole rather offensive.  I am pretty damned straightforward with people and expect the same in return.  I have a lot more respect for someone who calls me an asshole, or a moron, than I do for someone who says basically the same thing, pretending to be polite about it.

But there is another consideration in all of this.  Just who the hell are we actually accommodating here?  As far as real world impact, who are we actually trying to convince of what?  I sometimes get the distinct impression that the accommodationist view is somehow hoping to change the minds of the people who are fighting so hard to get creationism into public schools.  That there is some wide swath of the population that is actually fighting to get creationism into the schools, who would likely change their minds, if only atheists would be nicer to them.  I don't buy it.  Especially when the fact of the matter is, to these folks who are fighting so hard, the mere fact that I believe they are wrong and tell them that, is offensive to them.  And for the record, they are also offended by the accommodationists - theists and non-theists alike - and what they believe.  At a minimum, they believe we're all hopelessly deluded.  Theists who are liberal enough to accept even the possibility of evolution being true, are unlikely to be totally turned away, because some atheists say that the reconciliation is just a delusion within a delusion, any more than they are going to be dissuaded by theists who make the same claim.  After all, there are plenty of people out there who are theistic and who also accept evolution and other science that flies in the face of most theistic dogma.  They are either going to accept that reconciliation or they aren't.  In all honesty, I hope that they will look at the evidence supporting the science, find it compelling and also decide that they simply can't reconcile it with their faith.

The accommodationists have their goals - goals I find commendable and in some ways even support.  But I too have goals, goals that sometimes require that I use methods that contradict what accommodationists believe will forward their goals.  I even accept that in some cases they're absolutely right - my methods may well interfere with their goals.  But I'm not going to apologize for it, any more than I expect them to apologize when their methods interfere with my own goals - and they most certainly do that.  I accept that and while I wish that there was a way for both goals to move forward, without stepping on the others toes, that simply isn't possible.  There is a point where what I believe to be true and what I believe I need to do about it is going to run hard against those who reconcile faith and reality.  For those who wish that I would say my piece differently, that I would be nicer about it or just not make claims about the nature of reconciling faith with reality - please keep something very important in mind...

The only reason that I spent twenty years in an abusive, painful and sometimes debilitating relationship with Faith, is because I was constantly running into people who told me that it is possible to make the very reconciliations that you are so adamantly defending.  Were it not for Christians who accept homosexuality, were it not for Christians who accept evolution, were it not for Christians who are sex-positive, were it not for Christians who perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics and convinced me I could do the same, I would have become an atheist a very long time ago.  I would have been saved the pain, the doubts - the trauma, of fighting so desperately to make the absolutely incoherent, fit together coherently.

And were it not for the uncivil, ill-mannered "new atheists" you disagree with, I would probably still be suffering that relationship today...


Jason Thibeault said...

Time to be motherfucking uncivil, boyeee! I'm going to go find a Jehova's Witness and say, "hey, you're WRONG" then drive off laughing.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Better than what I used to do to JW's...But when you come to my fucking door when I am taking bong-tokes, fucking deal already. Or if I decide to take bong tokes, because you came to my door...

I should note that I am all about civility as a baseline, in the context of religious discussions, but I don't believe in making it a limitation.

Dan J said...

No, I won't call you an asshole. I usually reserve that for selected other drivers on the road. I will, however, call you a fucking prick, and I mean that in the most sincere way possible. Besides, I like that in a person.

I have a problem with willful ignorance, and the accomodationists are still promoting willful ignorance. I like to think that I promote reality-based thinking, which taken in good doses leads to atheism.

I suppose one of these days soon I'll have to write a bit about my path to enlightenment about how reality works. Keep up the great work, DuWayne.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Dan -

I do want to be very clear that I don't generally consider religion to be willful ignorance. I think it's important to differentiate between willful ignorance and cognitive dissonance.

Dan J said...

Reading your comment made a light bulb go on over my head. It prompted me to think about another post you made regarding your long path to atheism. Your experiences (as I read them) definitely don't qualify as willful ignorance.

I think I have a lack of understanding when it comes to the cognitive dissonance associated with the religious faithful. My big hurdle for this understanding: I've never had "faith" in the religious context. I've honestly never had true belief in any god, and I think that makes it harder for me to understand what you and others have gone through.

Jason Thibeault said...

Once told a Jehovah's Witness that I was an atheist (when I was first toying with the idea of coming out about it), and got an earful about how I would be damning myself to hell and other such nonsense. He was uncivil first. And that was the key thing that caused me to rip up one side of him and down the other about proselytizing and how people like him were running around causing strife rather than staying the hell out of everyone else's business in the first place -- and that my admission of atheism did not equate to being uncivil to him, so what gave him the right to get in my face?

The vast majority of these uptight self-righteous magic-freaks desperately need a hit from the bong. Maybe next time around, you could offer them one in exchange for you listening to five minutes of their sermon? By the time they've gotten 15 minutes in, watch the hilarity ensue.

Jason Thibeault said...

Per Pharyngula, this is all the motivation necessary to drop the veneer of civility when tearing apart flawed logic. Does this make your blood boil like it does mine?

DuWayne Brayton said...

Oh damn Jason, why the hell did you have to do that to me?

(btw, I have done exactly that to JWs)

Michael said...

Perhaps I am thinking about somewhat different attitudes than you are, but the reason I stopped reading P.Z. Myers' blog and others with a similar tone I came across is that I find stridency and arrogance unappealing, full-stop. I don't care if I agree or disagree with the basics of the asshole-in-question's world-view -- the attitude is off-putting. I had thought that was the kind of thing Mooney has been talking about.

I don't listen to people like Limbaugh or O'Reilly not just because they spew nonsense, but because they are so obnoxious. I also don't listen to people like Keith Olbermann, not because I think he necessarily spews nonsense, but because he is just as obnoxious.

Personally, I would be loathe to find as many arrogant blowhards (a la Myers) on the side of reason and science as I find on the side of religion. People who think they know all the answers and go out of their way to offend as many people as possible are off-putting, no matter what argument they're making. People like Myers (and, to a lesser extent, Dawkins) are just as delusional as your stereotypical fire-breathing-Southern-Baptist-preacher because they think they can prove something that can't be proved, they think that their viewpoints about everything are privileged because they have some special connection to "Truth," and they think this gives them the right to trample over others' rights and beliefs. Respecting the rights of others to hold beliefs that you yourself don't hold is paramount. But beyond that, attempting to accommodate those beliefs when possible without compromising your own beliefs or rights is, IMO, the mark of a truly civilized order.

SLC said...

Re Michael

I'm going to have to disagree with Mr. Michael relative to PZ Myers. Although he comes across on his blog as a fire breathing take no prisoners ideologue, if one has ever heard him in an interview or giving a presentation, he's Casper Milquetoast to the nth degree.

Dan J said...

Michael said: "People like Myers (and, to a lesser extent, Dawkins) are just as delusional as your stereotypical fire-breathing-Southern-Baptist-preacher because they think they can prove something that can't be proved, they think that their viewpoints about everything are privileged because they have some special connection to "Truth," and they think this gives them the right to trample over others' rights and beliefs."

(emphasis mine)

I definitely have to disagree, particularly with the emphasized phrase. The burden of proof lies with the believers (i.e. Christians, Muslims, etc.). Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity. We have nothing to prove. We await a single shred of verifiable evidence that there is a god or goddess of any kind. Of course, I'm probably considered just as obnoxious by some people. I may be, but I've left behind any reason to pussy-foot around any religious nut who thinks I'm less of a person because I haven't found their god, and I need to be brought around to see the light before I can be a productive member of society. Fuck them and the cross they rode in on.

Jason Thibeault said...


You can't prove a negative. And even the most strident reason-defenders do not try. Dawkins, the poster boy for atheism, says there's a slim chance that there's a God. But all the evidence that's been turned up is pointing in the other direction, toward naturalism.

There's a false assumption that in presenting two sides to an argument, both sides are equally valid. As soon as someone criticizes something like faith, as amorphous, ill-defined and poorly evidenced as it is, everyone says, "whoa, hands off, it's too personal a matter!" So if science says grass is green, and religion comes along and says there IS no grass, then since one has evidence and the other is easily disprovable by looking out your window at the back yard, presenting both "viewpoints" like they are equally valid is prima facie retarded.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Michael -

I should point out that I am really rather arrogant myself.

But beyond that, attempting to accommodate those beliefs when possible without compromising your own beliefs or rights is, IMO, the mark of a truly civilized order.

The problem is that accepting accommodations would require that I compromise my own beliefs and more importantly, would be counter intuitive to what I am hoping to accomplish.

And I would note that as Chris mentioned at the top of his post, I am in fact defending a lack of civility. I am not discussing this topic to convince you to be like me or attack the reconciliations that accommodationists are making. I am discussing it to explain that in spite of the fact that many people like you find it distasteful, there is actually utility to it.

And before you try to convince me that this strident tone and arrogance you are disparaging is useless, I would suggest you re-read the very last line of my post.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Great post!

And were it not for the uncivil, ill-mannered "new atheists" you disagree with, I would probably still be suffering that relationship today...

I think this is key. My experience has been very different than yours (no shit!), but I feel similarly about my phasic abandonment of theism and magical thinking for skeptical thinking and atheism. It's harmful to pretend that something so important is real when it's not, and "accomodation" often entails exactly this. Additionally, it's especially harmful to certain groups of people.

My parents were lapsed Protestants when I was growing up. (They returned to churchgoing and active worship after my mother got and recovered from breast cancer. They presently attend a military chapel, where their pastor "proves" the righteousness of the US war in Iraq with items such as this.) They refrained from baptizing or regularly catechizing me or my sister out of some vague desire to "let us choose for ourselves".

However, they wished us to adopt "Christian ideology", and I did. I believed in my conception of a Christian God-- buffered as it was by classic English literature, random KJV verses and my own shamed but vigorous imagination-- strongly enough to make every one of my decisions based on what I "felt" that God wanted me to do. And I did this to varying degrees until I was twenty-seven years old.

I refrain from "unleashing the asshole" with respect to religion in the sciblogosphere solely because I know what it's like to always be the minority; one of my favorite scibloggers, who has been kind to me both in and out of the blogosphere, is a theist among a sea of non-believers. I said this once and got praised for my "open mindedness". It's not "open mindedness", though. It's a personal decision to modify my behavior that does not constitute any sort of argument against "New Atheism". Bullshit is bullshit. Why pussyfoot around it?

I can attribute all of my career and academic decisions from my eighteenth to my twenty-seventh year to magical thinking. I have to live the rest of my life knowing that I never took charge of my life until I was thirty as a result. This kind of experience isn't a big deal to a lot of people. However, I don't have the personality type to deal with this knowledge without constantly and ferociously struggling with self-loathing-- namely in the form of a conviction that I will never do anything special with my life, and that I'll be relegated to the mediocrity that I can't, can't, cannot stand. My propensity for magical thinking has only made my life less enjoyable.

In practice, there is no reconciliation of theism with science. Science is not merely a methodology but an ontology as well, and there is far more evidence that all phenomena can be explained in terms of matter and energy than there is in favor of dualism. Just because scientists can explain no more than the tip of the iceberg at present doesn't automatically mean that there are mysteries that are inexplicable. I have no idea why it makes sense to acknowledge this in the laboratory only to completely abandon your awareness of it in every other type of problem solving you must undertake in the world.

I know there are lots of privileged kids who grew up discussing existentialism around the dinner table with moms who have PhDs in psych from Harvard and dads with JDs from Yale Law School, and who thus wound up more intellectually assertive and productive despite all the woo they may have been subjected to. But I am interested helping kids like the one I was and adults like the one I am. New Atheism has done me a world of good; neither theism or accomodationism has.

Dan J said...

Juniper said:

"...a conviction that I will never do anything special with my life..."

Too late. You already are.

Michael said...

Dan J: The burden of proof lies with the believers (i.e. Christians, Muslims, etc.). Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity. We have nothing to prove.

There is nothing to prove, period. Whatever your beliefs about the existence of any particular deity, you are accepting a proposition that cannot be verified. "Faith" is belief without the need for proof; lack of faith, or lack of belief, as you put it, is the absence of same. I cannot prove there are no deities (whether monotheistic or polytheistic), but that doesn't particularly matter to me. I'm not going to believe in something simply because I can't prove it doesn't exist. And I'm not going to regard those who do believe in something they can't prove as any more misguided than I am. I try not to condescend to people who don't think just like me.

DuWayne -- I don't claim stridency and arrogance are useless, I claim they are irritating and obnoxious. They put off as many people as they convince or persuade, and as such I don't see employing them as a particularly compelling strategy. I think they are lazy, anti-intellectual tactics employed, typically, by those who lack the rigor to defend their propositions without recourse to them, and who are closed-minded. To wit -- one of the most consistently irritating notions put forth by the stridently religious on many issues is that any laws not in accordance with their religious views are abridging their "rights," as if their religious outlook gives them the prerogative to impose their views on everyone else. Yet you make a similar claim, "The problem is that accepting accommodations would require that I compromise my own beliefs and more importantly, would be counter intuitive to what I am hoping to accomplish." Well, that begs two questions: 1) how on earth would making an effort not to offend "compromise" your beliefs, and 2) what are you really trying to accomplish? To me, you risk sounding very much like those stridently religious types who complain of being violated when people don't agree with them.

I take it as a sign of progress when more people can agree on one thing: that we all have the right to our own ideologies. A further sign of progress is working out ways in which those ideologies can co-exist even when they conflict, which amounts to respecting our right to our own ideologies. Stridency and arrogance are antithetical to that kind of progress, but I guess that's not what you're trying to accomplish. It sounds more like your goal is to trample ideologies that conflict with yours.

Dan J said...

Thanks for responding Michael. I'm enjoying the conversation, disagreements or not.

Michael said: "I'm not going to believe in something simply because I can't prove it doesn't exist. And I'm not going to regard those who do believe in something they can't prove as any more misguided than I am. I try not to condescend to people who don't think just like me."

I don't think this came across as coherently as you had intended, but I understand what you mean. (Our written language has a lot of barriers when it comes to discussions like this.)

I certainly do not believe in things simply because I cannot prove they do not exist. I cannot prove or disprove the existence of Invisible Pink Unicorns. I also do not believe there are such things, as I have never been shown any evidence that they exist. However, if someone were to tell me that they do believe in Invisible Pink Unicorns, I would regard that person as misguided (at the very least).

I do not think that my attitude toward that person's beliefs are condescending. I think they are realistic. (Perhaps materialistic?)

Though I will say that I would not hold that person in lesser regard because of their beliefs, in reality I cannot escape the bias I have against the fervently religious. Yes, that's a fault of mine that I need to work on.

If religion actually were a private matter (as it really is with some people) I would have nothing to complain about. Many of the faithful, however, believe as part of their faith that they must proselytize; that America must be a Christian nation; that the biblical creation must be taught in public schools, etc.

I like to take one of the phrases that I have heard from the religious and alter it a bit to my own purposes: "Love the sinner but hate the sin." (Paraphrased from St. Augustine in his letter 211 (c. 424), Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, roughly translated as "With love for mankind and hatred of sins.") I like to say "Love the religious, but hate the religion."

(Still working on my own blog post regarding accommodation)

DuWayne Brayton said...

Michael -

I will address your comment in another post...

DuWayne Brayton said...

I should note that I may not get that post up until tomorrow, due to the fact that sitting in front of the computer rather hurts at the moment...

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Why, thank you, Dan! :)