… In which I narrow the gulf between two allied factions enough that with a running start you can jump across … maybe.
It has been suggested that Accommodationism is “a more moderate atheist perspective on the nature of religion and science.”1 In this view, religion and science are not antithetical, and can exist side by side.
I think this is a fair description of accommodationism, and it is what bothers me about accommodationism itself or the description of accommodationism, depending on who’s doing the talking, but I also don’t think that this is what certain people who have been considered to be Accommodationists are actually saying. I don’t think Joshua Rosenau is saying this, I don’t think Chris Mooney is saying this, and I think Ken Miller says this sometimes then he unsays it other times. (Since this is the blogosphere, any of these three can certainly correct me on this.)
And here I am questioning the term “moderated atheism” because there is no such thing. That would be agnosticism or something else. Indeed “moderated atheism” is always in conflict with science. (Something parallel is probably almost always true on the religion side of this discussion as well.) The reason for this is that science is a self contained system and it is impossible to stipulate the veracity of, or any details of, some feature of the body of scientific knowledge from an outside source. To put it simply, you can’t decide that evolutionary theory is valid regardless of religious objections to it, but then say that the origin of life may be best explained by reference to a supernatural cause. Such a position would very nicely “accommodate” many religious individuals who would be happy to have the biological sciences move right along in explaining (almost) everything, but need to have god in there somewhere doing something important. I think this is sometimes the position Ken Miller takes.
From a scientific perspective this is entirely unacceptable. However, to my knowledge, the so-called Accommodationists do not have this perspective. Chris Mooney and Josh Rosenau do not seem to be making the claim that sections of life science can or should be sliced out and replaced with the hand of god like one might slice out and replace a segment of a protein for trans-species analysis of function.2
If accommodationism is defined this way, then there are two kinds of atheists: Accommodationists who don’t understand anything and have it wrong in some really important ways and cannot be taken seriously, and everyone else, including the aforementioned Accommodationists and the New Atheists. Someone who takes the slice and dice Accommodationist view is not an atheist. This would be a religious view. I’m pretty sure, at this point in this long term ongoing conversation, that this is understood by most of the people involved.
So what about people like Josh and Chris? For some reason they are not considered to be New Atheists, and they don’t seem to be Accommodationists as defined in the first paragraph above. I know Chris has specifically indicated that he is an atheist. Off hand I can’t remember Josh’s mode of theism. Chris is called an Accommodationist and seems to more or less define himself as one, but he does not believe that we can or should substitute non-science for science at politically convenient points.
The confusion comes from the fact, in my view, that the line between certain viewpoints has been drawn in the wrong place. The main difference among all of the views that are out there is the difference between those individuals who will allow for some supernatural involvement in natural process and those who will not. This places PZ Myers and Chris Mooney firmly if uncomfortably in the same boat. And it is the very same boat that Francis Bacon imagines sailing between the Herculean pillars to commune among, and understand, the monsters of the sea.
The difference between the “Accommodationist” view vs the “New Atheist” view must therefore be something else.
I propose that this difference is similar to a corresponding contrast that exists among the religious folk involved in this question. The difference is in how one handles undone business. This is much more easily understood in relation to religion (and religious politics) than science, so let’s start with that.
I myself was raised to be religious, but it did not stick. The nature of the demise of my religiosity is only slightly interesting, and maybe we can talk about that another time. Now, I just want to make this point: I learned early on (when I was still an altar boy) that where religion and life conflict — where the religion was not doing a good job at explaining the bits and pieces of life that were not making sense — it was OK to drop the details of the religion part and chalk it up to mystery. This pragmatic approach sounds like kind of a cop out, but it makes utter sense from a religious perspective, if your religion has elements such as a deep and unknowable god, a god that tests your faith, and stuff like that. It is absolutely reasonable, to a Catholic in the particular subculture of Catholicism that I was raised in (and I suspect, Ken Miller as well) to accept Genesis and Darwin at the same time. No accommodation is needed. In life, it is important to use Darwin to make sense of the world, and the conflict between Darwin and Genesis will be explained to me later on when I’m dead. Unless God sends me to Hell. In which case, I suppose I’ll never find out.
To a different kind of Christian, and I refer here to your basic fundamentalist because fundamentalists believe in the essential and immediate truth of the Bible, you can’t have this conflict. Some may allow for smallish differences in interpretation of the bible, perhaps rejecting the Usherian chronology in favor of vagueness or just plan lack of accuracy (not inaccuracy, just … not being chronometrically accurate on purpose). But, essentially, the Bible does provide an account of the origin of everything, and so does science, and they are majorly different. A fundamentalist Christian picks one (and only one). A Catholic raised in the American Catholic church by Irish Priests in the 1960s is not even that interested in the question. Catholics get to pick and choose, and are allowed to choose ambiguity.
The difference between these two kinds of Christian is what do with the undone business. The Fundamentalist wants no undone business and is driven to great lengths to ensure that there not be any. The Catholic has piles of it and does not seem to mind. In fact, half the sing songy Irish priest jokes (the ones the priest makes, not the ones made about the priest) make use of this unfinished business. “It is a mystery” is the supporting trope for the punchline in old school Catholicism. In fundamentalism … there are no punch lines.
I oversimplify. But I believe that this brief description is a valid skeleton on which to build a useful if somewhat artificial dichotomy.
Now, what about the two kinds of (atheist) scientists? Are there two kinds, parallel to the two kinds of religious people?
Yes, in the sense that so called new atheists and so called Accommodationists have the same exact view of the science but different views of what to do with undone business.
The undone business includes the following two distinctly different things:
1) What religious people think about science. This refers to the opinion, feelings, attitude, or personally settled-on conclusions by relevant religious people about the science. For instance, how does the student in your classroom who comes in as a creationist feel about your teachings in evolution? How does that student deal with this, what do they conclude? Or, what does the politician think, or more importantly, say, about the same issue while on the campaign trail? Or while in the legislative chamber?
2) What scientists and educators think about strategy. How do scientists and science educators feel about the differences between what people get wrong and what science actually says, and what how does one prioritize what to do about it?
These two categories of ‘business’ are each treated in different ways by Accommodationists vs. new atheists. So we have a kind of two by two matrix.
[1,1]The Accommodationist sees the views of the religious science-questioner as something that should be addressed as part of the current ongoing discussion, but [1,2] the New Atheist sees such views as “not my problem.” [1,1]The Accommodationist wants to help the religious person ‘deal’ while [1,2]the new atheist wants the religious person to take these problems to the rabbi, priest, or whomever, and address these issues outside the context of the science learning process. That is a big difference. I’m personally much more comfortable with the latter, but when I talk to certain people … where there is mutual respect and caring between us … I know that such a view can be difficult. I retain it, but it hurts a little.
With respect to the second set of business, [2,1]the Accommodationist wants to form a coalition with the believers because it is politically important to do so (important according to the Accommodationist). [2,2]The new atheist wants to hold the line and require the believers to at the very least check their beliefs at the door because those beliefs can’t be brought into the discussion. Or just dry up and blow away.
(This somewhat artificial … but not arbitrary … two by two matrix can be easily reformulated into a spectrum, but that would make the model less manageable.)
I think that this describes most of what people are saying and doing in this long term and ongoing discussion. But it does not describe what people could be saying and doing. For instance, it is quite possible to see the views of the religious science-questioner as something that should be addressed in the context of that person’s religious culture (“Take it to the minister, buddy!”), but at the same time to be willing to sit down with members of that sub culture and be … at the very least … diplomatic.3
I think that might be close to my view. When it comes to doing science, describing science and, yes, teaching science, take no prisoners. But consider that we spend a great deal of effort on working out how to teach people science when society and culture throws so many proverbial wrenches into the works. The fact that people think that cold is a thing, or the fact that people anthropomorphise the ant, the grasshopper, and the chimpanzee to roughly equal degrees, are classic issues in science education. Well, perhaps people’s religious beliefs should be treated similarly. This would be a kind of Accommodation because it involves recognizing religious views and then addressing them, even if somewhat tangentially, as part of the learning process.
Ironically, PZ Myers, the archetypal New Atheist seems to act on a similar view, seemingly unbeknownst to the Accommodationists. I have heard PZ describe his introductory college biology course, and it includes an exploration of the sociocultural transformations that have happened in concert with the development of science from the late middle ages to the present. His biology course is to no small degree a course in western philosophy. I have no idea how much he deals directly with specific extant religions, but his approach is exactly what a person starting out with an acceptance of Genesis or even Intelligent Design Creationism would benefit from most, even if their thinking did not totally change as part of such a classroom experience. PZ Myers teaches theology. Sort of. (A kind of “theology to end all theology” … but still….)
And ultimately, the person who is doing the learning will drive the system no matter what the educator prefers. I happen to know a person4 who is on a journey from a more or less fundamentalist, evangelical starting point (and who lives well inside of that culture) through a relatively traditional academic education and investigation of inter cultural generation (and maintenance or alteration) of meaning. Demographically, this is someone people like me would not want on the local school board. But in a recent conversation, she said this to me: “I don’t know that much about science, but every time I learn something more, I get pretty excited about it … So, being ‘religious’ but anticipating my ‘curiosity to transcend my culture’ I would like to search this stuff out from a solid source…which a lot of times means atheist scientists.”
This is the kind of person I want in my classroom, across the table from me in a coffee shop, or attending the Cafe Scientifique. Or, for that matter, on the school board.
… At the outset I claimed that I would narrow a gap. You should know that I don’t really believe that I’ve done that. But perhaps I’ve annoyed my fellow bloggers in a novel way that could lead to some positive discussion …
1The source of this quote is important. I happen to know someone who is personally quite deeply involved in the fundamentalist culture, but happens to be someone with whom I share an unquestioned mutual trust and whose opinion I value very highly. That quote is not this individual’s opinion, but rather is that individual’s characterization of the problem at hand. This entire essay is a response to my friend’s private remarks in answer to this question of mine: “So, what do you think of accommodationism?”
2I know that is a somewhat strained metaphor, but I could not resist. As I write this my wife is across the living room writing up part of her research in which she removes some piece of a protein and replaces it with the same piece of a protein but from a different species. Playing god with proteins!
3The word “diplomatic” is, again, quoted from the same private conversation to which I refer in footnote one. That is my friend’s position: Diplomacy can matter.
4Yes, same person.