Saturday, May 14, 2011

Is accommodationism short-term thinking?

One of the perennial arguments among atheists is between accommodationists, who don't want to upset religious believers, and the so-called "new" atheists, who don't mind upsetting people at all.

Keep in mind that this is just about tactics. It's not anything more profound than that. But still, the arguments can get pretty fierce. It's still a very intense disagreement.

I should say right off that I tend to side with the "new" atheists, although I think that both sides make some valid points. Well, if you read this blog at all, you should realize that, right? But I also don't see why only one tactic makes sense. If you're the accommodationist type, fine. Soft-sell might work for some people.

If blunt-speaking scares people off, maybe your gentler approach will seem more reasonable and rational in comparison. But at the same time, other people may need to be shocked out of their complacency. Atheists have used the gentle approach for decades, if not centuries - where they didn't fear for their lives - without much effect (not here in America, at least - they've been far more successful in Europe).

And although I enjoy speaking bluntly, I have no interest in angering believers for the sake of angering believers. Indeed, I welcome believers as my allies when it comes to maintaining the separation of church and state, protecting our environment, and in many other political and social issues. We may disagree about some things, but still agree on others. In fact, I doubt that I agree with anyone about everything.

Anyway, Chris Mooney, science journalist and author of The Republican War on Science, tends to be an accommodationist. He seems to be a good guy, but I still tend to disagree with him about that. As a journalist, he normally interviews other people, but he recently became the interviewee on a Point of Inquiry podcast. And it's been getting a lot of attention from other atheists.

I must admit that I haven't listened to the podcast myself, not yet. There simply isn't enough time for everything. I heard about it at Pharyngula, is all. And I simply wanted to note this comment by PZ Myers:
Once again, the problem revolves around a central argument for the Mooneyites: that harsh criticism of cherished beliefs, like religion, leads to an immediate, emotion-based shutdown of critical faculties by the target, and makes them refractory to rational evaluation of their ideas. To which I say, yeah, so? I agree with that. I know that happens. It's what I expect to happen.

But that's all short-term thinking, and I don't care what happens in the mind of a believer five minutes or a day after I make an argument (the usual domain of the psychology experiments accommodations love to cite in defense of their position; there's an awful lot of psychology done in our universities with horizons no longer than the next publication deadline). What I'm interested in seeing happen is the development of a strong cadre of vocal atheists who will make a sustained argument, over the course of years or generations, who will keep pressing on the foolishness of faith. I also don't mind seeing believers get angry and stomping off determined to prove I'm a colossal jackhole — that means they're thinking, even if they're disagreeing with me. ...

I'll also cop to the obvious fact that, knowing that reason will not get through their skills, I'm happy to use emotional arguments as well. Passion is persuasive. Look at all those assertive Gnu/New Atheists — they are not making Spock-like dispassionate arguments only, although there is a strong rational core — we are hitting people in the gut and telling them to open their eyes. It gives us that unseemly aggressive reputation, but at the same time it's a very effective way to let people know we think they are dead wrong.

What do you think? Is accommodationism short-term thinking?

If you call someone an idiot, he's going to stop listening to you. But the fact is, he probably wasn't going to listen to you anyway. When people debate, they only listen to the other person in order to martial their own arguments. Normally, we've already made up our minds, and nothing is likely to change them.

In fact, studies have shown that presenting clear evidence a belief is wrong just gets a true believer to hold that belief even more strongly. We humans are very, very resistant to changing our beliefs, despite the evidence. Our tendency is always to confirm what we already think, and there are many ways we do that, often unconsciously.

[As an aside, that's why the scientific method is so valuable. Scientists are only human, too, and they are just as resistant to changing their minds. They do try to disprove their own thinking, but that goes against human nature. However, science is a social process. It's a group effort. It works, in part, because scientists have no problem finding flaws in someone else's thinking. And so the scientific consensus tends to get it right, even if some individual scientists still stubbornly stick to their original idea.]

This argumentative theory may or may not be right, but it's still a fact that reason doesn't work too well. Even reason combined with evidence - which is easily the best way of determining the truth we've ever discovered - doesn't work particularly well with individuals, because we're just naturally resistant to changing our minds. Even scientists struggle with this, though they've got an entire culture devoted to following the evidence wherever it leads.

So, is it hopeless, then? Well, PZ Myers says that this is short-term thinking. What happens after years, or even generations, of reasoned argument? It's an interesting thought, don't you think?

For one thing, it's very difficult to get an adult to change his mind. But adolescents are far more open to new ideas. Yes, they still have their beliefs - they've been raised from infancy to have those beliefs, and you won't change their minds easily - but young people in general just aren't as rigid as older ones.

And usually, in order to change their beliefs, people first have to hear arguments to the contrary. It's hard to adopt even a new belief if you've never heard of it before. Accommodationists don't want to anger believers, but believers get angry at just knowing atheists exist. We "new" atheists may make them even angrier, but at least we get noticed. At least we get attention. And without that kind of publicity, how will we ever see change come to America? (It's the same way with politics, too, I'd say.)

All my life, until recent years, I kept my atheism pretty much to myself. Well, it wasn't anyone else's business, right? I didn't know any other atheists, and it rarely came up in conversation (we didn't have such widespread, in-your-face evangelicalism back then). But during the Bush years, I finally decided I had to stand up for my opinions,... unless I wanted to end up living in a theocracy. I still don't go door to door like an atheist missionary, but I make sure my position is known.

We atheists just can't afford to be quiet these days. And if we're not quiet, perfectly quiet, we're going to anger believers. There's just no way around that, since we question what they really, really want to believe.

True, I doubt that I've ever convinced anyone to my way of thinking. I've posted a whole series of articles about my non-belief, and more than a hundred posts about religion in general, without likely having a single convert.

But so what? Now my friends at least know that I'm an atheist, and many of them know why. Some of them aren't happy about it, I'm sure - and certainly some of my relatives aren't - but keeping people happy isn't necessarily the best of all possible goals. Well, some people I do try to keep happy. But honesty is also important.

You know, they had this same debate in the gay community, too. Most atheists are still in the closet, just like most gays were (and maybe still are, I don't know). But when gays started outing themselves, some were actively, defiantly, flamboyantly queer (taking a derogatory term as their own and basically daring the straight world to try to ignore them). Others were concerned about showing Americans that they were just like everyone else, good neighbors, good co-workers, and good friends.

I can't say that one side was right and one side was wrong, and why does anyone have to make that argument? One way or another - or, more likely, both ways - gay rights has come a long way in a remarkably short period of time. Yeah, you might not think that if you're gay yourself, but change has been lightning fast for a social issue like this (just look at the long, long struggle for racial equality).

When it comes to atheism, I think similarly. I have absolutely no problem with accommodationists, but I don't think they should be criticizing atheists who aren't so concerned about getting along. If believers aren't going to support science just because atheists do support science, well, their support would clearly be pretty weak, anyway. I mean, really, what's with that?

We can disagree about some things while still agreeing about others - indeed, while still working together on other issues. Your religious belief is your own business, and I'll fight to keep it that way. But I won't keep quiet about my own disbelief. And I think it's especially crazy for atheists to ask that of me.

If Mooney is wrong about this (I'll note again that I haven't listened to that podcast, and I don't want to put words in his mouth), he's certainly right about the Republican war on science. Again, we can disagree on some things while agreeing on others. I won't mute my criticism when I think he's wrong, but I'll still support him when I think he's right.

For a long, long time in America, religion has had the special privilege of being immune to criticism. There were some good reasons for that, since religious disputes have been the horror of the world. And in America, with our freedom of religion and the complete separation of church and state, your neighbor's religion was not supposed to be your concern. We were all still Americans, whatever your religious belief.

But religion came to believe that it should be immune to criticism, even as it got more and more involved with politics. For two hundred years, believers have been chipping away at that wall of separation between church and state. Now, they're even trying to rewrite history. But they still think they should get our automatic respect.

Well, I can criticize your beliefs while still supporting your right to believe them. It's not that difficult a concept, is it? I think you're wrong, but  you have the right to be wrong. You don't, however, have the right to keep my from expressing my own opinion.

PS. I thought about adding this to my Non-Belief series, but I'm not sure if it fits with the rest of those articles. I suppose I'll think about it some more. Maybe I'll put a link there, even without renaming this post. What do you think?


Chimeradave said...

Don't be so hard on yourself. Like I said in my article on my blog's statistics. I thought like you that no one was reading it, but I found out by blog has gotten 8,000 page views. Now most of that is because people like some of my pictures. But some of them must have read the content too, right?

Don't think like no one's reading this. Be positive and think of your many readers in Slovania!(and hopefully here in the US too).

WCG said...

Was I too hard on myself? I didn't say that no one reads these posts, John, but only that no one would probably be persuaded to my way of thinking by them.

I suspect that my readers either agree or disagree with me before they ever get here - and that they leave the same way. But that's not unique to this blog, not at all. It's rare that people actually change their minds.

Tony Williams said...

This is an interesting (if frequently depressing) issue for me to look at from the outside, Bill, as it really isn't much of a problem in the UK: most people are not really religious even if they go to churches for weddings, christenings and funerals. The average Brit regards the typical US evangelist as decidedly weird and "a sandwich short of a picnic" as we say.

The problem is that people tend to interpret attacks on their beliefs as personal attacks on themselves, and will put up a vigorous (and often heated) defence accordingly. To admit you're wrong is a form of defeat or surrender. As someone put it recently: how many times do you hear people involved in an argument say "I am convinced by your evidence and arguments that you are right and I am wrong, so I will change my beliefs accordingly". As if!

Having said that, I agree with you that we should make no secret of our convictions (with possible exceptions for very elderly relatives who we like and wouldn't want to upset). The important thing, in my opinion, is not to allow yourself to be dragged down into an increasingly heated and vituperative argument (which allows annoyed believers to dismiss you - and therefore your arguments) but to keep cool and keep making logical points. The probability is that you won't change their minds, but you might stand a better chance of favourably impressing any uncommitted bystanders.

WCG said...

It really is different here, Tony. Plenty of Americans don't think about religion much, just believing because it's conventional. But these days, I run into evangelical true believers just all the time, far more often than when I was younger.

And no, I don't announce my atheism to elderly relatives or push it on anyone at all. But I don't hide it, either. Actually, it's more than that, since I make sure my position is clear to most people I know, through email "fortune cookies" and this blog, though I won't initiate a discussion about religion in conversation.

It's not too hard to stay polite, but still take a stand. It's usually pretty easy to tell what's appropriate and what isn't. But maybe believers would disagree with me about that. :)