When not blogging, I co-run Oxford’s branch of Skeptics in the Pub. (In fact, I speak into a microphone once a month. Heather Stevens, who is awesome, does all the actual work.) A few days ago Alom Shaha, who wrote The Young Atheist’s Handbook, teaches physics and is currently all over the place, did a talk on science and religion.
I interviewed Alom and reviewed his book for this month’s The Freethinker. I’ll link to the article when it’s online, but one thing I say is that I found it hard to tell what side he was on in the atheist tone war:
In his introduction, Alom states his admission to eating pork ‘may be the most controversial thing I write in this book’. He later goes on to say: ‘It’s one thing to be complicit in the unnecessary suffering of animals; it’s another thing entirely to suffer from sexual repression because you’ve been brought up to believe that God disapproves of masturbation, or to live as a second-class citizen because you’re a woman, or to live in fear for your life because you’re a homosexual. Yet this is the reality that is imposed on millions, if not billions, of people around the world because they live in communities or countries that base their morality and laws on religious beliefs founded ancient books and stories.’ A few pages later, he states: ‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree that religion is morally wrong.’ One moment it’s a firebrand we’re reading; the next, a diplomat.
I count myself more as a firebrand than anything else, and was surprised how emphatic a diplomat Alom was in his talk – PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins in particular came in for criticism. He also struck me, as I said in the Q&A, as advocating accommodationism; I’m fine with not everyone being firebrands, but I’m still pro-confrontation.
These words come up a lot in the blogosphere, so I want to take a moment to define them.
Confrontationalists see religious belief as in conflict with skepticism, critical thinking, rationalism and/or science. Because they (we) want to promote these forms of thought, we want this conflict to be played out; that is, we want to persuade the world out of religion by challenging irrational beliefs, having a public discourse about whether they’re true, and generally being oppositional.
Firebrands respond to religion with fervency and anger. They (we) prefer to play that conflict out candidly, with passionate, unremitting opposition to religious beliefs, and are unafraid to offend or shock believers.
Diplomats respond to religion with no less criticism, but more moderacy of tone. They prioritise friendliness, try to avoid hurt feelings and are keen to show respect for believers during disagreements, so are often less forceful.
Accommodationists by contrast insist on there being no conflict with religion: either that religious belief is not at odds with skepticism, rationality, science or critical thought, or that if it is, skeptics, rationalists, scientists and critical thinkers must never play out that conflict by arguing with religious people, or trying to persuade them out of their beliefs.
Note that there are two different conflicts here: whether to be firebrands or diplomats is a matter of method, but whether to confront or accommodate is a matter of goals. I’m not a scientist, or otherwise good with Venn diagrams, but I’d say the four groups’ relationship looks like this.
All accommodationists are diplomats, but not all diplomats are accommodationists. Likewise, all firebrands are confrontationalists, but not all confrontationalists are firebrands. Some people want to persuade the world out of religion, and diplomacy is their chosen approach. Phil Plait, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Hemant Mehta are all examples.
Moreover, you’re either a confrontationalist or an accommodationist. On the other hand, as Jen McCreight has pointed out, ‘firebrand’ and ‘diplomat’ are areas on a spectrum: not all firebrands are equally provocative, and not all diplomats are equally respectful. And some atheists take up more of that spectrum than others, adopting different approaches in different contexts – Tracie Harris and Matt Dillahunty for example, presenters of The Atheist Experience, both modify their tone depending on the caller – to the extent that not everyone is a firebrand or a diplomat all the time.
One thing Alom said in his talk, which skeptics in the audience seemed to like, was that since atheists who argue with believers are angry and unfriendly, we should only promote secularism and humanism. That needn’t be and isn’t so – whether to persuade the world out of religion is a wholly different question from how to. Diplomat confrontationalists say to do that nicely; accommodationists say not to do it.
That’s what I want to talk about here. (As I said, I see myself generally as a firebrand, but that’s another post.) This, from Greta Christina:
I’ve gotten tremendous hostility over the years for my attempts to persuade people out of religion. I’ve been called a racist and a cultural imperialist, trying to stamp out the beautiful tapestry of human diversity and make everyone in the world exactly like me. I’ve been called a fascist, have been compared to Stalin and Glenn Beck. My atheist activism has been compared to the genocide of the Native Americans. I’ve even been called “evil in one of its purest forms.” As have many other atheist writers — I’m hardly the only target of this.
When atheists do this, and they do, I have problems with it. If you’re an accommodationist – someone who says there’s no conflict between religious belief and science, critical thinking, skepticism or rationality, or that scientists, critical thinkers, skeptics or rationalists shouldn’t act upon that conflict – I have problems with that. (Not that I don’t like Alom. Go buy his book.)
Let me clarify. If you think religious beliefs are in conflict with these things…
- …but you leave that conflict to other people since you don’t personally want to get involved, I’m okay with that.
- …but you leave that conflict to other people since it might interfere with your main goals, I’m okay with that. (I imagine most NSS people, for example, take this position.)
- …but you don’t want to discuss that because it might hurt your relationship with someone – say, a close friend – I’m okay with that.
- …but you don’t want to discuss that in certain situations, like a funeral where Heaven-belief comforts grieving people, I’m okay with that.
In these scenarios, no one’s denying there’s a conflict of ideas, or implying that conflict must never be made explicit. That’s what accommodationism is. And accommodationists say things like:
- ‘Stop being so arrogant!’
- ‘You’re making us look bad!’
- ‘We’ve all got irrational beliefs!’
- ‘There are plenty of religious scientists!’
- ‘Don’t impose your views on others!’
- ‘You’re no better than evangelists!’
For a start, I’ve got nothing against believers evangelising. Sure, I’m pissed off when they target children, vulnerable people and groups who in general are easily exploited; when they won’t take no for an answer, or cross a line into harassment; when they use tax-funded adspace or institutions to promote their idea. But do I have an issue, in principle, with believers trying to persuade people they’re right? No. That makes total sense to me.
I decide my beliefs by comparing all the possible ones, and choosing whichever seem most accurate. I don’t think my beliefs are the best because they’re mine; they’re my beliefs because I think they’re the best. This seems to be the case for most other people. So it makes total sense to me that when we think different things, we should try to persuade one another. Frequently, this improves our thinking. It persuades us out of faulty opinions we had; it makes us consider issues we wouldn’t have thought of; it helps us recognise nuance, or empathise with others more. I’m not only okay with my stances being subject to criticism – I demand that they be, because if I’m wrong, I want to know.
We take this approach in all areas of life but religion: when other people disagree with us on politics, medicine, economics, history or almost any other subject, it’s fine (not arrogant, or imposing) to say we think they’re wrong and we’re right. And in religion’s case, the playing field’s tilted. I’ve been told that I should only argue beliefs ‘if someone wants a debate’ – by a person who supported missionaries targeting the poor in developing countries, who regularly evangelised to children and whose church still regularly preaches in public streets. The same people who call persuading others out of religion ‘aggressive’ often see persuading people into it as perfectly acceptable.
Yes, Francis Collins exists. Yes, there are scientists who are religious. The mere fact it’s possible to be a scientist and believe in God doesn’t make it consistent.
Yes, most of us have beliefs that aren’t rational. That doesn’t mean having rational beliefs as much as possible is a bad ideal.
As skeptics, we encounter people with all manner of silly beliefs – among them…
- crystal healing;
- power bands;
- ghosts – and the list goes on.
The world will have millions of people who believe in any of these things. Do we doubt that here and there, some will be lucid and otherwise respectable scientists? And do we think of persuading people out of them – any of them – as aggressive or intolerant?
You could argue for non-overlapping magisteria, i.e. that science concerns itself with facts and data while religion concerns itself with Deeper Truths, but you’d be wrong. The claims of religion are empirical truth-claims; to list some of Christianity’s, for example, the claims…
- that God exists,
- that Jesus was God incarnate, and
- that Jesus rose from the dead.
All these are factual statements about the laws of the cosmos: what philosophers call truth-claims, and what scientists call hypotheses. ‘Religions make existence claims,’ as Richard Dawkins puts it, ‘and this means scientific claims.’
The fact we can’t test those claims doesn’t stop them being empirical, and empirical claims – ‘[entity x] exists’, ‘[event y] occurred’ – are what science deals in. When those claims are irresolvable, science does what it always does with untestable hypotheses. It rejects them, outright.
Again, I’m not a scientist. Actually, as Alom knows, I gave up science lessons the moment I could. But I’m pretty certain I’m right about this, so I’d like to try a thought experiment.
Imagine that tomorrow, a new chemical element is proposed, and its proponents call it divinium. They claim it’s present in all environments, but especially concentrated on consecrated ground and during acts of worship; that high levels of exposure to it have dramatic physical effects like accelerated healing, spontaneous pregnancy and intense euphoria, and that its behaviour can be influenced by adopting certain beliefs. They also claim, when pressed for evidence, that it has no atomic structure, no physical mass, no volume and no temperature, shape or state that can ever be observed. They advance it, in other words, as the cause of a great many phenomena, but admit its existence is impossible to verify.
How would scientists react? How would rationalists, skeptics and critical thinkers react? Not by declaring ever-so-respectfully that they knew their place, congratulating the divinium theory’s supporters on finding a worldview that worked for them or suggesting even skeptics could learn from its teachings, but by tossing it out – by saying that a universe containing divinium would look identical to one without it, leaving no reason to declare the theory valid.
Those scientists who stuck with it would have their method strongly questioned, if not mocked; they would be considered inconsistent at best. If it gained public support, it would be viewed like the current idea that MMR vaccines cause autism – with regret and frustration at bad science gaining mass exposure. It would be considered helpful to persuade people out of it, both individually and on a broader societal scale, and people who were good at that would be called excellent science communicators.
Call that substance divinium, and all this happens. Call it the Holy Spirit, and some scientists will bend over backwards to accommodate belief in it; doing otherwise will be called aggressive or intolerant, and beyond the realm of science. Even in the skeptical community, some people will tell you you’ve no right to challenge the theory. All that’s changed is the imagined substance’s name – the claims being made about it are exactly the same, but are couched in religious and not scientific language.
Confrontationalism is necessary, because it follows from seeing religion for what it really is, and treating its claims like any others. We can go about that as fervent firebrands or as friendly diplomats, but somehow we do need to go about it. If we don’t promote skepticism of everything, including of religious beliefs, then in what sense are we really promoting it?