Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Between "New Atheism" and "Accomodationism"

I have often wondered whether I am in the camp of the "new atheists", or if I am an "appeaser".

Or, what I think is probably more accurate, I am a mixture of the two.

On the "new atheist" side, I can write a post defending the conclusion that faith, when it concerns beliefs that affect the life, well-being, or aspirations of others, is a vice. It is intellectual recklessness - belonging in the same moral category as drunk driving. It does not matter that some people exercise faith without doing harm. Some people drive drunk without doing harm as well. However, the faith-based thinker on matters affecting the lives of others, and the drunk driver on the public roads, creates a morally irresponsible hazard for others.

At the same time, I do not blame religion. Intellectual recklessness is at fault, and atheists are just as prone to intellectual recklessness as theists. A lot of atheists hold intellectually reckless beliefs, and in doing so are a threat to the life, well-being, and aspirations of others. At the same time, many who believe in a God are quite intellectually responsible when it comes to matters that concern the life, well-being, and aspirations of others. While they assert the existence of a God, their attitudes on matters of policy and behavior are evidence-driven.

Being an opponent of intellectual recklessness, rather than being an opponent of religion, I am morally critical of intellectually reckless atheist and pass no judgment against the intellectually responsible theist.

That would put me in the "accomodationist" camp, would it not?

This identifies the points where I agree with the "new atheists" on the one hand or the "accomodationists" on the other.

I also hold that each is guilty of a significant error.

On the "accomodationist" side, there is a tendency to remain silent about evils for the purpose of securing a political alliance. "I will not criticize you for the damage you do - on the basis of your superstitious ideas - to the lives, well-being, and aspirations of others. I will avert my eyes to your foolishness and the harm it brings, so that I can be your friend. In exchange, I hope that you will help me on these political matters that are of concern to me."

I find that position morally objectionable.

The "new atheists" on the other hand frequently employ the Bigot's Fallacy and seem to actually have little interest in applying the principles of logic and reason in their condemnation of religion. Repeatedly, the make the wholly unwarranted leap from the wrongs of a subgroup of religious people to the conclusion that all religious people are evil. One religious person commits a crime or brings about a horrendous outcome, and they shout that all religion is to be despised.

This is bigotry - plain and simple. This is how the racist thinks about blacks, how the sexist thinks about women, and how religious bigots think about atheists. Consider the "Hitler and Stalin" argument. Notwithstanding the fact that with Hitler the claims are not true, only a bigot thinks that one can take the evil actions of "an atheist" and condemn all atheists. Yet, many atheists think they can take the actions of "a theist" and condemn all religion.

The former abandons morality and refuses to blame the guilty (and, in doing so, shares some of their guilt). The latter abandons reason for the sake of placing blame on all of religion, including the innocent.

There is a strong social incentive to seek admission into one of these two camps - or any camp, for that matter. By gaining acceptance, one gains an instant set of friends. One gains a community. Humans are tribal creatures. Those who obtain membership in a tribe obtain all of the benefits of membership. Other tribal members will think of you as a great person - so long as you abide by and promote the tribe's code of conduct. Deviate from the code - or, worse yet, question the code, and you are out.

We talk about the atheist "coming out" to his religious tribe. The same phenomena applies to the "new atheist" coming out as an accomodationist, or an accomodationist coming out as a "new atheist". You lose the fellowship obtained by membership in the original tribe - and that is a very difficult thing to give up. These psychological forces cause people to absorb the culture of their tribe without question - this is the price of acceptance.

People usually do not like to admit how much they are like the people they criticize.

There is a third option, by the way. It is not "new atheist" or "accomodationist".

This third option holds that we are going to limit our conclusions to those that actually follow from our premises, and yet not deny the conclusions that follow from those premises.

Opposition to the use of condoms is a barrier to programs that would be effective at saving lives and preventing suffering. This is true.

Furthermore, opposition to the use of condoms comes substantially from religious doctrine - from a set of epistemic behavior that properly earns the title "intellectually reckless".

The fault here is the intellectually reckless belief that there is something spiritually wrong with using a condom. This recklessness is an immorality compounded by the fact that those who are guilty of it insist on making this a matter of policy that effects the lives of others. The effect that it brings about is the spread of disease and early death. Their intellectual recklessness costs lives and promotes suffering. These people should be condemned for that recklessness.

However, it is not legitimate to jump from this to the conclusion that "religion" is to blame. Not only does that make no logical sense, it is a hypocritical example of the very type of intellectual recklessness one is criticizing.

Furthermore, it diverts attention from the fact that atheists can and often are intellectually reckless. In focusing the attention on religious intellectual recklessness, it diverts attention from atheist intellectual recklessness. This allows atheist intellectual recklessness to continue unchallenged - with its own threats to life and well-being.

This third option keeps the focus strictly on the belief that there is something spiritually wrong with using condoms. It does not leap out of this to blame "Catholics" or "Evangelicals" or "people who believe in God". It keeps its criticism strictly focused - at least in this example - on "Those who believe there is something spiritually wrong with using condoms." Catholics and evangelicals that can escape this morally reckless belief can free themselves of criticism, at least on this issue. It will not excuse them for intellectual wrecklessness they may commit elsewhere.

If somebody comes along and says, "But this is a central principle in my religion," the answer is simple. "YOUR religion is intellectually reckless. (Note: Not 'religion' - but 'your religion') It is a set of unsecured beliefs that is costing lives and promoting suffering."

When they protest, "You must respect my religion," an easy answer is available. "I must respect the life and well-being of others. If I must choose between respect for your religion and the lives lost as a result of your unfounded beliefs - or respect for your religion and their good health - I choose the latter. I have no respect those who cause death and suffering through intellectually reckless behavior."

If, on the other hand, somebody says, "My religion is comfortable with the use of condoms - and even makes them obligatory in situations where it can save lives and reduce suffering," there is an easy answer here, too. "Then I have nothing to say to you. I think that your religous beliefs are false. However, they are not costing lives or causing suffering. If you care to preserve life and reduce suffering, how about joining me in challenging these intellectually reckless ideas that are doing such harm?"

Remember, drunk driving is not a moral crime when one drives drunk on one's own 10,000 acre ranch on which there are no other people. It only becomes a moral crime when one gets out on the public roads and creates a morally irresponsible risk to the lives and well-being of others.

Another feature of this method is that it leaves one free, without hypocrisy, to also challenge the atheist who is being intellectually reckless. One is not confined to accepting the wrongs of members of the atheist tribe because one is blaming 'religion' and atheists are not religious.

It does have a drawback, however. It will not earn you membership in either the 'New Atheist' or the 'Accomodationist' tribes. The 'New Atheist' tribe will reject you because you target intellectual recklessness rather than religion.

The 'accomodationists' will reject you because you are willing to say - when it is true, based on being able to identify people actually harmed by the behavior motivated by that religion - "Then YOUR religion is morally reckless and undeserving of respect. For the sake of those harmed, it deserves no accommodation." This is true of a huge part of current religion.

However, I still think that it has a lot to recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. This one will have me thinking for a while.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. I have been trying to put these ideas into words for years, and you just did it better than I would ever hope to be capable of.

Paul Prescod said...

What if I told you that there exists a book that has the answer to every ethical question. If you just read it correctly, you can get every ethical question answered. If your own ethics conflict with the book, then either you are misinterpreting the book or your ethics are wrong.

The book is around 2500 years old, and it has a lot of stuff in it, so it is hard to interpret. If you use a naive interpretation then you might think it justifies genocide, slavery and rape. But you would be wrong, because the book is perfect and makes no mistakes on topics of ethics.

My question for you is simple: "is my position WRT to this book intellectually responsible or intellectually reckless?"

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Paul Prescod

It depends.

What is your evidence for that belief?

One cannot simply identify a belief and claim that it is intellectually reckless. One has to examine the way that the person got to that belief.

Now, given the answer most people would actually give to how they got to this conclusion, I would accuse them of intellectual recklessness.

If they accuse me of intolerance, I will answer that my intolerance of intellectual recklessness is on a par with my intollerance of other forms of recklessness - and ask them how tolerant they are of, for example, drunk driving.

Aphan said...

The book Paul mentions notwithstanding, you might find that this books echoes, explores and amplifies some of the themes of this post in constructive ways.