Saturday, March 06, 2010

On Who Started It

I haven't attended to the whole "accomodationist" business in a while, but the aspidistra is still flying.

Josh Rosenau, [via John Wilkins] makes a point I have long argued here, that a great deal of neo-atheist rhetoric appears absorbed not with putting forth a rectified ideology, but with score-settling.

Rosenau cites the example of PZ Myers, one of the neo-athiests' most gifted shibbolecists, who defends a gratituous shot at noted "faitheist" Chris Mooney by writing
Did you read Mooney's last book, Josh? It's a bit late to tell ME that I'm taking cheap shots.
This is an unusual response from someone hoping to be thought of as representing the evolved, wise and mature point of view. But let's allow that it is an understandable one. We've all felt that it would be a lot easier to remain reasonable if only we were not besieged by hostility. Last summer I quoted Russell Blackford making just such an explicit argument:
It would be nice to live in a world where no one is ever called names, no one is ever sarcastic or nasty, nobody ever gets exasperated, all argument is totally civil and reasoned, all points are engaged rather than evaded, etc. But we don't live in that world, and I'm sick of the idea that it's okay for our opponents, such as these faithiests (not to mention the religious themselves) to be very nasty indeed, while a double standard applies requiring us so-called "New Atheists" to bend over backwards to be nice and not make the slightest fun of anyone else.
We all want to be taken seriously, granted respect, and given the benefit of the doubt. But whatever our disappointments on this score, the idea that Russell is "sick of" here is the main principle underlying the impulse to civilization itself. All adult, grownup behavior is subject to a double standard. That is the definition of adulthood in the post-Vendetta phase of human civilization.It is one of the main tasks of child-rearing--and one of the reasons why it takes so long in humans--to build a faculty for sublimating the urge to retaliate long enough to see one's other discursive options. Such a faculty is a baseline expectation for ordinary adults in our culture, not to mention philosophers and intellectual standard-bearers.

Being a grown-up means not relying on others to set the tone. It means being able to see, even in the heat of anger, that though your opponents may resemble, at the moment, a band of rock-throwing ogres, that they are actually human, like you--and that they may well feel, just as keenly as you, that someone else "started it."

Neo-atheists are fond of analogizing themselves to the civil rights movements of the late 20th century, and in the sense that many of them are struggling for the legitmacy and visibility of a non-theist view, they are right to do so. But no civil rights movement has made even a millimeter's progress by appealing to the spirit of retaliation. Dr. King didn't complain that the nastyness of his opponents made it too difficult to do his job, and neither did the leaders of the more successful arms of the women's rights and gay rights movements. They focused on the nobility of their vision, and let the ugliness of others make whatever impression it would. That is how progress happens.

Meanwhile, in the eternal contest over who is the oppressor and who the victim, what gets lost is the actual substance that supposedly underlies these great gifts--the case that would be made if it were to be decided on its merits, rather than on the triage of schoolyard transgressions. Wilkins gets into the question of just how scientific the supposed "incompatibility" of science and religion actually is, a subject I wrote several posts on1 last Summer, beginning with one titled "Is Neo-Atheism a Pseudo-Science?" That was in June, and since then I have seen nothing that would add any intellectual credibility to the "incompatibalist" position, which may in part explain why the low road in this debate is so often taken.

1As did John Pieret at Thoughts in a Haystack.

1 comment:

Michael Traynor said...


It's not a matter of ignoring the anti-accomodationists among the religious, since a) they're not here and b) the beneficiaries of accomodationism, folk like Ken Miller (or my utterly and rightly unknown self) who do oppose the reiligious anti-accomodationists.  Religious folk who accept science (though not to the scientistic level, say, Larry Moran would like) generally oppose the efforts of their co-religionists to use the coercive power of the state to impose their religion on the general population and who do challenge the lies about and distortions of science by the creationists.

Anti-accomodationists on both sides, religious and atheist, would like to see everything polarized, believing that if they can force choice between science and religion, they will win.  It's a pretty common political strategy which you can see in the American right in general, trying to make any compromise or accomodation impossible.