Sunday, August 22, 2010

Accommodationism: A vexing asymmetry.

In my last argumentative post, I slipped in a bit of a sarcastic point at the end that I feel is worth treating more seriously. In that post, I said that:
It is truly unfortunate, however, that [his] approach to arguing for this controversial claim is to build such silly and distorted strawmen of atheists who might otherwise be more inclined to ally themselves with him in fighting the woo that he so rightfully expresses a passion to fight.
When I originally put those words to pixels, I intended only a cheap laugh at the thesis that atheists should keep quiet so as to not scare off the religious from the goal of (for instance) science education. This thesis, broadly called accommodationism by its detractors, including myself, has been been quite pervasive as of late (making it all the way to the AAAS, for instance), and has been the center of much discussion.

What bothers me most about accommodationism, however, is something that is too seldom remarked upon: its strange and vexing asymmetry. While it is often claimed that anti-religious sentiment scares off the religious from worthwhile causes, irregardless of how well or poorly it is supported by rational argument, I have never heard it argued that people need to be more accepting of atheists for fear of scaring us away from these same worthwhile causes. Does it not cause accommodationists consternation that referring to "fundamentalist atheists" may be the precise kind of incivility that that they fear poisons communities? Anecdotally, at least, I can confidently state that I have a harder time partaking in communities where my atheism is rejected out of hand and treated with derision rather than argued against.

Don't get me wrong, however, as I wouldn't dream of asking for special privilege and exemption from criticism. Criticism, when delivered in an honest and clear manner, is the lifeblood of an intellectual community. Rather, I find disturbing the comparative lack of concern at the derision pointed at atheists that one would expect from an intellectually consistent position. Is it the case, then, that atheists are seen as less desirable by such accommodationists than are the religious? Is it that atheists are seen as a more direct threat to the goals of promoting science in society than are the true fundamentalists?

There is another possibility that seems much more palatable to me. Atheists are seen as mature enough being able to take such derision in stride along with the criticism. For obvious and self-centered reasons, I should like to think that this is the case. Why, then, is the assumption that people of faith are less able to deal with both legitimate criticism and the sort of derision that comes with any emotional issue? Such an assumption seems to me to be more insulting than any of the derision thrown about by the atheists.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I think we should not let the valid and laudable pursuit of civility and mutual respect lead us into the sort of asymmetric mire that is accommodationism.

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