The war of True Atheists and True Skeptics against the so-called accommodationists - blog by Gurdur


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The war of True Atheists and True Skeptics against the so-called accommodationists
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Posted 23-Apr-2010 at 08:27 AM (08:27) by Gurdur
Updated 23-Apr-2010 at 05:45 PM (17:45) by Gurdur

It is of great concern to many True Atheists/True Skeptics that there are so-called accommodationists, people who are considered counter-revolutionary traitors dangerously soft on religion. I've blogged before about the incredible over-reaction shown by Russell Blackford and Ophelia Benson (among others) towards Chris Mooney, and about Jerry Coyne's childishness towards the so-called accommodationists. There are newcomers to the ongoing revolutionary struggle debate, and their views are worth considering here. Let's look at such a one: Miranda Celeste Hale (mirandachale), who blogs over at, and who is one of the lesser-known of the atheist movement's footsoldiers, just like me. The attitudes she expresses are true of many of those who espouse the True Atheist and anti-accommodationist line, but she proclaims them very clearly, and it's therefore worthwhile examining them.

Now, there are things Miranda Celeste Hale writes that I can very easily wholeheartedly agree with, but not where she has blogged about how much she hates what she calls "servile deference", where she writes:

I’m really, really tired of skeptics who are committed to investigating and criticizing irrationality unless that irrationality is of the religious sort. I certainly commend anyone who devotes their time to combating irrational and baseless paranormal/supernatural claims, but there’s absolutely no excuse for excluding religious beliefs/assertions/practices from that inquiry and criticism just so that the skeptic in question can cling desperately to their own irrational faith and/or avoid offending religious individuals.
This is arrogant and wrong. People do have different areas of interest and concentration. Wikipedia link for James Randi James Randi, for one, while an atheist, does not go in for attacking religion very often at all; he prefers to keep his focus on other areas of supernaturalism and pseudoscience. Again, James Randi has done one hell of a lot for skepticism. I know of other atheists like the blogger skepticat who prefer to concentrate on combating homeopathy and so on, with a side-dollop of combating Islamist extremism.

The choice to concentrate on certain aspects but not others is a matter of personal interest and focus; abusing that is simply abusing anyone who won't do as you say.

..... You can’t legitimately and honestly claim to be a skeptic if you cling to an irrational and completely unevidenced belief in God.
Bollocks. Quite apart from the No True Skeptic line (or in other words, who the hell gets to draw up the Official Party Line on who is a "true skeptic"?), some of the world's best-known and most effective skeptics have been people like Wikipedia link for Martin Gardner Martin Gardner, whose tireless promotion of science and skeptism really helped the foundation and drive of Wikipedia link for CSICOP CSICOP. Martin Gardner is a vague theist, for credo consolans reasons (credo consolans meaning roughly believing in god or gods for comforting); that may well be seen as highly embarrassing and unfortunate, but Martin Gardner has done one hell of a lot more for the promotion of skepticism and science than have PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Larry Moran combined.

Another thing is that quite a few atheists are unadulterated True Believers who worship Ayn Rand. Now that to me is more silly than Mormonism. Are these Randian atheists True Skeptics or not? Just wondering. How about atheists who refuse to accept the Anthropogenic Global Warming line? What about all the other issues that divide the atheist movement? To be very blunt, skeptics are humans, and like all humans, all skeptics tend to have their own personal areas of blindness.

Just apart from all of that, there is also the point that in skepticism we need all we can get of those people who aren't too over some line or other. The world needs skeptics, and it really doesn't help to start grandly proclaiming who is a True Scotsman I mean who is a True Skeptic and who isn't.

.... I know that some people try to get around this with all sorts of NOMA-esque nonsense, the core of which seems to be “God is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.” But that’s complete and utter bullshit. All supernatural claims are (and must be) subject to scientific scrutiny. ...
And this is where the usual suspect walks in, the usual strawman of alleged accommodationism, much used by PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne and others. You would be very hard-pressed to find any so-called accommodationist who would say that all religious claims are beyond scientific scrutiny; yet you get people like Miranda Celeste Hale and others claiming somehow that all so-called accommodationism is somehow about protecting all religious claims from scrutiny. Well, that's bullshit. The so-called accommodationists are critical of religion; they just differ from the True Atheists and True Skeptics about the best way to go about it, and what to concentrate on.

It also shows a lack of understanding about just what the NOMA principle actually is. The NOMA principle is one formulated by Wikipedia link for Stephen Jay Gould Stephen Jay Gould, and the acronym stands for Wikipedia link for Non-Overlapping Magisteria Non-Overlapping Magisteria, meaning that science and religion chiefly occupy different domains (here, magisteria = domains or categories), and one domain cannot really have much bearing on the other one.

For example, if I say the strength of gravity on Earth on average is 9.81 m/s2 (32.2 ft/s2), then I am making a scientific claim. Such a claim is well open to scientific scrutiny.

If someone makes a claim that gravity does not exist, again, that claim is well open to scientific scrutiny.

But if someone makes a claim that there is a non-material God who doesn't actually do much anything special these days, the claim starts moving out of the field of what can be actually tested, and so starts moving out of the scientific domain.

There are in fact questions science cannot ever answer; one of those questions is whether you personally should cheat in your income-tax return, or whether you should murder if you can get away with it, and so on. Attempts to pretend science can answer such claims have met with dismal failure; science can tell you the overall economic effect if you cheat on your income-tax claim, and science can tell you the likely population decrease if you murder lots and lots and lots of people, but science cannot tell you if it is "right" or "wrong" to cheat or to murder, if you should or should not. Science can only deal with measurable cause and effect, it cannot deal with aesthetics (is the art of Rembrandt better than the art of Jackson Pollock?), it cannot make ethics, it cannot make value judgments.

So right there we see domains where science has no power; science in those domains is reduced to quantifying the effects of value judgments, and is unable to make the value judgments themselves.

Similarly, it is said much of religion reduces to such non-scientific claims, and this is what Stephen Jay Gould was getting at; and Gould did not exempt all religious claims from scientific scrutiny, in fact he said, "...each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority ... This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, .... the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult ....".

Back to what Miranda says:

... It’s ridiculous to assert that God is a special case that shouldn’t be subject to the same rigorous investigation as any other supernatural claim. This kind of servile deference to the religious mindset is cravenly and incredibly tiresome. It seriously needs to stop.
It really is that simple.
No, what really needs to stop is the use of strawmen -- incorrect caricatures of what the opposition is saying. If Miranda knows of those who claim all religious claims are beyond all scientific scrutiny, then she should name them, instead of slurring together all "accommodationists" and "NOMA" and so on in some undifferentiated lump. It really is that simple.

Miranda goes on:

I’ll just add this: those who actively speak out against and work to combat the dangers of irrational religious belief are a hell of a lot more courageous and are doing much more important work than those who are debunking UFO sightings or psychics or Bigfoot or whatever.
Now that is truly ridiculous. James Randi has been subjected to nasty lawsuits, and just now we've had the case of Simon Singh in Britain, who was subjected to an immense libel lawsuit for saying critical things about claims made for treatments by chiropractors.

The matters that Randi and Singh have tackled are important matters, and they've been through some very rough times for tackling those matters. Moreover, most of the fight against Creationism in the USA has been carried out by those who are decried as accommodationists, and much of the best promotion of science and evolutionary biology again is done by those who are denounced as accommodationists -- the fight against Creationism in the USA was not helped much by True Atheists/True Skeptics like PZ Myers or Coyne.

As for those criticising religion, much of the work there is done by the religious themselves (in protesting about protection of paedophiles within the Roman Catholic Church for example), or by otherwise non-involved bystanders who suddenly get very involved on specific aspects, like the work of the newspaper The Boston Globe and its reporter Michael Paulson who uncovered accusations of sex abuse by clergy in Boston and efforts by the Catholic Church hierarchy to cover the whole thing up, and so on. Certainly, there is a role for atheist criticism of religion here, and I myself as an atheist criticise religion from an atheist point of of view. But that does not change the fact that much of the most effective criticism has been done by those simply not terribly interested in atheism.

In the USA, where Miranda Celeste Hale is, and in pretty much all the Western world these days, it really does not require all that much courage at all to criticise religion. It's not like the Catholic Church can go around burning heretics anymore; blasphemy laws are almost dead in the West, and pretty much most criticisms of religion are never legally punished. It can however be quite risky (in legal and financial terms) to go up against claims about chiropractics, or psychics, and so on. Yes, there have been the fatwa. death threats, and murders against Salman Rushdie and the translators who translated Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses into various languages, and there was all the nastiness over the Danish newspaper cartoons affair, but on the whole those cases are few and far between. Most bloggers and so on in the West who criticise religion as a whole are never going to suffer one tiny bit from it, so I cannot see why it should be claimed that "... those who actively speak out against and work to combat the dangers of irrational religious belief are a hell of a lot more courageous and are doing much more important work than those who are debunking UFO sightings or psychics or Bigfoot or whatever".

Not only is it unnecessarily slighting and grandiose, it's ignorant and wrong.

In another blog post, Miranda goes up against Michael Shermer. Now Wikipedia link for Michael Shermer Michael Shermer is a skeptic, and he wrote an op-ed piece for CNN, "Religion, evolution can live side by side". It's pretty obviously an appeal to religious folks in the USA to accept evolution and science overall, written in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. You might think appealing to religious folks to be sensible about evolution would be relatively non-controversial, but you would be wrong; Shermer's op-ed piece became the centre of a mass of criticism. Michael Shermer responded to the criticism (his piece being also reproduced in the Huffington Post), and then he responded again on his blog, but some, like Miranda, remain righteously unhappy with Shermer. In that blog post, Miranda says:

Religion and science make fundamentally incompatible epistemological claims, ...
Sometimes not, you know. Science says nothing about, "Thou shalt not murder", for example. Religion does not make only epistemological claims, and that is the entire point. Epistemological claims are largely open to scientific scrutiny. Non-epistemological claims largely aren't.

... and there is no need to pretend otherwise or to cater to anyone’s baseless and irrational religious faith by assuring them that “Big Bad Science” won’t affect their ability to maintain their unexamined beliefs. Of course it will. As it should.
What is being objected to here is saying that religion and evolution can be compatible. Never mind that a surprising percentage of modern USA scientists are in fact religious in one way or another; never mind that a whole lot of Christians in the West accept evolution; there are those of the True Atheists who would prefer it all if no-one ever said in public that evolution and religion can be compatible, let alone science and religion.

Miranda goes on to say:

... Accommodationism is extremely dangerous and detrimental to the scientific literacy of individuals and of society as a whole.
That is hysterical bullshit. It's the so-called accommodationists like Martin Gardner, Wikipedia link for Chris Mooney Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum who have in fact done a huge deal for scientific literacy, whether the True Atheists like that or not.

I did have to laugh at the next bit, which is where in relation to a bit Shermer wrote Miranda complains:

.... That’s incredibly rude and not-so-subtly disparaging and disrespectful to both Dawkins and Coyne, neither of whom are disrespectful or impolite individuals.
Now, seriously, which planet is this? Please. While Dawkins is generally a nice person, even Dawkins has some problems with civility, which were highlighted in the recent RDF affair. But granted he's a nice bloke on the whole. Jerry Coyne is different. Jerry Coyne holds stupid competitions to come up with silly names for those he doesn't like. He is quite simply childish, and Jerry Coyne's obsession with so-called accommodationists doesn't inspire confidence either.

One physicist responded to Coyne's attacks as follows: "Michael Freakin’ Shermer’s heart is not pure enough for Jerry Coyne. If Jerry Falwell’s circle of orthodoxy was, say, 1 meter in radius, then His Worshipfulness The Right Reverend Jerry Coyne’s circle of orthodoxy has a radius of, roughly, a Planck Length."

Then Miranda continues:

Wow. He just does not get it. ... Obviously, everyone can believe whatever they’d like. What they cannot do, and what must always be opposed, is attempt to assert that their irrational and baseless beliefs provide a legitimate basis for any sort of epistemological claims or that their beliefs deserve automatic, undeserved respect.
Which only shows Miranda does not get it. Obviously, like Coyne, Miranda Hale objects to Shermer appealing to the religious and saying religion and evolution can be compatible. That is rather different to what Miranda just said there. Shermer's focus is on getting evolution and science accepted by as many as possible, and he appeals to the religious to do so. Coyne and Miranda Hale don't like that.

Shermer also had written, "... To what end? So you can stand up tall and proud and proclaim “…but I never gave an inch to those faith heads!”? Well good for you! Just keep on playing “Nearer my Atheism to Thee” while the ship of humanity slips further into the depths of disaster."

To which Miranda replies:
That’s a vicious attack, plan and simple. Does he really think that those who actually get it, that those who understand that religion is the root of all irrationality in the world, are so busy trying to get religious people to “renounce” their faith” that they’re willfully and callously ignoring the major problems of the world?

Newsflash, Shermer: most of the major problems of the world are caused by religion. ...
This is ludicrous. Apart from denouncing Shermer's words as a "vicious attack", which is way overwrought, claiming that "religion is the root of all irrationality" is a bizarre claim. Since it also happens to be mostly an epistemological claim, perhaps Miranda Hale can give us some scientific proof for that? Hmmm?

Religion is definitely the root of a lot of irrationality (as well as vice versa), but to claim religion is the root of all irrationality is sheer bunkum.

To claim that most of the major problems of the world are caused by religion is also bollocks; what about global warming? Pollution? Over-population? Poverty?

Miranda Hale finishes by writing:
... And this fight certainly won’t be an effective one until accommodationists stop condescending to religious individuals and stop tiptoeing around irrational religious faith.

“Pick [our] battles carefully and choose [our] strategy wisely”? Accommodationism gives up the “battle” before it has even begun.

So, we finally get to see the real bones of contention:

Those who attack the so-called accommodationists do not want any atheists, skeptics or scientists publically proclaiming evolution and religion can be compatible.


According to them, the central or main cause of irrationality and/or the major problems of the world result from religion.


There is a very strong implication in all this that it is the so-called accomodationists who are holding back humanity from enlightenment. Never mind the churches, never mind the very large number of religious believers, never mind humans being their usual selves as bloody-minded contrarians --- somehow it is being implied that it is the accommodationists at fault for the lack of progress.


The so-called accommodationists are fighting one battle, the battle to get the wider public including religious folks to accept evolution and science more, including stating that science and evolution can be compatible with religion;


while the anti-accommodationists are fighting a completely different battle, the battle to get science to be shown as completely incompatible with religion.


The so-called accommodationists and the anti-accommodationists dislike each other for each side fighting different battles, rather than being on the same side. Whereby it must be said the anti-accommodationists are a good deal more strident about it.

The way that these stances, implicitly and/or explicitly common to most such attacking so-called accommodationists, are used to legitimize attacks on the so-called accommodationists and to legitimize some behaviours is also of interest, and that will be a big subject for future blog posts.

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  1. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    The majority, of even the most supposedly "rational" of atheists, still believe that free will has objective existence though, and continue to act as if justice, love, freedom, etc etc etc were objectively real.

    The greatest irrationality is believing that something is objectively "real" when it is not ( rather than knowingly believing in something that doesn't exist, for the "comfort" ). But it is interesting what people will swear blind they "see" empirical evidence for, and lay claim to rationality over.

    Atheism actually feels rather old fashioned, in that science debunked the objective existence of god two or more hundred years ago. An example of what that battle may have felt like is that currently growing around free will, ( a social construct which gained strength/credibility as a solution to the problem of belief in a god who couldn't do "bad" things ).

    I think that a great many of the atheist fundies would stop ranting so arrogantly and self-righteously about others' irrationality if they understood just how many things that they believe have objective existence don't in fact; if they really took in/digested the implications of social construct theory for instance.

    Posted 23-Apr-2010 at 10:09 AM (10:09) by ouinon ouinon is offline
    Updated 23-Apr-2010 at 10:21 AM (10:21) by ouinon
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