The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront” Religion is a False Dichotomy
Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2010
Last weekend the Council for Secular Humanism held their 30th anniversary conference in Los Angeles, and it was attended by many of the greatest minds in the humanist & skeptical movement. One of the headlining events of the conference was a panel on the topic of religion – titled “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” – and it has subsequently generated a great deal of discussion within the skeptical community.
The panel included such illuminaries as Jennifer Michael Hecht, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Chris Mooney, and Victor Stenger. Essentially, the entire discussion – which can be can be watched on U-Stream (part 1 and part 2) – revolved around one question:
How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? If we champion science, must we oppose faith? How best to approach flashpoints like evolution education?
There have been a couple of interesting things I’ve read and/or listened to on this question…
PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog - Confrontation all the way
Point of Inquiry’s episode - New Atheism or Accommodation?
… and I’ve either read online discussions about this or had personal conversations about it with other skeptics. Thus, since it is now a focal point for discussion, I’d like to include my thoughts on this whole issue, because I think that in large part the skeptical/humanist/non-religious communities are missing the forest through the trees…
1. The Skeptical Community Isn’t Monolithic
First of all, let me point out the obvious (or, at least, it should be obvious): the skeptical community isn’t monolithic. In my interactions with skeptics over many years (in personal discussion, via Internet message boards, at conferences, etc), I have come to one, firm conclusion: we don’t all agree on every issue.
Wow, that’s a big surprise, isn’t it? Of course, I’m being sarcastic, but it goes to the heart of the question presented at the CSH’s conference and why I think it is misguided. Think about it – once you get a large enough group of thoughtful people together, there is going to be dissent & disagreement. And you know what? There should be such disagreement! Such debate and discussion is necessary for a critical analysis of any question.
One of the worst things for any large group to get involved in is group think, whereby they cease to question their own reasoning, motives, and conclusions. To suppose that we skeptics are somehow different from the rest of humanity in this regard is both arrogant & foolish.
2. The Question of “Accommodation vs. Confrontation?” is a False Dichotomy
The assumption that we are a movement which should be one thing versus another is incredibly misguided, for the reasons I mentioned above. Thus, the notion that on questions of how skeptics should relate to the issue of, say, religious belief must come to one response or another is just plain dumb. Why must we “accommodate” or “confront” as a general response to the issue of religious belief? In my mind, this clearly sets up a false dichotomy – that the only solutions are “100% accommodation” or “100% confrontation” – which is stupid.
There are some circumstances in which, yes, I think we should accommodate religious belief. And, at the same time, there are circumstances whereby we should most assuredly confront religious belief. When and how to respond depends upon the context of the situation and must be approached as pragmatically as possible, in my opinion.
For example, if you are an atheist and your local school board is considering whether or not to incorporate a “textbook” on ID-creationism into their science curriculum and you are attending the public meeting on the matter, then I think you’d be an idiot to turn down the assistance of a local Catholic priest who wants to help you argue against creationism. Sure, you may not think there is any good reason for him to believe in God, but if he’s helping you address the problem at hand, why not accommodate his beliefs, set aside those particular differences & take the help?
Yet, at the same time, in the example above you are definitely confronting the fundamentalist religiously-motivated pseudoscientific garbage called creationism. These creationists are attempting to take over your local school board, they are pushing a particular belief (i.e., a 6000 year-old Earth) which can clearly be shown to be in direct conflict with accepted science, and they have an agenda which is to convert everyone (believer & non-believer alike) to their particular, fundamentalist viewpoint. Of course you should confront this nonsense!
3. Everybody Got a Gris-Gris
This brings me to my next point – namely, that even skeptics/humanists/atheists are clearly not any more or less rational than other people. Or, as magician Penn Jillette put it: “Everybody got a gris-gris.”
A gris-gris is a kind of lucky charm or talisman, but in this context I’m using it to refer to an irrationally heartfelt superstitious-type belief. The fact of the matter is that we all have something in which we believe quite strongly, even though it is irrational, weird, or just plain stupid. For some people, their gris-gris is religion, for others it is a ideological or political affiliation, while for others it’s an acceptance of some particular kind of pseudoscience. But the point is, we all have at least one.
My gris-gris is a “lucky coin” that I carry with me everywhere I go. My rational mind knows it isn’t really lucky, and that whether or not I have it with me will not affect the laws of probability. However, I have to have it with me – if I cannot find it in the morning, I get cold sweats & my heart flutters, and it throws off my whole day. I know it’s stupid, but it’s my gris-gris (I have others, but this will suffice for the point I’m making).
And if you bother to critically analyze yourself, I guarantee that you will find your own gris-gris. And you will quickly learn that many of your fellow skeptics will think your gris-gris is downright silly and perhaps worthy of having you kicked out of the skeptics’ “club”. But if we all start making such judgments of one another, then what happens to our community?
4. The Question Should Be “Unity vs. Division?”
So, for all these reasons, I think the entire question has been mischaracterized and is therefore terribly misguided. The question shouldn’t be one of “accommodation vs. confrontation” of religion, but it should be one of “unity vs. division” within the skeptical community.
In other words, are we going to allow our disagreements on particular issues (political, religious, beards vs. no-beards ) to divide us, or are we going to acknowledge that there can be legitimate points of disagreement within our ranks and focus instead upon the things that we clearly agree on? If we choose the former, then the skeptical movement will balkanize and fracture at a time when it has the potential to really break out into the broader society and make a difference. If we can swallow our collective pride just a bit, and we choose to agree to disagree on some things, then we can move ahead more effectively.
It sounds cliche, but “united we stand, divided we fall.”
Let me be clear: I have my personal view of what “skepticism should be”, but I’m also not so arrogant to believe that mine “is the right view.” There is a place for the confrontational PZ Myers’s of the community, just as there is a place for the accommodating Eugenie Scott’s, and yes, there is also a place for religious skeptics such as Dr. Pamela Gay. We all bring our own talents to the table, we all have our own gris-gris, and we are all in this together.
If we lose sight of that fact, then we have lost the battle already. And we would only have ourselves to blame if that were to happen.