Monday, March 29, 2010

Am I an accomodationist?

There is an ongoing debate among atheists about "accomodationism." The anti-accomodationist side is well represented by P. Z. Myers, of Pharyngula fame. According to P.Z., atheists should have no truck with religion of any sort; rather, they should point out religious absurdities as often and as loudly as possible. On the other hand, there are those like Chris Mooney (science journalist and blogger) who point out that people don't like having fun poked at their most deeply held beliefs, that some scientists are very religious, and that to get a wider acceptance of important scientific ideas like evolution, it might be advisable to take a softer line on religion.

Let me start by agreeing that it's ridiculous to make a blanket statement (as the National Center for Science Education did not do, as far as I can tell) that "science and religion are compatible." It's equally ridiculous to claim that they're incompatible. The reason is simple, "religion" (and, yes, "science") means too many things to different people. It doesn't help to add, as Sean Carroll does, "for conventional definitions of science and religion." You have to ask: What sort of science? What sort of religion?

There are, of course, instances in which religious claims involve a matter of fact, and matters of fact are, in principle, subject to scientific investigation. Sometimes those claims are historical: "Jesus rose from the dead." Other times those claims are about the here and now: "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move...." (Matthew 17: 20) Historical claims can be subjected to historical investigation, and empirical claims can be subjected to empirical investigation. I don't know of any mountains that have been moved by faith. I do know that, as a society, we (here in the US) accept the empirical ineffectiveness of prayer to the extent that when parents pray for their sick children instead of getting medical attention for them we (quite rightly) consider the parents abusive. So there are certainly some sorts of religious claims that can be tested and found wanting.

However, there are whole realms of human experience that science does not, and perhaps cannot, touch. What about music, literature, and the visual arts? The fact is, humans are not rational beings. The arts address emotional, psychological, and spiritual (yes, I wrote "spiritual") needs of people that can't be addressed by rational means. Maybe some day there will be a science of aesthetics, and all art will be subjected to minute analysis and judged on some objective scale. No longer will there be any disagreement over the artistic score in the Olympic free skate. Not many people would have any truck with a system like that, I suspect. Or maybe we'll have all our emotional needs met by chemical and electrical stimulation of our brains. For now, though, these things remain outside of the area of science.

Religion clearly meets some sort of need for many billions of people, or it would not exist. The most cynical might say that it is the need of a small group to have power over, or take money from, other people. But if we are willing to admit the possibility that there are other, more admirable, purposes to religion, we should not be so fast to discard it. Sure, I wish people could get those needs met without relying on the myths and superstitions that so often go along with religion. But for the moment, that is what we are stuck with, and if we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we must accept that people find religion important in their lives, and find ways of communicating with those people in ways that don't turn them away immediately.

If I sneered at his or her opinions every time I talked to a friend with a different political bent, soon I would have no such friends left. If I sneered at their beliefs every time I talked to religious friends, soon I would have no religious friends. Less arrogance on the part of atheists, and a willingness to admit that science doesn't have all the answers, would help to keep the lines of communication open.I can only see that as a good thing.

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