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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Going off the rails - the Aikin and Talisse teachable moment

As I said yesterday, the kerfuffle with Aikin and Talisse is potentially a teachable moment. Let's have a look at the first paragraph of the piece published in February that caused all the fuss:
Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea [sic] that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.
Aikin and Talisse seem surprised that this got people upset, but let's look at the problems just in these opening sentences. First, they say they have "already been charged" with the "cardinal sin" of accommodationism. What they don't tell us is that the charges did not come from any publicly known New Atheist figure ... but from anonymous correspondents who sent emails! When the sentence goes on to say, "the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists" it is strongly implied that they have done something that New Atheists actually object to - not something that some stray anonymous people with email accounts object to. Yes, it does not say that in so many words, but language does not always communicate so literally. Even statutes are not usually construed completely literally. There's also the small problem of referring to accommodationism as "the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists". This is not neutral language - since New Atheists do not believe in "sin", and the whole piece is aimed at secular people, using such a metaphor establishes a sneering tone.

Fine, people get to sneer if they want to. But when you take such a tone you shouldn't be surprised if you're seen, at a minimum, as distancing yourself from the people you've sneered at.

Within the first few sentences, then, Aikin and Talisse have implied that New Atheists are opposed to whatever they did that has been branded "accommodationism", and they (Aikin and Talisse) have sneered at the idea of accommodationism as a "cardinal sin" in the New Atheist conception of the world. It's no wonder that the rhetoric here put many people off, and if they are surprised that it had this effect, as they say they are, I am surprised at their surprise.

They go on to say, "Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect." At this stage, there is no suggestion that the people who considered it an "offense" were some anonymous email correspondents. Anyone reading the piece cold will assume that New Atheists consider the idea of atheists owing anything like respect to religious believers to be (1) an instance of accommodationism, (2) an offense, and (3), at least metaphorically, a "cardinal sin".

Of course, New Atheist thinkers simply do not think any of these things. Not only that, most people who have some public profile as New Atheists find ourselves constantly on the back foot having to explain that we don't think anything so extreme, despite the repeated accusations. It's a bit like the continual claims that Richard Dawkins thinks teaching your religious beliefs to your children is child abuse, when what he actually says is far more complex and nuanced (see pages 311-44 of the original editions of The God Delusion). After a while this sort of thing becomes infuriating.

In the space of a few sentences, Aikin and Talisse have misrepresented and sneered at our position and done their small bit to undermine our efforts to explain our position in the face of widespread misrepresentations.

The facts are that (1) the criticisms did not come from New Atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett, or from people who are involved on the "New Atheist" side in the public debates about accommodationism, such as Jerry Coyne or Ophelia Benson or me. They came from anonymous email correspondents. (2) New Atheists do not claim that it is wrong to show respect to religious believers (they/we tend to think that respect should be shown to them in many but not all circumstances). (3) New Atheists mean something totally different by "accommodationism".

And (4) New Atheists do not have a concept of "sin". They, or we, may well object to accomodationism, but the objection is mainly an intellectual one - we do not think that religion and science are compatible, at least not in any way that can be asserted straightforwardly, and we object when we are told not to discuss our views on science/religion compatibilility in public. This is what the accommodationism debate is all about. It has very little (I'm tempted to say "nothing") to do with whether we should treat religious believers with respect. That's a separate (non-)issue.

So I'm just not buying the idea that Aikin and Talisse should feel "surprise" at New Atheist objections to their opening paragraph. If they'd put themselves in the shoes of New Atheists, rather than writing about New Atheists as a group who can be sneered at, and have their views, to say the least, represented without due concern for accuracy, then they simply would not have produced that paragraph in anything like the form that they did. A more careful and neutral version would have read more like the following:
Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already received a number of anonymous emails charging us with accommodationism. Accommodationism is opposed by New Atheist thinkers, but we are simply not guilty of it in the sense that they usually have in mind, i.e., we do not claim a compatibility between science and religion - we do not claims that religious doctrines can be accommodated unproblematically within a view of the universe based on science. Nor do we claim that areas of tension or incompatibility between religion and science should be off-limits in public debate.

The emails we've received mainly criticize the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.

That, however, is a misguided position and goes far beyond what New Atheist thinkers appear to mean when they criticize accommodationism. Even if they oppose respect for religion, they do not generally oppose respect for individual believers.
Although this version is much more accurate, it loses some of the rhetorical vigour of what was actually published. Fine, I can see that.

But here's a thought. We should all be prepared to criticise our allies, but something has gone wrong if we feel the need to use rhetorically vigorous wording when we do so. As soon as we do so, we are distancing ourselves from them, creating a situation where we invite our audience to join us in treating those allies as "other". Now, I don't mind that sort of complicity between writer and reader - it happens all the time; it's a legitimate rhetorical approach - but if you apply it to your allies you shouldn't then be surprised if they feel that, first, you've distanced yourself from them, and, second, you've used them to make your own point without regard to how it affects them. If this is done in such a way as to weaken your allies' public standing or to undermine them in existing debates that they're involved with, they will indeed feel - with some justification - that they've been thrown under the bus.

Now, Aikin and Talisse can say what they like about whomever they like. There's no use getting too precious about it. But once again, if they're surprised that what they wrote was read as throwing New Atheists under the bus ... then I'm surprised at their surprise.

They spend a lot of space in their February piece analysing whether or not we should show respect to religious believers. I don't find it all convincing, but that's beside the point because I actually agree with the general sentiment. But it would have been nice if they'd engaged, before they went to print, in some analysis of their own rhetoric - and not least the vital omission of the fact that they were replying to anonymous emails that no one else had seen.

And it's not as if it's only the first paragraph that causes these sorts of problems. Near the end they say this:
The proper response to this state of affairs is to address religious believers as fellow rational agents, to elicit from them their best arguments and their conception of what evidence there is, and to make a case for one’s own view. Correspondingly, it is foolish to begin with an effort to discredit the intellects of religious believers or to diagnose them as benighted, foolish, and intellectually cowardly. To be sure, there are plenty of religious believers who fit these descriptions. But there are plenty of atheists who do too. It is here we part ways with the New Atheists, as what makes one a fool is not what one believes, but rather how one’s beliefs are related to one’s evidence.
Here they are still at it, claiming that they "part ways with the New Atheists", when surely what they mean is that they part ways with a group of anonymous email writers.

That said, I think that some of what they say in the just-quoted paragraph is rather naive. In many cases, it is not possible to distinguish so sharply between what someone believes and how her beliefs are related to her evidence. The situation is much more complicated than that, partly because somebody's fundamental prior beliefs can create a cognitive disability that hinders her in obtaining the truth, while also causing her to act in ways that are almost indistinguishable from ordinary intellectual dishonesty. But that's another story - the point is that New Atheists are not committed to some simplistic account of human psychology where false belief and foolishness are simply conflated.

Again, it's not surprising if publicly known New Atheist thinkers feel that they've been "othered" in this piece, rather than treated like valued allies and comrades, and have had their ground in the struggle of ideas unnecessarily undermined.

All that said, the writers of those anonymous emails also have something to answer for. Accusing Aikin and Talisse of accommodationism, merely for arguing that religious believers be given respect, was factually wrong, an unnecessarily hostile act, and must surely have created a misleading impression of what New Atheists actually think, to the extent that these people implied that they were basing their criticisms on New Atheist  concepts. I have no idea why people would go off half-cocked in that way in emails sent to strangers. It must surely have reinforced whatever misconceptions Aikin and Talisse started with.

The whole thing went off the rails very quickly - and there are lessons to be learned all round.

14 comments:

Michael Fugate said...

I found their reply to be extremely condescending, for instance the first sentence of paragraph four reads, "But a careful reading of the piece cannot sustain the reading many of these critics have proposed." They place all of the blame on their critics and accept none for unclear writing. They should have apologized for writing a piece that many, many intelligent people thought said something they now claim it didn't.

stevec said...

To someone who's wasn't raised with any religion, religion does seem, well, no nice way to put it, very obviously crazy. From my point of view, the religious deserve no more and probably less respect than advocates of a flat earth, HIV deniers, climate change deniers, UFO abduction groupies, Raelians, Mormons, Christians, Muslims, etc. All very very obviously stupid batshit crazy insane.

What's the problem here? It's OBVIOUSLY ridiculous. OBVIOUSLY. One would have to be either an idiot, or brainwashed not to see it. Stating this very obvious fact seems to be problem for some people.

Russell Blackford said...

What's "obvious" to one person isn't necessarily obvious to another person who (for example) had a totally different socialisation. We can ask people to try to step out of their socialisation and consider how things look without the overlay, but that's another thing.

I think that objective morality, libertarian free will, and various other things that a lot of atheists find plausible, are wildly counterintuitive - just as counterintuitive as theism or religion. But I don't go around saying that people who believe in these things are crazy.

Rorschach said...

Excuse me, but this is ridiculous. We are told there are people writing emails, "without leaving their surname", who accuse those philosophers of accomodationism. I'm not arguing one way or another until I have seen those emails. Do they exist ?
And I most definetely disagree with them on one thing: Being religious most certainly makes one irrational, and not just wrong.

Dave Ricks said...

Of their critics: "Who are these people? We have no idea." -- Aiken and Talisse

To paraphrase Hitchens, sometimes the best refutation is to simply underline what they say.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't see any reason to accuse these perfectly respectable, known people of simply lying. I get weird emails too, and not just from David Mabus, so I find that part plausible enough. But they could have said in the first place that that's all it was. It's not a good set of events to use as a hook for an article.

I'm not even particularly interested in getting people to apologise, but otherwise I think Michael Fugate above has nailed it.

A pity, because Aikin and Talisse are people who probably should be, and ultimately probably will be (when the smoke clears), our allies. But they opened a hornets' nest, and I think it's worth reflecting on how this can have happened.

Russell Blackford said...

I should also say that I'm not a great fan of that sub-title for the book myself. I find it slightly annoying. That's not because I am against showing respect to religious people, as people, but because the sub-title in itself sounds like the authors are trying to distance themselves from all those gnasty disrespectful atheists.

However, I wouldn't have been worried about this in isolation. Titles and sub-titles are formulated largely for marketing reasons, and not too much weight should be given to them one way or another. The real proof of the pudding will be in the reading of the book itself. From what we know about it so far it sounds like it might be good.

Anonymous said...

New Atheists = Stalinists

Accommodationalists = Trotskyites

Anonymous said...

I read this piece last month, and found the whole column to be hugely ironic, though that was almost certainly unintentional. A&T named not a single critic, quoted not a single complaint, misrepresented New Atheist positions, and in short constructed an elaborate strawman 'argument' against New Atheists. The irony is that by doing so they're according us vastly less respect than they're demanding for believers. Piss on 'em. I determined at that reading that if this was the best they could do, then their book wouldn't be worth reading. Your post here hasn't changed my mind, Mr Blackford.

Pete Moulton

Michael Fugate said...

Russell, you are right. They need not to apologize, but only acknowledge that their writing may have contributed to the initial misunderstanding.

Russell Blackford said...

Fair enough, Pete - and if this has been partly an attempt at "branding" themselves for commercial reasons, it's worth noting that they have lost some potential customers. And you know, a slightly more apologetic tone in their follow-up piece would have been helpful, to say the least.

Mark Jones said...

It's an odd piece from Aikin and Talisse; how did they confirm the source of the criticisms? Were the emails from anonymous@newatheists.com? Or did they say 'Speaking as a new atheist, you are a pair of accommodationists!'?

It would be nice to see the texts of the e-mails, and since they're anonymous, I can't see there should be any problem in that.

Since the Tom Johnson affair, it's plain that theists are prepared to Poe to justify their bizarre beliefs, so it's as well to be sceptical of any such reports.

Jerry Coyne said...

I wonder how many emails they really got, and if they'd be willing to publicize them without identifying their senders. If it's only one or three emails, then it wasn't worth their even writing about it.

Frankly, I smell a Johnson here.

Mariah said...

Michael Fugate is damn right -- their "clarification" was just more sneering. FWIW, I do think "a careful reading of the piece" could have anticipated a lot of A&T's later clarifications. They didn't say the things many thought they said, but they went out of their way to imply it -- though I found that on a second reading, their consistency in implying-but-not-stating certain things was very obvious.

In their reply, A&T ridiculed the notion of "citing sources" when your source is an anonymous e-mailer. But that's either a disingenuous evasion, or just fucking completely missing the point. That they never said it was anonymous e-mails engendered untold confusion. Now, I will say on a second reading, I guessed they were talking about anonymous e-mails... but they went out of their way to hide this fact in the original piece, and to imply otherwise without actually saying anything false.

The original piece, I believe, was written so as to intentionally provoke, for the purposes of getting attention for their book. I guess that's not sooo big of a deal, but they were definitely kind of being dicks there for a minute.