John Wilkins has tried to make some arguments for accommodationism. I am unimpressed. He makes six points that I briefly summarize here, with my reply.

  1. It’s the job of the religious to reconcile their beliefs with science, and atheists don’t get to “insist that nobody else can make the claim that their religious belief is consistent with science.” The first part is obvious — we aren’t going to compromise science with superstition, nor are we going to make excuses for them. The second part makes no sense. Nobody has been making that demand…but we will point out how silly the excused people make are.

  2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

  3. Some scientists are religious, and we don’t have the right to insist that they give it up. I have not heard a single atheist insist that anyone must give up their religion. I can imagine a majority voluntarily giving it up, but my imagination fails at the idea of going up to some believer and ordering them to stop believing. How do we do that? So, sorry, Wilkins — it’s another complaint about something no one is proposing.

  4. Scientific institutions shouldn’t be asserting that science is compatible with religion — let the religious do that themselves. That’s the very same thing the atheists have been saying all along.

  5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

  6. NOMA is wrong, and there is no war between religion and science. Wilkins continues his pattern of being half right. I agree that NOMA was a false attempt at reconciliation. I disagree that there is no conflict between religion and science. Religion is an archaic, failed mode of thinking that continues to demand greater respect than it deserves, and exploits tradition, fear, and emotion to maintain its undeserved position. Wilkins tries to compare it to two dancers jostling for space on a dance floor, I prefer to think of it as one dancer, humanity, afflicted with lice, religion, and twitching and squirming unpleasantly while struggling with a persistent parasite.

So, a resounding “eh”. However, then he tosses out this bizarre bit of philosophical insipidity that irritates, like an annoying bit of grit in my shoe. It’s one of those superficially reasonable comments that, with just a little thought, looks awfully stupid.

Only those who are completely without self-knowledge think they are entirely rational on every subject, and that this licenses attacking others for their perceived failings in that respect. I know I won’t change their mind either.

Grrr. Once again, we’ve got a caricature of the atheist position: who among us claims perfect self-knowledge and flawless rationality? We’re human beings, last I looked. However, to imply that we can therefore have no license to criticize irrationality is to claim that no one can say anything ever against foolishness. It’s an abdication of intellectual responsibility.

If I were to announce that I were absolutely rational and that I had perfect knowledge, I would expect to be rightfully attacked by people like John Wilkins for my obvious failing. Hey, he just did — even though I’ve never made such an assertion. But I think we’d both agree that such an extravagant claim would most definitely be an astonishing foolishness that ought to be smacked down. What a crazy idea!

John clearly thinks some philosophical claims are wrong. But the curious thing is that he thinks certain other claims are beyond our capacity to criticize.

If, for instance, someone believes that a god gave us magical absolution by turning into a man and dying temporarily, well, heck—that may not be an irrational, wacky idea at all. If this someone claims that they have a magical communication line to an omniscient superman who assures him that the 36-hour death absolution was really, really true, we should step back, take a charitably philosophical view of the idea, and abstain from calling him a very silly man.

There are limits to what we can attack as bad ideas.

But, apparently, there are no limits to the absurdities that the religious can advance.

It’s an asymmetrical situation that will be maintained as long as we have people insisting that we grant religious ideas a specially protected status. I reject that — I’m going to insist that it is fair game to attack the obvious failings of religion. And it’s not because I am unaware of the limitations of my knowledge, or because I believe I’m flawlessly rational.

It’s because the invisible monkeys in my pants dart out every once in a while to whisper the truth in my ear, in the ancient language of omniscient primates. And that is a source of knowledge nobody can attack me on, by Wilkins’ rules.