Not to delve into the accommodationism wars again, but this claim is just silly. Ophelia Benson comments on Michael Shermer commenting on Jerry Coyne commenting on Michael Shermer, and objects to Shermer’s claim that “the right way to respond to theists and/or theism… is simple: there is no one ‘right way’. There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context”:
He expands on the point, but without bothering to say what he means by ‘works.’ It’s a rather silly way to put it, frankly, because one doesn’t always expect one’s responses to ‘work’ – one sometimes simply wants to say what is true to the best of one’s ability, not to do what ‘works.’ This is a big part of the issue between accommodationists and critics of accommodationism, and it’s one of the most irritating things about accommodationists that they almost never seem to get that. Accommodationists always talk about what works, what wins more allies, what is least likely to offend the moderates, and similar calculating issues. Critics of accommodationism on the other hand tend to dislike manipulative rhetoric and tactical evasion, and want to try to tell the truth instead of trying to shape a message for fragile listeners.
Now, the narrow, boring reply would be that if the goal is simply to honestly state one’s views, then there are ways to respond that would work (i.e., achieve the stated goal), and others that don’t. But to go too far in that vein leaves us reading Shermer’s mind, and I’ll leave him to defend and define his own terminology.
What I object to is the claim that one much choose between telling the truth and shaping the message so as to maximize acceptance of one’s viewpoint. Truth, like love, is a many-splendored thing. There are a range of ways to express true statements (including true statements about untestable personal beliefs), and it seems fair to inquire which of those modes of expression is most likely to sway one’s audience. I’ve watched this debate for 5 years or so, and in all that time, I’ve not seen anyone make a convincing argument against that basic principle.
After all, if the goal is not to actually change people’s minds in some way, why bother speaking? If New Atheism (or whatever it wants to call itself) is a genuine political movement (as suggested by things like the Out Campaign, the basic rhetoric of Dawkins’s TGD, New Atheist comparisons of themselves to civil rights pioneers, etc.), then the goal is to change minds, to swell their ranks if not through outright conversions, at least through growing acceptance. Those are legitimate goals, and they are served more effectively by expressing truths in some ways and are ill-served by other ways of expressing those same truths.
If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal? To piss people off? To leave fat steaming piles of truth and force people to walk through them?
To the degree that I object to “New Atheism” (an ill-defined entity to which I am not entirely unsympathetic), my objection is to this precise aimlessness. By embracing Radical Honesty and railing against evidence-based communication strategy, they seem to be coming out against clearly stated goals, yet they complain when people refuse to treat them as a serious political movement. Sorry folks, but political movements have clearly stated political goals, and take actions with an eye (however skewed it may be) toward making those goals real. If the goal of New Atheism is more than pissing off anyone who isn’t a New Atheist, it’s time to talk about framing, message discipline, and dropping this attitude that “what works” doesn’t matter.