Greg Laden suggests A multiplicity of strategies is better than infighting when addressing creationism and related problems. That seems reasonable, and I’m intrigued by his diagnosis for the conflict over accommodationism and New Atheism:
I have always thought, naively and probably incorrectly, that what defined Accommodationist is what they think, not how they argue. At the same time, I have always thought that what defined a “New Atheist” is how we argued, and not what we think.
This strikes me as potentially right, and that the distinction between what one thinks and what one argues is a valuable one in this context.
When “accommodationists” (whatever that term means) and New Atheists (whatever that term means) tangle, it tends to go in circles, and that’s a hallmark of issues where people are talking past one another. If New Atheism is a style of argument and is oriented towards changing accommodationists’ style of argument, that’ll fail to connect with accommodationists who are trying to change New Atheist modes of thinking, and vice versa. New Atheism’s novelty (I’ve argued) is its focus on criticizing religion, not just on defending godlessness as a personal choice. I think that matches up nicely with “how we argue.” And accommodationism is rooted in a commitment to pluralism: to a methodological naturalism that need not entail a philosophical naturalism, and that therefore can include religious folks as allies in defense of both science and a pluralistic, classically liberal society. And I think that can fairly be described as what we think, not simply a style of argument.
The best thing about Greg’s assessment is the realization that, to the extent these terms apply to different axes, not to different ends of the same axis, it is possible in principle for a New Atheist to be accommodationist. So, when Richard Dawkins – whose writings helped define New Atheism – says that science and religion can be compatible in some sense, he could well be both a New Atheist and an accommodationist. When he and PZ Myers reach out to religious groups as allies against creationist school plans, they could be both New Atheists and accommodationists. And if New Atheism is, as Greg argues, a style of argument, then it is not a matter of identity, but is a rhetorical style that one can cast off at times, and can re-adopt at other times. Accommodationism can be a mode of thinking that is useful in some cases, and New Atheism can be a style of argument that could be useful in some cases, and the question would not be who is right. The question would simply be under what circumstances it would be best to apply either or both.
Under this framework, the issue is not one of personal identity, but of what approaches work best for a given goal. I’ve yet to see a compelling empirical case for New or gnu atheism as a style of argument, but I remain open to it. I’ve tried to lay out the empirical and philosophical arguments in favor of accommodationism (the preceding links are examples, not meant to be comprehensive), and I hope others found those arguments compelling. As I’ve said repeatedly, my goal (and, to my knowledge, that of other accommodationists) is not to have New Atheism go away, nor for New Atheists to “shut up.” If their arguments are philosophical, then those arguments belong in philosophy journals. If they’re political or tactical, they belong in political science journals. If sociological, then there are journals for that, too.
I can happily endorse Laden’s call for pluralism. Let a thousand flowers bloom. But I also have to endorse Tribal Scientist Mike McRae’s warning:
There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will. …
Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.
Science communication suffers from a lot of confounding factors in the community, of which religious faith is but one. To atheists, it’s an important one. Making ground on these problems will take good information and calm, rational thinking. If atheists feel that there is a specific problem attacking science, what better tool to solve it than the tools of science itself?
Emphasis added. McRae has done a lot to dig out the evidence as it bears on this issue, and has found it lacking for New Atheism. I’ve yet to see any effort by New Atheists to respond to that critique, or to produce their own supporting evidence either by searching the literature or performing new research. And that’s a problem.