Friday, December 09, 2011

The failure of accommodationism

There's no question that if you're reading my blog, directly or by syndication or republishing, you should also be reading Jerry Coyne's blog, Why Evolution is True. If by some weird chance you're not, you should definitely read Coyne's latest post, Julian Baggini discovers, to his chagrin, that atheism and “real” religion are incompatible. Let me briefly summarize Coyne's article, which itself summarizes a series of article by Baggini.

Baggini started out with a strong bias towards accommodationism. He declared "a plague on all their houses": "Janus-faced" mainstream religions, the "thin gruel" of agnostics and religious liberals, and the "tone deaf" anti-theist "New Atheists". Baggini undertook the task of radically restructuring the terms of the debate to find intellectual common ground between all these camps. To this end, after a series of seven essays, Baggini developed his four "articles of 21st century faith."

First, Baggini defines religion as a set of values and practices, a "way of life", and communities of people with similar values and practices, or combinations and permutations of these elements. Second, religious belief does not require supernaturalism or miracles. Third, religion makes no scientific claims; it does not assert anything about the world outside our minds. Fourth, religious texts are the creation of human beings and human beings alone. Baggini is no random ignoramus on the internet; he has a Ph.D. in philosophy, he has published a number of books, and he has been active in the accommodationist/confrontationalist debate for many years. His articles represents the best efforts of an educated, intelligent advocate to forge common ground between atheists and the religious.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baggini's attempt failed. His articles found acceptance only among those who were already atheist accommodationists or "thin gruel" religious liberals. I myself see nothing particularly objectionable about Baggini's articles, but I agree with Coyne that they do not seem to deserve the labels "faith" and "religion". But the notable failure was that no substantially religious person endorsed Baggini's articles. Their objections were the same as the atheists': his principles reject what is truly religious: a supernatural God, a God who intervenes in the physical, material world, a God who performs miracles, and a God who has specially revealed Himself through scripture.

For example, Coyne mentions "Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Cambridge, and a Christian," who "rejects the four tenets in a Guardian piece called 'Julian Baggini’s articles of faith are a nonstarter.'" Coyne quotes Chaplin, "Baggini wants a form of religion that is the 'benign, unsuperstitious thing that liberals and agnostics have said it is all along,'" a suggestion that few religious believers would find interesting. Instead, Chaplin suggests as common ground that "both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant." But this is ground that Coyne will not concede.

I concur with Coyne. I cannot see how any skeptical atheist, even an accommodationist, can concede what Chaplin suggests. To say that theistic beliefs have reasonable epistemic warrant is to say that we know God exists; to concede this warrant, an atheist would have to admit that he does not believe what he knows to be true. Alternatively, we would have to admit that contradictory beliefs can have reasonable epistemic warrant, which poses deeper and and more problematic metaphysical issues than the relatively trivial controversy over the presuppositions of naturalism. Such a concession would, I think, either force atheists to admit irrational contumacy or demolish our deepest intuitions about what knowledge ought to be. The former simply isn't true; while the latter might be true, I would need far better arguments than "it makes me feel good" to admit that I have profoundly misunderstood not just what knowledge is, but also what it ought to be.

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