Philosophers, Scientists, and the New Atheism

I am an atheist, and I am sympathetic to the so-called "New Atheists."  I am also a skeptic, and I have a background in philosophy, which means that I adopt a more tentative stance about knowledge and the justification for belief than most of my counterparts in religion and the hard sciences.  Because of my background, I find the recent trend among certain prominent philosophers and public intellectuals to mark out a kind of middle-ground position between hard-atheism and theism to be both disingenuous and alarming.   It is disingenuous because philosophers understand the distinction between questions of knowledge and questions of justification, and it is alarming because they are willing to disregard this distinction for the sake of promoting a politically-attractive position.

The question of God’s existence is incredibly loaded because, if God doesn’t exist, the majority of people in the world derive meaning in their lives from a lie.  For this reason, the capacity for natural science to explain why things happen without appeal to the supernatural is threatening to religion and to religious believers.  After all, if we can explain everything without appeal to God’s intervention, why introduce Him into the equation at all?  Nowhere is this issue more clearly demarcated than in the debate between evolutionists and creationists.  If evolution can explain why we are here, why we feel the way we feel, and why we do the things we do, then it looks as though God’s part in the equation (creation, intelligent design, etc.) is superfluous at best.  Moreover, if the human brain is just one more twig on the evolutionary tree, then there is no good reason to believe that there is some essential, special part of us, such as an immortal soul, which sets us apart and gives us free will and the possibility of life after death.  So, from a purely political perspective, it is easy to understand why the scientific community is cautious about addressing the implications of evolutionary theory.  If believing in evolution means believing in a Godless, soulless world, fewer people are going to find evolution attractive, and many people are going to be wary of teaching evolution to their kids.

Because of these implications, most supporters of empirical science have chosen one of two strategies in debate with religious detractors.  The first strategy is to insist that religion and science are "non-intersecting magisteria", that is, they address different kinds of questions.   For example, religion answers big, important, ultimate questions, such as the meaning of life, whereas science only describes the world as it is.  The second strategy is to grant that a literal interpretation of Scripture contradicts evolutionary theory but to minimize the importance of this contradiction by observing that a non-literal interpretation of the story of Genesis can be compatible with evolutionary theory.  Both strategies offer the promise of peacefully promoting scientific understanding, but unfortunately, in both cases, this peace is won dishonestly.

The first strategy is dishonest because it is plainly untrue that science and religion are non-intersecting.  Science and religion both make objective claims about the observable world, and these claims absolutely have moral implications for how we should live our lives.  It certainly is the case that people with religious worldviews tend to hold a slightly different set of values from people who hold materialist/naturalist worldviews, but this does not mean that the non-religious have no position on how they ought to live their lives, nor does it mean that the religious have nothing to say about how the world works.  On the contrary, the battle between religion and science exists precisely because people on both sides do have answers to both types of questions and those answers contradict each other.  For example, it cannot be the case that prayer both works and does not work, nor can it be the case that spirits exist and do not exist.  If a person is hearing voices, either the voices are coming from evil spirits that must be exorcised by prayer OR the voices are the result of schizophrenia, which must be treated by medication.  The way we answer these questions matters, which is why our grounds for selecting answers -the justifications for our beliefs- matter.

The second strategy, which might be called the "accommodationist" position, does not make any out-and-out false claims, but it is deceptive nonetheless.  It is perfectly true that God could exist as a kind of blind watch-maker who got the evolutionary ball rolling and then sat back for the rest of eternity.  However, a non-interventionist God, while no contradiction to a naturalistic world view, is entirely superfluous to the evolutionary account of the origin of life.   It doesn’t do any explanatory work for the theory.  Moreover, it is patronizing for scientists to pretend that this concession is a real accommodation to people of faith because the kind of God that is compatible with naturalistic evolution is not the kind of God that answers prayers or performs miracles, i.e., it is not the kind of God that most religious people worship.   Most accommodationists don’t see the harm in religious people praying or believing in an interventionist God because they recognize that most people who hold this kind of faith but also believe in evolution do not recognize the internal contradiction.  This makes the accommodationists particularly insidious because they tacitly promote one kind of ignorance (contradictory beliefs) over another, ostensibly more offensive kind of ignorance (religious fundamentalism), rather than risk promoting a more honest but unpopular position.

I don’t claim to know for certain that God does not exist, nor do I claim to know for certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I think that my beliefs are well-justified.  If my beliefs are well-justified, then people who have access to the same information that I have but hold opposing beliefs are not as well-justified.  This is an implication of holding considered opinions:  I cannot apply a standard of justification for my own beliefs but pretend that there is no objective hierarchy of justification for the beliefs of others.  To pretend that people who believe that the Bible is literally true are wrong, but that those who merely believe in an interventionist God are justified is both absurd and dishonest.  But, this is exactly the position upon which the "middle ground" between theism and naturalistic materialism is founded.  It is not a moderate position at all.  It is sophistry, and it is condescending.

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23 Responses to “Philosophers, Scientists, and the New Atheism”

  1. CW Says:

    I like how you broke down the discussion into two main points. I’ve gone back and forth on the “accommodationist” view many times over. Just reading blog posts from Chris Mooney, PZ Myers & Jerry Coyne had me waffling more than the assembly line at Kellogg’s Eggo factory.

    I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m more of an accomodationist. Like many others, its because of my temperament and personality. I’d rather try to make someone come to appreciate as much science as possible, even if it means saying something like “science is learning about how God made the world” (I hope I didn’t make Jim vomit all over his keyboard). Because if I can bring someone to science in baby steps, then I’ll feel like this is more triumphant than giving up and abandoning someone in total ignorance.

    I sort of use the following analogy: If you want to introduce a new food item to a person, and this person is hesitant – you have to at first hype it up a bit, compare it to tastes/textures of foods that you know this person may already like – as a means of putting them at ease.

    Patronizing? Sure.

    But I think if I was a scientist, I would subject myself to doing this sort of thing, if it meant building a greater public appreciation/understanding of that which fuels my passion and also, gives me a salary and continual job security.

    • Jim Says:

      I’d rather try to make someone come to appreciate as much science as possible, even if it means saying something like “science is learning about how God made the world” (I hope I didn’t make Jim vomit all over his keyboard).

      That kind of thing doesn’t have that sort of effect on me at all. My concern there is that you’re being dishonest since you don’t really believe that’s the case in any way, and you’re damaging the possibility of genuine dialogue with that kind of dishonesty. I mean, what if they did the same thing with you? Then you couldn’t get anywhere. That would make discussion useless. I’m not trying to hammer you on that, just pointing out my concern on that issue. Ideas are kind of my stock and trade. I take ideas seriously. I want other people to take my ideas seriously. That suggests I should take other people’s ideas seriously, and that makes me think that talking down to someone and saying something that I don’t think is true at all is a bad idea.

      • CW Says:

        But I don’t consider teaching or introducing someone to new information as talking down to them. Does a mechanic talk down to me, when explaining what is wrong with my car? It seems to me, that he is merely explaining to me the mechanical failings, along with describing the parts and processes in my car that are causing the problems.

        So let’s say I don’t understand what he is talking about. The way I look at it, he can do one of three things: try and re-state what he already said (hoping that it will sink in), give up entirely on explaining it to me (thinking that I can not ever understand), or he can try to use tools/devices/short-cuts to better the success of my understanding. He could use analogies, generalities, and/or omission of superfluous details.

        Now, the mechanic wouldn’t say – “your car runs on magic,” to explain to me how a car works, and tell me faerie dust will fix it. Just like I wouldn’t say animal species are created by God, to explain how evolution works.

        I would describe exactly how evolution works, and maybe throw in a comment that this entire process could be part of God’s plan. And maybe the mechanic holds back on giving me every detail of what is wrong, after he explains the mechanical details, he then says something like “and your car’s computer helps to regulate this function.”

        Maybe this isn’t a fair analogy, but I’m just trying to convey the thought-process behind it. It’s not such a matter that we dismiss God from the picture entirely, but rather just offer the facts about what science does know.

        • Liza Says:

          It looks to me like throwing in the comment about evolution maybe being a part of God’s plan is unnecessary if all you’re trying to do is explain the theory. It seems more likely that you would say something like that when you anticipate people being hostile to evolutionary theory because they think it entails a Godless world. So, you throw that comment in to assuage their fears, not because it makes it easier to understand. I think this borders on emotional manipulation, and that’s why I find it dishonest. Of course, if you happen to believe in both evolution and God, you may just be sharing your experience, but most of the philosophers who are talking about this issue don’t believe in God, at least not an interventionist God, and that makes their promotion of this position disingenuous. If you appreciate the full depth and breadth of what natural science explains to us about the world, you are quite unlikely to believe in the kind of God that religious people worship. I certainly understand the temptation to “sell” evolutionary theory to the religious in this way, especially when the political stakes are so high. But, ultimately, I think that emotional manipulation is a mistake because the people who will be most susceptible to that kind of manipulation are at least as likely to be susceptible to manipulation from the other side. People who want to understand science and the world around us will find that evolution offers superior explanations. Our obligation is to make that information available to them and to challenge bad arguments presented as alternative “science” or “critical thinking.”

        • Jim Says:

          My concern there is the same, though, that when you “throw in a comment that this entire process could be part of God’s plan,” you’re both saying something that is in no way supported by the science you’re attempting to explain, and it’s something you believe to be untrue. It’s much more akin to the mechanic telling you “Ignition fairies are your problem here.” Even if you used it as a metaphor, it would still be dishonest as you would know that the person to whom you’re speaking takes it no such way.
          I do understand what you’re trying to do, but in the same way that it’s dishonest to get someone who believes in witch-doctory to take some medicine by telling them it has good spirits in it, it is dishonest for an atheist scientist to tell a Christian (or anyone else) that God is the Grand Designer. It may be politically expedient, but it’s still dishonest.

  2. James Gray Says:

    I agree with your main points here, but there are a couple of statements that I’m not so sure about.

    If evolution can explain why we are here, why we feel the way we feel, and why we do the things we do, then it looks as though God’s part in the equation (creation, intelligent design, etc.) is superfluous at best.

    I don’t think evolution alone can explain all this stuff entirely. Evolution is part of the explanation, but psychology is more than just evolution. There are particular things happening to particular human beings with minds of their own.

    Moreover, if the human brain is just one more twig on the evolutionary tree, then there is no good reason to believe that there is some essential, special part of us, such as an immortal soul, which sets us apart and gives us free will and the possibility of life after death.

    We can think. We have mental activity. We have experiences. By ignoring that fact and saying it’s “just evolution” seems strange. This is why John Searle is an attractive theorist when it comes to philosophy of the mind. He might go overboard, but he at least wants to admit that qualia exists and rationality is more than just ones and zeroes. The mind has a sort of unity and identity that atoms and energy don’t seem to have. I can’t have a thought unless I exist for more than a millisecond. The thought takes time to have and it seems to be unified as part of a single thing.

    • Jim Says:

      Liza is perfectly able to defend herself, but I guess I want to suggest that it’s a little pedantic on your part to suggest that the first quote you used from her talking about evolution suggests that she thinks evolutionary biology is the only thing with anything to contribute to the story. The story is huge, and I wouldn’t take her brevity on that point to mean that she is unaware of its breadth and depth.

      I do phil of mind. I don’t find Searle that attractive. Moreover, I don’t think many others do, either. You might, but you’re in the minority on that one. He’s a smart guy, and he’s good at articulating issues that need responses, but those issues do have responses. His biological naturalism isn’t even mentioned in most textbooks describing the various positions on the nature of the mind. All this is because his positive ideas just aren’t very good. More than that, it just turns out that our reflections on the nature of our minds, the way it “seems” to us, are not good indicators of how it is. We’re just not very good at understanding what’s going on in our own heads. Man, we’re not even good at knowing how we actually feel or at what those feelings are directed. People often think they’re angry when they’re really sad, or they think their co-workers have pissed them off when they really have troubles at home. If that weren’t the case it would make no sense when we say things like “I thought I was mad about dinner, but I was really just sad that the dog died.” All that suggests that rather than qualia being these things with intrinsic, ineffable qualities, etc etc, they’re really just judgments.
      Man, this is a huge, huge issue, and a lot has been written about it, and I don’t have much interest in getting in a debate about it here. I guess I just want to say that saying it’s “just evolution” is a perfectly respectable position held by the majority of professionals who deal with the mind, including philosophers of mind, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists.

      • James Gray Says:

        I have continually read philosophers who agree with Searle (at least to some extent.) They might not be in “philosophy of mind” though.

        Would you describe yourself as a functionalist? I don’t know that even Functionalists think the mind is completely reducible to physics. The view that there is something irreducible about the mind is a pretty popular view.

        Here is my main point: Evolution does not logically imply eliminative reductionism. This is the view that many religious people seem to equate with science or naturalism. Once we can show religious people that “God or eliminative materialism” is a false dichotomy, dialogue will become a lot easier. If a religious person reads this article or hear atheists talk as if eliminative reductionism is the atheist worldview, then they will think how simple it is to reject atheism. They will think something like the following:

        1. My mind allows me to interact with the world through reasoning (or to avoid pain, etc.)
        2. Atheists require that the mind is just atoms and stuff.
        3. Atoms and stuff can’t interact with the world though reasoning (or to avoid pain, etc.)
        4. Therefore, atheism is false.

        • Jim Says:

          Functionalists do not believe that mental states are numerically identical to brain states. They buy into a type/token identity rather than type/type identity. But I know of no functionalists who think that the mind is anything other than physical. The notion there is that minds are instantiated by physical things, the same way that chairs are. Chairs can be instantiated by any number of physical configurations and are not strictly reducible to any particular one. Rather, chairs are defined by the function of the instantiation, but the instantiation is always physical. The same would go for minds in the functionalist view. The inability to reduce mental states to a particular configuration of particles in no way should suggest that they don’t reduce to some set of particles.
          I think you’ve misunderstood what eliminative materialism is as no one make the argument you suggested, “God or eliminative materialism.” I mean, EM is fairly unpopular. Any theist who mistakes that for the common scientific position, atheistic or otherwise, has radically misunderstood something. But the two big monist positions, identity theory and functionalism, are both physicalist, and almost all professionals dealing with the mind are monists. For that matter, Searle is a physicalist as well. Biological naturalism is explicitly a physicalist position, so that’s no help to the theist, either.
          I don’t know what to say about the idea that theists would reason the manner you’ve suggested above. They might. They’d just be wrong as premise (3) is almost certainly false.

  3. CW Says:

    Another question that comes to mind. Is there any study or general rule of thumb of correlating accommodationist & non-accommodationist with previous religious belief?

    In other words, is it possible that accommodationists tend to be former believers – and they are drawing on their own experiences of gradual transitioning from belief to non-belief – as a template for their accommodationist approach? And if this is true, they may feel that humans don’t have the ability to switch from belief to non-belief so quickly…that they need to be weaned off of it gradually?

    • Amy G Dala Says:

      CW said: But I think if I was a scientist, I would subject myself to doing this sort of thing, if it meant building a greater public appreciation/understanding of that which fuels my passion and also, gives me a salary and continual job security.

      I think if you were a scientist you might find you would not feel comfortable lying to people for a pay check & job security. It would be quite a balancing act to commit to a critical, methodical mindset while working & shift to mental laziness & intellectual dishonestly in your social life.

      Some say that the reason humans crave a God is an evolutionary holdover, a fear-driven response, ie external focus of control, that we might have felt when we did not have the intellectual capacity to feel safe & secure by having an understanding of our surroundings. Perhaps instead of trying to water down our intelligence to accomodate those who still cling to this concept, a more clever solution would be for the more intellectual among us to change the definition of what a god is. (this is directed to CW, not Jim or Lixa.)

        • Liza Says:

          I find it amusing that Robert Wright is cited as a source for this article because he is exactly the person I had in mind as the target of my criticism. Of course, it is possible to use the word “God” as a description of the awesome detail of the natural world. Einstein did it, famously. But should we evangelize this “God” to the fundamentalists over the one that they worship? I expect they would find that as unappealing as atheism, plus they might think we were patronizing them.

          • Amy G Dala Says:

            I don’t know anything about Robert Wright.

            I see I worded my response awkwardly & some typos. sorry. CW if you don’t get what I mean, in a nutshell — don’t water down your message to meet others’ beliefs. Keep the message intact and bend their beliefs to match it.

            This is basically a god of the gaps argument, right? Make the gaps smaller, & the god smaller until god is no longer significant enough to be relevant.

            Since I wasn’t talking about ‘evangelizing’ I’m not sure how to answer that question… Would fundamentalists find that unappealing, patronizing? In general, I suppose that depends on one’s social skills, how well they are able to convince others that what they say has merit.

          • Liza Says:

            I thought we had posted about Wright before, but as I look back at the blog I realize we must have talked about posting something and not actually done so. Anyway, Wright is a columnist for the New York Times and he wrote a book called “The Evolution of God“. He is at the forefront of the accommodationist movement and has frequently argued that there is some sort of middle ground between radical atheism and fundamentalism which is a kind of religion-lite (my expression, not his, obviously). Basically, Wright thinks that human cultural evolution, especially the evolution of our beliefs in god, reflects objective progress, which itself can be thought of as a kind of “God”. It’s the same kind of argument that is made in the article you linked. Jim and I both find this position problematic because it seems to misunderstand the position of people on both sides. It’s not simply that atheists don’t like the idea of an interventionist God, it’s that atheists don’t think there is any evidence for the existence of God, and changing the definition of “God” to something like “order in natural phenomena” is an empty appendix to the theory. It just confuses the issue. Similarly, the concern for religious people isn’t that science makes room for no God, it’s that science doesn’t make room for their God.

            This is why I don’t think the solution can be “for the more intellectual among us to change the definition of what a god is.” I think fundamentalists do find that both unappealing and patronizing. Of course, the alternative is to engage in the culture war, be straightforward about what counts as a good justification for belief, and not win everybody over. I don’t like that. I don’t like that a lot of people refuse to seriously examine their beliefs because they would rather continue believing in magic. But perpetuating the myth of magic doesn’t fix the problem, and telling them to call nature “magic” isn’t likely to fix the problem either, plus it’s patronizing.

  4. James Gray Says:

    Jim,

    I should point out that I didn’t want to bash Liza and claim she was saying something absurd. I just wanted to explain how I view the debate and how religious people see the situation based on some things she said. I believe they take atheism to imply eliminative reductionism.

    Yes, even Searle thinks that minds are physical. I think we both agree that mental and physical aren’t mutually exclusive.

    I think you’ve misunderstood what eliminative materialism is as no one make the argument you suggested, “God or eliminative materialism.” I mean, EM is fairly unpopular.

    I never said that I think it is popular. My understanding is that Christians view atheism as requiring eliminative reductionism. They think that materialists can’t account for the mind or morality. That’s exactly why they think morality requires God. They say that no morality can be found in a description of atoms and so forth.

    Christians think that life would be meaningless without God. They don’t know how to view the world from a rich atheistic worldview. They don’t have a good atheistic “narrative” to work from.

    Any theist who mistakes that for the common scientific position, atheistic or otherwise, has radically misunderstood something.

    I agree.

    Note that where I say “Christians” it is possible that I am actually talking about theists in general. I don’t know what all theists think, but I am just saying what I have noticed.

    • Jim Says:

      I guess I don’t know where this is going; I don’t get what your concern is here. In your first comment you said, “We can think. We have mental activity. We have experiences. By ignoring that fact and saying it’s ‘just evolution’ seems strange.” You offered up Searle as some kind of alternative there (“This is why John Searle is an attractive theorist when it comes to philosophy of the mind”), but, of course, Searle, along with almost every other professional dealing with the mind, thinks that we are entirely products of evolutionary processes. So I don’t see what’s “strange” about that.
      Then you brought up functionalism in the context of it not being reducible to physics, and you did this in a comment about a problem Christians have with reductionism. Except, as I pointed out, functionalism doesn’t help someone with the concerns you highlighted as functionalists still think that the mind is made up of nothing more than physical stuff. If you didn’t intend to suggest that functionalism bears some similarity to the Christian perspective in terms of reductionism, which I think clearly is a mistake, then I am unclear on what you were trying to say there.
      Now this latest comment is about Christians having a problem with the idea that minds are physical. Ok, but so what? I don’t see what that has to do with the discussion we’ve had so far or the point of Liza’s post. Her point was that scientists should be honest and respectful enough not to patronize theists. That theists see scientific ideas like biological evolution as a threat was a basic assumption of her post, so I don’t know what you’re trying to say when you repeat that.

      I don’t want you to think I’m trying to hammer you. I’m not. I genuinely don’t see where you’re going; I don’t see what issue you’re attempting to address. I spelled out the above to make it clear how things look to me. I’m just trying to figure out what we’re talking about.

      • James Gray Says:

        I also said that I agreed with Liza’s main points. Perhaps what I said was a bit off topic. I wanted to accomplish two things:

        1. Point out a relevant part of the atheism debate.

        2. Point out that a couple of things she said sounded like it might endorse elimiative reductionism (or something close to it) and such a view could undermine the plausibility of atheism in the minds of Christians who think atheism requires something like eliminative materialism.

        • Liza Says:

          I don’t think Christians find atheism unattractive because it requires eliminative materialism. That isn’t what I said at all. What I said is that Christians find naturalistic materialism unattractive because it does away with a supernatural, interventionist God. They aren’t going to find that kind of materialism any more attractive by shrouding it in religious-sounding language (see the examples above), and they aren’t going to find identity theory or functionalism significantly more attractive options than eliminative materialism because none of those theories make a place for an immortal soul. Nuanced debates about philosophy of mind are really beyond the scope of this particular post, though if you want a shorthand, yes, I think naturalism requires monism (materialism) and that is a problem for religious people. But, you have the order backwards: Believers would not say that they reject atheism because they reject eliminative materialism, they would say that they reject materalism because they reject atheism.

  5. James Gray Says:

    Liza,

    You might be right that some Christians think they need the supernatural, but why would they think that? I suppose an afterlife could be one reason, but some Christians also see religion as a narrative that can give their lives meaning. I have heard a lot of Christians arguing that we need God to have morality, for example. I think that atheists can also offer a rich and meaningful understanding to the universe.

    Many Christians have no idea what an atheist worldview could look like and they feel vindicated when they think that an atheist lives in a meaningless world that can’t even explain the richness of mental life that we experience.

    • Liza Says:

      “some Christians think they need the supernatural, but why would they think that?”

      I don’t know what to tell you, James. Belief in the supernatural is the foundation of the Christian faith (and most other faiths as well). That’s why they make such a big deal out of miracles, that’s why they pray, and that’s why they talk about God being a solution to life’s problems. Of course there are some people who look at the Bible as just a rich narrative myth- Jim and I would count ourselves among them- but that doesn’t make us Christians anymore than reading the Greek myths would make us Pagans. What it means to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, who sacrificed his Earthly body to redeem us from our sins. That’s believing in the supernatural, there’s no way around it.

      As far as atheists having a rich mental life, sure, we can and do have that. And we can and do experience wonder, and beauty, and love, and awe and all of the other emotions that people make such a big deal out of in their religious experiences. But let’s not pretend that we’re asking religious people to make some minor alterations in their worldview. Losing God is huge. It diminishes both the theistic and the atheistic positions to pretend that it’s not.

      • James Gray Says:

        I agree with what you are saying here except that “losing God is huge” is much more true for some people than others. First, some Christians spend more time and energy invested in certain beliefs about what a meaningful life amounts to. Second, some people are more undecided than others. Third, some people feel the need to believe that God will help them in various ways more than others. Fourth, some people might rationally prefer Christianity just because they don’t know the alternative. The alternative really can sound absurd giving their worldview.


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