Framing AtheismOctober 16, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
I don’t know if you’ve been following the discussion on Scienceblogs right now, but there’s a very interesting exchange going on between Josh Rosenau and Jason Rosenhouse on the subject of New Atheists versus accommodationists. Josh writes:
Jason’s account makes it sound as if King was an uncompromising and iconoclastic leader. But that misreads King and the history of civil rights. Remember that it was Malcolm X, not Dr. King, who insisted on change “by any means necessary.” Indeed, Malcolm X criticized King using logic analogous to that Jason deploys against accommodationism.
Sounds like strong talk, though Josh immediately tempers it with one of the many disclaimers and caveats in his post:
(I repeat that this is an analogy. New Atheists aren’t Malcolm X, there aren’t atheist nationalists that would parallel Malcolm X’s black nationalism, neither I nor any other accommodationist would claim to be Martin Luther King reborn, etc. It’s an analogy, please don’t overinterpret it.)
He’s got a point to make and he’s going to make it, but he bends over backwards to be, well, accommodating to those who might disagree with him. He wants us to hear what he has to say, and I think we need to hear it. I wouldn’t call myself an accommodationist (and I don’t think many regular readers would accuse me of being overly accommodating to religion, at least in this blog), but right now, at this time and place in the history of church and state, I think we need to listen to both sides, and do some serious, open-minded thinking. And I think the MLK vs Malcolm X analogy gives us something really meaty to think about.
If you haven’t been following the discussion, the links are here, here, here and here. It’s worth taking the time to read the whole thing, even though the posts tend to be on the longish side. But what really sparked my interest is the analogy Josh draws between how Martin Luther King approached civil rights, and how Malcolm X did.
Malcolm X, of course, was famous for being fierce, uncompromising, and unapologetic. He had a style that might forgivably remind some readers of certain popular bearded bloggers on the New Atheist side. But, as Jason points out in the comments, Richard Dawkins, at least, is no Malcolm X, and his books (even The God Delusion) conspicuously fail to demand the end of religion “by any means necessary.”
That weakens the analogy, but doesn’t destroy it, which suggests that the parallels that Josh draws are close enough to be intriguing, but perhaps not as close as they could be. There may be a better fit, and one of the commenters raises an idea that might give us a clue.
The clue lies in realizing that Malcolm X’s approach was less successful because he not only refused to accommodate racism, he refused to accommodate white people. MLK was more successful because he attacked the racism rather than the racists. Josh calls this “framing,” which is a term that tends to excite knee-jerk responses in some people (myself included), but there’s really nothing terribly controversial in the observation. We could have called it “common courtesy” (or politics) just as easily—the tacit if sometimes unwarranted assumption that those present were excluded from the group being criticized.
Here’s what I see as being a point of interest relevant to this discussion. MLK did not do what so many of us do routinely: he did not single out and identify specific individuals, to ridicule and condemn their personal racism. He did not identify specific groups (e.g. Catholics) as bastions of racism, to be condemned and rejected. (Did he openly denounce the Klan? That I don’t know.)
Consequently, it’s not surprising that MLK was more successful than Malcolm X in effectively winning over the opposition. For white people, there would be no point in reconciling with Malcolm X, because Malcolm X won’t accept them unless they stop being white, which isn’t really an option. MLK gave white people a way to support equality for blacks without requiring that they stop being what they can’t help being.
The crucial question, then, is to ask how this strategy might apply to the ongoing debate between atheism and religion. The trivial answer would be to say that atheists ought to attack religion in the broad, general sense without singling out any particular groups or individuals. But would that work? And is it even possible to confront religion without referring, at least indirectly, to specifics that will obviously and immediately let everyone know exactly who you’re talking about? And, not to forget another important question, is accommodation sufficient to accomplish its goals without confrontation? Did Malcolm X contribute at least partially to MLK’s success by saying things that needed to be said, that were too harsh for MLK to say?
I tend to lean towards the view that both approaches—and the inevitable conflicts between the two approaches—are necessary. There are harsh things that need to be said that I don’t expect Josh to say, and there are (for want of a better word) “accommodating” things that I don’t expect Jason or PZ Myers to say, that also need to be said. And there are things that each side needs to say to the other, urging either temperance or zeal, as appropriate to the specific circumstances.
But here’s my last point, and I think it’s something both sides need to remember: religion is not racism. Racism is a relatively simple thing, no matter how devious it may be in how it expresses itself. Racism is the idea that one race is superior or inferior to another, and ought to be treated differently. Religion is not so simple. Religion encompasses both good things, like preaching the value of honesty and virtue, and bad things, like the failure to practice what you preach. It encompasses both good people and bad people. It promotes both community and divisiveness. It reflects both what’s good and what’s bad about the people who make it work, and leaves open the chicken-or-egg question of whether religion does more to define people’s attitudes and actions than people’s attitudes and actions do to define the religion.
You can’t just “outgrow” religion the way you can outgrow racism. Or at least, a lot of people can’t. People use religion as a conceptual framework within which they understand what is going on in the world around them. They don’t have the analytical skills to describe the complexities of real life in scientific terms. Beyond a certain point, none of us do—there’s too much data, coming in too fast, for a detailed and rigorous analysis to keep up. Conceptual symbologies like “God’s will” and “intelligent design” serve as rough approximations for the apparent “moods” of things too complicated to reduce to simple causes and effects. Religion works, as a rough, back-of-the-napkin approximation of what happening, and that’s enough for a lot of people. It has to be, because that’s all they have!
So here’s the dilemma: MLK had it easy, because all he had to overcome was racism, which is a prejudice that people can easily live without. Religion isn’t. Oh, for some of us it is, because some of us are able to see the world in objective, scientific, rational terms. Unfortunately, that ability tends to make it that much harder to understand why other people don’t find it as easy as we do. What we’ve got works better than what they’ve got, so why do they so stubbornly refuse to see things the way we do? The answer is that they don’t have our ability to see everything in such cold, analytical, rational terms. They think socially and see socially, and it just makes more sense to them to understand the world in social terms, as reflecting the motives and moods of intelligent supernatural beings.
Our job, then, is to try and wean them off of the more harmful aspects of religion, like superstition and intolerance, while intelligently recognizing that we can’t ask a fish to ride a bicycle. People won’t give up their last hope of making sense of life, so they won’t give up their religion unless and until something better comes along. And science, while better, is out of the reach of a lot of people. That’s the “intelligently recognizing” bit I just mentioned. It is neither possible nor necessarily even desirable to force everyone to think the same way scientifically-minded people do. Such a goal would indeed be a Malcolm X style strategy, doomed to failure.
So on the one hand we do need to confront the bad aspects of religion, like superstition and intolerance, but we need to do so without destroying the one tool most people rely on to get by in life as sentient beings. And I’m not sure how to accomplish that. I’ve toyed with the idea of offering people a reality-based religion (see my Patron Goddess link above), but I’m no messiah, let’s face it. I think that’s what we need, but I have no real clue how to get there.
Meanwhile, let’s encourage Josh and Jacob and PZ and Jerry Coyne and Chris Mooney and all the rest to continue their discussion, with as much civility as the market will bear (knock wood). We need both sides because I don’t think either side has found THE answer yet, nor do I expect either side to make much progress without the other. I’m going to continue making such critiques as I always have, because I think that’s important and necessary, but I strongly encourage people to disagree with me and try and change my mind. The time is ripe, let’s make the most of it.