Framing Atheism

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.

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10 Responses to “Framing Atheism”

  1. JohnMWhite Says:

    This is a really thought provoking piece, so thank you for writing it and asking us to look at the two sides. For a while now I have been pretty far outside the accomodationist camp, mostly because most people I’ve come across professing religious belief refuse to accomodate me in the slightest. I do not actually have a desire to wipe out religion and pull the rug out from under anyone who has it, but it seems the religion makes it impossible to negotiate with the ‘other side’. One significant problem with religion is that to compromise on anything in it means to compromise one’s soul. That’s a pretty hefty concession and not one many people are willing to make. Any of the negatives of religion are backed up by its supposed divinity, meaning they cannot be easily excised.

    There are plenty of individuals who have a live and let live approach and who, even if they think something along the lines of homosexuality is wrong, simply don’t do it themselves rather than politicise it and try to shackle someone they have never met to their own beliefs. As a collective force, however, religion seeps into life and does damage, to the community and to individuals. It is fine if people wish to think of the big bearded man in the sky if something bad happens, or if something good happens. If they’re of a mind to see their life and the world around them as part of god’s plan, fair enough. The problem, however, is that this god who gives them the plan is the same god that gives them the idea that homosexuality is such a wicked thing that it must be stopped. The same god that provides quiet, private reflection demands violent, public efforts to prevent sin in others. How do you accomodate one part of this god without accomodating all of it?

    Aside from that, I have difficulty with the idea that some of us are just not able to see the world scientifically. Not all of us are able to calculate odds and probability while watching leaves on the wind, or figure out the physics in hitting a ball with a bat, but it does not sit well with me to think that a lot of people just can’t see the world in any other way. I know this is a gross simplification of your point, but you are basically saying they’re dumber than we are, and I find it hard to accept that I’m that much smarter than anybody else. Maybe it’s because it scares the hell out of me to think most people might be dumber than I am, but it also doesn’t seem intuitive. I used to see the world their way. I used to attribute everything to god, and used my faith to explain the world around me. I took it to ridiculous extremes, blaming myself for faltering in my personal journey if something awful happened thousands of miles away and I heard about it on the news. But then I grew up. I learned the world wasn’t all about me and my relationship with a deity. Somehow, I managed to break out of the programming and see the world in a different light. It was tough to begin with, but once the momentum built, the house of cards came rapidly crashing down. I find it hard to believe that there are a huge number of people out there who are incapable of going through this process.

    The manner in which I broke free is why I also disagree with the idea that religion is unlike racism because that you can only grow out of the latter. I grew out of the former. I think most people can, it’s just so accepted in society that there’s not really any pressure to do so. It’s easy and it’s comforting, so many people hold tightly onto it. But racism was easy and comforting too – it was a way to distinguish oneself and one’s peers from ‘the other’, and maintain one’s ego by maintaining the other’s lower class. It’s still around but it is no longer explicitly culturally condoned, while the crutch of religion, and its baggage, still is. And that baggage, which I fear is welded tight to it, is poisonous thought that provides justification for treating people exactly how racism left African Americans being treated.

    Now, while I disagree with a lot of what you were saying, these disagreements are tentative. It’s just my first feelings on reading the post, and I’m interested in seeing if maybe I’m wrong in my assessment.

  2. Peter N Says:

    Comparing Malcom X’s racism to the Gnu Atheists’ public scorn for religion is a terrible analogy. Being religious is a choice, albeit one that most people make without thinking. People are born with their skin color and can’t change it, but they can choose to stop believing in ridiculous stuff — we know this because most of us have done so ourselves.

    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.

    No, that’s not it at all. The religious perspective you describe is the primitive impulse to assume that there is intelligent agency behind things we don’t understand. When there is no intelligent agent, this can only lead to bad decisions.

    Understanding that there is no magical realm outside of nature doesn’t require unusual intelligence nor an advanced degree. Any third grader can be taught this. Our point is simple — the evidence for religious beliefs can be challenged just like the evidence for any other idea. To say that the faithful are too fearful or stupid to hear this message is condescending. We show them respect by challenging them, not by sheltering them in their delusions.

  3. Roi des Faux Says:

    It feels like you kind-of pulled a bait-and-switch in the middle of the article. You bring up the comparison of the current accommodationist debate to MLK and MX, and say “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.” followed later by “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.” You say that MLK attacked racism rather than racists, but MX attacked both racism and white people, and I think this all but destroys the analogy. I say it’s only kind-of a bait-and-switch because you then go on to say that many people can’t give up religion. In that way, attacking religion can be like attacking someone for being white. I agree with you, however there’s no way to know which people are “racism” religious and which are “white” religious. That criticism aside, I agree with your main point that both sorts of voices are useful.

    A much better analogy would be with the gay rights movement. Greta Christina does a wonderful job describing how gay rights were advanced through a combination of loud and angry voices and calm and polite voices.

  4. Gordon Says:

    I agree with some of what you say in this post and disagree with other things in this post. My judgment from the post is that you are 60% accommodationist and 40% aggressive atheist. I hate the term New Atheist. My self assessment is that I am 30% accommodationist and 70% aggressive atheist. I suspect there are atheists that fill every part of the spectrum between accommodationist and aggressive atheist. And in truth we need the skills and efforts from every part of this spectrum.

    The problem with this debate is that progress cannot be made when the debate is done at a high level. The level of your post was too high to make any progress. It is in the details where we can decide if we have an agreement between the two sides or even if agreement is possible. No (or very few) aggressive atheists want to be just a dick in dealing with religion and religious people. But it seems that accommodationists think that is exactly what aggressive atheists intend on doing. Witness Phil Plait’s Don’t Be A Dick speech But aggressive atheists do not want to be dicks. They just prefer truth over finding common ground for cooperation with religions while accommodationists are committed to finding common ground as a first priority.

    To lower the level of the debate just a little we run directly into issues like the age of the earth. It is a problem when half of the US population believes the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This belief is a direct result of religion. Accommodationist atheists are not going to address this problem because it is not aligned with their goal to find areas of cooperation between religious and non-religious people. Aggressive atheist are going to address this issue because it is damaging to education and public policy. Aggressive atheist will say that the idea that the earth is less than 10,000 years old is a stupid idea and if you chose to believe that idea you have committed yourself to being stupid concerning the age of the earth. Accommodationist atheists seem to be asking aggressive atheists not to bring up the issue of the age of the earth because it makes atheists look like dicks. When accommodation atheists ask aggressive atheist to be nice it seems the requests is for the aggressive atheist to be quiet and stop speaking the truth. Aggressive atheists are asking the accomodationists to identify a little more with truth and a little less with finding areas of agreement and cooperation with religion.

    Now admittedly the aggressive atheists can go over the top. The classic example from my point of view is PZ’s nail in the cracker. Even though this might be over the top I see no reason for the accomodationist’s reaction to claim that PZ reflects badly on atheists. Painting PZ’s actions on all atheists is just a silly as claiming PZ’s action reflects badly on all Minnesotans. This incident made PZ look immature and unserious to the casual observer that does not know that PZ is very mature and serious. A person willing to find areas of cooperation with the non-religious will not stop that process because of PZ’s nail in the cracker.

    The accommodationist atheist should go on finding areas of agreement and cooperation with religious people. The aggressive atheists will make their efforts a little more difficult at times. Well tough. The aggressive atheists should continue to call out religious ignorance and superstition. The accomodationist atheists will make their efforts a little more difficult at times. Well tough. Both sides should just get on with it and stop wasting each others time with this internal debate about who is hurting the cause.

  5. Hunt Says:

    Awesome post, awesome comments. This is why this site is so great.

    There’s no way I’m going to process everything that has been said right away, but my initial impression is that JohnMWhite is right to doubt that theists are unable to view the world as a scientifically mechanistic process due to some kind of deficit. I’ve read too many religious exegeses that are detailed and technical, and requiring an almost scientific level of chain reasoning, to think that these people aren’t fundamentally capable shifting their perspective. It reminds me of a friend I had who knew everything about car make and models and mechanics. He knew every year, he knew every detail. I often thought he could have made a great programmer. It was just not his interest to do so. It’s like sports freaks who memorize vast amounts of statistical data. They’re not short of intellectual resource, they simply choose to employ it in a manner that is totally alien to my value system. (A bad analogy, I know, because sports don’t have a truth value, except golf–which is false.) I think it’s more accurate to assume that religious people have set themselves down a path, or have been set down a path, that explicitly encourages a blinkered view of reality. They’ve been launched on a course founded on bad assumptions, and damn it, they’re going to stick to it come hell or high water. The contradictions are selectively filtered out, they’re not beyond their capacity to perceive. This is why in the rare instances where they’re checkmated, either by someone who forces them to confront reality, or preferably by themselves, they can change.

    I agree with DD that religion works as a source of social cohesion, AND I agree with Peter N that GIGO (garbage in garbage out). (Wow, talk about accommodation.) Perhaps “works” is the wrong word. It “operates.” But looking at the historical results, to what benefit?

    My operating philosophy regarding accommodation/in-your-face is that I adopt a sliding scale. For the truly hateful “God hates fags” religionists, I have no mercy. If I could disrupt their cognitive state to the extent that it puts them in a psych ward, I’d do it. For the religious family leaning on faith to make it through a tragedy, I’m totally hands-off. In fact, I’d probably be outraged by any effort to kick the crutch out from under them. To an extent that is also a condescending attitude, but I think it’s by far the lesser of evils.

  6. JohnMWhite Says:

    Due to my deeply held belief in golf, I find Hunt’s post entirely offensive!

    I kid, of course, but while I found the golf comment hilarious, it also gave me an idea – this is actually a great illustration of the difficulty in dealing with theists and trying to accomodate them. If someone believes in golf and someone else doesn’t, then what’s the point in them arguing about which club to use? I feel we end up in a similar position if we try to argue with, for example, Christians over whether or not it is ok to be gay. If their belief that it’s not ok comes from god, then how can one ever expect to get them to leave gay people alone by accomodating their belief in that god?

    “This is why in the rare instances where they’re checkmated, either by someone who forces them to confront reality, or preferably by themselves, they can change.”

    It happened to me. I was basically cornered by a relentless assault of reality that sent the dominoes tumbling. True, I was a curious critter and at times sought out information on my own, but basically between university and a non-Christian girlfriend I ended up continually exposed to a reality that contradicted my faith, and I had a choice between one or the other. I think, given sufficient information, just about everyone has the capacity to at least realise the choice is in front of them. Many are just afraid of making the leap.

  7. Ken Browning Says:

    I’ve been wondering if the new atheists might not be comparable in a struggle analysis (not ideologically) with the right wing “talk radio” phenomena. Conservatives have been very successful in moving the entire political debate in the US to the right over the last forty years. Overton’s Window shifted not in small part due to the incessant aggressive, don’t back down or allow an inch tactics of people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

    Times change and today the media that matters is the internet and here the gnus are outstripping the accommodationists. My feel is that new atheism is very successful in galvanizing young converts. In fact, it looks like much of the stridency that some decry is actually coming from in-your-face, swearing, belligerent posters to the blogs of the new atheist leaders. This is further complicated by the reality that wired written communication tends to be blunter, to have less socially sensitive cuing, than more traditional communication forms.

  8. Scotlyn Says:

    I’m not sure I have a position on the aggressive v accommodationanist debate in atheistic discourse, it may even be a false dichotomy.

    But I’m fairly certain, having deeply immersed myself in listening to the speeches of Dr King not so very long ago, that he was by no means, an accommodationist. What he was prepared to do, was to include anti-racist white people in his thoroughly un-accommodating campaign against racism. I also listened to Mr X’s speeches accusing Dr King of making whites too comfortable (although dozens of dogs, water cannons and other threats to the civil rights marchers testify otherwise). It could have been said with equal truth that Mr X made racist whites equally comfortable, by accepting their preference for separatism. The fact that both men were assassinated perhaps shows how deeply threatening both men were to the status quo. Whether that is relevant in the present case, I leave to others to discuss.

  9. Hunt Says:

    “If their belief that it’s not ok comes from god, then how can one ever expect to get them to leave gay people alone by accomodating their belief in that god?”

    This is exactly why it’s okay to be ruthless toward the religiously hateful. You’re not going to change them via accommodation while attempting to temper their offensive attitudes. For these people you might as well go for the jugular. Tolerating their fundamental beliefs is not doing them any favor anyway. The only conceivable way to help them is to destroy the mind virus itself.

  10. cl Says:

    Good post. I pretty much agree with everything you said. I thought it was a good analogy, and, I especially like that you did not try to equate racism with religion like the more virulent atheists do.