Comment 29

Prologue: James Croft wondered about some fundamental value not shared among gnu atheists and accommodationists. Paul offered an answer which many readers found illuminating, too illuminating to be hidden as comment 29 on a long thread.

I think that gnu atheists and accommodationists disagree mainly over one thing: is there too much forthright criticism by atheists of religion generally, or too little?

Gnu atheists think more people ought to regularly speak up critically about bad religious ideas, and that those bad religious ideas are common to “liberal” religion as well as, e.g., fundamentalism.

The reasons why gnus think there’s too little forthright criticism and accommodationists think there’s too much vary considerably.

Accommodationists typically think some or all of the following, in some mix:

0. Distinctively religious beliefs aren’t all false, or aren’t all inconsistent with science, or aren’t so importantly false as to be worth objecting to.

1. In terms of its effects on human well being, religion isn’t a bad thing overall. A lot of religion (e.g., fundamentalism) is bad, but a lot of religion (e.g., theologically moderate or liberal Christianity) is actually good for the world, on the whole, promoting civilized conceptions of morality, or at worst harmless. If we dispensed with religion, or just diminished the mindshare of religion across the board, we’d lose a lot of good along with the bad.

2. Liberal religion is our friend, because liberal religious people are our main allies in the fight against conservative religion. If we talk people out of being liberally religious, that won’t help anything much, and may hurt because it will weaken institutions that we should be strengthening, or leaving as they are. Liberal religion is a crucial part of the solution to the problem of bad religion.

3. You can argue against the worst sorts of religion effectively without arguing against the best sorts. Fundamentalism is he problem, not religion, and critiques of religion should generally focus on distinctive features of bad religion. We should argue against theological conservatism, as liberals, more often than we should argue against religion, as atheists.

4. Even to the extent that it might be advantageous to undermine religion across the board, it is strategically unwise to attempt to do so. It will mostly alienate potential allies and generate backlash, doing more harm than good. It is better to be very “civil,” and only gently criticize religion, and mostly focus criticism on especially bad religion. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Gnus, in contrast, tend to think at least some of the following to a greater extent than accommodationists:

0. Distinctively religious beliefs are generally false, are generally inconsistent with science, and are false enough to be worth objecting to, out of a more or less free-floating commitment to truth.

1. In terms of its effects on human well-being, religion is a bad thing overall. Some religion (e.g., very theologically liberal religion) isn’t especially harmful in its direct effects on people, and sometimes is even good, but most religion is a net negative, and religion as a whole could be dispensed with, and that would be a generally good thing, with lots of pluses and relatively few minuses.

2. Liberal religion is our friend in some senses, and not in others. On average, if we talk liberally religious people out of being liberally religious, that will be a good thing because they’ll be even better allies against religion, including especially conservative religion.

3. You can’t argue effectively against bad religion effectively without arguing against religion fairly broadly, because the most important features of bad religion—belief in God and souls and divinely or supernaturally inspired morality—are common to almost all religion. Once you grant those mistaken premises, or fail to challenge them, you’ve mostly given away the store, and are reduced to making the kind of lame-ass arguments that liberal religious people use so ineffectively against conservatively religious people. (E.g., justifying certain ways of picking and choosing religious beliefs—rather than explaining why it’s all a load of bollocks, for which there are much better more basic, and correct arguments.)

The root problem isn’t fundamentalism, but central premises of almost all religion, which are themselves stupid and dangerous ideas, acquiesence to which enables fundamentalism—and basic nonfundamentalist orthodoxy, which is a bigger problem than outright fundamentalism.

4. Criticizing religion does generate backlash and alienate some people, but fears of backlash are overrated, and it is important to challenge religious privilege and especially to shift the Overton window of public opinion. Being too afraid of short-term backlash—and too pessimistic about major shifts of popular opinion about religion—is a recipe for perpetuating religion’s privileged position and dominance. It is demonstrably untrue that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar—successful social movements generally require a spectrum of opinion, including relatively “extreme” views. Excessive moderation is a recipe for stasis, and you need both reformists and “radicals,” who more or less play good cop / bad cop.

To summarize, gnus and accommodationists tend to differ in some or all of the following respects

0. How systematically false and/or antiscientific religion is,

1. How systematically harmful religion is,

2. Whether liberal religion is best thought of as part of the solution, or part of the problem,

3. Whether the most telling critiques of conservative religion apply to liberal religion as well, such that criticizing the only the former is pulling your best punches, and

4. Whether frequent forthright criticism of religion does more harm than good, strategically, in the big picture and the long run—is it worth the backlash? Is centrist triangulation a better political strategy than shifting the Overton window of popular opinion?

In general, gnus do recognize that there are important roles for both “radicals” and “moderates” (not that gnus are actually radicals—nobody’s talking about using force or anything like that).

They generally just don’t think we already have too many “radicals” (forthright critics of religion across the board), as accommodationists do.

What accommodationists say that sets gnus off is usually a criticism of gnus that implies that we’re wrong to be as “radical” as we are, and that we should sit down and shut up, or do something else instead, because our anti-religious fight

1) isn’t worth fighting in principle, because religion’s not so bad, or

2) isn’t winnable, to any particularly useful extent, so isn’t worth fighting in practice, or

3) isn’t winnable by our overt, backlash-generating means, so we should all be nice moderates like the accommodationists instead of being noisy troublemakers who undermine sound, centrist political triangulation strategy.

We generally think all those things are false, and get really tired of hearing them from people who don’t seriously address the issues of fact, of worthwhile goals, or of effective political strategy.

Every time we hear strategic advice that amounts to “you catch more flies with honey” by somebody telling us what to do, who is apparently entirely ignorant of Overton window strategies, it pisses us off.

We get really, really sick of people telling us what to do without addressing our very good reasons for doing what we’re doing, and actually showing that their reasons are better than our reasons.

One thing that does frequently bring deep emotions into play is the sense that accommodationists frequently advise us what to do as though they think we’re simplistic strategically naive zealots, as opposed to thoughtful people with well-thought-out positions, good arguments, and an arguably excellent strategic rationale that is almost never even mentioned, much less properly addressed, by people who proffer an “obviously better” strategy toward apparently different goals.

Until accommodationists are willing to talk very, very seriously about Overton issues, we’re going to dismiss their strategic advice as the shallow, platitudinous crap that we think it is. As long as they act like we don’t even have a strategy, and criticize us for not going along with theirs, we’re going to be seriously annoyed when they tell us to do what they want us to do, instead of what we’re doing.

Talking about us as though we’re simply strategically naive and gratuitously confrontational is straw-manning us, and we are sick as shit of it. Its been going on nonstop for years, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

We do understand accommodationist arguments. Of course we do. We always have. It isn’t exactly rocket science. (Or even passable political science.) And we’ve always had good reasons for disagreeing with them, which are almost universally ignored by accommodationists, who continue to talk past us, and talk systematically misleading cartoonish smack about us.

That’s just seriously annoying, isn’t? Should we not be annoyed by that?

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