Having come late to the out-atheist party, I haven’t much followed the doings of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). I knew there was trouble about Paul Kurtz, and recently the organization often seems to be hewing close to an accommodationist line. My notion, which I grant is pure speculation, is that the higher-ups at CFI decided that making nice with the faithful was the best strategy for selling skepticism and atheism.
Last September I wrote about how John Shook, Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the CFI, was going after Gnu Atheists on PuffHo for their abysmal ignorance of theology (see also here), an accusation he repeated on his CFI blog. But because Shook has reasonable bona fides, I tried to read his book, The God Debates. Sadly, I couldn’t finish it, for I found it tedious and poorly written. Others, however, like it.
In a new PuffHo piece, Shook continues his accommodationism in a piece called “Where can naturalism and religion agree?” It’s a strange article, for while one of its aims is to show that naturalism can satisfy people’s “spiritual” needs, another seems to be that naturalism and religion have similar messages. Here’s what Shook sees as the “spirit common to religions”:
- That life is ultimately about a relationship, a connection with what is most supreme.
- That there are two worlds, one seen and one unseen.
- That the unseen world is the supreme world, and it holds the true power and destiny of all.
- There is something essential in us that can survive in new lives.
- That what survives of us is what is truly best in us.
- That what rightly survives of us is the nobility of virtue, knowledge and wisdom.
- That we should not prize the dark peculiarities of personality and ego, but the lasting light that shines through us.
He then shows how naturalism has similar tenets. But to do that he must severely dilute naturalism with a huge dollop of New Age spirituality. Here’s what Shook sees as materialism’s religion-like message:
- That every life is interrelated, woven and composed of nature’s vibrant cords.
- That the unseen world of nature’s energies shape life and life’s beauties in endless new forms.
- That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.
- That there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future of life.
- That our virtue, knowledge and wisdom are inherited from prior generations, and we can pass them on to next generations.
- That our spark of consciousness dims when the body dies, yet the finer part of our character can be woven into new lives.
- That each person should long consider the shortness of life, and the smallness of self-importance besides the immensity of the whole.
This take on religion reminds me of Chinese fortune cookies: there’s never a bad message inside. Shook’s conclusion?
The core messages of religion and naturalism do not sound so different, really. Should it even be a surprise that they can converge on a morality designed for the essential needs for life?
And then he begins sounding like Deepak Chopra:
We must at least take care of the genuine human needs of life, this one life that we know we share. And what can we all know? Like the essence of religion, nature’s deep ways tell us that you are more than you may appear, even to yourself. Nature shows how its supreme reality recycles everything and preserves what is necessary. Nature reveals how its real powers are available for you to conduct what is best through you into the future where everything must go. Nature tells you that you can have all of the meaningful life to which you are deserving, but not an ounce more, for the energies of life must be distributed fairly. And you waste your natural energies at your peril, for your selfish pursuits only rob you of your rightful destiny.
Taking a bash at both religion and science, Shook demonstrates that he’s superior to both:
But life is rarely a zero-sum game in the long run. Does a religion’s claim that you must desperately want your personal immortality, lest you be selfishly immoral, really make sense? Does a [sic?] science’s claim that you must sternly regard morality as illusory, lest you be irresponsibly foolish, really make sense?
I defy you to find any system of thought that you can’t twist to show some commonality with faith. You could, for example, draw parallels between Stalinism and religion, emphasizing the deity-like worship of a father figure, the demonization of outgroups, and the punishment for violating dogma—indeed, many people have made such comparisons. What Shook neglects, deliberately, are the vast differences between materialism and religion: the reliance on faith instead of rational inquiry, the common belief in a real afterlife, not just one’s personal legacy, the belief that importuning the deities with prayer can bring results, that there are miracles, rationalism’s conclusion that the material world is all there is, and so on. Shook has simply gutted religion of all of its numinous and dysfunctional parts, a tactic I find disingenuous. If you’re really comparing religion with materialism, at least do so honestly instead of turning the precepts of religion into fortune-cookie slogans.
But the parallels between faith and rationalism could easily be turned into a list of opposites as well: religion’s view of faith as a virtue, science’s as a vice; their completely different attitude towards evidence and revelation; the dysfunctional tenets of religion compared to the humane tenets of rationalism; their different attitudes towards women and gay or nonreproductive sex; the religious view that humans have souls (ergo no abortion) and so on.
And the accusation that science (or materialism) “sternly sees morality as illusory” is a canard. What does Shook mean by “illusory”? It’s certainly real in the sense that all cultural constructs, like democracy, are real; and morality may even be evolved, so that there would be genetic and physiological sources that could be studied by science.
Shook is prone to intellectual pirouetting, sometimes trotting out his atheist bona fides but then using them to slander Gnu Atheists. This tactic is on view in his new article at the CFI website itself, “How to be an accommodationist.” Here Shook links to thirteen of his previous posts to show how opposed to religion he really is. But then he adds, “I like the label of ‘Accommodationist’ because it points right at my own view that nonbelievers have a big responsibility towards religious believers.”
But what does he mean by “accommodationist”? And what is this “big responsibility”?
It turns out that Shook redefines “accommodationist” for his own purposes, as someone who wants to show believers that their faith is wrong:
Nonbelievers who try to helpfully guide believers away from faith towards reason aren’t simply “accommodationists yielding to faith.” There’s no accommodation to faith in anything I have ever written, and not much in other educators who have been tarred with the “accommodationist” label either.
Save the pejorative term “Faitheist” for some who actually do want to accommodate naturalism to spiritualism or to God. As for Accommodationists, we can keep on helping religious believers accommodate themselves to naturalism and secularism.
Well, I suppose he can redefine it if he likes, but for me—and I think nearly all of us—”accommodationism” has always been the view that science and faith are compatible, not that faith can be dissolved by reason. And, for the umpteenth time, “faitheist” did not originate as a pejorative term, but as a term for atheists who nevertheless favor religion: those atheists who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief.” If it’s become pejorative, it’s because faitheism looks to many like a form of hypocrisy. It’s no more inherently pejorative than the word “Republican.”
So, given Shook’s neologism, how are we supposed to be “New Accommodationists”?
By lying to religious people. Does this sound familiar?:
I never could buy into that odd “Accommodationist” vs. “Confrontationist” division as dogmatically preached elsewhere. That division always sounded like it had to amount to “Confrontationists actually hit believers hard with The Truth” while accommodationists are apparently doing other things besides just demonizing believers and hitting them with The Truth. We are told that atheism is betrayed by those “accommodationists” who won’t attack religious belief every chance they get. Such an odd division between artificial camps can’t do justice to all the great educational work that so many atheists do. Educators don’t just hit people with The Truth.
Doesn’t stridently hitting people with The Truth on the assumption that The Truth has intrinsic powers to overcome irrational ignorance, sound more like fundamentalist tactics? Be that as it may, assaulting people with The Truth hasn’t been widely viewed as an effective educational technique since the Catholic Inquisition. It’s never been essential to educated Atheism, either before or after the “New Wave” of sophisticated books by atheist leaders.
Instead, treating people as intelligent adults who frequently can be reasoned with is a method that has worked wonders for civilization since those dark days.
Once again Gnus are characterized as a pack of rabid dogs whose whole aim is to “attack religious belief” every chance we get (note the words “stridently” and “demonizing”, as well as the implicit comparison between Gnu Atheism and the Inquisition). Instead, we must at all costs avoid “assaulting people with the Truth”. I presume Shook means that we have to hide our real opinions, either disguising them or doling them out in tiny bits to the faithful, like a doctor slowly revealing to a patient that she is terminal.
Well, I know no other way to engage believers as “intelligent adults” than to give them my honest and unvarnished opinion. (That is, after all, the way the Gnu Atheist books have had such success.) By all means do it politely when you can, but don’t neglect sarcasm and strong language if you think it will appeal to onlookers. It is Shook who is treating the faithful as children, implying that while he and other atheists can handle the Truth (which presumably is that there is no God or afterlife), the faithful are credulous children who must be slowly and carefully weaned from religion, like children from Santa Claus.
It all reminds me of the movie A Few Good Men, in which a lawyer Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, confronts Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), wanting facts about a murder case. Think of religious people as Kaffee and Shook (and his rationalist confrères) as Jessep:
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can’t handle the truth!
As for how we should reason with “intelligent adults,” Shook refers us to not only his previous posts, but to the PuffHo piece mentioned above. That piece says that we must point the faithful to the many similarities between naturalism and religion. Yes sir, telling Catholics and Muslims that “there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future of life” is guaranteed to bring wean them from their faith. Surely they won’t notice that the rationalist “afterlife” doesn’t have clouds, Gods, or virgins! You can leave the cold, hard truth for later. . .