I’m one of those people who prefers to avoid giving offence, who despises confrontation and who has a deep-seated psychological need to be liked by as many people as possible. One might think that a personality of this type might lend itself well to a spirit of accommodationism with those who hold views contrary to my own on a variety of subjects.
In fact as time goes by I find it harder to justify this approach, especially in respect of views that are demonstrably false, harmful or both. It seems to me that in such cases clearly stating the opposing view – and evidence to support it – is the only intellectually honest response.
Some might advocate silence based on the goal of minimising conflict with other people and I admit that this is the path of least resistance and one which I often take when dealing with people face to face.
This failing on my own part means that I cannot help but admire the people like Ben Goldacre of Bad Science or James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation who publicly and openly confront views that are harmful and false about science and mysticism respectively.
Then of course there’s Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is one of the so-called “New Atheists” who have courted controversy with their refusal to accommodate religious views or to treat religion as (pardon the pun) a sacred cow that is immune to criticism or logical assessment.
As a result of his arguments against religious belief and its role in secular life (such as the shameful historical revisionism being pushed by the Texas board of education recently, or the drive to teach Creationism and Intelligent Design as “equally valid theories” in science classes) Dawkins is called “strident” by his detractors. There are also those who agree with his fundamental points but disagree with the way in which he makes them on the basis that a more subtle approach that is more understanding towards “moderate” religious expression will ultimately be more effective.
Dawkins’ fellow New Atheists Hitchens, Dennett and Harris are equally reviled by those in opposition to their views and likewise draw flak for their refusal to accommodate moderate religions in their arguments.
It is easy to disparage responses such as these and to see them as the backlash of deluded people trying desperately to maintain their grip on false beliefs by attacking the bearer of contradictory evidence rather than the evidence itself.
Likewise, it is easy to criticise the accommodationists and religious apologists for pandering to such beliefs even if they do essentially “fight the same cause”.
However to do either of these things is to downplay a fundamental facet of the human psyche.
When a person’s beliefs are directly challenged there is a tendency for denial shutters to slam into place. Important beliefs are part of the framework on which a person’s core identity is hung. An attack on a deep-seated belief is felt as an attack on the person.
We all do this. Scientists and other people who aspire to be rational thinkers are not immune. It is important to constantly strive against the insidious desire to put the personal importance of a belief over that belief’s veracity.
Scientists already try to achieve this by the use of null hypotheses to challenge their beliefs and so attempt the avoidance of confirmation bias. They know that this system is fallible, but the institution of science is aware of the issue and tries to rectify the problem as much as possible.
So where am I going with this? I started the essay with the comment that I find it hard to justify accommodationism and now I am expressing an understanding for the people who utilise it as a strategy on the basis that direct attacks on belief cause shields to be raised and ultimately hamper the possibility of a change in understanding.
Perhaps the key then is not to accommodate or to directly attack but to empathise. To understand the hold that beliefs have over a person’s psyche and to try and shape arguments in such a way that they are never quite perceived as an attack. In other words, to help a person to persuade him or herself as to the false nature of held beliefs.
This is, I suppose, somewhat similar to the Socratic method of teaching in which the teacher helps the student to learn by asking questions rather than stating facts.
What do you think?