Against Accommodationism: Religion Has NO Rightful Claim To An Unencroachable “Magisterium” Of Its Own

Against Accommodationism: Religion Has NO Rightful Claim To An Unencroachable “Magisterium” Of Its Own January 5, 2011

Chris Mooney is an accommodationist.  In the conflict between science and faith, he is the sort of atheistic science defender who wants to minimize all appearance (and existence) of conflict between religious and scientific ideas because he thinks that vital public policy on matters like climate change hinges on scientists’ abilities to garner trust, cooperation, and acceptance from the religious people who constitute a majority of Americans.  He thinks that if forced to see their faith as incompatible with science too many religious people are more likely to abandon science than faith.  So he seeks to find ways to help people understand science in a faith friendly way and he attacks scientists like PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne who point out the atheistic implications of scientific truths as counterproductive forces in the dialogue who threaten to sabotage the indispensable process of fostering the necessary cooperation between the faithful and the scientific.

I am a philosopher who cares about the general public understanding philosophical truths and engaging in genuine philosophical thinking themselves.  So, I resent when the accommodationists of the world try to make a “non-overlapping magisteria” deal with religion whereby religion gets to claim authority about moral, spiritual, and, even, metaphysical matters as long as it does not interfere with scientific practices and policy suggestions.   As far as I am concerned as a moral philosopher and an epistemologist, religion’s claims to either unique authority or even particularly superior insight into moral, spiritual, and metaphysical issues is entirely unjustified, presumptuous, and, even, offensive.  These are domains accessible to reason and in which philosophers have a tremendous amount of accumulated wisdom.  Even the most magnificent contributions of religious people to the history of moral understanding (and there are many) are only credible insofar as they are defensible philosophically and not merely asserted as matters of religious tradition, with its ungrounded and often pernicious, authoritarian, and regressive presumption to divine authority.

So, I want the autonomy of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics to be asserted. They should be clearly disassociated from the irrationalistic traditionalism of religion and this is as vital an issue to me as the separation of politics and science from undue religious meddling.  This is both because as a matter of intrinsic fairness, religious ways of forming and defending ideas do not deserve to be treated as the best methods for doing ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics but represent inferior and often counter-productive means of doing them compared to philosophy’s (or even literature’s) approaches.  But if we must also be pragmatic and consequentialist about this, I think we need to take religion’s hands off of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics for  the reason that when religion is allowed to dominate these fundamental areas of people’s minds, determining what they believe is good, true, and real, it inevitably has an effect on their politics and their acceptance of science.  When people have the good defined for them religiously, it is hard for them to politically accept contrary goods as worth advancing or, even, just tolerating.  When people have metaphysical reality defined for them religiously, they are tempted to start judging scientific statements only in terms of how they conform with, or minimally are compatible with, those metaphysical prejudices.

If we really want good politics and good science, we should not abandon people’s views of the good, the true, and the real as matters of indifference.

But despite my general problems with accommodationists and those who promote the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (and thereby acknowledge religion’s “sovereignty” over a terrain it only pretends to authority over), I was pleasantly impressed with Chris Mooney’s new article in Playboy (which I assure you, I don’t read for the articles by accommodationists but for the pictures).

In the meantime, on the questions of the non-overlapping magisteria, accommodationism, and my argument that ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics by justice and by pragmatism must be recognized as philosophy’s province and not religion’s, Your Thoughts?

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