November 9, 2010

Responding to the Accommodationists: What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

If you like science and are not reading Butterflies & Wheels, you are missing out. In a recent post, Ophelia Benson asks the question we should ask when confronted by those arguing in favor of accommodation: what exactly are we not helping by speaking our minds about religion? Focusing on Chris Mooney's talk at the recent Free Inquiry conference, Benson asks the following:
He kept saying various versions of ”you’re not helping!” That’s not helping; I still wonder how that’s helping; I can’t see how that’s helping.

Here’s my question.

Helping what? What are we supposed to be helping with? What is this giant X that Mooney is so familiar with but I am not, that we are all supposed to join hands and help with?
It is a great question. When atheists speak openly about their opinions on religion, what grand goal is being harmed? For what ends should we feign respect of something which deserves none?

I suspect that Mooney and his companions are trying to make the point that we would be more likely to accomplish our goals by conveying respect for religion. It seems like this is an empirical question that could be tested. But to do so, we'd have to first agree on the goals in question. I can imagine some goals about which Mooney may be right, but I'm not sure they are my goals.

To have meaningful discussion and debate about the merits of accommodation vs. assertiveness, don't we first have to reach some sort of agreement about what we are trying to accomplish?