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Good Accommodationist cop, Bad Gnu Cop: How tribalism oversimplifies the issues April 2, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , ,


Here is a resource that may be helpful in tracing some aspects of the discussion about accommodationism, in case such a thing interests you.

I have been no friend to the so-called accommodationist camp of this discussion within the atheist community concerning our relationship with believers and our culture at large.   (Here are some examples).  I have clearly staked a claim as a ‘gnu atheist,’ but I will agree that I often am baffled by the so-called accommodationist’s position.  I mean that I really don’t even think I understand what it is..  I have a feeling that there are a number of behaviors that are called ‘accommodationist’ which differ greatly from each other, and I think it is time to parse what those things are.

I want to extend an invitation to people who have either self-identified as either a gnu or an accommodationist or have been labeled as such by others.  I want to hear your points of view.

First, a little background

A few days ago John Shook, author of a book (which I have not read but of which I have not heard good things) The God Debates posted this article up on CFI’s website. I read it and commented almost immediately, which led to some discussions that can be found in the comments section.

Them today, Jerry Coyne discussed Shook’s book and some of his other recent writing and gave him a general thumbs down (if I may summarize in such a terse manner).  I’ll add that I agree with Jerry Coyne here, and find that John Shook is not a very good writer, uses vague language, and is trying to draw parallels which I simply do not see justification for.  My guess is that this is an outgrowth of trying to express a point of view that seems contradictory and indefensible.  Shook’s post led to more conversation (in the comments section, again) which got me talking to people on different sides of this debate….


I think that what has started to happen in the last couple of years is a clear split in the atheist community about a number of things.  Many have commented on it, and I will not dwell too much on the history or points of said disagreement here.  But what I want to identify is a certain tribalism that is starting to make itself much more clear to me.  In the comments to Jerry Coyne’s post, I am seeing some people talking about what “side” someone is on, as if this is a clearly defined conflict with clear sides.

I think that Michael De Dora is partially right when he says, in a comment (#5) on Shook’s post)

The term “accomodationist,” in current use, means so many different things that it essentially means nothing.

Now, at first I disagreed with this sentiment (and I still do, but let’s not get sidetracked) as the record shows in that subsequent discussion.  I think that it is something that requires more discussion, and I extend the invitation to other people who are, or who have been branded with the title of, accommodationist.

I think he is right to the extent that because of the various obfuscations, differing uses, etc of the term ‘accommodationist,’ many people are not really clear on what it means.  But I do think that at first there was a use which was clear and which could still make a simple distinction between perspectives on this issue and which describes a real divide in opinions and not mere semantic games.


For me, the central criteria for accommodationism is where one stands on the issue of incompatibility between science and religion.  More specifically, the incompatibility between certain scientific issues (usually evolution) and religious believers.  How much are we willing to appease or accommodate (hence the term) people’s religious beliefs while trying to convince them of the overwhelming evidence for science and its powerful method.

That is, when it comes to scientific literacy and education, how do we deal with religion and the fact that there are incompatibilities between religious doctrines and scientific conclusions?  Do we overlook when liberal religious people don’t notice the contradiction or don’t think there is one?  Do we point out that we think that scientific conclusions make their world worldview look indefensible?

A secondary issue is that of the willingness to be confrontational.  New atheists are called strident, rude, and other words which I shall not repeat, while the other atheists are nice, they listen and don’t criticize even while they disagree, and they just go about their godless life almost unnoticed.

And whether one is more willing to be confrontational will not necessarily tell you their opinion about the question of incompatibility.  What happens, I think, is that confrontational gnus get attacked by confrontational accommodationists.  And from the point of view of the religious, the confrontational gnus look worse because they are saying that there actually is an incompatibility while the accommodationist talks up the compatibility.  Good cop bad cop, of a sort?

Here’s a little dialogue from an up-coming play I’m writing called Good Accommodationist, Bad Gnu:

“Hey, fella, that gnu cop is really riled up out there, saying this and that and how wrong you are.  If I let him in he’s gonna rough you up a bit, so I’ll keep him out there, away from you.  But I understand where you are coming from…you didn’t mean what you did and you didn’t know better.  No big deal, right?   Let’s be friends, help me out and I’ll help you out, ok?”

We all know that the “good” cop thinks this “fella” is guilty and is just trying to get a confession, but he’s being really nice  about it.  Will it work? Maybe.  But we have not heard from the other cop, what the guy did, and so all we hear is the “good” cop.  That’s how it is for much of the audience of people like Chris Mooney or the Templeton Foundation writers.  All they hear is the shouting coming from the other room (which they are not really listening to) and a calmer cop in their face, acting like their friend.

And this issue of confrontation is not unrelated to the issue of incompatibility.  The philosophical disagreement about compatibility of science and religion leads to the appearance of confrontationalism being the central difference between the ‘gnus’ and the ‘accommodationists’.  Allow me to try to parse that out:

  1. Atheists have been pointing out for a while that saying something critical about someone’s beliefs is often viewed as confrontational or rude, no matter how politely it is said.  Thus, even when an atheist is trying to not be confrontational, they appear to be confrontational.
  2. Having the opinion that religion/faith and the scientific method’s power to explain (including the so-called ‘scientism’) are incompatible is a position that will be critical of a very significant percentage of our culture.  To point it out is not, many say, diplomatic. It will not make us many friends, and it will chase moderates away from us towards fundamentalism, and fundamentalists towards a more strict literalism.
  3. Therefore, those with opinions about the incompatibility of science and religion are viewed as confrontational, even if they are not actually confrontational, because their position is undiplomatic.  To be undiplomatic is to be confrontational, it seems.
  4. Many atheists (including this one) believe that to pretend, while interacting with religious people (especially about science), that this incompatibility does not exist is to be short-sighted and is only telling a half-truth at best.  We feel that we don’t need to always sweeten the medicine.  And when we see religious scientists, we may say “sure the two things can exist in the same brain, but they are philosophically incompatible.”
  5. Other atheists believe that in order to make short-term gains in science education, the opposition of conservative and fundamentalist religious agendas, and to generally have a better relationship for communication with most of the religious world we need to not press them on their faith.  So they talk up, Templeton and HuffPo style, ways in which religion is a lot like science or naturalism and rarely talk about how they are incompatible.
  6. Many atheists with the perspective that this incompatibility should not be glossed over, appeased, or accommodated are frustrated because it is dishonest or demonstrably wrong.  In my case (and I think Coyne’s and PZ’s), this is due our watching some atheists not point out this incompatibility to the larger cultural audience even when they may agree that the incompatibility exists.  They are talking out of both sides of their mouths.
  7. There are other people out there (and perhaps John Shook is one of them), who believe that the incompatibility exists but insist on trying to draw similarities between naturalism and supernaturalism.  They do this, I believe, with good intentions; they are trying to further the dialogue with the religious world.
  8. Further, many these people often attack those who refuse to play this game of diplomacy.  They try to appease the largely religious (or religious-friendly) culture, which is most of their intended audience, while also publicly attacking the people who are not trying to appease the religious world.  Many of these people agree that religion and science are incompatible.
  9. And even if these attackers don’t agree with atheists like me on the incompatibility issue, they are still attacking other atheists.  They are trying to dissociate themselves from the so-called ‘new atheists’ who are seen as strident, aggressive, and rude (even when they are not).  They are widening the rift which is a difference of opinion about tactics which the public really does not understand nor really cares about.  They are making an internal issue public so they won’t look bad; the irony being they don’t really disagree very much about the general questions of gods, religions, and faith, just how we should address the public about such things.
  10. This is playing politics.  It comes across to me as dishonest, short-sighted, and it treats the public as if they were children rather than adults who can hear what people like Shook claim to actually believe but obfuscates with posts like the one linked above.  If you believe that the incompatibility exists, dont attempt Chopra-esque mental and linguistic gymnastics in order to show how they may be compatible.

All of this amounts to the development of tribalism.  We see the same thing in politics, especially here in the United States, and it turns into sides, rather than perspectives in a complex set of problems that may have a number of solutions, or at least sets of solutions that can be grouped into major categories.

Working towards an internal conversation

I would like to have more dialogue about this issue, and stop building more fences.  I want those who side with the gnu atheists to talk more with people they call, or who call themselves, accommodationists.  I want us to talk through these issues and find a way to either clearly define the boundaries and hack out the actual philosophical disagreements or to throw away the terms and just talk about the differences.  We may have to come up with new terms, although my guess is that the current ones will stick, as terms are wont to do.

There are probably many shades of grey in this discussion, and I am sure that I am not the extreme on either end of the spectrum, if it is, indeed a spectrum.  It’s probably more like a multi-dimensional graph with at least 2 axes; level of agreement with incompatibility and level of confrontationalism.  Picture a simple graph with the y-axis being the strength of their agreement with incompatibility, and the x-axis the level of confrontational behavior you are comfortable with.

I would be higher on both axes, while others would either be high on one, the other, or neither.  We need to recognize that this issue about accommodationism v. gnu atheism is not a simple binary position.  This is complex, and it’s time we talked and figured out what the issues are, the possible positions, and where we all stand.  And perhaps in doing so, we may get rid of the terms ‘accommodationist’ and  ‘gnu’/’new’ or we may simply add to them.

It may turn out that the various positions are incompatible and that the confrontational people on all sides will continue to be strident, but let’s at least figure out what each of us means when we define our positions and why we criticize each other.  I want to know what others think about this, and I want them to understand my point of view.  Right now, I don’t think anyone has a really clear picture of any side.  Even if nobody changes their position, I think some clarity may help us better understand our own position.



1. Cory Brunson - April 2, 2011

I only have some impressions. I don’t identify by any of the terms above except “atheist”, but by your descriptions i am a moderately confrontational (around .5 if the axis ranges from -1 to 1) strong incompatibilist (an “irreconcilabilist”, Hitchens might say).

The popular writings i’ve read on religion (and superstition) spend most of their time making the points that (a) religion is falsifiable and false, (b) religion serves destructive purposes more commonly and more effectively than it serves constructive purposes, and (c) religion serves no purpose inaccessible elsewhere. (I want to learn about writings that don’t!) These points are first and vital, both for appealing to reasonable people embodying unreasonable belief systems and for arming confrontationalists. They may also be effective at much more.

I have not come across any reading (to my memory) on empirically verified (statistically surveyed, lab-tested, anecdotal . . .) methods of persuasion. Without sarcasm, i expect that such a reasonable community would take such a study seriously and that most individuals in it would at least consider adjusting their behavior in response. (The subject frequently comes up in Q&A sessions, at which prompt the author or speaker relates many anecdotes from readers or audience members. Have i missed writings specifically focus on this topic?) This would not include, for instance, raising the median income or standard of living, but perhaps best questions to provoke further self-questioning or lines of inquiry least likely to trigger defensive reactions. Is the subject of the politicization of religion, for instance, an effective illustration the pick-and-choose mechanism, or does it tend to polarize a listener before one has even made one’s point?

Paul Krugman frequently characterizes current economic debates as Sinclairian. (“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Though it need not be about money.) I’m tempted to think that the question of how best to engage a religious person is far less important than whether to engage them directly, so that most of the current disagreements dissipate under scrutiny and we’re left with the availability and use of a variety of methods as being somewhat optimal already (so that the religious are, statistically, exposed to them all) . . . and therefore that nonconfrontationalists are just refusing to understand on principle. I’d be much happier, though, to read something at least as informative as opinionated about it.

2. shaunphilly - April 2, 2011

I am not familiar with any study that is that specific. I have read studies that seem to indicate that when you respond to someone’s falsely held belief, later they still regurgitate the false belief despite having been shown otherwise.

Many argue that by being confrontational, people become defensive, and this seems to be true at a glance in my experience. However, sometimes just saying you are an atheist gets this response, in which case the only thing we can do is shut up if we don’t want that response with those people.

I, too, would like to see some studies about oersuasion that address this question better. It’s not my field, unfortunately for me.

3. Ginny - April 2, 2011

Cory, you raise an intriguing question in my mind. If a well-constructed study showed that diplomatic, non-confrontational strategies got better results than either confrontational strategies or a mix of the two, would people like PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, and Christopher Hitchens then adopt a milder tone? My first instinct says no: that the confrontational tone comes more from an inner imperative to call it like you see it (in some cases, coupled with a deficiency in diplomatic ability), than from a strategic assessment. I’d be curious to hear responses to this hypothetical.

(My own uninformed opinion is that a mix of strategies is most effective. Which is why I get annoyed with those accomodationalists who try to “shut up” the Gnus. I think having both factions vocal and visible in the greater society is the best way to ensure widespread tolerance of atheism, acceptance of science, and questioning of religion.)

Shaun, nice post. I’d call myself a -.75 on the diplomacy scale and a -.2 on the compatibilism scale.

4. Cory Brunson - April 2, 2011

Ginny, i share your first instinct, with another ingredient being the anecdotal evidence these people have accumulated, which, under this hypothesis, would be a small percentage of actual ‘enlightenments’ but nonetheless weigh (we may suppose) substantially on their decisions and more so on their attitudes. It’s partially for the variety of anecdotes that i also share your parenthetical opinion (or perhaps expectation). It raises, however, an interesting question of its own: How best for diplomatic and confrontational incompatibilists to present a unified front. (While we disagree over the importance of weaning people from their lifelong religious beliefs, for example, we might agree on the importance of moderating the indoctrination of children, say, by including comparative religion classes and inter/extra-faith dialogues in schools.)

How should two factions express solidarity toward others when their principle disagreement is over how to interact with others? It still seems to come down to focusing on commonalities in larger media while acting autonomously at smaller scales.

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