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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.
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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.


Accommodation; faith in moderation November 30, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Anyone who has been paying attention to the atheist blog-o-sphere in recent months is familiar with the issue of accommodationism.  Anyone who has been following the atheist community at all knows a little about the issue of labels;  Atheist, weak atheist/strong atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc.  Within these, and many other, issues lie a multitude of canards about atheists and issues related to the philosophy of religion that atheists commonly talk about.

One of those issues that comes up by people attempting to be reasonable has been annoying me recently, although it certainly is nothing new.  Just yesterday I was watching a documentary about one man’s search for whether God makes sense, called (appropriately) “Does God make sense?”  In it, we see interviews in which religious leaders and atheists answer questions about belief, skepticism, etc.  In the end, we get a sort of cop-out, a non-controversial moderation of opinion that will offend few and say little.

Does God makes sense? Our documentary narrator and interviewer concludes that both arguments have “circularities” and “endless regressions”; “Arguments? I love them all.  But they all falter.” And finally, “I wish I were certain.”

Ah yes, this old canard! Both the atheists and the theists think they are certain, and that reasonable people are not certain so we therefore reasonable people cannot unambiguously side with any ‘extreme’.  I’ve dealt with this before, somewhat, in talking about arrogance.  I’ve also dealt with the canard of atheist and theist being the extremes of a continuum with moderate positions (say, here and here).  But now I want to deal with another facet of this poorly cut piece of glass being passed off as a beautiful jewel.  I want to deal with the idolization of the moderate.

Shared by large swath of people in our culture, there is a sense that it is somehow laudable, and perhaps a prerequisite for being considered respectable, to eschew the extremes.  Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a prime example of this trend occurring in our culture.  The idea is that those on the extremes are, well, extreme and therefore unreasonable.  In order to be reasonable and sane we must keep a distance from both shores and sit comfortably somewhere in the middle, safe from controversy that might start a *gasp* conversation  that may challenge others’ views.  We may lean one way or the other, but be should sit near the middle.

But, as the atheist prophet and wordsmith PZ Myers so eloquently commented:

squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshiping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.

That is, sometimes the extreme is not a position of crazy.  Sometimes the extreme position is just right.  So when I see people trying to navigate the question of religion, god, etc and they conclude that the only reasonable position to be in is somewhere between the crazy theist fundamentalists and the crazy atheists, I want to ask why the atheist position is crazy.

And when I do, I get back either a look of perplexity upon being unable to identify examples of atheist fundamentalism or a bunch of positions that no atheist I know holds.  In other words, the extreme they point to is a straw-man, if they can point to anything at all.

But hidden within this is an admittance that I find interesting.  These moderates seem to recognize that the beliefs supported by religious fundamentalism–that is, supported by what the various scriptures actually say–are crazy.  They seem to recognize that the faith that those on the side of religious belief are not-acceptable to reasonable people.  They reject literalism, yes, but they also reject rejecting some watered-down version of that same faith (erroneously labeling that rejection as an equivalent faith).  And, instead, they maintain a new kind of faith; a faith in the moderate, the in-between, the safe. They create the watered-down religiosity that they refuse to reject, in fact.  It’s why they refuse to reject it; it’s their faith.
No, this is not to say that it is really safe, at least not in any way that will stand up to intellectual scrutiny.  It has to do with the fact that it will be culturally safe because so many people accept (without evidence or question, usually) the canard that a moderate position between apparent extremes is preferable, respectable, and will not make you stand out at a party.

It’s politics, really.  It’s an attempt to not be controversial.  Again, it’s not an attempt to not actually hold a controversial opinion, just not to hold a controversial opinion around the people they hang out with; other moderates with the same faith.  They have the numbers on their side, surely, and even when they don’t they will often appear rational.  The religious crazies will at least be sated that they are not atheists (even if they are), and the atheist will be sated that they are not thanking Jesus before dinner (even if they are).  You see, moderation is not so much about the opinion itself as it is about the being quiet among people with which they might otherwise have differences.  They neither discuss or think much about such controversial issues, so they default to the position of moderation while dismissing strong opinions as non-preferable.  They accommodate in order to get along.

Politics.  Except that when the polemical politicians speak up, they simply regard them as more of the crazies, even if they are not.  (And yes, they often are)

My mother is fond of the phrase “happy medium,” implying a pseudo- Aristotelian temperance of opinion.   A very close friend is usually of a similar temperament, and tries to find some position of compromise; but being a government attorney, this is not surprising.  And these skills are often good skills to have, and I employ them myself.  But more is going on here, I think, than good practice of rationality.  In some cases, I think it’s a kind of faith in the truth of moderation itself.  I It is, I think, a cultural phenomenon that is perhaps as predictable and as common as it is, well, average.

And I, who will stand near the so-called “extreme” of opinions about theology and sexuality, look at the people trying to be moderate and see them as, well, conservative.  This is essentially how I view accommodationism; as a position of being stuck in a respectful position in regards to religion mostly for the sake of appearing reasonable to the moderates of the world.  And it is not that they are trying to be conservative; they are not intentionally trying to maintain the status quo in any way, they just simply stop progressing at some point, and became comfortable.  Whether out of discomfort, fear, disinterest, or the occasional actual intent to stay where they are because they prefer it, it creates a cultural phenomenon that to those still progressing, looks like rigidity and sterility.

I will observe that I think that the liberalism of many generations often becomes the conservative of the next.  Where sex outside of marriage was rebellious and liberal for a couple of generations ago, while I was growing up casual sex started to become normal.  And now that I look at those with whom up I grew, I see them as being conservative sexually.  You know, idealizing  monogamy and all that.  A close friend told me not so long ago that polyamory is not for adults.  I find this funny and ironic.

I see those same people not being religious (although they may retain some emotional connection to some vague “spirituality”), and they are not willing to call themselves atheists or even to consider that my position, which they don’t understand and which they assume must be as crazy as the fundamentalist warning hellfire on the street-corner (without having any idea what that would imply), is reasonable.

Why can’t the position of the gnu atheist be reasonable? Simple.  Because it is not moderate, and moderation is good.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new faith.  It is a new faith of non-controversial, ‘let’s just live and let live’, mentality.

But it’s really always been this way, I think.  But I think they often forget that there should perhaps be moderation in everything; including moderation.

Strong opinions are not always crazy.  Sometimes they only seem extreme and strong because they reject things that really are ridiculous, and the contrast is glaring, loud, and diverting.  Perhaps it is time for great, diverting, contrast to faith of all kinds.  Perhaps it’s time for the anti-faith to arrive.  But to be anti-faith is to be loud even in a whisper.  But perhaps it’s time for more people to stop whispering and proclaim loudly that faith is not a benefit but a detriment to being reasonable.  Perhaps it’s time to call out that accommodationists are accommodating something crazy, even if they are only half-way to crazy town.

Graduation Moment for Gnu Atheists November 20, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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For many, the realization that they don’t believe in god–that they have *gasp* become an atheist (!)–is a significant moment.  In many cases, it is accompanied with some sadness, possibly anger, and of course the realization that now one can finally eat those babies guilt-free.

And following the necessary subsequent orgy, such a person will return to life and re-join society as an outsider, because they now view their former co-believers as silly, deluded, mindless fools who are only worthy of mockery and derision.

Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself.

That comes much later.  That comes, when they finally graduate to the upper echelon of atheist, the elite, the creme de la heathen.  See, those silly atheists who are not willing to mock, openly, the beliefs and lifestyles of others with whom they share not opinions metaphysical are not real atheists.


Surely, the realization that one does not believe in god says little to nothing concerning not only what they do believe, but what types of behaviors they will exhibit upon accepting this fact.  Many will remain quiet, and they may not even reveal this piece of personal revelation to anyone except close friends, and then only when the question is relevant.

In short, what one does with this lack of belief varies.

Look out! It's going to charge!

I, for example, will tend to be more confrontational, direct, and open about my lack of belief in gods.  I am, as Jerry Coyne has ‘coyned’ it, a Gnu Atheist.

(Here’s a little clarification, for those who are interested in the meaning of and history of such terms.)

But how do you know you are, in fact, a gnu atheist.  Well, it is not enough to merely not believe, but you have to be viewed, specifically by other atheists, as being aggressive, obnoxious, or rude.  And for many atheists, there will be a moment where you are attacked, spoken rudely to, or criticized by other atheists, for attacking, being rude to, or criticizing religious belief.

This happened to my lovely lady-friend just yesterday for the first time.  Yesterday, in other words, may be her graduation day for becoming one of the elite, Gnu atheists.  So I dedicate this post to her great achievment, a perch from where she can look down upon both religious and accomodationist alike.

Having been attacked for being rude (rudely), and for having spoke her mind to someone who didn’t think it was appropriate to do so, and so therefore spoke his mind, I verily grant thee, Ginny, with the title of Gnu Atheist, with all the powers and responsibilities that come with such an august title.

She does not always wear a bag on her head...