Essay:The false dichotomy of accommodationism and antitheism

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True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.
—H.L. Mencken

One side is full of bomb-throwing firebrands alienating potential political allies and the other is a bunch of weak-kneed opportunists who compromise so much they might as well be singing Kumbaya around the campfire with the "enemy." In the ever-present debate between atheists in the accommodationist camp and the antitheists or so-called "New Atheists," words like "respect" and "tolerance" get thrown around quite a bit. However, it seems to me that many on either side have failed to clearly define their terms and have instead taken to drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and tossing bombs across it. Once the rhetoric is untangled, I find little disagreement between the two positions.

Are religion and science compatible?[edit]

This question seems to be the central issue that divides the two sides. To make things a little more concrete, I'll refer to the flap over the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) statements on the issue that started with evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne's criticism of the organization a few years back. In 2009, Coyne made a post to his blog taking them to task for statements on their websites that evolution was not incompatible with religion.[1] Coyne also went on to criticize some of the literature promoted by NCSE and, on that, I agree that some of it is of dubious scientific value, so I only want to concentrate on the issue of "compatibility."

The problem as I see it is that either side is using a different definition of the word "compatible." I would divide them into "philosophical compatibility" and "practical compatibility." "Philosophical compatibility" deals with whether religion is compatible with a philosophy based in scientific skepticism. My answer is (along with Coyne and others in the antitheist/New Atheist camp) that the two are incompatible.[2] "Practical compatibility" is simply the ability to be both religious and accept scientific fact as our best available knowledge (or, even further, do scientific work yourself). The answer to this is quite obviously, yes, they are compatible as the examples given by the NAS attest to.

With these definitions laid out clearly, I think Coyne makes two conflations that undermine his point. The first is conflating evolution with a philosophical viewpoint of scientific skepticism. The statement Coyne criticizes at the beginning of his post applies strictly to evolution and is meant to address the straw man made by creationists to imply that acceptance of evolution necessarily requires the abandonment of religion. This is obviously false, but Coyne's first conflation leads him to make the second conflation of confusing philosophical and practical compatibility. Thus, by substituting scientific skepticism as a whole for evolution, Coyne erroneously argues that religion and evolution are necessarily incompatible.

In an interview with Newsweek, Richard Dawkins seems to be making the same argument I've made above, albeit implicitly:

[Newsweek:] Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution? [Dawkins:] No, I don't think they're incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God—to name only Francis Collins [the geneticist and Christian believer recently chosen to head the National Institutes of Health] as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind.[3]

Dawkins' comments were characterized by some in the atheist blogosphere as "accommodationist." Coyne contacted Dawkins and received this response:

How utterly ridiculous. All I was saying is that it is possible for a human mind to accommodate both evolution and religion because F. Collins’s mind seems to manage the feat (along with lots of vicars and bishops and rabbis). I also needed to make the point that TGSOE [The Greatest Show on Earth] is not the same book as TGD [The God Delusion] because many interviewers who are supposed to be interviewing me about TGSOE have simply ignored it and gone right back to assuming that it is the same book as TGD.[4]

There you have it — the accommodationists are not even sure what accommodationism is, exactly.

The politics of accommodation[edit]

The accommodationists, then, face the dilemma in choosing between philosophical and practical compatibility. If they choose the former, they are essentially endorsing a form of Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). The viability of NOMA has been demolished repeatedly before, but put simply, it only really works if one puts deities "outside of space and time" such that they can't interact with the physical universe and are unable to be falsified. So then what good are they anyway? However, it seems that many on the accomodationist side agree with the latter, that science and religion only share practical compatibility. Chris Mooney is probably the most visible proponent of this position.[5]

Mooney, I believe, rightfully takes Coyne to task for arguing that "consorting with" theists is equivalent to an endorsement of their philosophical view. Where Mooney goes wrong is in stating that we should not criticize moderate or liberal theists. I think this is wrong for a number of reasons, but the most powerful and obvious of them is that it is impossible to criticize the creationists and fundamentalists without criticizing moderate theists. Take the example of Paley's watchmaker argument. This argument is used to support the concept of irreducible complexity by creationists, but also as a general argument for the existence of god by other theists. By pointing out that this is an argument from ignorance, or from incredulity more specifically, and insisting on natural causation, we are dismantling an argument made by theists across the spectrum from moderate to extreme and necessarily arguing against them all, even if only implicitly.

What Mooney does get right, however, is that it is to our benefit to work with the religious on issues where we have common cause. Working together on a political issue does not require us to change our philosophical stance or to endorse the philosophical compatibility of science and religion. I also support and donate to the ACLU, which in no way obligates me to endorse the positions of many of their clients such as the Westboro Baptist Church. When the ACLU defends the speech of these groups, it is the First Amendment they are defending, not the content of the speech.

Similarly, religious minorities have historically had an interest in defending the separation of church and state provided by the First Amendment, spanning from the Danbury Baptist Association which wrote to Thomas Jefferson imploring him to uphold this protection to the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, one of the most active lobbying groups in DC for First Amendment rights. To work together on a political issue of mutual interest does not compel atheists to accept or endorse the positions of the religious, nor does it compel them to self-censor criticism of religion. This is the important distinction Mooney makes: In fighting creationism, religious moderates are not trying to insert their own softer brands of creationism or theistic evolution into the classroom. This in no way precludes their own ideas from criticism, but it does make them an ally in the fight against creationism in the classroom. Demanding ideological purity in the political arena is self-sabotage.

In other words, the fight against religion in government is a political issue. If someone chooses to believe in a god, like he might believe in leprechauns or 9/11 conspiracy theories, it "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg," as Jefferson once said. Rebutting religious claims, like debunking the existence of leprechauns or conspiracy theories, is confined to the cultural, philosophical, or academic arena. Similarly, it's not until someone tries to slip leprechauns into biology texts or teach that 9/11 was an "inside job" in history class that it carries over into the political arena.

Thus, I see no conflict in holding the position that religion is a false and often harmful belief in conflict with scientific skepticism and that atheists and the religious can do well to work together on issues of shared political interest. In addition, I am in no way obligated to "respect" their religious views, but I am obligated to tolerate the existence of said views and advocate that the law, as "secular morality," be applied equally to everyone regardless of their own opinions.

"Message control"[edit]

The whole debate itself seems to stem from the notion that there is an "atheist movement" that ought to present itself as a unified front and so needs "message control." Of course, atheism is not a "brand" that needs to be sold, nor are atheists all like-minded people. The assumptions underlying all the "tone" debates seem to take for granted that "we" are all left-of-center Anglo-Americans. Rarely is there criticism of how communists or Objectivists present their atheism, presumably because they are not part of the "atheist movement"?

To his credit, Mooney has attempted to back up his approach with data from communications studies. However, he also cites studies showing what he believes to be the advantages of outspoken atheism.[6] This should further go to show that there is no One True WayTM to "do" atheism. Some will be more attracted to the "abrasive" style of New Atheism[7] and others will favor the accommodationist approach. The antitheist end of the spectrum just happens to be getting a lot of play in the media because it's still a controversial stance. If anything, some sort of "message control" works against us not only by stifling individual expression, but also limits our methods of communication. If you need any proof of that, just take a look at the guy who wrote that quote at the top of the page, the archetypical "atheist thumper" and bomb-thrower, whose writings are now considered American classics.


Criticism of New Atheists[edit]

On re-reading this, I see that this might be read as a wholesale endorsement of the New Atheist "philosophy" (whatever that may be). While I am in near full agreement with their scientific and philosophical arguments against god and religion, their critiques of religion as a cultural and social phenomenon are a mixed bag ranging from bang-on to total nonsense. (Dawkins and Dennett less so than Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, though they are all guilty to some degree.) I originally omitted this bone to pick as it could easily fill another article, but in short, their reading of historical and current events is often naive, prone to misrepresentation and oversimplification, and sometimes smacks of a kind of secular utopianism.[8] This does, however, further demonstrate my main point that the alleged division between anti-theism and accomodationism is not so clear. One does not have to misunderstand religion to oppose it.

Sans philosophical babbling[edit]

Amanda Marcotte has since written the tl;dr version of this essay.


  1. Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down, Jerry Coyne
  2. This is, of course, an issue in itself beyond the scope of this piece, but I'm assuming that it's true for the purposes of this essay. The division I'm drawing here is also similar to the division between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. See commentary by Massimo Pigliucci and PZ Myers for more on this.
  3. Darwin's Rottweiler, Newsweek
  4. Richard Dawkins is not an accomodationist, Jerry Coyne
  5. See the posts Atheists for Common Cause with the Religious on Evolution and Civility and the New Atheists for Mooney's take.
  6. Here for example: Psych Evidence that Supports New Atheism.
  7. I put "abrasive" in quotes because I have trouble seeing how some lumped in with the New Atheists, like Dan Dennett, can be labeled as such, especially in a culture that rarely blinks at the latest fire-and-brimstone preacher. That's double standards for ya.
  8. Indeed, it did fill another article