Confronting accomodationism

Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

How we make decisions

Chris stressed that humans are not rational. Our decision-making involves a lot of emotion. Consequently clearly held convictions are not easily changed. In fact the may become even more recalcitrant when exposed to rational discussion, evidence or criticism.

I agree with this – and it isn’t new. It’s an important consideration for the presentation of arguments and participation in discussion. However, Chris uses this to justify his opposition to  any “confrontational” opposition to religion. Even to the independent presentation of atheist world views.

Influence of a public atheist presence.

Chris made a concession on this point, referring to recently published research indicating that there is less opposition to atheists in environments where they already have a public presence. So he was effectively conceding that the public consciousness raising undertaken by “new atheists” and their encouragements to atheists to be public about their ideas, is having a positive effect.

This was obvious to most people even before the research results were published. But it does expose the accomodationist request to atheists to STFU as basically counter productive. I can understand it from religious apologists hostile to atheism – but not from atheists themselves.

The US population is turned off science by atheists?

Chris is convinced this is happening in the US, but acknowledged he doesn’t have data to back up his conviction. He suggests than it would be very difficult and expensive to get that data.

However, I discussed this in my articles Myths within a myth and Is atheism bad for science? where I commented on Elaine Howard Ecklands use of polling data to support a similar assertion. But in fact the data does not support this argument (See figure below from Is atheism bad for science?). If anything the vocal presence of “gnus” since the mid 2000’s seems to have undermined respect for religious leaders! With no obvious effect on the respect for science! Certainly no negative effect.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

Tactics should fit situations

I think Chris is confusing the different tactics which are suitable for different situations.

I agree that confrontation is a bad tactic when used at the personal level. In the one-to-one or small group situations ideas are advanced better if their presentation does not anger the receiver. In such situations one should seek the common ground and use it to advance one’s ideas. Of course this does not mean dishonesty or denying one’s own world views. Not at all.

But this is not the situation Mooney is criticising. He attacks the talks, articles and public appearances of Richard Dawkins. He criticises the blog articles of PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. These are not one-to-one or small group situations. These are communications with the public at large.

They are part of public discourse. Contributions to the overall market of ideas.

Responsibilty to provide information

Atheists have a responsibility to communicate their ideas. Just as do theists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc. It’s part of contributing to the overall market of ideas and human thought we find so interesting. The fact that some people don’t like some ideas in that market is not a reason to prevent contributions.

From a presentation on "new atheism" by Victor Stenger

For example, I find the biblical Psalm 14:1 offensive:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.”

That cannot justify any request to remove that Psalm from the bible, or to deny theists using it in their articles or lectures. It is part of the market of ideas and thought and just as open to being advance or critiqued as any other idea or though

Similarly scientists have a responsibility to communicate their findings, and to be honest about them. Research results should not be hidden because they conflict with the beliefs of some people. Historians should not deny the truth about the Galileo affair just because it offends some religious sensibilities.  And philosophers should not hide or confuse the fundamental epistemological difference between science and religion just to protect the sensitivities of religious fundamentalists.


It’s important for non-theists and scientists to contribute their ideas to the general market because many theist activists promote misinformation about these, consciously or unconsciously. For example the vilification and misrepresentation of non-theists like Richard Dawkins. This might be intentional or it might just  be an emotional response to his criticisms. But the concept of Dawkins being a “militant,” “strident”, “fundamentalist” atheist is promoted. And it gets picked up by people who should know better. By some non-theists, even those in academia. (Although the latter might just be examples of a common professional jealousy).

And, such ideas can easily be assumed by those who have no other source of information. How often have I heard Dawkin’s books denounced by people who have never read them.

Accomodationists commonly vilify Dawkins, Hitchens, and other “gnu” authors – often simply repeating the complaints of religious apologists. Of course this must be challenged. However, the more people who are familiar with the writings of people like Dawkins, or view them on internet videos, or hear them in person, the less believable such vilification and misrepresentation is.

However, there is a more serious way that theistic idealogues will spread misinformation about atheism and science.  Currently religious apologists question the epistemological basis of science – complaining that it does not permit supernatural explanations. This only has a small influence among accomodationist non-theists, but even so it can lead to a slightly post-modernist questioning of scientific epistemology among some academics.

This also occurs with the history of science. It always amazes me how many theologians and religious philosophers pontificate in this area.  And of course their pontifications are revisionist in the sense they attempt to rewrite history to express a Christian chauvinistic viewpoint.

Origins of modern science

There is the common apologist claim that the modern scientific revolution is based on Christian society, even Christian philosophy and theology. I wrote about this myth in Christianity gave birth to science – a myth? There I called it offensive:

“It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.”

And I quoted Noah J. Efron on this:

“Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  .”

Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The Galileo affair

In recent years religious apologists have tried to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair to present religion in a better light. Or they may claim that scientists and atheists are misrepresenting that history. For instance they will claim that atheists are actively promoting a myth that Galileo was tortured and imprisoned. He wasn’t. although he was apparently threatened with torture and his sentence of imprisonment was changed to house arrest for life.

But check it out. There are plenty of unreferenced instances of this claim being made by apologists – bit I certainly can’t find anything substantive to support the claim. Its a myth about a myth.

The “conflict thesis”

Similarly apologists claim that a so-called “conflict thesis” is being promoted. Atheists are claiming that science and religion are inevitably and always have been in conflict. Of course no-one is saying that. There are inevitable and irreconcilable difference in epistemology, but historically the history of the relationship between science and religion has never been that simple.

Apologists will rely on cherry picked quotes from old books like John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science published in 1878. But this is disingenuous because it is easy to find other quotes in this book giving examples of the positive role that some religions have sometimes played in science.

Is the US a special case?

Sure there are sensitivities in situations where atheists are a small minority like the US. But this is not the same issue in Europe or New Zealand. In fact these examples indicate the real nature of the problem.

In New Zealand the vocal opposition to “new atheists”  really only comes from the committed anti-atheist. The religious apologists. Those are the very few people who are strident or militant in their criticism of atheist adverts, or the appearance of Richard Dawkins on TV, or Dawkins lecture tour. (Boy, do they have an obsession with Dawkins and the “gnus”). While I am sure that some people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse do exist in New Zealand they really don’t comment much here. The accomodationist/confrontationist debate is very rare.

Then again, perhaps there should be such a debate here. Perhaps atheists in New Zealand are not “confrontational” enough. Perhaps they should be doing more to counter situations like non-consential prayer, promotion of creationism, religion in schools, etc.

After all, these are all issues non-theists have important views on and they should make sure that these ideas are part of our society’s appreciation and knowledge.

Maybe our atheists are not living up to their responsibilities?

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3 responses to “Confronting accomodationism

  1. Rebekah Higgitt

    As I briefly hinted on Twitter there are a few things here that I am not convinced about here. One relates to Chris Mooney’s evidence regarding trust of atheists relating to public presence of athesists: I did not quite agree with his conclusions as I did not see much to suggest that the presence of vocal, confrontational atheists is effective as opposed to, say, the frequent presence and normality of atheists in all walks of public life as exists in Europe and, I assume, New Zealand. I do not think that a ramping up of the rhetoric in these places would be useful, depending, perhaps, on what you are ultimately trying to achieve. There is real danger that it might ramp up the rhetoric from the other side too, polarising public opinion.

    However, I am more qualified to comment as an historian of science, particularly one who has spent time studying how stories in science have been created and recreated in support of all sorts of positions. I am not particularly familiar with accounts of Galileo from modern religious apologists, but they are certainly responding to accounts created by ‘apologists’ for science. The truth, as you rightly say, is always more complex, but the popular received accounts of the Galileo affair and much else in the history of science (especially anything surrounding Darwin) very much rely on the conflict thesis. This is something that academic historians of science have clarified, and these are not religious apologists. The claim about Galileo being tortured was made in the 19th century and has retained some currency ever since. Far fewer people know, say, that the Pope ultimately responsible for the judgement on Galileo had, as a cardinal, been a friend, supporter and patron. Another example is the general and erroneous belief that Darwin was attacked by the Church in general and that he was denied a knighthood because of the influence of bishops.

    We simply cannot say that “science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise”. For most of its history it was linked to religion, and very often particular creeds. Even now it is not exactly democratic and inclusive, since it requires serious training, money and ability to pursue. Science is created by and fully reflets the societies in which it exists.


  2. Thanks for the comment Rebekah.
    You would have to discuss Chris’s interpretation of the research with him. My point is that very often the claims of stridency etc. are just emotional reactions to quite normal public discussion. A sensitivity about religious questions not found in other subjects. And of course as there are more atheists in society it is only natural there will be more public expression of atheist views. The accomadationist request for us to STFU is a cowardly reaction to that sensitivity and avoids the real content of the debates.

    I am never sure what people mean by “received accounts” of the Galileo affair. If you mean something that might be believed by an uninformed public – OK. I guess many people might think Breshnev tortured and imprisoned Andre Sakharov when he was only confined to the city of Gorky. I am not sure what the uninformed public currently think of the Galileo affair.

    But relgious apologists claim that atheists and scientists are actively promoting the imprisonment and torture myth. You yourself say “I am not particularly familiar with accounts of Galileo from modern religious apologists, but they are certainly responding to accounts created by ‘apologists’ for science. ” Well my question is – who is promoting that myth? Give me examples of books, lectures, etc., by scientists or atheists promoting thats myth. (The writings of these apologists nevfer provide references, except perhaps draper and White).

    I raised this issue in my article The Galileo myths and on the SciBlogs site (The Galileo myths) this caused quite a debate. Despite the insistence of one commenter all he could produce was something said in an aside by Stephen Fry in a debate! (That belongs to the clas of uninformed public, not scholarship).

    Thats why I call this a myth within a myth. A myth about scientists and atheists promoting a myth.

    (Actually, the religous apologists writings on the Galileo affair recently are even worse, distorting the actual science, some claiming that even now, for example, one cannot differentiate between the geocentric and heliocentric solar system!)

    However, if you an produce real and serious examples of modern scientist or atheist promotion of this myth I am all ears on this. Always willing to adjust my views to evidence.

    I think Finocchiaro clarifies this whole issue – pointing out that for several centuries the only document available was that of the sentence. As this mentioned imprisonment it is understandable how that myth got going. But more recent scholarship using more documentation gives a more accurate picture and as far as I can determine the current scientific and atheist view, as exhibited in documents, books, talks, etc., accepts that he actually only suffered house arrest and the threat of torture.

    Not sure about your last sentence. While I basically agree I think it ignores the fact that scientific epistemology is really revolutionary. It is the epistemolgy where the actual confict arises and this is why the break with religion and theological philosophy was required for (and implicit in) the scientific revolution.

    And my experience has always been that it is non-secterian – having worked alongside people of all different relgions and none. Democratic, in the sense not of naive votes but in being open to ideas (even if this may take time) because in the end these are tested agianst reality, and inclusive – well that comes back to non-sectarian.

    Bloody hell, even I was accepted. Not because of who I was, or my lack of religion, or my politics (probably rejected on all those three) but on the basis of my contribution to research and knowledge. In the end I established or lost my reputation depending on how my ideas panned out against reality.


  3. The lack of respect for priests I am sure is a good thing. If there is one thing the Bible teaches over and over again, in many different eras, … it is… don’t trust the priests!


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