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May 15 2011

The Accommodationism Debate Explained

Desiree Schell, of Skeptically Speaking and other general awesomeness, will be on Atheists Talk in a few weeks to talk about strategies for effecting change. Since the announcement about her appearance happened in the middle of yet another discussion about accommodationism, Desiree (being the smart and highly prepared woman she is) asked for a clear description of a topic that doesn’t come up in what she does as a skeptic or union organizer. I think the results are worth sharing here.

I mainly stick to scientific skepticism, and I don’t follow atheist controversies very closely, so can someone tell me exactly what an accommodationist is? Every time I ask that question I get a different answer. And that’s understandable; I claim terms all the time to structure my own thoughts. But can someone (or a few of you) on this thread tell me about your perception of what that word means? It would help me, because it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to come up on air.

Accommodationism is used to refer to the idea that in order to get the support of religious people on political issues (teaching of evolution, separation of church and state, etc.) one should be careful to not challenge their religious beliefs or should, perhaps, even reinforce them. It’s as big a debate as it is because the idea is both very pragmatic and very problematic.

I think the pro-accommodationism argument is pretty clear and simple. The anti-accommodationism argument is a little more complicated:

  1. Try as you might to not disturb religious beliefs, the truth and supremacy of someone’s religion is exactly what these arguments often boil down to. At some point, you’re stepping on someone’s religious toes. The actual question is whose.
  2. Stepping on the toes of one religion generally looks, to the apathetic masses, like stepping on all religion, no matter what you try to do. Playing a middle game is tricky on the mass level.
  3. While accommodationism might work on a single political issue (although we don’t have evidence that it has), there are going to continue to be fights, all coming out of this same well of religious privilege. Reinforcing the privilege to win one fight is going to make the next fight harder.
  4. Therefore, the way to go is to take on the larger issue of religious privilege, even if it causes problems in the short-term. At that point, this becomes a fight about equality and civil rights, and the whole plan changes a bit.

So, would working with a number of different stakeholders (one of them being a church group) on a single-issue campaign like lobbing the government to keep fluoridating the city’s water system, be considered accommodation? Or is it only accommodation when working on a campaign that involves religion?

There will be a few people who say both. They’ll get lots of attention, but they’re not the sort of people who actually leave the computer and get anything done. For the most part, only the second would be.

So what if an atheist doesn’t much care about the larger idea of religious privilege, and is only personally interested in a single issue like ensuring that evolution is taught in schools. Are they an accommodationist by default?

Probably not by default, but for a single issue, an accommodationist approach really does make a lot of sense if you can find a big enough religious population to whom the issue isn’t intrinsically threatening.

I think that’s why this is so intractable. It’s really a difference of values, and you know how those go.

Do I ever.