We spend a lot of time in the atheist movement talking — okay, fine, bickering — about confrontationalism versus diplomacy. Whether firebrands are making things harder for the atheist movement. Whether accomodationists are conceding too much ground to believers. Whether these approaches are stronger together than either one would be alone. You know the drill.
I’ve been realizing something about these conversations — something that I think might clarify them and make them more productive.
Diplomacy and accomodationism are not the same thing.
We often use the two words interchangeably. When we talk about diplomacy and accomodationism, we act as if we’re talking about one idea. But they are not the same thing at all. Diplomacy and accomodationism are actually pretty different. And I think this confusion is muddying these conversations.
So let me try to de-muddify.
Diplomacy means trying to get along with people. In this context, it means atheists trying to get along with religious believers. It means working with believers on issues and projects we have in common, from church/ state separation to rebuilding homes in New Orleans. It means expressing opinions in a polite, friendly manner that shows respect for the person even while disagreeing with the idea. It means seeing atheists and believers as having more similarities than differences, and focusing more energy and attention on the similarities than the differences.
It does not — repeat, NOT — mean never expressing disagreement. Ask any professional diplomat whether their job requires them to never express disagreement, and they will laugh you out of the building. (Actually, they probably won’t — they’re diplomats, after all — but they will certainly use polite and respectful language to express strong disagreement with your position.) Diplomatic atheists can, and do, express disagreement with religion. And they can and do speak out when religious belief intrudes and does harm — to atheists, and to other believers. They choose a different tone for their disagreements than firebrands, and they spend more time and energy on things other than their disagreements… but they still disagree, and they still oppose. Diplomacy does not mean accommodating religious belief.
Accomodationism, on the other hand, does mean accommodating religious belief. It’s right there in the word.
Diplomacy means working with religious believers as equals. Accomodationism means bending to religion as its subordinate.
Here are some specific examples, to hash out this distinction and show you what I mean by it.
Diplomacy: Making arguments against religion using polite, civil language; making it clear that you have respect for the other person even if you disagree with their beliefs; being sure to acknowledge when you make mistakes or don’t know something; being cautious about which arguments you do and don’t want to have in the first place (and where and when and with whom); and being willing to drop the conversation or postpone it if it becomes too heated.
Accomodationism: Refusing to make arguments against religion — not because you personally don’t enjoy them, but because you think it’s inherently disrespectful to criticize people’s religious beliefs, and/or because you think religion is in a special category of ideas that ought not to be criticized. And trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.
Diplomacy: Sending a polite, friendly letter to the Muslim association on your campus, informing them that you’re going to be chalking stick figures of Muhammad on your campus in protest of violent threats against cartoonists; saying that you understand that they may find this upsetting; explaining why your principles demand that you do it anyway; and expressing the hope for further conversation, on this and other topics.
Accomodationism: Declining to chalk stick figures of Muhammad on your campus in response to threats of violence against cartoonists… because the Muslim faith forbids it, and you want to accommodate the Muslim faith and show it respect. And trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.
Diplomacy: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that, while science and religion are fundamentally different approaches to truth claims, you encourage both believers and non-believers who support your organization’s mission to join it, and you respect and defend people’s right to freedom of religion, and you will not take any position or action that interferes with that right.
Accomodationism: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that science and religion are entirely compatible, and do not conflict in any way.
Diplomacy: Criticizing other atheists who criticize religion, and defending religion against their critiques, on the basis that they are are inaccurate, unfair, or disproportionate.
Accomodationism: Criticizing other atheists who criticize religion, and defending religion against their critiques, on the basis that criticizing religion is inherently divisive.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
Do you see this distinction?
Most firebrands I know — and I know a lot of firebrands, being one of them myself — have no problem whatsoever with atheists being nice and friendly with religious believers. In fact, many of us often are nice and friendly with religious believers at many times in our lives, and we take a more confrontational or more diplomatic tone depending on context, and the specific subject matter, and what mood we’re in that day. As Ed Clint pointed out in his excellent talk at the SSA conference, the whole “firebrand versus diplomat” thing is something of a false dichotomy. Many atheist activists don’t see ourselves as exclusively one or the other. Or even primarily one or the other. It’s a spectrum. And we don’t all live on just one end of that spectrum.
And even those atheists who do tend to live on the fiery end of that spectrum, and who tend to take a firebrand-y position most of the time, have no real problem with diplomatic atheists. Every firebrand atheist I know has said — very clearly, many times — that we are fine with diplomatic atheists. More than fine. We support them. We encourage them. We understand that our movement is stronger with them than without them. We get that they’re doing something hugely important, something that’s not so much in our nature to do, and we’re really glad that they’re out there doing it. We’re actively happy that they’re here.
Our problem is not with diplomacy.
Our problem is with accomodationism.
Our problem is not with being civil and friendly to believers, or with trying to make alliances with them. Our problem is with bowing to religion. Our problem is with accepting religion’s assessment of itself as a special case, an idea that ought to be above criticism. Our problem is with seeing religion the same way believers see religion, and treating it the way believers want it to be treated… even when it’s grossly harmful, laughably ridiculous, wildly out of touch with reality, or all three at once.
Our problem is not with working with religious believers as equals.
Our problem is with bending to religion as its subordinate.
Accomodationism is not diplomacy. Accomodationism is not necessary for diplomacy. Let’s not treat it as though it is.