Diplomacy and Accomodationism Are Not The Same Thing


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.

Comments

  1. says

    Brilliant. Though I will say, for my part, I don’t even mind if other people choose to, as it were, bow to religion. It isn’t something that bothers me. When I care is when they, as a machine, continuously churn out articles from places like HuffPo and the religion sections of newspapers, shitting on the rest of us, calling us everything from “neo-conservative” to “unhelpful” to “racist,” pretending solipsistically that they can’t tell the difference between one idea and another.

    Then again, they are getting a cookie at the end, what with their being constantly rewarded by getting their nonsense published.

  2. says

    Excellent! As usual, you’ve managed to clearly articulate something I’ve been flailing around trying to say.

    You’re right, I try to be polite and diplomatic when dealing with believers, while not being an accomodationist.

  3. says

    Isn’t drawing stick figures of Muhammad more provokative than diplomatic? It should be done as a protest of murdering cartoonists, but I don’t see it as diplomatic.

    I agree with the rest of the post. We should stand by our beliefs while dealing or working with religious groups

  4. Konradius says

    Welcome!!
    Great article. The only problem will be to confront actual accomodationists with it. For some reason they take the spotlights for a mixed audience criticizing the convinced atheists. But when an outspoken atheist rebuts they are nowhere to be seen (see the Harris/Eagleton thingie as well)

  5. says

    This firebrand-leaning atheist salutes you. You pretty well summarize my views on the whole topic. I’m not anti-diplomacy or anti-politeness: I’m against crippling overspecialization in politeness.

    Some situations call for harsh language, like certain times when polite disagreement gives some people the impression that ridiculous or hateful beliefs are being treated as equal to a rational position.

    Other situations call for diplomacy.

    None of them call for accomodationism.

  6. azkyroth says

    Slightly less diplomatically, it occurred to me recently that the Accomodationists are basically analogous to “Uncle Tom”s who have convinced themselves they’re playing the “Martin Luther King” to our “Malcolm X” and are pretty damn pleased with themselves, if you know what I mean. >.>

  7. says

    Thanks for writing this, Greta! I very much agree. I’d often find myself thinking that some of the atheists who get characterized as nicer than the firebrand aren’t really accomodationists; they just seemed to have a different style of communication, but were also criticizing religion. They’re very different from those who don’t criticize religion on principle. Personally, I’ve often found myself agreeing with most of the statements made by some “firebrands” while thinking I may have said it differently.

    Welcome to your new blog home and congratulations!

  8. says

    Hi Greta! Long-time reader, first-time commenter. :)

    I definitely agree with this post. I tend to be more diplomatic in my feminist activism. It doesn’t mean I’m any less of a feminist, it just means that I tend towards the nice. :) The sheer number of people whose opinions I despise who conclude I’m “the good feminist”, though, is rather annoying…

  9. WfF says

    Great illustration of the difference. The extent to which accommodationists focus on what others are doing has always seemed excessive to the point where I honestly can’t see how they can possibly be assessing the situation rationally.

    All they have is an unsubstantiated assertion that criticism of religion is inherently counterproductive.

    I don’t see “firebrands” asserting that harsh criticism is necessarily effective (although there is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that this is sometimes the case) — or, as you wrote, that their/our way is the only way — so as a critical thinker, I’ll side with the ones who don’t model their behavior on assumptions or demand others to follow their example.

  10. Philip Legge says

    Great rant! Teasing out the “firebrand vs diplomat” issue being something of a false dichotomy, it’s also quite possible someone will employ the diplomatic stance on one issue, only to fold up accommodatingly on another issue that’s deemed to be of lesser importance—which may be because of prioritising the particular battle the diplomat wants to fight, but it can be very frustrating for anyone trying to push on that other front. (Dawkins criticism of Gould’s idea of NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria, as a sop to the religious liberals seems like a good example in the literature.)

  11. says

    Too true, particular the bit about “trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.” An accommodationist colleague of mine tried to make an allusion about us having our backs to the same wall, and maybe shouting defiance at the approaching mob wasn’t the best solution. My response was along the lines of “I’m pretty sure you’d desert my side and join the mob because hey, new friends!”

  12. Eclectic says

    Yay, new article. And welcome to the new digs.

    Thanks for attempting to add clarity, but it can still be a murky line. Religion is such a piece of personal identity for many people that it’s hard to distinguish criticism of religion from an ad hominem attack.

    You get overwrought fainting hysterics like Bill Donohue screaming like a stuck pig whenever someone points out that the Catholics’ crackers aren’t even particularly tasty.

    That doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist, just that the onus is on me to draw it. It’s not universally recognized.

  13. says

    As I was reading this, at first I thought I couldn’t think of any time when someone had confused diplomacy with accommodation. Then I realized I have been doing it myself when I couldn’t decide if I could accept the label “New Atheist” since I don’t always, or even mostly, approach religion as a firebrand. Then what you were saying actually clicked. Thank you.

  14. Sastra says

    Yes. I like this point, and the more I think about it the more I think you put your finger on a real problem. Too many people — atheist as well as theist — have confused the significant distinction between being ‘diplomatic’ and advocating ‘accomodationism.’

    I’ve noticed the straw man stumbling around too. There’s a tendency to be distracted by style and forget that accomodationism isn’t about being tactful, thoughtful, civil, or polite: it’s a position. You could in theory have a sweet and gentle gnu atheist on one side and a nasty, insulting accomodationist on the other. The gnu wants the debate; the accomodationist wants to drop the debate.

    Dropping the debate — the “let’s just agree to disagree and move on” — isn’t an example of respect for the opposition: not if the venue is one where one would otherwise expect a genuine discussion of differences. Instead it’s an attempt to be forbearing. Understanding. One is holding back out of consideration for the weakness, incapacity, or inadequacy of the person on the other side.

    But the despised minority can’t afford to do that against a majority which otherwise insists that their position is not only much more reasonable but much more ethical than that of the despised minority. No, they will not like and accept us as long as we agree that we will not make our case, challenge their beliefs, or try to change their minds. Accomodationists are kidding themselves. The smile of acceptance becomes a smirk the minute our back is turned. There is no substitute for holding the debate.

    And congrats on the move to Freethought Blogs!

  15. Karmakin says

    In terms of religion, the problem is the privilege. The problem is that the religious expect and demand for their ideas and opinions to be granted special status because they’re religious, full stop. It would be one thing if it stopped at strictly spiritual matters, but it doesn’t. You might think of things such as abortion and gay marriage as things where it spreads, but I see that it goes into things such as how can we help the poor, as an example. It goes FAR.

    The problem is the privilege, and accomodationism feeds that privilege, and that’s why they are wrong. The only way to eliminate the privilege is to fight the privilege on every front.

  16. Mattir-ritated says

    I’m so glad you’re here, Greta – what’s going to happen with the AlterNet gig, though? Will they still get first dibs at various of your posts?

    Also, I think the stick figures example could be argued either way. I can decline to draw stick figures of Mohammed because I think it’s silly and don’t want to hurt the feelings of people I’d rather get along with in my work for anti-discrimination policies, homeless shelters, or whatever. Doesn’t mean the Muslim students have a RIGHT not to be offended, just that for the moment, for my own reasons, I have CHOSEN not to refrain from a behavior that would bother them.

    As far as I can tell, the main place accommodationism really exists is in scoldings delivered by atheists to atheists. Diplomacy is regular everyday real life.

  17. RenDP says

    Diplomacy is more of an art than anything, and some people aren’t very good at it. I’m fortunate that I’m usually able to pull it off, but if the situation warrants, I can turn into a bitch real quick. Firebrands have their time and place but if that’s someone’s default position, others will pick up on that and become defensive, and they won’t hear anything being said. We’re fortunate that we have all kinds on our side, and our numbers are growing.

  18. Robert B. says

    I think the people who most need to know this distinction are the diplomats and acoomodationists. Something I see a lot is an argument for accommodationism on the grounds that firebrand activism is polarizing or unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree or otherwise rude. It’s hard to succinctly explain that, a), this is a false dichotomy, a dispute about tactics isn’t sufficient to argue against atheist activism altogether, and b) atheists have plenty of goals that can be served without being polite to believers. For one thing, strong language may just be insulting to hard-line opponents, but it can really get the attention of someone with ambivalent or mixed beliefs.

    I tend to the diplomatic side, but that’s a personal preference. Means and ends are not the same thing. Besides, firebrands are more exciting to read. :-)

  19. Beth says

    No, diplomacy and accomdationism are not the same thing. However, it seems to me that Phil Plait’s the ‘don’t be a dick’ speech is a call for diplomacy not accomdationism. But the reaction to that speech was the first time I heard the those calling for civility labeled disparagingly as accomodationist. In that specific case, but also more generally, what I see labeled ‘accomdationism’ are pleas for civility and repect for those who hold religious beliefs. I don’t see ‘accomodationists’ as advocating “bending to religion as its subordinate”.

    For example, you state

    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.

    The National center for Science Education was decried for being ‘accomodationist’ for having a page on their web site to let religious believers know that believing in evolution does not require giving up belief in god. I think their approach would be better described by your Diplomacy paragraph than your Accomodationist one.

    So while I agree with you regarding the difference between diplomacy and accomdationism, I think that the accomodationist label has been frequently applied when diplomacy would have been more accurate.

  20. jashbowie says

    @William, I don’t think Greta was saying that the Mohammad drawing event is itself diplomatic (it isn’t), but how that activity is communicated to Muslims can be. Of course, I think a drawing of Mohammad as a smiling stick figure is more diplomatic than one with a bomb on his head, so even there a difference can be made. By comparison, the accommodationist says that respect for Islam is paramount over any other principle and so no drawings should be made.

  21. says

    Great article as always, and welcome to the new site!

    Now that I think about it, I tend to see a pretty clear pattern in how diplomatic/firebrand-y I am. It seems that the closer a person is to me, the more diplomatic I am, and I suspect most people are the same way. If I’m discussing with some random person on the net, I tend to mostly ignore diplomacy, but when it comes to close friends/family, I am very diplomatic, which makes sense. The level of empathy we feel towards a person is usually related to how close that person is to us.

  22. Kagehi says

    Think you are sort of barking up the wrong tree on this one. The people PZ and others call “accomidationist” are the ones that think negotiation with *all* believers will get us some place, not just the ones which we actually do have a common cause with, on some specific subject. So, I am pretty sure the distinction is understood, by just about everyone other than the handful of people that pretty much constantly put out articles in the vein of, “I know they are pedophiles, but we should be diplomatic. I know they are trying to get creation into schools, but lets find a diplomatic way to address that. I know they are doing X, Y, and Z, which are wrong, but we need to negotiate, not call them on it.”

    That is the problem with the accomidationists. Not that they are telling us to tone things down and be diplomatic, but that they are doing so in **every** context, about every subject, with every believer, regardless of whether or not those people are at all interested in fairness, negotiation, or finding what ever sort of middle ground may exist, not just the ones with which there *is* such a thing. Why? Because they are “concerned” it might effect relations with the ones that are not completely frakking crazy.

    Basically, the sort of people that, probably, would have negotiated with Japan to only take “part” of California, in WWII, or maybe keep Hawaii, as long as they left the mainland alone, or something, while pretty much missing the whole point about why they where attacking in the first place. Their excuse would, I don’t know, have been that we might piss off Polynesians, or something. Missing the whole point is what these professional tone trolls do.

    Beth brings up an example where things go a bit too far in complaining about being diplomatic. But the problem is that the big-name professional tone trolls, which most of us are complaining about, go to the opposite extreme. They might find the notice on that sight too “one sided”, and insist that someone add, “, but creationism is OK too.”, in some cases. Why? Because it might offend potential allies to not include it. Diplomacy is one thing, kissing the feet of people that know you won’t fight back, and haven’t done anything else, for hundreds of years, is another.

  23. Sastra says

    The National center for Science Education was decried for being ‘accomodationist’ for having a page on their web site to let religious believers know that believing in evolution does not require giving up belief in god.

    No. The problem was that the NCSE didn’t just stop at pointing out that many religious believers accept evolution and this is a viable option; gnu atheists also regularly point this out both as fact and as strategy. The NCSE however went further and said or implied that accepting both was philosophically, methodologically, and theologically correct — and that those who say there is an inherent conflict are wrong.

    “Science has nothing to say about the existence of God, one way or the other.”

    “People have the right to be left alone and believe whatever they want in religion as long as they don’t try to force others to follow.”

    “Religious belief is a good thing in itself; the problem is only when people distort faith for their own ends.”

    All 3 of those accomodationist statements sound so neutral and friendly — but they are all problematic. The first one is simply wrong. The second one implies that debates on whether or not religion is true shouldn’t take place. The third one misses the point: when trying to decide what has been “distorted” and what hasn’t, the method matters.

  24. barbrykost says

    I am a social accomodationist. In my society of older women, there is no way I could ever present an atheist viewpoint without being accused of mocking religion. I would really like to see more accomodationists on the religious side, but until there is I just love reading non diplomatic blogs.
    Meantime, I hope to read more about this “diplomacy” technique. Is there a diplomatic way to say, “Please don’t bless me”?

  25. boopsey says

    Good comments here! Salo and Robert B. both bring up good points. I don’t see it as an all or nothing thing. People tend one way or the other, often based on how close they are to the other person.

    I find comparing fundamentalist religious believers to pedophiles as equally repulse to tolerate to be over the top. I understand you may actually feel that way, I know people who do.

    I find that feeling that way about a large portion of the population to be, well, unpleasant. You have my sympathies.

    If pedophiles constituted as large a portion of the population as religious believers do, I’d probably try to be less prejudiced against them too. I’d ask myself questions like “Can they really help it? Is it actually harmful? Every time or only when it’s not handled well?” There have been many cultures on earth, many of which included sex with children by our current standards. Is it always a bad thing?

    Call me sycophantic if you like, but I’d want to see objective evidence that they were really as awful as you are portraying before you will convince me to share your revulsion for the average member.

  26. BCat says

    Great article, I agree completely. I’ve run into the same argument, but worse. Some people claim we can’t argue with theist on First Amendment grounds- and I am getting tired of it. The First Amendment guarantees broad rights to believe whatever you want, to meet with others who believe the same way, and to public state those beliefs. It in NO WAY protects you from being laughed at if you express an opinion that is in fact laughable.

  27. jflcroft says

    I think Beth is right. This distinction, were it to take root, would be pretty useful. However, I do feel that this is simply not how the term “accommodationist” is commonly used by many who use it to criticize others, nor does it seem to be how the term originated.

    Frequently that term is indeed used, by those who like to style themselves as “firebrands”, to mean “do not be diplomatic”. Hence endless discussions of the effectiveness (or not) of social shaming, talk about the Overton Window, and defenses of heightened and intemperate rhetoric (“religious believers are fucking idiots”, “fundies” etc.).

    I am quite happy to be diplomatic while not being accommodating (in your terms), as long as, while I am being diplomatic, I am not eviscerated for being accommodating.

  28. jflcroft says

    On EDMD (I doubt we will agree on this one, but I feel I have to call out your rather uncharacteristic deck-stacking here), while sending a nice letter may well fall under the heading of “diplomatic”, actually chalking the drawings probably does not. Likewise, there’s a difference between me saying “for reasons A, B and C I believe it is unwise / wrong to draw Muhammad in this way”, and me making posters of student leaders with a speech bubble coming out of his mouth saying “I am an anti-Muslim bigot”. The way you’ve drawn the distinction there just makes your case too easily for you.

  29. kennypo65 says

    One of my dearest friends is a Pastor of a Presbyterian church. He and I have been friends since high school. We simply agree to disagree on many things. He is a really good guy. He walks the walk, and is a fine example of what a “True Christian” should be. Although he is very much aware of my atheism, he also knows that if he needs help with his various charity projects I’m only a phone call away. He is my friend and I like the fact that I can help him help others. We are worlds apart on matters of faith, and yet we get along. The fact that we really love each other helps(well, as much as two straight men can love each other anyway). His kids even call me “Uncle”.
    My point, after all this rambling, is that we see each other as human beings first. If people can try to see the people they disagree with as humans first, then the differences are a lot less important.

  30. Robert B. says

    @ barbrykost

    “Please don’t bless me” sounds plenty diplomatic already. In fact, it’s mild even by diplomatic standards: it doesn’t directly criticize anyone’s beliefs, it doesn’t even try to influence anyone’s beliefs – it’s just a polite statement of preference.

    I gather that saying that would still upset people, though. You might be out of luck there. Some people find it offensive that anyone is atheist at all – our very existence is “undiplomatic,” and there aren’t any tricks of language that will smooth that over. Diplomatic atheists still make people angry all the time – look at the reactions to billboards saying mild things like “Millions are good without God.”

    On the other hand, I don’t think you’re being “accommodationist.” I would call it being closeted. You sound quite pleased with the idea of people being openly atheist and publicly arguing that atheism is true, even in undiplomatic ways. You just don’t find it practical to do so yourself. Please, please believe that this is totally fine if that’s what you need. Sometimes other people have the power to make our lives miserable unless we hide. That’s regrettable, and it wouldn’t happen in a perfect world, but it certainly isn’t our fault. It’s the fault of the ones who have the power. (In your case, it sounds like a social power, but power is power.)

  31. says

    James, I watched the video where you spoke out against Seven Mountains. I don’t think I could ever call you “accomodationist,” even at your most diplomatic.

  32. Robert B. says

    Your friend sounds like an excellent person, but in some other cases we disagree with people because they are doing horrible things. Sometimes the consequences of not arguing and getting along are worse than the consequences of offending people.

    I think we need both the empathy to regard our opponents as human, and the fire to always stand up for what is right. And if some people are better at one than the other, and (in moderation) do more of one than the other, then I think that’s okay. It’ll probably come out even in the end, if we stick together.

  33. D. Donnelly says

    One of the biggest obstacles to providing for polite dissension is the substitution of inculcation v. education in too many of the crowds of the faithful. I still cannot believe it when supposedly educated adult American citizens start talking about our Constitution being based on Christian (or Judeo/Christian) beliefs. I don’t know how many of these discussions have ended with me asking, “and exactly how united were the original settlers? The founding fathers? Where is there an explicit mention of God/Yawhe/Allah/etc?” I am usually met with blank stares, followed moments later with, “well, we put In God We Trust” on our currency!” When pressed on exactly when this started happening invariably they are shocked to discover that it was at the time of public and legal Antisemitism in some parts of Europe and between World Wars. At times like these it’s almost overwhelming to have to accomplish in minutes what a(n admittedly failing) public education system failed to accomplish.

    As for the question of ‘bless you’, I usually just accept it as a social convention and a sign of engagement in the human condition. That’s such an insignificant point about which to argue. And one call always resort to the old Seinfeld substitute, “you are SOOO good looking.” :)

  34. WfF says

    As much as I like Phil Plait, part of the reason why the DBaD speech got such poor reception is because people know that he is fairly inconsistent himself there — anti-vaxxers, moon hoaxers, global warming deniers and various other groups get harsh words from him but he stays away from the topic of religion. This is fine as far as his personal behavior goes, but his demand that others follow his example on that particular issue…seems like he’s giving religion special consideration.

    He’s also known to be rather defensive about his friend Chris Mooney, who is pretty much the poster-boy for accommodationist dishonesty, irrationality and inconsistency.

  35. mpall says

    Thank you , Greta. I am definitely not an accomodationist and will work on my diplomacy. Excellent post!

  36. says

    I’ve only just happened upon this blog and the whole atheist forum thing so I’m probably way out of my league here, but I’ll pose a question that is nominally related to the Diplomacy and Accomodationism topic.

    If not accommodating those who hold religious beliefs (and I’m not necessarily against that in principle, I’m just wondering whether the consequences are at all practicable) is the aim then to strip them of such beliefs? And if so, what can be offered in lieu of such beliefs? I know from my own experience that having some kind of faith is (mostly) easier than not having any at all.

    Considering all of the facets of life that belief systems are intricately woven into, I’m not sure how capable – mentally, emotionally – most people are of living without them…

  37. says

    Greta, it would be interesting if you added here two other voices for each point—one for the Non-Diplomatic But Civil New Atheist and one for the excessively intolerant atheist. It would be interesting to see where you see the contrasts between diplomatic and other kinds of New Atheists and where you see good non-diplomatic New Atheism drawing the fine line that prevents the bigotedness we are accused of.

  38. Beth says

    I don’t see those 3 statements that way.

    The first one is true, not false. Science only makes statements about physical reality. The supernatural cannot be falsified by science.

    The second does not imply that debates should not take place. It implies that if someone does not choose to participate in such a debate, they should be left alone. I think that’s reasonable.

    The third is not a statement I agree with, but I don’t necessarily disagree with it either. It’s just a rather vague kind of feel-good statement.

    I can understand that you may not agree with their stance, but I don’t think their site qualifies as accommodationist by Greta’s definition. There’s no bowing down to religion or any attempt to keep others from arguing against religious beliefs.

  39. Sastra says

    Beth wrote:

    The first one is true, not false. Science only makes statements about physical reality. The supernatural cannot be falsified by science.

    I disagree; science studies reality. The methods of science make no distinction between natural and supernatural. People believe in the supernatural because they draw on evidence and experience in this world.

    I suspect this dispute is going to lean heavily on how we define “the supernatural.” Can science say anything, one way or another, about mind/body dualism? ESP? PK? Without these (supernatural) theories, God disappears.

    The second does not imply that debates should not take place. It implies that if someone does not choose to participate in such a debate, they should be left alone. I think that’s reasonable.

    I think the second statement usually muddies this distinction and allows flipping back and forth.

    The third is not a statement I agree with, but I don’t necessarily disagree with it either. It’s just a rather vague kind of feel-good statement.

    What are the objective means by which we measure when faith has gone “too far?” Does religion require or even allow humanists and non-believers to set these standards?

  40. Pierce R. Butler says

    The first one is true, not false. Science only makes statements about physical reality. The supernatural cannot be falsified by science.

    What would a universe created and managed by a purposeful, interventionist deity look like? Does our universe show such patterns? Read, e.g., books by Victor Stenger to see a physicist’s interpretation of The God Hypothesis (one of his titles) and how it fails.

  41. Sastra says

    I think the aim is to change the view that changing people’s minds about the truth, necessity, and value of religion is “stripping their beliefs.”

    What’s true, necessary, and valuable in religion will still remain. In general, I think it’s a wise rule of thumb to assume that, as individuals, atheists are no wiser, better, stronger, or smarter than theists are. To the extent that this is correct, then it suggests that they can adjust and we need not worry so much.

  42. says

    ^^^ What Sastra said.

    Also, most people who start out as believers and loose their faith, as I did, don’t do so overnight. It tends to be a gradual process, usually along the lines of theist->deist->agnostic->atheist, or some variation thereof. Because of this gradual process, there really isn’t much grief or angst associated with it. Rather, this process actually tends to be rather liberating (it certainly was for me).

    As far as what “replaces” religion (the term isn’t really accurate, but I’ll use it for brevity), it tends to vary from person to person. I have a post on my blog (http://wp.me/p1ymDp-2s) talking about meaning in my life, but that applies to just me. While there is no general “this is the meaning of life” claim that the atheist community follows, what meaning we do find in life tends to be very personal, and as a result very important and often more satisfying than the more general claims by the various religions.

    The idea that if we are not accommodating the religious then we must be proselytizing isn’t usually true, although there are always exceptions of course. For the most part, it’s just that we don’t want to lie. For example, when asked to pray for something, saying yes is the accomodationist approach, and saying no is the diplomatic/firebrand approach. It’s not that we are trying to convert anyone, it’s just that we want to be truthful.

  43. Beth says

    Sastra: science studies reality. The methods of science make no distinction between natural and supernatural.

    Science assumes that reality is consistent and the laws of nature are the same at all times and places in the universe. This assumption cannot be made when attempting to study the supernatural.

    Sastra: Can science say anything, one way or another, about mind/body dualism? ESP? PK? Without these (supernatural) theories, God disappears.

    I think that science could establish that such things do exist, but it cannot do the opposite. I don’t think God disappears without those things though. Only certain ideas about what god is like would be affected. The human conception of God would survive even if they were all conclusively proven false.

    Pierce R. Butler:What are the objective means by which we measure when faith has gone “too far?” Does religion require or even allow humanists and non-believers to set these standards?

    I think we are all entitled to set those standards within our societies. I’d probably advocate for setting the standard at when people start dying myself, which is a relatively objective standard. I seem to recall hearing that Germany recently banned Scientology. If the stories I’ve heard are true, Scientology has passed my suggested standard too.

  44. Beth says

    Pierce R. Butler saysWhat would a universe created and managed by a purposeful, interventionist deity look like?

    That would depend on the purpose of the deity. I don’t think that science can tell us about either with certainty.

  45. Robert B. says

    Faith is easier, yes… but knowledge is so much more fun! The endless potential for surprise, for discovery, for the feeling of power and wonder that comes with understanding something new – it’s just such an epic thrill.

    As for the social aspects of religion, I think that community and tradition are such integral parts of human nature that we couldn’t take them away if we wanted to. People will always find some way to gather in mutually supportive groups and bond over common experiences. If a person leaves religion, the parts of religion that are indispensible and inherent to humanity will be replaced by something that does the same vital things without involving faith.

  46. Pierce R. Butler says

    That would depend on the purpose of the deity. I don’t think that science can tell us about either with certainty.

    Artifacts generally reveal something about their purpose, or at least that there was one. Please point to any such evidence in the known cosmos.

  47. Pierce R. Butler says

    Beth: Pierce R. Butler:What are the objective means …

    I’m tremendously flattered that you attribute Sastra’s words to me. Her reply will doubtless surpass mine in cogency and brevity, but here’s my attempt anyway:

    Faith “goes too far” when it contradicts repeatedly established and verified facts. Your measure of “causes death”, while valid, allows too much damage to be done first. Can you point to anyone dying because they were taught creationism, flat-earthism, American-exceptionalism?

    “Persons of faith” can and do (sometimes) operate by the scientific method and produce useful results – but part of that requires a willingness to discard disproven ideas, or at minimum modify them and re-test. Those who don’t do that can, and must, be called out for not acting/speaking in (ahem) good faith.

  48. Kagehi says

    I think you will find that these people are the same people. PZ, to give an example, gives little or no ground on his blog, the best you will get from him there is, “As long as you are not promoting what I consider complete bullshit, I won’t bug you about believing in invisible friends, but I won’t pull punches thrown at other people for precisely that, just because you are here listening either.” In cases where dealing with “debates”, or similar venues, he is likely in the, “Non-Diplomatic But Civil New Atheist” category. And, when dealing with someone he knows personally, he probably give **way** more leeway on the whole thing.

    This seems to be true of most others too, from what I can tell. The problem is that the people actually in the cross hairs **want** everyone to think that you can’t rip into someone in one context, without it someone being about the ones you would be nice to, in a completely different context. And, there are those on our side who seem to have gotten into their heads that everyone *must* be one of the “Diplomatic” types, all the time, 100% of the time, or our allies on certain subjects will all be too stupid to figure out that we are talking about a completely different category of believer, with a completely different category of behavior, so get terribly offended by us being seriously Non-Diplomatic, to the point of excessively intolerance, to those people. That this may be right in a small number of cases (dumb people can exist anywhere), I personally find the suggestion that we need to treat every possible enemy as though they where merely saying, “bless you”, to us sneezing, which seems to very close to what some advocate, to be insulting to the intelligence of the very people they fear we might offend by not being “Diplomatic” all the time.

    There is, imho, no less arrogance involved in the assumption that your allies can’t tell who you are really talking about (i.e, are stupid, somehow), than if, as rarely ever happens, someone attacks all believers indiscriminately. Nuance and context seem to be a failing for “both” accomodationist behavior, as it is for extreme religious belief. Both assume either that someone doesn’t/can’t “get” what and who someone is talking about, or that you are painting everyone with the same brush, when all your are aiming at is the wall of your own house, which someone keeps covering in religious (or as the other side would accuse, secular) graffiti.

  49. Beth says

    My apologies for the mis-attribution. I’ve not quite got the hang of this site yet and was editing responses to two posts at once. In retrospect, a bad idea.

    When you say Faith “goes too far” when it contradicts repeatedly established and verified facts.

    I have to disagree, at least for the context we were talking about. I happen to agree with you in the sense that it’s farther than I am personally am willing to go on faith. But, unless it’s causing serious physical harm to others, I don’t see it as *good thing* for a free society to dictate what religious beliefs should not be permitted. Contradicting known facts, like evolution, IMO is not sufficient harm to ban such beliefs. Hmmm….a better of way of expressing my opinion is that I think a heavy-handed approach to ‘wrong’ religious beliefs will do society more harm than good.

    As for evidence that a creator or interventionist god exists, I know of no objective evidence that can be verified. Nor do I believe that any such god exists. I just don’t agree that the absence of evidence is sufficient to conclude absence of such a deity.

  50. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yep, this semi-threaded thread thing throws me off, too.

    Contradicting known facts, like evolution, IMO is not sufficient harm to ban such beliefs.

    Who said anything about banning (except, arguably, from publicly-funded science classrooms)?

    Mocking mercilessly and debunking daily, sure. But appointing a Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to chase ‘em down? So far, that looks like a job for the private sector.

    I just don’t agree that the absence of evidence is sufficient to conclude absence of such a deity.

    So far, said deity has failed to produce any of the phenomena predicted by his advocates (to a statistically significant degree beyond the null hypothesis). Remember Hitchens’s Razor:

    What is asserted without proof or data can be dismissed without proof or data.

  51. Childermass says

    I believe in mutual accommodation. (And it is not just on religious questions, but on most everything else as well.) What we can and should demand non-believers have equal status as everyone else. In other words, we want in on the same deal that most people have with the Methodists: They don’t harass the Methodists and the Methodists don’t harass them. (And I might note that that deal with the Methodists has never meant that someone can’t politely make an attempt at conversion.)

    Sadly, many theists don’t want the deal. Our response needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes lawsuits will need to be filed. Sometimes, you keep your trap shut. Sometimes, the firebrand treatment is best. And sometimes, people just need to see non-theists acting as normal decent people.

  52. Kagehi says

    Sastra: Can science say anything, one way or another, about mind/body dualism? ESP? PK? Without these (supernatural) theories, God disappears.

    I think that science could establish that such things do exist, but it cannot do the opposite.

    Sigh.. In point of fact, for a large category of such things, it *does* show that they all fall into one of three categories:

    1. Illusions of perception.
    2. Invalid due to the laws of physics, and where no *test* has ever shown any such thing to have ever contradicted such, ever.
    3. Methods that use #1, to convince people that #2 has in fact happened.

    In short, its damn easy to show how to fool people into thinking any of these things happened, nearly impossible to convince, even people that saw you do it, that your explanation of how you did is the correct one (since we, as a rule, do not like to have our own sense of reliability about our own perceptions to be challenged/falsified), and/or proven to be simply false.

    A good example is the whole “mind-body duality” thing. We have multiple experimental methods, well documented, and well understood, showing that the “mind” is formed from a) thought processes in the brain + b) external stimulus, which those internal processes use to work out where, who, and what we actually are. When you take away those external cues, either selectively, or completely, you get everything from people convinced that they have traded places with their own reflection, to believing they have become the lamp across the room, to manufacturing a sense of “out of body experience”, which amounts to their brain trying, and failing, to manufacture a “fake” body (or rather location for that body), as a result of being no longer able to “detect” where that body actually is any more. Our entire sense of where we are, and even who, is tied to thousands of signals from our physical body. Its precisely this “sloppy” sense of self that lets us, for example, play video games, and “feel”, on some level, that we are the character, but also the reason why, when you “disconnect” someone from their real perceptions, via such things, too badly, it causes everything from dizziness to hallucinations.

    This means, if you could provide false inputs, in enough variety, to the body, while “paralyzing” the existing ones, we wouldn’t merely empathize with the character in a game, our “sense of location” would *become* that of the character, inside that world. Without the sense of sitting in a charge, pressing buttons, and reacting to other stimulus, we would *literally* have no way to “anchor” our perception to the body in the seat, as apposed to the fake one, in the computer. This is **proven** quite sufficiently to pretty much kill any idea that such duality actually exists at all.

    However, it is still “thought to” because for anyone that hasn’t read and understood the implications of those experiments, or been in one, life itself *creates* conditions, ranging from conscious mental awareness while the body is still drugged down to where inputs are nearly non-existent (like out of body experiences), to just odd cases, that trigger the “disconnect” in perception. In some cases, we even intentionally seek such things out, to learn “spirituality”, such as drugs, meditation, and even isolation chambers (the primary purpose of which is to remove all outside inputs, including touch, as much as possible. Thus the use of body temperature water, which removes the sense of air motion, pressure differences, and nearly all other indicators, which would “hint at” something from outside the body effecting it). Short of drugs, which inhibit, or slow, responses entirely, it is as close as you can get to “turning off” all external data.

    So, yeah, we have pretty much well driven “mind-body duality” out of the realm of plausibility at this point. Its just not known, or accepted, by much of the public yet, especially anyone “invested” in its existence. For them, such stuff either proves it (sort of like how misquoting scientists on biology is “evidence” for ID…), or its considered, “just a trick, and not the same thing at all”, kind of in the same sense that water is different from “energized water, with its electrons aligned for blah, blah, blah, nonsense, blah!”. ;p

    You don’t need to disprove something, conclusively, to make it absurd, or the conclusion it is supposed to support even more so. All you need to do is show that there is enough evidence that it **isn’t** what is being claimed, while the other side has **nothing at all**, except the original claim, and their assertions of what explains it. To argue otherwise is to argue that everything we have rejected, from Ice Trolls, to Alchemy, are all still “possible”, on the grounds of some special “rule” that only exists for them, by which the laws of physics don’t apply, and that science is just not finding it, because it is somehow, “looking the wrong way”.

    After a while, having that be your *only* reason to hold onto something gets… a bit bloody silly. Even more so when anyone knowing any of the explanations can find books explaining them in less than 5 minutes, by searching Amazon for a few keywords. In the case of perception failure causing a sense of duality, it would be “Paranormality” (the book, not the website pushing Tarot card readings and magic bracelets), which covers the subject quite well.

  53. says

    Further to Karmakin’s well made point: another problem is the failure of both religionists and atheists to make the distinction between an attack on the privilege and an attack on religion itself.

    Nobody sets up a bacon BBQ on the pavement just because Jews won’t eat it. You might draw stick figures of Muhammed on the pavement, though, because Muslims assume not just the right to prohibit themselves from doing this but also the right to impose this restriction on others. The diplomatic thing to do is to point out in the nice letter to the campus Muslim association that you’re not attacking Islam, you’re attacking the privilege Islam assumes for itself.

    (That doesn’t mean you might not have an interesting discussion of the existence of Allah, validity of the Koran, etc, should the subject come up. However, that’s not the point of the stick figures.)

    I haven’t read much of Richard Dawkins’ more recent writing but it seems to me that in the past, while he of course argued strongly against religion, he reserved his more rabid attacks for the privilege problem so I wonder how much of the criticism for being stridently anti-religious he got was due to people not seeing the difference.

  54. Sastra says

    Beth wrote:

    Science assumes that reality is consistent and the laws of nature are the same at all times and places in the universe. This assumption cannot be made when attempting to study the supernatural.

    As long as the supernatural is also assumed to be consistent — so that circumstances that are exactly the same get results that are exactly the same — then cosmic regularity has been preserved. The supernatural is not supposed to be completely chaotic; on the contrary, it’s supposed to follow along rules or an essential nature. Its existence would I think only introduce a new factor into our objective study of reality.

    I think that science could establish that such things (dualism, ESP, PK) do exist, but it cannot do the opposite.

    What Peirce and Kagehi said.

    I don’t think God disappears without those things though. Only certain ideas about what god is like would be affected. The human conception of God would survive even if they were all conclusively proven false.

    I am genuinely curious about whether you have really thought this through and still think this. Consider: if there is no mind-body duality, then God — which has no brain or body of any kind — has no mind. Or anything like mind, or that requires mind. God has no thoughts, no awareness, no goals, no values, no sensations, no emotions, no experiences, no consciousness. It is indifferent to good and evil; it comprehends or cares about nothing. Without Extra-Sensory Perception, God cannot communicate with humans, or be “felt” by them. Without Psychokenesis, God’s will cannot create or move matter.

    Even if God is not supposed to be a person but some sort of “impersonal force” — is this force or power left with any characteristic which would cause anyone to call it “God?”

    If so — then what characteristic could this possibly be?

    I think we are all entitled to set those standards (when faith goes ‘too far’) within our societies.

    That wasn’t really my question. My question had to do with where the natural reasonable standards lie for a system which assumes, upfront, that we are in an area where common rational standards and worldly evidence don’t apply.

    It’s as if someone were to say to you “Beth, I am now going to tell you something which I expect will sound wrong and crazy to you, but that’s okay because you’re not enlightened so it’s supposed to seem wrong and crazy to you … but not to me.” Uh oh. I suspect it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be allowed to vet what follows — check it, protest it, modify it, point out a flaw. Best you can do is brace yourself and hope you get lucky and find out the statement isn’t quite as wrong and/or crazy as it might be.

  55. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    Martin Luther King’s* polite but firm approach to civil rights was made palatable to most White Americans in comparison to Malcolm X’s in-your-face rhetoric. Both approaches compliment each other. And make no mistake, atheism has a strong civil rights aspect to it, at least in the United States.

    *King wasn’t impressed by accommodationists. Read his Letter from the Birmingham Jail for a devastating critique of accommodationism.

  56. says

    Thank you very much for this article, I truly needed this, I fell under the influence of the false dichotomy (as a firebrand) and I worried whether diplomacy was accommodationism. This had considerably cleared the field in my head I am most grateful.

  57. athjac says

    I was trying to come up with a way to say that to reach the stage of becoming liberated from religion reqiired a certain fortitude which not everyone possesses when I came upon this from G.C.’s old blog:

    Because right now, the atheist community is largely made up of people with a very mature, well-thought-out sense of morality and ethics. We’ve had to be. The assumption that morality comes from religion is very deeply ingrained in our culture, and those of us who’ve rejected religion have had to think long and hard and carefully about what our morality is and why.

    (http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/03/on-the-amazingn.html )

    Religion is, among other things, a very efficient way to free up the mental ressources which are otherwise occupied in trying to resolve all the “mysteries” it claims to explain. And though, as individuals many people would be, in theory at least, capable of coming to their own conclusions, how many are willing to chose the more difficult path unless something elses is offered in exchange?

  58. says

    I almost agree, but this…

    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.

    …is a strawman.

    I oppose “Draw Muhammad Day”, and I try to persuade others not to take part in it. Not because I want to “accommodate the Muslim faith and show it respect”, but simply because we live in a society in which Muslims are an oppressed and discriminated-against group, and in which the far right uses anti-Muslim rhetoric and fearmongering as a convenient rhetorical cover for xenophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry. In Europe, the speeches of Nick Griffin, Geert Wilders and Jean-Marie Le Pen are laced with anti-Muslim rhetoric, much as their counterparts a generation earlier would have deployed anti-Semitic rhetoric. In the US, right-wing extremists have threatened to burn Korans and to hang effigies of Muhammad, have campaigned to prevent Muslims building mosques, and have described Islam as a “revolutionary, totalizing political ideology”. Republican candidate Herman Cain is on record as saying he would refuse to appoint a Muslim to any post in his administration. Some incidents have been uglier still: a high-school algebra teacher was suspended for taunting a Muslim student over the killing of Osama bin Laden.

    Of course it’s true that Islam is a religion and not a race, and that criticism of Islam isn’t intrinsically racist. But it is also true that, in the West, the great majority of Muslims are of Asian or African ethnicity and descent, and Islam is indelibly associated in the public consciousness with particular immigrant communities. In the real world, Islamophobia and xenophobia cannot be neatly separated.

    Events like “Draw Muhammad Day”, while well-intentioned, tend to descend into focal points for hatred and stereotyping of Muslims and Islam. (There was an astonishing amount of bigotry being spewed on some of the FB event pages for the last DMD.) The trouble is that it brings out the nastier and more xenophobic elements in the atheist community – those who listen to the likes of Sam Harris and Pat Condell, and those who would have us believe that Islam is a “dangerous ideology” and a “threat to Western civilization”. (From where I’m sitting, right-wing nationalism is a far bigger threat to Western civilization than Islam is.)

    This doesn’t, of course, mean that Islam shouldn’t be criticized (it should), nor that criticism of Islam is intrinsically xenophobic (it isn’t). But “Draw Muhammad Day” is a crude and unhelpful means of protest, and is not well-tailored to the problem it is protesting. It’s important to recognize that most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and that most do not endorse violence against cartoonists. Encouraging pernicious stereotypes, and encouraging the idea that Islam is some sort of unique danger to our culture and values, is a very perilous road to go down, and puts us unintentionally on the same side as some very unpleasant people.

  59. says

    Thanks for this, Greta.

    I’ve seen a number of people, including myself, labeled as accomodationists (or even better, “faitheists”) for calling people out on nasty attacks they’ve made against theists – attacking arguments, but also trying to tear down the people themselves. It’s an ugly display, and not at all helpful. Perhaps your post will at least prevent a few more people from using the word “accomodationist” like McCarthy used the word “Communist” – indiscriminately, as a way of attacking someone when you can’t attack their arguments.

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