As most readers of this blog likely know, the two groups known as ‘accommodationists’ and ‘new atheists’ take different approaches with respect to their relationship to religion.
Accommodationists are those who believe that either:
(a) science and religion are compatible; or
(b) science and religion are incompatible but that it is strategically advisable to not say so openly.
The reason given for the latter position is that by asserting incompatibility, new atheists are forcing the religious to choose between science and religion and that, given the strong hold religion has on people, most of them will abandon science in favor of religion. They worry that this will result in a reduction in the public acceptance of science in general and evolution in particular and undermine its teaching in schools.
The accommodationist camp consists of both self-described atheists (and other varieties of nonbelievers) and believers, with the latter usually of the more sophisticated kind who see themselves as supporters of science and disassociate themselves from most of the supernatural elements of religion.
New atheists, on the other hand, believe that:
(a) science and religion are not compatible; and
(b) this incompatibility should not be hidden but widely publicized.
As to the first of these two issues, there is nothing wrong with having disagreements on whether science and religion are incompatible because this is an interesting and important question. I long ago came to the conclusion that they are incompatible but have no trouble with people telling me that I am simply wrong on this question. It makes for lively discussions that can get quite deep.
What I find hard to understand is the suggestion that new atheists are harming the cause of science in general and the acceptance of evolution in particular by arguing in favor of incompatibility, and being told that we should tone it down. Robert Wright and Michael Ruse are nonbelieving accommodationists who have once again raised this argument.
This is puzzling on several levels. Which strategy is more effective in countering antipathy to the ideas of evolution and science is an empirical question that cannot be settled by fiat. Apart from slight upticks from time to time, the data (see here and here) indicate a steady decline in religious beliefs over time that has accelerated in the last decade or so, particularly among young people. Although this roughly corresponds to the period when the new atheist message has been widely propagated, causal connections cannot be easily drawn.
The decline in religion is likely due to a multiplicity of factors, not the least being increased modernity and the explosion in the use of the internet that has opened the world to differing views. The claim of each religion that it is true was more likely to be accepted at a time when that was the belief of almost everyone people came into contact with in their local community. That illusion can no longer be sustained in the modern information age and the emergence of the global village as people have easy access to the truth claims of other religions and the arguments of nonbelievers all over the globe.
Accommodationism has been the norm for a long time, often out of necessity, since for centuries openly expressing skepticism about god was a heresy that was subject to severe punishments including death. This is still the case in some societies today. New atheism is not new in terms of its ideas and reasoning but what is new in the last decade is the much wider public platform it has had, with best selling books leading the way to wider discussions.
What is also new is that recent developments in science have clearly made belief in a god unnecessary. In fact, I suspect that it is this last feature that has triggered the increased stridency of the calls by religious accommodationists for the new atheists to tone it down. The irrelevancy and inadequacy of religion is becoming so clear that the only way to salvage it is by suppressing this uncomfortable truth.
What bothers me is the anti-intellectual nature of the appeals to new atheists to tone it down. If someone thinks that science and religion are incompatible, intellectual honesty requires them to openly say so, even if we accept the dubious proposition that it sets back public acceptance of science. For accommodationists to ask the new atheists to keep their views under wraps makes as little sense as for new atheists to ask accommodationists to stop advancing their compatibility argument.
I am fortunate that I live and work in an environment where I can be an open and outspoken atheist without fearing repercussions. This state of affairs is becoming more common across the globe. I think this debate between accommodationists and new atheists is a healthy sign of progress, to be encouraged rather than suppressed, since it widens the range of debate on religion.
If history is any indication, whenever scientific and religious views have clashed in the past, science has always won, simply because science works and religion does not. So telling people they must choose between one or the other is much more likely to undermine religion than telling people they are compatible and papering over the difficulties. Modern people cannot help but realize that they can live without religion but they cannot live without science.