Guest post: What we mean when we talk about accommodationism

Originally a comment by Dave Ricks on Provocative or offensive?

A side note about accommodationism:

In 2008, Austin Dacey wrote accommodationism to mean [1]

The view that there exist no important conflicts between science and religion I call accommodationism. Those who either recognize no conflicts between religion and science, or who recognize such conflicts but are disinclined to discuss them publicly, I call accommodationists.

In 2009, Jerry Coyne wrote accommodationism to mean [2]

Professional societies like the National Academy of Sciences — the most elite organization of American scientists — have concluded that to make evolution palatable to Americans, you must show that it is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.

Dacey and Coyne wrote accommodationism to mean nearly the same thing, although Coyne meant something more active. But by either definition, what Massimo Pigliucci wrote here is not accommodationism. Also, Coyne’s position of anti-accommodationism is that science organizations like the NCSE should simply stop telling people their religion is compatible with evolution by natural selection. Coyne’s anti-accommodationism has nothing to do with being provocative or offensive.

By 2010 the atheosphere overheard the discussion and started arguing as if accommodationism meant being nice, and anti-accommodationism meant being a jerk. This is a pet peeve of mine, not to be pedantic about definitions, but because the original points of Dacey and Coyne were lost.

– – –
[1] At Trinity College here, you can select the book Secularism & Science in the 21st Century, then select Dacey’s chapter, “Evolution Education and the Science-Religion Conflict: Dispatches from a Philosophical Correspondent.” From there you can download the chapter as a PDF file by registering with Scribd.
[2] Coyne posted a timeline from 2009 here. He first used the word “accommodationism” in the 2nd link on that list, and my blockquote is from that post.



  1. Sastra says

    Excellent point. The original definitions can be tweaked, but not changed into the nice/nasty dichotomy.

    I defined it the following way:

    An accomodationist believes one or more of the following:
    1.) There is no necessary conflict between science and religion.
    2.) People’s religious faith is part of their fundamental identity and deserves to be treated that way.
    3.) The underlying problem is never faith or religion per se, only extremism.
    4.) Religion is hardwired into the human animal and thus it is pointless and/or harmful to try to change people.

    I might also add

    5.) The new atheists need to shut up.

    That last one is usually the kicker.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Those definitions apply fairly well for those deeply involved in science education, such as Coyne & NSF.

    For the rest of us, not so much. When nobody involved in theo/atheo discussions has serious scientific credentials (or cites scientific evidence), for one example, the distinction boils down to accommodation or confrontation – either of which can be done nicely or nastily.

  3. John Morales says

    So, best as I can tell, the atheosphere’s “accommodationism war” resulted in nothing much, each side still carrying on as before, but now with hardened stance.

    (Perhaps the “don’t care”‘s are the silent majority?)

  4. dshetty says

    I don’t think I agree
    Various definitions of accommodationist were in use – sometimes even by the same person
    If memory serves me right John Pieret at dododreams would point it out.
    And yes some were the nasty / nice distinctions for e.g. can we really say religious people (in general) are delusional or whether religion does poison literally everything

    I don’t think there ever was one accepted definition.

  5. Beth says

    1.) There is no necessary conflict between science and religion.

    I think this is the key issue but doesn’t capture it well. Most accomodationists are willing to acknowledge there exist some religious beliefs (like creationism) that have a conflict with science but feel that the majority of religious beliefs (i.e. non-literal interpretations) are compatible with science, thus for most denominations of the various common religions, they are compatible with science in that there are no inherent contradictions.

    Jerry Coyne and others who take a harder stance believes that there is an inherent conflict between science and all religions.

  6. says

    FWIW, the term “compatibilism” was already in use to mean the same as Sastra’s #1, ie. the bare philosophical position. I prefer to use “accommodationism” to refer the social/political strategy of not challenging religion (particularly, but not limited to, science-in-general).

  7. freemage says

    The problem with even the more generic accommodationist position defined above is that it only applies to a fairly narrowly defined band of faith–those dedicated to purely deistic Creator-entities whose sole involvement with the universe was in setting up the dominoes to fall. Any sort of interventionism following the Big Bang IS in direct conflict with science. So sure, I can hypothesize the existence of a religion that is not in conflict, but that religion is almost as mythical a concept as the Jewish carpenter-lich.

  8. screechymonkey says

    John Morales @3,

    So, best as I can tell, the atheosphere’s “accommodationism war” resulted in nothing much, each side still carrying on as before, but now with hardened stance

    I’m not sure about the “hardened stance” bit. As an occasional commenter (and not a blogger or “big name” atheist) I’m more of a bystander than an active participant, but I get the impression that things have settled down.

    And yeah, not much changed. The Accomodationists have mostly done what the Gnus were urging them to do: go ahead and do your own thing the way you claim is right rather than spending all your time telling us that we’re doing it wrong. And without the constant sniping from the Accomodationists, most Gnus have dropped the subject of “whose tactics are best.” Official Big-Name Organizations remain a mix of Accomodationist/Gnu/and Big Tent approaches.

  9. says

    I still think about whether or not religion and science are compatible.

    I used to say that they diametrically opposed, but now I think it’s more accurate to say that they are mutually exclusive, at least while the central premise of theism, that of the existence of a higher power or powers, remains unproven.

    Holy books do indeed make claims about reality, much of which has been disproved, and that’s where the whole “diametrically opposed” thing seems to come from… we know, for example, that the earth was not created in six days, and that Genesis din’t even get the “order” right (depending on how you read it, anyways… and which one you read: G1 or G2). We also know that people can’t rise from the dead (unless your definition of “dead” is loose enough to accommodate comas and black outs and people who have passed out; none of which, of course, are even close to “dead”… but when the Bible was written, they were less likely to know that).

    Hm… stuff to think about…


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