Accommodation vs. Confrontation

I suppose I have been remiss in formally commenting on one of the major debates currently going on in the atheist/agnostic/secular movement. There is a camp of people that thinks that the pathway to achieving the goals of a secular world is to work hand-in-hand with religious groups, and avoid offending the sensibilities of the religious at all costs. This camp believes that the path to peace can only be achieved if atheists are perceived not as a threat, but as welcome allies in the struggle to achieve a more stable, democratic society.

The other camp wants the first camp to STFU and GTFO.

This debate has been colloquially referred to as “accommodationism” vs. “confrontationalism”. Accommodationists want to work with religious people and find ways to ally the goals of the atheist movement to those of the religious movement, being very respectful at all times of the beliefs of others. Confrontationalists think that the path to achieving the goals of the movement is to assertively articulate our position and push on both the legal system and the large unengaged middle to highlight the important issues and bring about large-scale change.

There is currently a dispute, some might call it a fight, over which of these approaches is the correct one. I have not yet, at least in print, expressed which camp I ally more closely with.

Before the “big reveal”, I want to talk about a similar situation that was happening during the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. If I may be so grotesque a mangler of history, we can contrast the approaches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as the “accommodationalist” and “confrontationalist” camps (respectively).

I will say at this point that Malcolm X began his political career as the mouthpiece of a fundamentalist Muslim who advocated mass conversion of black people, and complete segregation of those people from white America – essentially establishing a self-contained religious theocratic state within the USA. Martin Luther King Jr. was no saint either – he was happy to use segments of Christianity as justification for his struggle, without acknowledging the fact that it was that same philosophy that was used to justify the enslavement and systematic oppression of the very people he was fighting for. The two men were not really fighting toward the same goal, except insofar as they were both interested in increasing the autonomy and independence of black Americans. However, for the sake of convenience and familiarity, I hope you will allow my somewhat ahistorical comparison.

It was directly due to the influence of MLK that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, granting equal protection and access under law to people regardless of their ethnicity. His doctrine of non-violent resistance and co-operation with white leaders and people, coupled with his amazing powers of public persuasion and charisma reached out to all corners of society, even those who might not otherwise agree with the aims of the movement.

As a contrast, Malcolm X was far more militant (in the literal sense, not this ridiculous pap of “militant atheism” that basically just means speaking your mind directly and unashamedly) and confrontational than his counterpart. He famously disdained the inclusion of white people in the black nationalist movement, referring to them (using the language of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad) as “white devils”. He galvanized his audience – disillusioned and disheartened black youth – by presenting them with a vision of black people as a group under oppression, rather than as a lesser race. He advocated disciplined uprising against the current socioracial system, albeit under theocratic direction.

What those who favour staunch accommodationism are suggesting is that the contribution of Malcolm X, namely the doctrine of black power (which I will take a moment to say should not be contrasted with “white power”, an entirely different concept), was not valuable and/or necessary to the civil rights movement – a claim which is far more ahistorical than my own admittedly crude analysis. The Nation of Islam and its confrontational doctrine accomplished two simultaneous goals. First, it unified and attracted black youth to a cause that was, to many, viewed as just more political posturing that would not improve the day-to-day reality of being black in America. Second, it terrified the white establishment out of its complacency and forced them to find alliances in the black community that would show their sympathy to the cause.

Failing to recognize the influence that black nationalism, which experienced several resurgences (most notably in the 1970s under the Black Panthers, the 1980s in the burgeoning hip-hop movement, and currently with the rise of anti-racism and afrocentric black intellectualism) played in the establishment of civil rights is painting a picture of history that is fundamentally doomed to repeat itself. This is happening currently within the atheist movement. Phil Plait, alongside Chris Mooney, Sam Harris, and other prominent atheists, seem to take an approach that accommodationism is the path toward mainstream acceptance, whereas confrontation is unwelcome and pushes the atheist movement backward.

I have used a metaphor that is unfortunate in its level of violence, but apt in its ultimate meaning. Imagine a battlefield between two opposing forces, one force with both infantry and archers, arrayed against one that is purely infantry. As the two footsoldier contingents meet in the middle, the unbalanced force is cut to ribbons by the arrows of the archers, resulting in a trouncing. Similarly, one that is purely archers would be overrun by brutes wielding swords. However, two equal opposing forces are forced to use tactics and real strength to prevail. The hole in this analogy is, of course, that people die in war. Nobody is seriously proposing that atheists be killed, nor would any self-respecting secularist call for the violent removal of the faithful.

The point of this analogy is that different people are persuaded by different things, and to use only one tactic (either accommodation or confrontation) will result in the rapid trouncing of the atheist/secularist movement by the religious, who use a variety of methods to advance their points. However, when the opposing forces are balanced in their armaments, the battle is decided by that which remains – the evidence. In that case we win, because by definition the evidence is on the side of the skeptics.

We need the Malcolm X school to bring apathetic atheists out of the closet by pointing out the evils and influence of the religious establishment, and to put the fear of the godless in the believers. To balance that, we need the Martin Luther Kings of the movement to be reaching across the aisle to find mutual ground with the more moderate and freethinking elements within the theist camp. Saying that one group is counterproductive is short-sighted and foolish – buying into the fear and discomfiture of the oppressors to justify throwing your compatriots under the bus.

As a caveat to this diatribe (which has gone far beyond the TL/DR barrier, for which I apologize), it is important to recognize that even the two paragons of accommodation and confrontation recognized the need for balance. MLK often expressed his contempt for the philosophy of “gradualism” – the idea that human rights should be given out slowly over time, to protect the oh-so-sensitive feelings of racist whites. After his Hajj, and after leaving the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm (at this time known as Malik El-Shabazz) began to reach out to non-black people who expressed a desire to advance the cause of black nationalism. Tragically of course, the fundamentalists on either side of the debate weren’t having that, and both men were assassinated.

The fact is that in the struggle for civil rights, there must be both a carrot and a stick; a voice that pulls dissenting groups together, and one that drives the points forward without fear. I was not alive at the time, but I can’t imagine that MLK didn’t have at least one (and likely hundreds) of conversations with concerned white people saying “that Malcolm X is driving the civil rights movement backward by alienating people!” We know from transcripts of his speeches that Malcolm had a great deal of contempt for those he viewed as selling out the Negro birthright to capitulate to the white man. The forces worked in opposition, but toward the same ultimate goal. How much more powerful would the atheist/secularist movement be if we stopped this petty (and meaningless) squabbling among our own ranks and instead marshalled our respective forces toward the ultimate goal of a society in which we are free to have our own opinions, regardless of dogmatic interference of any kind?

TL/DR: Much like Malcolm X’s confrontational style was a necessary balance to Martin Luther King’s accommodationalist style, the respective philosophies within the atheist/secularist movement are both required for the long-term progress towards civil rights. Failing to recognize this is a weakness within the movement.

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  1. says

    Actually, a few things on squabbling:

    1) One thing I’ve picked up from both diplomats and firebrands is that we all collectively enjoy squabbling with each other. Well, maybe not all – but mostly I think it holds true.

    2) Atheists, skeptics, humanists, free-thinkers need to be subjected to rigorous criticism just as much as any other group of people. Of course much of this should ideally come from outside our little club – but at the same time, there’s no other group of people I trust more to be enthusiastically blistering and rigorous in their critique then my fellow free-thinkers.

    So in that sense, I think the squabbling has a certain amount of value in its own right. The trick is not letting it bubble out of hand so it gets all serious.

    An example of getting out of hand would be if people people started threatening to (or even actually did) withdraw financial support from an institution consisting of hundreds of people solely because of a handful of articles written by a handful of members.

    Also note that I prefer ‘diplomat’ and ‘firebrand’ to ‘accomodationist’ and ‘confrontationalist’. The second two are too long, stodgy, don’t come up in most spell checkers, and make the conversation heavy. Diplomat and firebrand are closer to the point and much easier to read.

  2. says

    We must read different sources of stuff, Daniel. I see very little of the kind of temperate dialogue you’re suggesting here. People in the first camp seem all too willing to throw those in the second camp right under the bus, blaming us for the distrust of science. There is a great deal of derision that is being heaped on atheists, and the Gnu Atheists in particular. This isn’t constructive squabble over what is the best way to express a thought, this is one group being told to sit down and stop ruining it for everyone.

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