The case against accommodationism

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.


  1. den1s says

    When Phil Plait made his infamous address at TAM a couple of years ago about not being rude to theists, I lost all respect for the man. I thought then, and still do, that he sold out to accommodationism. It was one of the main reasons that I doubled down on my strong atheism. It really pissed me off! I really respected the man up to that point, so for me it was quite a let down. Theists deserve to be ridiculed and laughed at; and the more we do that, the sooner we can be rid of the mind numbing scourge of religion. Accommodationists don’t help with that.

    If you oppose accommodationism, you have to be prepared to be called a absolutist, a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of person, which I don’t think is correct but whatever. You won’t get anywhere with theists by being nice, they’ll walk all over you and/or ignore your arguments entirely.

  2. Henry Gale says

    Mano, would you say that you work in an environment where a Christian can be open and outspoken without fearing repercussion.

    Just curious.

  3. Mano Singham says


    I am sometimes surprised by the emails I get from people in the university that have explicitly religious statements in the signature file.

    On the other hand, religion is recognized as a touchy subject and both religious and nonreligious people tend to avoid the topic altogether unless it is rally germane to the issue at hand or is the subject of a seminar or a panel discussion. I have never heard anyone gratuitously invoke religious reasons in any academic discussion.

  4. jamessweet says

    Agree with all of this, I just want to add that there is a third category, which I have called “weak accomodationists”, who either don’t personally feel the need to openly criticize religion/point out the incompatibilities between science and faith, or else they actively think it is a bad idea but aren’t particularly vocal about it. I don’t have a problem with these folks. One can differ on opinions about strategy without being a dick about it. “I prefer this other strategy” is A-OK in my book; “Everyone else should prefer my strategy, and if they don’t they should shut up” is not so okay.

  5. The Lorax says

    What about the middle ground, an accommodation between accommodationists and new atheists?

    I, for one, do not tolerate religiousness; whenever I see it, I make it a point to remind the perpetrator that there is no evidence whatsoever for any deity, and that there is abundant evidence which disproves nearly all the dogma in nearly every theology. Science and religion are not compatible in any way, and theology as moral guidelines is on par with superheroes; they’re both sources, and you’re free to give and take, though morality inevitably is tempered from life experience.

    On the other hand, I don’t hang out outside of a church and accost people with carefully constructed arguments. If someone wants to believe in something that is demonstrably false, what can I do about that? Some people simply refuse to be convinced otherwise, and because of that, I refuse to waste my time with them. Oh sure, their passive belief is re-enforcing aggressive belief, but you can’t always change a person’s mind.

    I have several religious friends. I never shy away from speaking about science, even when I’m consciously aware that it goes against their beliefs; however, I don’t immediately jump onto those topics when I speak to them. If the conversation goes there, I make no bones about following it. That’s all.

    Can you be a New Atheist and not be an activist? Can you be an accommodationist and be intellectually honest? I would say, live and let live, but this above all: to thine own self be true.

  6. jamessweet says

    Can you be a New Atheist and not be an activist? Can you be an accommodationist and be intellectually honest? I would say, live and let live, but this above all: to thine own self be true.

    Yes. Well, maybe a “sort of” to the second question, but definitely a “yes” to the first, and a hearty agreement to the final sentence.

    I have written a blog post that you may find interesting, where I pretty directly address this issue. A friend of mine basically told me he has no interest in religion, not even in debating it… but he wonders if by doing that, he is being like young women who are reaping the benefits of first- and second-wave feminism, but say, “I’m not one of those feminists.” My response was basically, nobody is compelled to be an activist. Nobody has to be a martyr. But at the same time, don’t throw other people under the bus because they want to be more outspoken about it.

  7. jamessweet says

    That is much how it is where I work too, except that I don’t get overtly religious e-mails (or overtly atheist ones, either).

    But yeah, most people know better than to just bring it up. I’ve had some interesting discussions with a Christian coworker, but we both kind of felt each other out slowly to make sure the other was okay with talking about it. For the most part, people just keep quiet about it.

    I am lucky, though, as Mano as, to work at a place where I am not worried there will be repercussions if people find my blog, for example. I can be as anti-theistic as I want. If I started proselytizing in the office, that would be treated about the same as if a Christian did, i.e. some minor stuff would be frowned upon but tolerated, anything major would probably get me a talking to from HR.

    But I’m not more afraid to have a scarlet A on my computer screen as a Christian would be afraid to wear a cross here. All of which is exactly as it should be.

  8. Stefan says

    My opinion is muddled on this front – while I don’t see myself as supporting the accommodationist approach in general, it does seem to have a place in the world of politics, simply because we can’t afford to have too many creationist types sitting in D.C. or other influential positions. Granted – if the trends continue, this will be a non-issue. I just fear the damage we might have to clean up if the religious right gets too strong a hold on more moderate believers [voters], their cause strengthened by incompatiblist arguments.

    On the other hand – I hope incompatiblist arguments pull the moderates away from the creationist fray, but I’m not seeing it, even within my own moderate family.

  9. stonyground says

    I am pretty much in agreement with the OP. Personally I tend to be very much a straight talker and don’t have much time for people who are dishonest about what they believe. I have much more time for people who genuinely believe that science and religion are compatible and say so, even though I think that they are wrong, than I do for those who Believe that science and religion are incompatible but pretend to think otherwise. I also think that such dishonesty will leave you coming unstuck at some point in the future anyway.

    It would also appear that the non-accomodationist, straight talking strategy is a good one. Atheist testemonies at Pharyngula and attest to the fact that many people, when presented with a choice beween religion and science do choose the latter.

    One of the best arguments for the incompatibility between science and religion has to be the Templeton Prize. What better demonstration that something isn’t true, having to offer influential people a million dollars a pop to say that it IS true.

  10. mnb0 says

    How are atheists called who don’t care? Like me? I don’t think the question interesting and/or important. If some religion is compatible with science, fine, I’ll still be an atheist. If not, well, it’s not my problem.

  11. Mano Singham says

    That’s a good question. If you are not committed on the question of compatibility, I would think that you do not fall into either category.

  12. articulett says

    To me, when religion is given more respect than other superstitions (belief in ghosts, for example)then religious people think that religion is more respect-worthy than it is. It enables and ennobles this crazy idea that faith is a virtue– a means of knowledge. But faith is just another term for “unwarranted credulity”.

    I feel dishonest when my silence is seen as agreement with those spouting religious opinions. But I rarely speak up, because I fear consequences from those who imagine that their salvation depends upon believing an unbelievable story (with damnation for those who doubt.)

    I teach biology and still haven’t found a good way to deal with students who fear that “biting from the tree of knowledge” will lead them to eternal damnation. Those are some pretty huge memes for teachers to deal with.

    I wish Christians would learn to be as private with their supernatural beliefs as they want other faiths to be. I’m glad to assume people are rational until they let me know otherwise.

  13. Arthur says

    I had the mistaken impression that this is the free thought web. That actually is an euphemistic way of saying you are free to think like I do or get lost. Lorax is dogmatic to the extreme on iron clad scientific data against the existence of God. Even Rabid Dawkins says that the probability of God is very low but not absent. When pressed he even says he is agnostic. He also says that if life only exists on earth (he believes by faith that it exists elsewhere in the universe) then we are totally wasting our time to pursue it because when we found it then it would be so unbelievable that we would not accept it. God is really unbelievable to him but then so is an abiogenesis scenario, go figure. So christians should be quiet, and Muslims and buddhists and etc etc but not newatheians (This is not a typo) I am introducing a new word to the English language. It is a modest proposal since the newatheians are proselytizing and now hold the choke hold on the neck of all truth. They should properly have a religious sounding name. Maybe I should say instead that the newathians have a choke hold on experimental data but then that would not really not apply since so much of what is said here has nothing to do with data at all. So what shall we call truth for the newatheians?

  14. mnb0 says

    It’s probably a matter of sociology. If I had been an American I very probably had called myself a New Atheist as well. In The Netherlands christian nuts have far less influence. Sure, about 10 years ago we had a Minister of Education who thought it a good idea to teach the controversy, ie introduce ID in biology class. She literally was laughed away.
    The same with gay marriage: absolutely not controversial. The big issue is if religious civil servants have the right to refuse to marry gay couples. The secularists – and that includes many christians – will win that fight too.
    Hence the lack of interest.

  15. RW Ahrens says

    I’ve argued with my local atheist/humanist group that this argument is too divisive to engage in. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

    This is a big country with widely divergent views, and I believe that there is plenty of room for a variety of techniques and methods of argument. Different techniques will reach and be effective with different groups of theists, and others will not.

    In other words, adjust your message to the audience, and if you cannot bring yourself to use a different technique, don’t address that audience. Bring in someone else who can.

    The important thing is to spread our message of the dangers of religion and the need to increase the separation of Church and State. The specific “how” is only important as we determine how to reach different audiences in the most effective manner.

  16. Arthur says

    Do trolls exist? Am I a silly troll because I am going against the stream of dogma? Isn’t that a kind of personal attack? What is wrong with me is that I don’t buy what the newatians are trying to pass off as good science or philosophy. Shallow arguments, non sequiturs and appeal to snob are not impressive. I just thought I would respond to Lorax who said he does not “tolerate religiousness”. Now that is not very tolerant is it. I just thought I would free think and disagree or do I have to pass a thought exam or standard in order to think freely?

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