Accommodate, or Confront: Atheists ponder their Options

October 26, 2010

It’s only natural to wonder about what is going on with this dispute between "accommodationists" and "confrontationists". Everyone complains about labels, but whatever you call them, these two positions are very real and quite opposed against each other.

Here is a quick guide to typical advocates for these two camps.

An Accommodationist view: Evolution's truth does not logically imply religion's falsity. A religious believer could see how a creator God may have started the universe with natural laws including evolution. Also, it is mostly fundamentalists who feel forced to deny evolution because of the Bible. A liberal theology with its modernist interpretation of scripture as allegory lets religious people accept evolution. Therefore, accepting evolution does not require accepting atheism. Sufficiently moderate and liberal Christians, for example, need not feel threatened by evolution, and indeed most of that group do accept evolution. We need all these moderates and liberals to help in the struggle to get more evolution in our public schools and fund more medical research into genetics/stem cells/etc. If we can secure their help, not only can we achieve public policy goals now, but the future looks better too. Rising acceptance of science by younger generations will eventually turn the tide firmly towards broad acceptance of evolution. Why alienate so many Christians and throw away their political help with a misleading assertion that evolution must involve atheism?

A Confrontationist view: Evolution's truth indirectly implies religion's falsity. Taking evolution as true means taking science seriously, and taking science seriously implies rejecting scripture entirely and skeptically rejecting God. Trying to believe in both evolution and God is unreasonable, even if some theological juggling might "reconcile" them. Why should pro-science advocates show any patience with such cognitive self-deception? Therefore, accepting evolution implies accepting atheism. Arguing for more evolution in schools means arguing that established science gets reality right, and that religion just gets reality wrong. If we don't stand up for science and truth, no one else will. Those "moderate" or “liberal” religious people obviously won't stand up for reason and truth. Look at how they lend quiet comfort to conservative and fundamentalist religionists. Why make any compromise with such weak and cowardly partners? The most consistent and practical way to fight for science is to simply fight for science, and not to make any compromise over reason and reality.

We want to ask, Who is right? But the real question is, Who can tell? What makes the accommodation v. confrontation dispute frustrating is that they are mostly talking past each other. They don’t have the same goals, and can’t agree on the same means.

Nonbelievers who prefer confrontation prioritize the defense of atheism over social reform. Fighting for evolution is part of an all-out attack on supernatural religion. The confrontation camp basically views the struggle as one of Science v. Religion, and there can be only one survivor. In this winner-take-all battle for the mind, no compromise with religious believers makes any sense. Any compromise would only signal a treacherous betrayal of truth and atheism. It’s the loud proclamation of the truth and trusting in the power of reason that deconverts religious people to science. It’s not as if confrontationists aren’t trying to reform society along the way – they are – but confrontationists start with people’s minds first: make more atheists now, so you can produce more evolutionists later.

Nonbelievers who prefer accommodation prioritize social reform over the promotion of atheism. Fighting for evolution is an example of how believers and nonbelievers can unite on a practical goal. The accommodation camp basically views the struggle as one of making science more appealing to people, regardless of what else they may believe. In this everyone-can-win strategy for society, some compromise with religious believers makes sense. A failure to compromise only dooms atheism to marginal social status with little political influence. Proclaiming science as the one Truth and depicting believers as just dumb only emotionally hardens their convictions and turns their sympathies towards fundamentalists. It’s not as if accommodationists aren’t trying to change people’s minds along the way -- they are – but accommodationists start with public policy agendas first: make more people comfortable with science now, so you can produce more nonbelievers later.

Because these two camps don’t prioritize goals the same way, their debate is mostly ‘academic’ until there are empirical results to look at. Which strategy actually will produce more believers in evolution and science in the long run? While we wait to see what will happen, accommodationists can at least point to past results to support their camp. A majority of people in America who do accept evolution are spiritual/religious, and they have arrived at that comfort level with evolution thanks to liberal Christianity doing its work over the past hundred years. Why abandon a strategy when it has achieved so much already?

The two camps are quite real, what they may be called, and their opposition is no illusion. However, instead of arguing over labels and priorities in an academic fashion, it is even more rational to look at real results. Let’s watch and see where aggressive confrontational atheism manages to produce more acceptance of evolution and science. Let’s watch and see where compromising accommodationism manages to produce more science in schools and more medical research. We have an opportunity to observe both strategies play out, right in front of us. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and posterity will judge atheism accordingly.


#1 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 4:12pm

I think the emphasis on evolution mischaracterizes the firebrands a bit. Perhaps the diplomats really are that concerned about evolution and public acceptance of science - but speaking as a firebrand, I think that you’ve got it quite right.

To me, the common rejection of evolution is a symptom. The deeper problem is the lack of critical thinking that manifests itself in the widespread belief that the best guide to what is true is what people feel rather than evidence-based critical reasoning.

So from my perspective, softening up on those who want to propose theistic evolution is treating the symptoms at the expense of strengthening the disease. The term ‘theistic’ in ‘theistic evolution’ has no evidence. It’s entirely based in wish-fulfillment. Prioritizing wish-fulfillment over truth is the deeper problem that is causing rejection of evolutionary theory in the first place.

Inviting people to take a scientific theory and stick pixies in the margins isn’t a matter of marketing science to pixie-lovers. To the contrary. It’s sacrificing a clear and critical understanding of science in favor of propping up a fairy tale.

Additionally, the emphasis isn’t on promoting atheism either. The emphasis is on a concerted and rigorous effort to pursue evidence and verification when attempting to determine what is and isn’t true about reality. It just so happens that, based on the currently available evidence, the disciplined adherence to this method leads to atheism.

Evolution is incidental.

Atheism is incidental.

The whole point is the respect for truth and the method of using what we can observe of reality to determine our beliefs about reality.

#2 L.Long (Guest) on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 6:04pm

I agree, looking at fundamentalism (insert religion), ,which is driving the controversy, is the problem.  Evolution, atheism, homosexuality, etc are no big deal in relation to g0d and faith.
The problem is in the literal interpretation of holey books for the purpose of power and manipulation.  If you encourage intelligent reasoning you have problems in manipulation of the sheep.
No matter how accommodating scientist or atheists get the only acceptable choice is stone cold silence.

#3 Phil Rimmer on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 6:05pm

“Nonbelievers who prefer confrontation prioritize the defense of atheism over social reform.”

This is hideous. What a crass reading of those inclined not to accommodate Gap Fillers, of any stripe, religious or non. Even the most innocuous claims have to go from Christianity, for instance, when God presses the start button (an arbitrary and unsupportable claim at any point in the proceedings)and chemistry evolves, life evolves and at time X (now?) you have the dominant species- mammals,or erm, marsupials, or reptiles, perhaps birds (damn smart those crows). Without nurturing mums and cuddle chemicals like oxytocin morality would look scarily different. The indeterminacy of each of the myriad processes ensures the outcome is invisible at the start.  Made in God’s image will need an insanely broad manufacturing tolerance to be claimed to be true.

Understand, the political crisis that religion has wrought exists in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. These are not global problems (as yet). Accommodationism needs to recognise this. A local malaise needs a local fix. Where are the moral balls needed to tackle the moral absolutism and subsequent intolerance that is visibly growing in these places? The moderately religious with their respect for deeply held beliefs are are often only able to wring their hands anxiously. (And yes, its OK to be intolerant of intolerance.) Moderates desrve disrespect every time they fail to decry “morals as a faith position freeing one from thought about such matters”.

#4 lordfenriz on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 9:08pm

Accommodation versus Confrontation is just another name for Mooney/Nisbet/Kirshenbaum versus the Gnu Atheists (The big four plus Myers, Coyne, and Stenger).  Your (John Shook) description of the Confrontationist (Gnu Atheist) viewpoint leans too heavily on evolution as the basis for the Gnu Atheist arguments and goals.   

“The first thing to observe is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem.  The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory.  Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself-conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.”

—Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape)

#5 vmounts (Guest) on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 9:42pm

Hard to imagine someone missing the point more than you have. I know you surely must have read the writing of those you describe as “confrontationists” so I’m guessing there is not much chance repeating this one more time will have any effect but, just in case , I’ll try.

It has nothing much to do with evolution specifically or even atheism. It has to do with science in general. Now there are lots of methods and ideas in science but there is one that can be considered a core principle. In order to believe something is true you should have observable evidence in its favor. The better , and more specific to the belief, the evidence is the more you are justified in believing it.

Because of that core principle we can unequivocally say that religious thinking (faith) and specific beliefs (Jesus, a deist God, etc) are not compatible with scientific thinking. It doesn’t matter if evolution definitively disproves a god (I don’t think it does) or even if scientific knowledge as a whole does. In scientific thinking saying a proposition is not definitively disproved is not the same as saying it is acceptable to believe it is true. Especially not to the point of worshiping the object of the proposition.

Now maybe science is wrong to have that core principle. It really doesn’t matter for the purpose of deciding whether science and religion are compatible. Heck science and religion could both be wrong and it wouldn’t change the fact that the two ways of thinking are incompatible with each other. If you aren’t adhering to the principle you aren’t engaged in thinking that is compatible with science. This is true not just of religion. If a physicist, for example, were to say that string theory is definitely correct and all other options for resolving QM and relativity are false, he isn’t being scientific because he doesn’t have the evidence.

So all your so called “confrontationists” have been saying is that any organisation that advocates for science shouldn’t bastardize it to the point of removing its most important core principle. They aren’t advocating that atheism be promoted by those organizations. This has been pointed out to folks like you over and over and over and over again. I know because I have had to read the blog posts over and over and over and over again. You are presenting a straw man!

As far as your suggestion that we just lie to people (“The accommodation camp basically views the struggle as one of making science more appealing to people, regardless of what else they may believe”) first and then tell them the truth once we reel them in you may be right. Maybe that dishonest approach will work best but it is still dishonest, elitist and sleezy. I realize you may not view that as lying. I guess that depends on if you realize that believing in things you have no evidence for is not scientific and I’m not sure you do.

#6 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Wednesday October 27, 2010 at 6:47am

Here is why accomodationism isn’t even practical, a thought experiment if you will:

You are a religious guy who has read your Bible (as white evangelical Christians have.) You are listening to someone tell you about evolution, and that it doesn’t conflict with your faith.

You’ve read your Bible, and you’ve got your doubts about this so you go to your creationist preacher.

He tells you it does. Here is the line and verse. Now your preacher is a creationist, he’s not going to say religion isn’t true - he is going to say science isn’t true.

And you’ve read the book. Who are you going to trust?

Why do you think since the death of Madelyne Murray O’Hair the religious right were so ascendent?

#7 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday October 27, 2010 at 11:27am

“Nonbelievers who prefer confrontation prioritize the defense of atheism over social reform.”

I don’t think that’s true, John. Some (or perhaps all) accommodationists assume that one can’t do both, but confrontationists make no such assumption, and don’t even understand why accommodationists do. (Or, perhaps, suspect that accommodationists make the assumption for rhetorical purposes rather than because they actually believe it. Or that there is some of both, so that the deception isn’t really conscious.)

I just don’t see any tension at all between outspoken atheism and social reform. Being an outspoken atheist does not mean that one shouts “Hello I am an atheist!” on all occasions before anything else has taken place. Theists don’t always shout “Hello I am a theist!” and atheists don’t always shout the opposite; therefore it just is not the case that atheists and theists can never team up for various purposes that have nothing to do with religion.

#8 Phil Rimmer on Wednesday October 27, 2010 at 4:49pm

@Ophelia Benson.
“therefore it just is not the case that atheists and theists can never team up for various purposes that have nothing to do with religion. “

But this is trivial surely? It is just everyday life. Democrats of all religious and non-religious stripes “team up” in the voting booth, for instance. Local residents join together over a littering problem in their neighbourhood. Shook can’t be denying this, can he?

Shook’s intention surely was a narrow application surrounding social reform with regard to evolution, its acceptance and teaching? Was he not simply identifying confrontationists (those opposed to accommodationism?) as athiest “faith” purists, who therby screwed up accommodationist plans to push God a little further back in the theists’ comprehension of evolution?

I think we should be told which particular piece of nonsense he had in mind.

#9 Ophelia Benson on Thursday October 28, 2010 at 8:38am


Sure, it is trivial - but the assumption is popular with some accommodationists. I was just looking for a bit of clarification or expansion on that point.

#10 jerrys on Friday October 29, 2010 at 3:01pm

If John has properly characterized the two sides of this debate, then I have a third position. 

Like the confrontationists I believe that science (not just evolution) leads to the rejection of religion.  But like the accommodationist I am willing to overlook the religious beliefs of people when those beliefs are not relevant to the issue at hand.

So I think it makes sense to work with religious believers to keep creationism out of schools.  And I don’t think it’s necessary for me to see those beliefs, e.g. those of liberal theology, as any more plausible than Christian fundamentalism. 

I apply this in other areas as well.  I’m current working on an immigration issue in which many of the participants are Church groups.  I don’t feel I should stop working with them even though their religious beliefs are false.

I think John is right that the differences between the two groups is one of goals.  But that the main difference is in which goals they see as priorities.  The goals of the two groups are not incompatible and I wish they would stop squabbling so much.

Probably both sides are going to dislike this comment (although for different reasons) so maybe it will serve to bring them together

#11 Ophelia Benson on Friday October 29, 2010 at 3:21pm

Yes but so do I, and as far as I know, so do most atheists.

Mind you, I’m not very good at joining groups to work for things in general, and if I did do a lot of that I suppose I might be put off by a heavy religious presence - but then again if there weren’t religious talk, I might not. Certainly I wouldn’t object to going on a demonstration (say) that included religious groups.

This is what I’m getting at. There seems to be an idea that frank atheists balk at co-operating with religious groups in general, but I just don’t think that’s true.

#12 Lowell (Guest) on Saturday October 30, 2010 at 4:40pm

I think the confrontationists are onto something in that it would seem to be quite a jump to simultaneously hold a faith-based worldview and a scientific worldview, but then humans have quite a talent for compartmentalization, so why not just accept friends where we find them?

#13 Daniel Schealler on Saturday October 30, 2010 at 4:47pm


We do, so long as they remain our friends given the context in question.

I like Ken Miller’s stance against cdesign proponentsists.

I don’t like his stance on the introduction of evidence-free superstition into evolution.

I can agree with him on some subjects and disagree with him on others. That’s allowed.

#14 Lowell (Guest) on Saturday October 30, 2010 at 5:08pm

“We do, so long as they remain our friends given the context in question.”

Daniel, I know what you mean. I’m an active blogger, and I often write about atheism for an audience that contains mostly theists. It’s very hard to find a tactful way to tell people that, just maybe, their faith-based worldview is entirely imaginary.

Doesn’t “evidence-free superstition” come very close to being an oxymoron?

#15 Daniel Schealler on Saturday October 30, 2010 at 5:21pm


Oxymoron? Yep. I was aiming for emphasis through repetition. ^_^

#16 Steven Olsen on Saturday October 30, 2010 at 9:52pm

At the very least, we should stop pretending as though religion deserves special treatment.

#17 Franc Hoggle on Thursday November 25, 2010 at 7:01pm

Dr. Shook - You can perhaps be forgiven for your HuffPo article as a simple book promotion spamvert. That is OK, the readers of HuffPo really don’t deserve any better. What is harder to forgive is your subsequent justifications and “frog on a hot plate” flip-flopping. At least this article has somewhat cleared things up. You seem to be unable to frame atheism in any way other than your own quasi-Manichean mindset. It’s a binary, black and white worldview that, if I wanted to be insulting, implies that you are simply incapable of shaking off the theistic upbringing I am guessing you had.

So there are only 2 types of atheists (hint: maybe this view annoyed more people than your accusations of atheist stupidity). Accomodationists, for whom you have your own definitions, but I loosely describe as the roll-over-and-piss-your-belly-like-a-frightened-dog school. You seem to side with this school more often than not, but when convenience dictates you are more than happy to drop them like a hot turd (Of Reputations and Harsh Words, and at the same time take the opportunity to suck up to Richard Dawkins). The binary alternative is the confrontationist that, in your view, won’t be happy until every sacred shrine is bulldozed and every sacred text burnt. Ever heard the term “false dichotomy”?

There are a huge number of the godless (who prefer that term to “atheism” because atheism, like “liberalism” has been soiled almost beyond repair by the DIY punditry the web has given us) that look at both of this camps with extreme distaste - and you prefer to assume we don’t exist. Thanks to the efforts of yourself, and most notably Phil “don’t be a dick” Plait, all you are really succeeding in doing is marginilizing these other atheists out of the picture altogether. Well done. That really helps our cause.

I would suggest that when you and the rest of the CfI bored start pondering the sudden drop out rate of membership, you bypass the popular “let’s find a scapegoat” phase, ground yourself in some reality and realise exactly how alienating a force you are.

#18 Lowell (Guest) on Thursday November 25, 2010 at 7:20pm

Well, gee, John, I guess the lesson here is that you can’t please everyone, and that some people are impolite when they’re displeased.

#19 Franc Hoggle on Thursday November 25, 2010 at 8:42pm

@Lowell - the whole problem here is trying to please everyone - accomodationist populism where integrity is a liability, not an asset. At HuffPo, Shook was feeding them the woo dribble they are accustomed to. Here, after feeling the (justifiable) discomfort, he is clutching at straws to alternately -

a) repackage the article in a manner supposed to be more platable for this audience, but with an intact “atheists are stupid” message.

b) Then “sorry. It’s not atheists that are stupid. It’s actually theists. My bad”.
c) justify the post and qualify it with “sorry I was too subtle for your tiny minds, I’m really a real new atheist”, and then fawn over Dawkins good measure.

d) “In case you didn’t hear me the first time, it’s theists NOT atheists that are dumb”.

And now this blog to add yet more cement to the artificial accomodationist/confrontationist wedge that a lot of us want no part of whatsoever. This is raw sophistry to create a major problem out of the behaviour of some people at the fringes. It is adding to the nonsense that is doing nothing more than breeding division and resentment amongst the godless community. Sabotage is not an inappropriate word for it.

Pardon me for expecting coherence and consistency from a CfI Director.

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