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.