I have always thought, naively and probably incorrectly, that what defined Accommodationist is what they think, not how they argue. At the same time, I have always thought that what defined a “New Atheist” is how we argued, and not what we think.
When I say “always thought” I mean for the last four years max, and when I say “naively and probably incorrectly” I might be only kidding.
The “new” part of “New Atheism” to me has always been this: You are willing to get up into some dude’s face to make your argument because religion, with its centuries of experience in being on the scene for every aspect of everyone’s life every minute of every day, is already there in the face making its argument. The new atheist response to being told to quiet down is to point out that being told to quiet down (or be more civil or follow certain rules) is step one (or two) in a series of steps that the established religio-normative culture routinely uses to end the argument and let things get back to what they think is normal. So instead of compromising on how the rhetoric is produced, you go in harder and sharper and become Argumentative, Aggressive, and Generally Dickish.
In case you’ve not noticed, there is a renewed and much enlivened discussion on the blogosphere regarding this issue and you should have a look at it.
Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution is True produced an open letter with the option of commenters signing on. The letter is to the National Center for Science Education and the British Center for Science Education identifying “misguided attacks by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke” … attacks on atheism. PZ Myers indicated that he agreed with the idea that the National Center for Science Education has “lost its way” in their seeming need “to coddle religious believers because they need them to support science.” And the drama continues from there.
Here is a carnival of posts addressing this issue or helping to contextualize it, in order of posting date. We start with a shocker from Chris Mooney in which he supports New Atheism, which is here because it is referred to by later posts, and work our way through the discussion.
21 April 2011 Psych Evidence that Supports New Atheism (The Intersection)
In general, I believe what we know about human psychology runs contrary to the New Atheist approach and strategy. However,… here’s a study that suggest at least one aspect of their approach may work. … making it more widely known that you’re actually there-as “out” atheists try to do
22 April 2011 Too few people know that they know an atheist (Josh Rosenau, Thoughts from Kansas)
I actually think Chris is being too nice to New Atheism here, which is rather remarkable. As I’ve said before, it’s hardly surprising that making a group more visible is a better way to build public acceptance than being less visible, and I support efforts to increase atheism’s visibility. But New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists – or nontheists more generally – to get the word out that they’re here and want to be taken seriously.
22 April 2011 The Support of New Atheism (Almost Diamonds)
Enter the New Atheists. Enter the loud-mouthed confrontationalists who aren’t going to see people behave that way without doing their best to make it quite clear that this behavior in unacceptable. Enter the support team, the cheering squad, the clearers of obstacles. Enter the people who, as PZ Myers’ described his role last year at CONvergence, get angry for those of who aren’t allowed to.
23 April 2011 A bright spot at The Chronicle and an open letter (Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True blog)
The official policy of your organizations–certainly of the NCSE–is apparently to cozy up to religion. You have “faith projects,” you constantly tell us to shut up about religion, and you even espouse a kind of theology which claims that faith and science are compatible. Clearly you are going to continue with these activities, for you’ve done nothing to change them in the face of criticism. And your employees, past and present, will continue to heap invective on New Atheists and tar people like Richard Dawkins with undeserved opprobrium.
24 April 2011 Jerry Coyne’s open letter (Pharyngula)
I really feel that the NCSE has lost its way on this issue. I want to support the NCSE, but it has become increasingly hard to do. I have heard these arguments over and over again that they have to coddle religious believers because they need them to support science. They don’t.
25 April 2011 Watch those assumptions (Ophelia Benson)
… it’s pretty clear that what Rosenau is doing here is simply assuming that “New Atheism” means “atheism that is rude and aggressive and strident and mean.” That is one assumption too many.
25 April 2011 Jerry Coyne has another go at the NCSE and BCSE (British Center for Science Education)
If Atheist scientists really want to drive undecidedc Christians, into the YEC camp then this, surely is the correct way to go about it. Seems that according to some, science=Atheism and that’s that.
April 26, 2011 The BCSE blows up (Pharyngula)
That open letter to the NCSE by Jerry Coyne really seems to have set the cat among the pigeons — it’s an amazing flurry of ruffled feathers. I don’t see how there’s any hope of reconciliation, either, as long as the apologists for religion continue to be as obtuse as they have been.
26 April 2011 Why I’ve avoided commenting on Nisbet’s ‘Climate Shift’ report (David Roberts, Grist)
…[i]t argued that, contrary to what most people think, pro-climate-bill forces spent more than their opponents, media coverage of climate science has been generally fair, and Al Gore is just as responsible as Republicans for politicizing the subject of climate change. …
26 April 2011 Argumentative, Aggressive, and Generally Dickish (Almost Diamonds)
What to remember when you’ve said that confrontational atheists have made it harder for you to make progress on your shared goals, and some atheist has gotten (eek, gasp, shock, horror, blah, blah, blah) rude with you. This is particularly true for the endless argument over promoting science.
26 April 2011 Be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush (Ophelia Benson)
Stephanie Z has an excellent comment on Josh Rosenau’s post about how I’m totally wrong about what he means by “the New Atheism.”
27 April 2011 Definitions (Ophelia Benson)
The question is, how do we decide what “new atheism” is? What is new atheism, who gets to decide, how do we know? … The answer turns out to be that we simply define it as that which we dislike. Easy. Circular, but easy.
28 April 2011 Taking it Downhill (Almost Diamonds)
…All these pesky crusaders, who just won’t shut up, who won’t just go with the flow for a bit so things can get done, so the people with the keys to the kingdom will give us just a little bit more. Ugh! What is to be done with people so rude, so demanding, so mean?!?…A gatekeeper’s job is to keep people out, not to let them in.
29 April 2011 True Equivalence (Almost Diamonds)
… false equivalence is the only reason to compare “New Atheist” communications to fundamentalist positions. Confronting religion head on is no more “mean,” “distorting,” or “prejudicial” toward the religious than mainstream religious messaging is toward atheists. Need examples? …
01 May 2011 Punching “New Atheists” (Almost Diamonds)
… there is nothing like a brawl among secularists to get people to sit up and pay attention. Sounds good, right? All press is good press and all that? Well, that depends on your goals …
As is often the case, Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds has threaded the conversation into a series of connected posts. There is a lot more written about this topic on each cited blog, so if you visit one post be sure to look up and down stream to see what is there. Josh Rosenau’s writings are under-represented here for reasons of linkosity effects, so do glance through his stuff.
I am a “New Atheist” and not an accommodationist. I have a long history of fighting accommodationists, but it is also true that some New Atheists dislike me presumably because they notice me working, frequently, with the NCSE. Some of this has to do with reading comprehension (Larry Moran, the old curmudgeon whom we all know and love, has yet to read past the first sentence in a paragraph, as far as I can tell), and also, don’t mistake invective slung from the usual misanthropic delusional sociopaths that populate the more confused quarters of the Internet for something other than the self serving drek it is. But the fact that I’ve taken it in the neck from both sides does not change my point of view that multiple strategies are needed to even stay in, let alone win, this fight. The point should not be for you to hear your own shrill voice or your own soothing voice, as the case may be. It should be to find success in keeping creationism out of schools, religion out of government, and allowing non believers to not have to walk on eggs, of the easter variety or otherwise.
While atheism seems to have recently gained some ground, no camp in the game of evolution vs. creationism can claim that they know how that fight should be carried out. Why do I say that? Because no one has shown any real success. The same percentage of people in the US and many other countries oppose or resist evolution today as 20 or 30 years ago. Accommodating the religious has not worked, strident atheism has not worked. What has worked is winning court cases, and that success, while important, has not won the minds (or hearts) of the people, just a few judges. Which is good, but not good enough.
I mentioned before that my definition of accommodationism is about content and not form. Let me explain. There are a lot of areas where people who study evolution, or are atheists (speaking here of parallel but separate conditions, not necessarily connected) can give allowances to the “other side.” A policy regarding teaching evolution may be to equivocate on or even ignore issues regarding the origin of life on Earth, or issues regarding human evolution. Let the religious people have their god at the moment of creation, and let their god guide the history of humans in their transformation from ape to us. For everything else, science. That is, to me, true accommodationism. It is also vile and unacceptable. The counter argument to such rubbish needs to be loud and clear, and if that means aggressive and dickish, then so be it.
Another accommodating policy might be to keep your mouth shut when you find yourself embedded in a religious presumptive context. Atheists experience these things all the time, but especially around the religious holidays. If you have a problem with alcohol or need group therapy for some reason, it may be difficult for you to find a support group that does not engage in constant reference to god or spirituality or some such thing. Accommodation, in this case, equals silence. Silence is bad.
I am certain that a number of people in this debate that are labeled Accommodationists do not have any intention of giving away any part of the store with respect to evolution (such as origins or the human species). I’m also pretty sure that their interest in working with religious groups is misguided and a waste of time in most cases, maybe all cases. And, I’m pretty sure that their desire to tell the strident and in-your-face atheists to shut up is a waste of energy.
And in the end, they are all wrong to be engaged in this debate about how to debate. Multiple strategies work better than single narrowly defined strategies. Write a letter to the editor but be ready to yield the protest sign. Maybe even a little civil disobedience. Join a union but be prepared to quit your job, if the issue of the day is very important.
You know the good cop/bad cop routine? In that approach, each cop expresses his or her dislike for the other cop to the suspect. This is a ruse. They actually like each other, and they may actually take turns being good cop vs. bad cop. (To the extent these things actually happen … I’m using a fictional metaphor here.) When the NCSE gets a coalition going with some religious group, New Atheists should not run after them shouting that they are doing it wrong. They should, rather, smile to themselves and say “Well, maybe it will work …. we’ll talk about it later in private and share our thoughts on that.” When PZ Myers writes a strident and aggressive blog post about some yahoo insisting that textbooks in the local school district be labeled with anti-evolution disclaimers, the “Accommodationists” (they don’t call themselves that) should not run after them tsk-tsking (somehow I imagine the accommodationists tsking and the new atheists screaming). Rather, they should say to themselves “Glad he’s doing that, because he’s so good at it. We’ll have to talk about these tactics some time over a beer, exchange ideas and thoughts about how to win this fight we area all on the same side in.”
When colleagues on the same side of your fight but with a different approach do something that makes you hold your nose, consider the possibility that you should just hold your nose and keep on with your own part of the fight, rather than stopping your productive engagement of the style you chose and pouncing on them so they also have to stop their productive engagement. Be ecumenical, as it were. They are, and it makes them stronger. We aren’t and it makes us weaker. Duh.
One problem with the call for multiple approaches is that to New Atheists, it will sound like they are being told to shut up. If that is one’s philosophy, then one might want to ask if one’s philosophy is the tail wagging the dog. Just sayin’