I’m looking forward to the moment in a few weeks from now when Desiree Schell and I sit down and have a serious public conversation about approaches to promoting skepticism and science-based reasoning and policy. We’ll also discuss New Atheism and Accommodationism, I assume.

As you know, Desiree hosts the highly popular radio program and podcast “Skeptically Speaking.” This may be the first time she’s engaged in a public conversation with some crazy New Atheist blogger anywhere other than on her own home turf (we’ll be talking on Atheist Talk Radio, with Mike Haubrich hosting). It should be interesting to say the least. The word “Feisty” has been used in reference to the conversation likely to develop.

In the meantime, people are talking about “extreme atheists.” There is no such thing as an “extreme atheist.” Being an “extreme atheist” is a little like being totally unique. Of course, what is meant by “extreme atheist” is not someone who extremely does not believe in god (as opposed to only kinda not believing in god) but rather a person with something of an “in your face” approach to communication. That’s an idea that is probably worth exploring.

Say I pose the question on the Internet: “What do you do, if you’re a high school biology teacher, and a student shows up with Young Earth Creationist literature and tries to argue with you about evolution”? I’ve done that a few times, and when I do, I get all sorts of interesting answers. The answers include things like assigning the student a project in which they must face the evidence for evolution dead on. Or, that the teacher should provide the entire class with a history of scientific thinking since the enlightenment. Or suggestions that may involve the students parents. And so on and so forth. I could pose similar questions. What do you do if you are a teacher on “conference night” and a parent comes in demanding to know if you teach “alternative theories.” What do you do if you are a school administrator and an applicant for an open position teaching biology gives an indication of being a creationist … what do you ask that applicant?

I guarantee that if these questions were posed there would be a plethora of interesting suggestions about what to do and what to say. And some of those ideas would be illegal, some would get you fired, some would have a negative effect on the present situation even if they were somehow sadistically pleasurable to carry out. Some of the ideas would be extreme, some would be gentle, some passive aggressive and some in your face.

The conversation about what one would do in any of these situations may be quite spirited, the participants animated, and a number of rather troublesome assumptions might be challenged. If the conversation happened among civilians, said civilians may well be energized in their thinking on the evolution-creationism debate, but it may well be that no usable solutions would be reached. If, however, the conversation included a few educators with the appropriate training and experience, who would be inclined to point out relevant best practices, regulations, laws, and more subtle difficulties that may come up, then the same group (now including some expertise) may well come up with really good approaches to responding to creationist teachers, students, or others.

Why the difference? Context, training, and experience. For instance, if you’ve never been involved in the interview process in a public institution trying to hire an educator who is a member of a union, you may be unaware of the fact that the hiring process is tainted if interviewers come up with random questions for one applicant that were not asked of another applicant. So when the applicant says something indicating that they may be a creationist, you can’t necessarily throw in a random novel question as a followup, no matter how much it makes sense to do that. Also, you may not be aware of the fact that you can’t ask an applicant about his or her beliefs any more than you can ask a female applicant if she plans to have babies or an applicant you are interviewing over the phone if she or he happens to be black. So when the applicant gives a hint of being a creationist, the unwashed civilians would very naturally want to brandish their pitchforks and yell “Demand to know if the applicant is a creationist!” and indeed it seems a reasonable thing to do … it makes sense to not hire creationists to teach biology. But, since being a creationist is a form of religious practice, you simply cant ask that and, in fact, if you know someone is a creationist, you can’t avoid hiring them (to teach evolution) for that reason! Sucks, but that’s the way it is. And, this is how it should be. And, if you don’t understand that this is how it should be, then there are things that you don’t know about that you may want to learn.

At the same time, it totally sucks that creationists teach biology in classrooms in the United States (and elsewhere). It is reasonable and potentially effective if society at large had a negative attitude towards creationist public school teachers. Not to the people themselves … they’re just regular people like you and me. Indeed, I’ve got friends and acquaintances who are creationist biology teachers … I think one or two might be in my bathroom at this very moment in fact … and I don’t want to drive them into the swamp. But, the public attitude that creationism has no place in schools and a kind of meta raised eyebrow effect when it comes to creationist biology teachers is part of what keeps such teachers from sneaking creationism into the classroom. Also, public outrage about creationism in the classroom, if widespread and visible and normal, makes it a hella lot easier for teachers in conferences to stand their ground against creationist parents, and the creationist parents are not rare.

So the pitchfork waving of the unwashed rabble … the in your face and extreme skeptic or atheist or whatever … is how we win this fight. Oh, and the considered strategy of the professionalized experts who know how to not break the law even when our heart may lead us in that direction as we react to outrage and absurdity is how we win the fight. The former probably contributes more to the maintenance of energy internal to the struggle, and the latter is the sharp edged tool brought to bear at just the right moment at just the right spot cutting to the quick.

But we have a problem. The brimstone rarely appreciates the acuity of the scalpel and the scalpel usually thinks it does not need the very fire in which it was forged. But really, they need to talk, this yin and this yang.

Right now we see a version of this conversation playing out on the Internet. I summarized parts of it here and it continues and develops here (see the comment section in particular). And I’m not especially happy with the way this conversation is going. A famous pop psychologist once said “Every relationship needs a hero.” Well, this conversation needs everybody to be a hero. (I quickly add that I’m not criticizing either Stephanie Zvan or Mike McRae who are currently slogging it out in the comments section … I’m thinking more of those who are not actively engaging in dialog and more actively engaged in sniping, often in big hard to miss print. I think those two are both being rather heroic.)

I sit and read the Internet and notice that much of the energy spent on the “skeptical movement” or on defending evolution in the classroom or how atheism should look and feel and all sorts of related issues is over how to do it and how to think about it and how to act on it. It is important to have this conversation, but there is no reason to have it at all if the original motivating reasons for engaging are forgotten.

But in private something else is happening for me. In private I am a confidant of numerous biology teachers. I can’t tell you most of what they tell me without putting people’s careers at risk or revealing information that is protected. But I can tell you that there is some serious shit happening in high schools across this country, and the bits and pieces of news about this ‘debate’ that come to the surface now and then are like the hailstones collected by people and photographed that we then see on the TV news after a bad thunderstorm. You know, the chunks of ice placed next to a dime, or a quarter, or a golf ball, or more rarely, a tennis ball to indicate size, shown to us by the weather reporter after the fact. Those hailstones are not the only ones that fell that day!

According to some, the quiet, systematic, well research, communications-theory based approach that might even involve some kind of accommodation of religious groups is the only way to win the fight as it is corraled into the courtroom, which is the only place we really ever actually do win. But according to others, the angry pitchfork wielding mob driving the faith-based monster into the swamp is the only way to get enough people on board in this fight and the only way to bring sufficient shame to bear on the issue to make social sanctions work.


  1. #1 tuibguy
    May 14, 2011

    I am really looking forward to the show. I am curious to find out how we define the “goals” when we try to make a determination as to what “works” and what doesn’t “work?”

    What is the endpoint?

    Define that, and then we can start trying to figure out what works best in getting to wherever “there” may be.

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    May 14, 2011

    It might be cheating if Desiree was the one saying it would be feisty. She’s got an in on the outcome.

  3. #3 Desiree Schell
    May 14, 2011

    tuibguy: I think of it terms of overall goals and specific objectives. A goal is an overall change, and may be something like “convincing the public that homeopathy produces no more positive effects than a placebo would.” An objective is something that is realistically achievable within a reasonable amount of time, like “pressuring a movie theatre to stop running anti-vaccination advertisements.” A goal can tell you what direction to go, but objectives help you get there, and can act as benchmarks on the way. No, these are not dictionary definitions, just terms I use to sort my thoughts. 🙂

    Stephanie: Thhhbbbpppt. 😛

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    May 14, 2011

    I’m spending a lot of time with the dictionary tonight for some reason.

  5. #5 Jim Lippard
    May 14, 2011

    I don’t follow the argument for the nonexistence of “extreme atheists” (or atheist extremists?). While I agree with the argument that atheism is not a religion (despite some occasional efforts to create capital-A institutional Atheism), it’s perfectly possibly for a counter-movement against religion to be a radical, extremist counter-movement. And I’ve encountered atheists who rely on shallow, superficial anti-religious arguments, who do not listen to counter-arguments, who spout rhetoric that they don’t seem to fully understand, and who don’t acknowledge mistakes or correct themselves–i.e., dogmatists.

  6. #6 Dave W.
    May 15, 2011

    Greg Laden wrote, “But according to others, the angry pitchfork wielding mob driving the faith-based monster into the swamp is the only way to get enough people on board in this fight and the only way to bring sufficient shame to bear on the issue to make social sanctions work.”

    Who are these “others” who assert that the angry way is the only way?

  7. #7 Deen
    May 15, 2011

    @Jim Lippard: the thing is that the word “extremist” is usually reserved for those that use (or at least threaten or advocate) violence. Do atheists like that even exist? Atheists apparently only need to write angry blog posts to be called “extremists”.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2011

    Jim, the opening remark is (mean to be) a joke. Extreme atheist. Partial virgin. Etc. But yes, as you say and as I discuss throughout the rest of the post, there is an “in your face” version of atheism.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2011

    Dave W, refer to the links and see you you agree with me (or not) that there is a somewhat polarized argument between “new atheists” and “accommodationists.”

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2011

    Deen, that might be just a little extreme..

    But seriously, I don’t think the word “extreme” needs to mean “Blows up a day care center.” That would be a total change and absurd restriction in language and would serve no purpose other than extreme sophistry. Extreme implies a spectrum or range, and refers to one end of it.

    Now, asking this might be interesting: Why are “new atheists” (at one end of a spectrum) extreme and “accommodationists” (at the other end) not extreme? Is there a polarized spectrum with a defined quality that runs from zero to some higher level with accommodationists near zero? Maybe, but given that accommodationists are giving away the store when they … ah … act in the extreme …. then maybe the term applies to both ends.

    I suppose one could argue that “extremIST” is a term that means blows up day care center, but I’m not sure the word should be coopted just yet.

  11. #11 Bob Carroll
    May 15, 2011

    Atheism doesn’t imply anti-theism any more than not believing in the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or devils and goblins implies being anti-Santa, anti-Bunny, or anti-Halloween. To move from disbelief in each of these areas to a call for action to end religion, to end Christmas celebrations involving fat men dropping down chimneys to leave gifts, to end Easter charades involving weird Bunnies hiding junk food in baskets around the house, or to ban dressing up on Halloween to collect candy or money involves concluding that there is something evil about these practices that so outweighs any good they might produce that we’d be much better off without them. What’s called in-your-face atheism is proactive anti-theism. To call an atheist an “accommodationist” only because he or she isn’t an anti-theist is to assume that all atheists should be anti-theists. There is definitely a goal to anti-theism, but I don’t think there is any objective or goal to atheism. If there’s an argument of substance here, shouldn’t it be about whether atheists should be anti-theists? If there’s an argument about “tactics” here, shouldn’t it be among anti-theists debating the best methods to bring about the end of religion?

  12. #12 Dave W.
    May 15, 2011

    Greg Laden wrote @9 wrote, ‘Dave W, refer to the links and see you you agree with me (or not) that there is a somewhat polarized argument between “new atheists” and “accommodationists.”‘

    I’d have to disagree, from reading the “New Atheists” and the “accommodationists” themselves. The “New Atheists” argue that, as you once wrote, “Multiple strategies work better than single narrowly defined strategies.” The “accomodationists” tell the “New Atheists” to shut up because they’re hurting “the cause” (they really mean their cause, not the “New Atheists'” cause). That’s not polarized, it’s confused.

    If any “New Athiest” has said anything like “our way is the only way” (keyword “only,” which is how you characterized it in your OP), I’d be amazed. (I’d be similarly amazed if any “accommodationist” would be generous enough to describe the “New Atheist” position correctly and judge them by it, instead of by some other standard.)

    Also, describing the two groups as being at opposing ends of a spectrum is just strange, unless the spectrum is so simplistic as to be “how much the ‘New Atheists’ are harming the cause of science education.”

  13. #13 Stephanie Z
    May 15, 2011

    Bob, when religion is confined to one day a year and has all the political power of the Easter Bunny, what you said might be equivalent to the current situation with religion. Religion has political power, and it claims that power on the basis of being a true religion. As it stands now, anti-theism is a political fight against religious privilege in modern life, not a campaign to wipe out something cute and silly.

  14. #14 Dave W.
    May 15, 2011

    Bob Carroll @11 wrote, ‘To call an atheist an “accommodationist” only because he or she isn’t an anti-theist is to assume that all atheists should be anti-theists.’

    Does anyone call anyone else an “accommodationist” for that reason? Once again, the word “only” seems to be employed inappropriately.

  15. #15 Deen
    May 15, 2011

    @Greg Laden in #10: Perhaps, I don’t want to get into a dictionary argument. But I doubt you’d disagree that atheists need to do a lot less to be labeled “extreme” than (say) a Christian.

    I think part of the discussion, actually, is trying to control or decide where the “reasonable” part of the spectrum is. New Atheists think it excludes Christians (at least on this topic). Christians naturally object.

    Accommodationists thinks the “reasonable” part of the spectrum includes Christians (even though Christianity apparently isn’t reasonable enough for them to be one), and therefore must exclude New Atheists. New Atheists naturally object.

  16. #16 Mike Haubrich
    May 15, 2011

    To call an atheist an “accommodationist” only because he or she isn’t an anti-theist is to assume that all atheists should be anti-theists.

    Sometimes I wonder if we are all separated by a common language.

    No, this is very simple. The accommodationists are saying that religion and science can be compatible because there are scientists who are also religious, and that the atheists should not insist that science and religion are incompatible because it might scare away those who would otherwise like evolution.

    The new atheists say it is condescending and dishonest to avoid the implications for religion of science.

  17. #17 DavidB
    May 15, 2011

    Greg writes: “Say I pose the question on the Internet: “What do you do, if you’re a high school biology teacher, and a student shows up with Young Earth Creationist literature and tries to argue with you about evolution”? I’ve done that a few times, and when I do, I get all sorts of interesting answers. The answers include things like assigning the student a project in which they must face the evidence for evolution dead on.”


    DELETED for violation of commenting policy (see “About” page)

  18. #18 Drivebyposter
    May 15, 2011

    Your response is essentially
    “herpa derpa derpa derp!!!! Yay creationism! WOO FOR STUPID”

  19. #19 Alan
    May 16, 2011

    Go the Hitchen’s route; systematic, well research, AND in your face.

  20. #20 Domestigoth
    May 16, 2011

    I very much like the way you’ve chosen to differentiate “atheist” from “anti-theist”. I’ve always found terms like “New Atheist” and “accomodationist” to be full of etymological inaccuracies: they’re loaded terms, and they imply things that aren’t necessarily true.

  21. #21 Mike McRae
    May 17, 2011

    What I find interesting from the conversation between Stephanie and I was the amount of influence the conceptual division between ‘accommodationism’ and ‘New Atheism’ has had. The number of people who continue to presume my position simply on grounds of the fact that I might criticise and question the actions of atheists who others might define as confrontational is astonishing. I must be ‘accommodationist’, and therefore my beliefs and motivations easily taken for granted.

    In this thread, there are several ‘accommodationists believe…’ claims which risk ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacies. I’m quite sure there are some who do believe such things, but having been personally accused of such beliefs, I don’t think these conclusions are useful.

    I also like ‘atheist’ and ‘anti-theist’, although I wonder how long it will take for such terms to also become loaded with connotations and assumptions.

    I might add that I share Desiree’s view of the difference between objectives and goals. I think objectives work best as the visible component of a goal – the actual thing you expect to see change as a result of your action. Goals, on the other hand, can describe a more general achievement. I might have an objective to convince you not to vote for the God Party at the next election, for instance, but my goal is to prevent religious groups from holding power.