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Posted by on Mar 23, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Philosophy | 13 comments

What do I mean by accommodationism?

There has been a lot of discussion of late about civility and about healing the rifts in the atheist/skeptic/secular movement. I don’t want to get into that today, but one issue that has come up yet again (albeit peripherally) relates to the whole business of “accommodationism” and “non-accommodationism” or “anti-accommodationism”, and what was meant by these terms by those who used them in the blogosphere wars over the issue of two to four years ago (which have not entirely petered out).

So for the record, let me say something about what I had in mind in criticising accommodationism and identifying as an anti-accommodationist. The main point to emphasise was that I was never supporting nastiness toward religious people or toward the people identified as accommodationists. See for example, my post on the old site for this blog: “Gnus can be gnice” (readers who are new to this blog might like to go and have a look at this to get a better idea of where I am coming from). What was at stake as far as I was concerned was always a philosophical dispute about religion and science.

What Jerry Coyne and I, and others, were on about when we criticised “accommodationism” was the idea that science and religion are compatible and/or that the idea that we should not be arguing for their incompatibility in the public square.

Thus, the people we branded as “accommodationists” included Christians such as John Haught, Francis Collins, and Kenneth Miller, who argue that religion and science are compatible; organisations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Center  for Science Education, which have policy positions to the effect that there is no incompatibility between science and religion; the late Stephen Jay Gould with his NOMA theory; atheist philosophers such as Michael Ruse who dream up theories about how science and religion might be reconciled (something I don’t object to all that much, but it certainly bugs some anti-accommodationists) and/or claim that it is politically dangerous to put science-based arguments against religion (Ruse does this all the time); other atheists such as Matt Nisbet who have gone as far as to suggest that Richard Dawkins should go quiet in public as a science advocate, having (supposedly) lost credibility with many Americans for using science-based arguments against religion; and of course Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum who argue in their book Unscientific America that religion has the resources to avoid conflict with science, and are scathing (and downright nasty) about Richard Dawkins, and who have, at least in Mooney’s case, criticised Jerry for criticising the likes of Miller in public.

As anti-accommodationists, we were disagreeing with the above cluster of positions. Note that Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse have, indeed, argued against both the science/religion incompatibility thesis (with reservations in Ruse’s case) and against the political wisdom of arguing publicly for the thesis.

So an “accommodationist” in the discussion was someone who argues for science/religion compatibility and/or that it is politically expedient to go along publicly with the idea of science/religion compatibility. People who were criticised as accommodationists included Christians like Miller, as long as they argued for science/religion compatibility.

By contrast, those of us who identified as anti-accommodationists were basically saying 1. science and religion are (in some serious sense) not compatible; and 2. it’s fine to say this in public.

It was never our position that this needs to be argued in an uncivil way, or generally that religious people should be treated without proper civility (although we did tend to take a hard line against the moral authority of religious leaders).

Indeed, what concerned us so much about the spurious Tom Johnson story (which I won’t go into for those not familiar with it) was the claim that anti-accommodationism, such as displayed by Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, leads to rudeness and nastiness in real life. The story was used by Chris Mooney as Exhibit A for such a claim.

While we may not have been totally consistent about this, and you might find counter-examples of how we used the terminology, I think you’ll find that we were fairly consistent (in fact, I think I was fairly rigorous about it). Anyone who thought that they were defending “anti-accommodationism” in arguing in favour of nastiness and personal attacks misunderstood what anti-accommodationism was in the minds of the leading anti-accommodationists (or at least those offering detailed philosophical defences of the idea), and what we were trying to convey and achieve. I should only speak for myself here, but I think that bigger players on the anti-accommodationism side, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, would agree with much or most of what I’ve written above.

Of course, some others may have been running a different agenda under the flag of “anti-accommodationism”. If their agenda involved nastiness, personal attacks, etc., then I hereby disown them. And again, none of this is to deny that actual anti-accommodationist thinkers, such as me, sometimes lost tempers or engaged in satire or personal attacks, or whatever. Doubtless that happened from time to time. Some of it may have been relatively gentle satire that was justified (I think that satire has its place). Some of it may have crossed lines (as when, in a moment of anger and poor judgment, I called Chris Mooney a “disgusting traitor” for taking Templeton money… something that I will apologise to him for in person if our paths ever cross). Some of it may have fallen in a grey area. But the fact remains that anti-accommodationism is essentially a philosophical position that science and religion are (in some interesting and serious sense) incompatible.

Udo Schuklenk and I will be arguing an anti-accommodationist thesis in 50 Great Myths About Atheism when it appears in September. Meanwhile, if you have access read Jerry Coyne’s most definitive statement on the issues so far: Coyne, Jerry A. 2012. “Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America.” Evolution 66(8): 2654–2663. Or just search on my old site for The Hellfire Club, where I have much to say about the subject.