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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

"Gnu Atheist" does not mean "nasty"; "accommodationist" does not mean "nice";

And apropos of my previous post, see a snarky reply to Jerry by Josh Rosenau. I'm going to take the liberty of elevating a comment by Jerry on his own blog. This is important stuff, so I hope Jerry won't mind my quoting it in full:
Yeah, I saw Rosenau’s post. It’s very bizarre. Among its many problems are these:

1. Josh appears not to realize that “accommodationism” is simply the view that science and religion can be reconciled. Period. Has it ever been defined otherwise? And I certainly did not espouse that view at the Methodist church; in fact, I said just the opposite – and very clearly, too. Only a fool can claim that what I said was “accommodationist.”

2. Josh seems to think that all of us Gnus advocate being nasty and in-your-face to religious people. That’s crazy; nobody has ever advocated that, least of all myself. So if I talk to religious people and am civil, that certainly doesn’t abrogate my views about religion. Why does Rosenau see that as some kind of hypocrisy?

3. Josh seems to think that we Gnus argue that the NCSE shouldn’t address religion. He’s wrong again: I, at least, think the NCSE shouldn’t take the theological position that faith is consistent with science. And the NCSE should limit its discussion about faith to saying that there are a variety of views about the consilience of science and faith and somebody in conflict should consult his/her minister. People like Larry Moran, P.Z., and I have been saying this for years, but it doesn’t seem to have penetrated Josh’s consciousness.

4. Most of us concentrate our anti-religious efforts on the inimical effects of faith, particularly on those faiths that do real damage in the world. It’s not hypocritical to say that some faiths are better than others, and do more good things than others.

5. Clearly, when I said that religion was on peoples’ minds because of the Gnus, I meant people’s minds in general – not religious people’s minds! What I said was this:
. . .thanks to the Gnu Atheists religion is on many people’s minds, and I welcome the chance to speak my mind.

That’s why, I think, that when I talk about my book before students or the general public, everyone wants to know if evolution (or science) can be reconciled with faith. I think that’s largely attributable to Gnu Atheist writings.

Josh’s post is so muddled, so confused, so willfully wrong, that I’m stymied. I can’t figure out if he’s just completely muddleheaded or if he’s intellectually dishonest. Or maybe both. . .
First, Rosenau blatantly and inexcusably misrepresents Jerry's position on the NCSE - a position that Jerry has always stated with total clarity. If Rosenau has an ounce of intellectual honesty, he'll apologise for this immediately and without reservation.

But the real take home point is that accommodationism is not necessarily "nice". As Rosenau demonstrates by example, accommodationists can be as snarky, unfair, and obsessed with scoring cheap points as anyone else. And those of us in the broadly anti-accommodationist camp, who see a genuine and serious difficulty in reconciling a worldview based on science and reason with worldviews based on religion, are not thereby nasty. I see nothing in Jerry's original post that recants his anti-accommodationist position or shows him backing away from it in his dealings with liberal Methodists. What I see is a further demonstration, if one were needed, that anti-accommodationist positions can be as careful, subtle, and, alas yes, "nuanced" as any other intellectual positions.

When I spoke to a group of progressive evangelicals last year - a group nowhere near as theologically liberal as the group Jerry met with - I had much to say in their praise. That doesn't mean that I thereby turned into an accommodationist. It means that I give credit where it's due, as Jerry did.

What really pisses me off about Rosenau's approach is its "heads-I-win-tails-you-lose" mentality. If we show the slightest degree of aggression towards the religious, we are attacked for being, well, basically, nasty. If we are polite, thoughtful, and give credit where it's due, we're accused of abandoning our substantive positions. This is plain unfair. It stinks like the proverbial dead cat.


Russell Blackford said...

If it has to be said, I'm not necessarily committed to every single word said by Jerry in the comment that I elevated ... although, come to think of it, it seems pretty much spot-on.

I suppose there could be quibbles about exactly what is meant by accommodationism and the varieties it comes in. But quibbles or not, Jerry is correct in everything that matters here.

Accommodationism, as it has been understood in this debate, is about the possibility of reconciling religious worldviews with the methods and the robust results of science. Anti-accommodationists typically acknowledge the possibility of a religious view so thinned out in its truth claims that it does not formally conflict with science (perhaps some non-literalist view or some kind of rarefied Deism), but we note the problems with saying simply: "Religion and science are consistent with each other or in no conflict with each other."

As we keep pointing out, such a claim has all sorts of serious, intractable problems. We do no good trying to hide or ignore them.

There is no conflict at all between taking an anti-accommodationist view and also being civil and thoughtful in discussing religion and in interacting with religious people. Again, anti-accommodationism is not the same as being nasty; and accommodationism is damn sure not the same as being nice.

Russell Blackford said...

Oops - a spelling mistake corrected in the title.

Mark Jones said...

Yes, like it or not, accommodationism has another meaning, to do with the tone adopted by atheists; consider the discussions on Phil Plait's 'Don't be a Dick' piece.

Jerry is right to find the criticism bizarre, but I think it makes some sense from the accommodationist viewpoint in light of *this* meaning. They frame gnus as advocating a wholly confrontational approach to the faithful, and define them like that. So if Jerry ever shakes hands with a Bishop, he's a hypocrite. This is mirrored by our charges of hypocrisy whenever accommodationists upset the religious.

However, it highlights the accommodationist error; gnus don't advocate a wholly confrontationalist approach - they just allow confrontation. Accommodationists call foul if the faithful are confronted, or offended, seeing it as a bad political move, so they disallow the confrontational approach. The accommodationists are hypocritical, then, because they cause offence too, whereas Jerry's actions just demonstrate the behaviour of a normal rounded individual in a community situation. In other words, gnus *don't* advocate a wholly confrontational approach, and that approach is *not* a defining characteristic of them, which refutes the accommodationist position in the tone wars.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't know whether Jerry wants to comment here, but I think that "accommodationism" really should be thought of more or less as he defined it. Thus, when I argue against "accommodationism" I am opposing an intellectual position that I consider somewhere between hopelessly simplistic and downright wrong. I am not opposing civil, thoughtful interaction with religious people or discriminating (in the good sense) discussion of various religious views. Nor do I see why it should be assumed that anyone with "anti-accommodationist" or Gnu Atheist views should oppose the latter things. If anyone seriously believes that that's our position - e.g. Jerry's or mine - the idea really needs to be stomped on firmly.

Ironically, much of the current debate began when Jerry was attacked for a thoughtful and civil book review that contained criticism of certain religious positions and arguments. The idea was that these things should not be said, apparently not even in such a manner with all the due courtesies.

And then there was the Tom Johnson affair, which involved a fabricated and implausible story of unnamed people behaving in public like, well like arseholes (or assholes for my American friends), in a way that is not at all recommended by any reputable thinker on the Gnu Atheist side of the debates.

And we'll leave aside the incredibly naive things that get said about "tone" by people who show little understanding of the concept. As you know, Mark, I think that tone is important, but most of the people who make a fuss about it actually have a tin ear for tone - what with their comments about Dawkins being "strident", etc.

Sigmund said...

Josh has a follow up post that manages to expand on the silliness. He starts it off with the petulantly titled link to Sean Carroll's post on Coynes talk -
"Sean Carroll reads Jerry Coyne so you don't have to." - as if Carroll is somehow in disagreement with Coyne!
What follows is the usual bluster and parade of strawmen and seems to sum up a position where a gnu atheist resisting the temptation to kick a clergyman in the testicles is seen as an obvious capitulation to the truth and utter gniceness of accomodationism.

Mark Jones said...

What you talk about, of course, is the sort of accommodationism that occupies the 'news' and the 'gnus' (NOMA); I recall the puzzlement I felt when the You're Not Helping articles began to appear. I couldn't understand their genesis. So I'm not sure who started using 'accommodationist' for those concerned about tone, but it *has* confused things somewhat. I guess some of the tone criticism emanated from NOMA advocates, so the label was stitched on.

I have a feeling it's too late to buck the trend, I'm afraid. So you talk of anti-accommodationist in the sense of countering NOMA, which is as it should be, but someone may talk about being anti-accommodationist in the sense that they don't like being told to mind their language when addressing the faithful by people who don't follow their own advice!

It's a bugger's muddle, and no mistake.

The Lorax said...

Hmm, maybe this is a fulcrum point in the accommodationist debate. Perhaps the arguments made by the gnu atheists and the logic therein was so sound that the accommodationists, at least subconsciously, realized their position was wrong. As opposed to accept defeat, they made the all too human choice to fight on by simply moving the goalposts to a position not susceptible to the gnu atheists responses.

If the accommodationists' new position is simply one of civility, they might want to purge some of their early posts on the matter.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes; I vigorously second the motion for using "accommodationism" to mean "belief that science and religion are in harmony" or can have a "fruitful interaction" to use even more Templetonian language. That's what I mean by it (and what I've always thought it meant), and I've been confused lately by people who seem to think it means just "plays well with others."

Michael Fugate said...

Josh only cares if a person accepts evolution - nothing else matters. Any religious person who rejects evolution is subject to scorn and ridicule while one who accepts it is automatically his best friend. The person doesn't even need to understand evolution - just look at the nonsense spouted at Biologos and in the Clergy Letter Project sermons.

Gordon B said...

You'd think that if accommodationists were primarily concerned with tone, they would be out promoting people like Will Provine as exemplars of geniality and respectful engagement. As far as I know they don't, and instead feel it necessary to assuage the concerns of religious people who might find Provine's message (and not his tone) dyspeptic.

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, the term "Gnu Atheist" was coined to oppose a continually occurring term "New Atheist", that was felt to be ill-defined. However, that term was generally used together with a complaint about the aggressive atheist of the so-called "New Atheists". So, if you're using the term "Gnu Atheist", it does make more sense to use the term "accomodationist" in terms of advocating for a non-confrontational approach towards religion and religious people rather than just that science and religion are not compatible. As Mark pointed out, that is a way the term is used, rightly or wrongly. See Accomodation Watch -- a sadly neglected blog -- for evidence of that.

Then again, accomodationist, like all terms defined by people to indicate people that they disagree with or don't like, is ill-defined itself. Can theists be accomodationists? Do accomodationists have to think that science and religion are compatible, or is it enough that they are unconvinced that science and religion are incompatible in an interesting way?

Bruce Gorton said...

I think the argument isn't over whether science is or is not in harmony with religion.

It is not really an argument on theology as such.

I think the argument is more on politics - whether science should be billed as being in harmony with religion, even if that is not actually the case.

So I would phrase the definition as being more, "Accomodationism is the belief that in order to popularise science one should avoid telling the religious they are wrong when science contradicts their faith."

Anonymous said...


The problem is that I think that there are two different positions lumped under the term "accomodoationist":

1) Science and faith are not necessarily incompatible, or not incompatible in an interesting way.

2) An aggressive approach to discussions of religion is counter-productive to the goal of convincing people to not be religious.

The latter is a claim that can only be made substantively by atheists, since theists don't share the goal of convincing people to not be religious. The former, however, is a claim that theists can make but also that they don't have to make; theists can be incompatibilists about science and faith as well. And it should be obvious that one can hold that science and faith are not incompatible in an interesting sense but that people should not be religious and that an aggressive stance is appropriate and useful in convincing them otherwise.

These positions got lumped together because the people coining the term happened to believe both and be criticized -- often by the same people -- for both. But they're distinct positions nonetheless.

Sigmund said...

verbosestoic, I disagree with both of your definitions.
First, an anti-accomodationist can easily agree with the statement that "science and faith are not necessarily incompatible". All you need to do is include vague deism or pantheism as being religions and you get around the incompatible with science problem.
Second, the anti-accomodationist 'goal' is not to turn religious people into atheists, rather it is to create a neutral environment where religious views are not imposed on the rest of us.

Jerry Coyne said...

I agree with you, Russell (and with Ophelia) on the definition of "accommodationism" as the view that science and faith are not in conflict, but are either harmonious or occupy distinct spheres of inquiry (and I don't think that religion really finds out anything from its "inquiries").

I think verbosestoic's definition"2" is not a definition, really, but a perceived consequence of vigorous anti-accommodationism.

Kirth Gersen said...

"An aggressive approach to discussions of religion is counter-productive to the goal of convincing people to not be religious."

It's more fundamental than that -- the accommodationist goal is never to convince people not to be religious. Rather, people like Rosneau and Mooney (and even Ken Miller) tend to focus on a single goal -- support for the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The "Gnu Atheist" cause, in contrast, sees Creationism as merely a symptom of religious belief and general anti-logic/anti-science. Therefore they advocate treating the cause. From that standpoint, Accommodationism can be perceived as a strategy of intentionally making the illness worse so that one specific symptom can be treated.

Russell Blackford said...

There's also a problem about what is "aggressive". The point of the "new Atheism" was never to act in a way that is in-your-face, nasty, uncivil, etc., such as "Tom Johnson" described. The anti-accommodationist position was never a position that we should go around acting like that. By acting in a civil way towards religious people, at least when those people are themselves civil, Jerry is in no way abandoning his support for the work of, say, Richard Dawkins. Nor is he becoming an accommodationist.

To the extent that there is something worth calling the New Atheism it is about criticising religion in the sphere of popular discourse - in books aimed for a wide market, in newspapers, in television appearances, etc. - and not just in academic journals and books written for academics. It is about a forthright and popular atheism, but it is not about being literally aggressive. You can say, I suppose, that there's a sense in which it involves marketing atheism in an "aggressive" way - in the same sense that any other "product" can be marketed "aggressively" (in inverted commas). But it was never about literal aggression in the sense of being downright uncivil or nasty. This is part of the reason why the Tom Johnson story was so implausible.

The anti-accommodationist aspect of some of our thinking is, as others are saying, about whether there is a place for religion within a scientific view of the world. The idea has never been to claim that it is impossible to find an arguably religious position that is at least formally consistent with science. Examples are a very austere kind of Deism and a highly non-literalist viewpoint that explains claims about supernatural events as metaphors.

Those of us who identify as anti-accommodationist don't deny that such positions exist. Our point is more that science tends to push thoughtful religious people into such positions rather than traditional positions that involve, say, a providential God and various supernatural events.

What we do say is that its hopelessly misleading to go around saying "Science and religion are compatible." It would be more true to say that science tends to undermine all or most traditional forms of religion, making them less plausible, putting pressure on the religious to thin out their supernaturalist, providentialist views of the world, and so on. The result is that much in the way of actual religion really is threatened by the advance of science. Claiming otherwise is, we say, likely to be disingenuous.

We then have a great deal to say about the various ways in which science does this. In particular, we tend to criticise ideas such as NOMA, which seem to us to be full of problems. For example, NOMA gives a characterisation of religion that is totally untrue to the historical experience of the phenomenon.

None of this is about acting in ways that are uncivil.

Michael Fugate said...

I get the feeling that accommodationism is often practiced by 1) religious believers who accept evolution, but worry that its acceptance by other religious believers may lead to the loss of religion, 2) agnostics/atheists who were raised in a liberal religious environment and just quietly drifted away from religion, and 3) agnostics/atheists who were raised in secular homes and the only religious people they know are religiously liberal. For 2 and 3, they see religion as little more than a totally benign social/service club and can easily sympathize with the fears of 1.

Dave Ricks said...

I feel fine if an individual believes their religion is compatible with science.

My big fat objection is with the (political) policy of the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE to tell people (Americans) their religion (Christianity) is compatible with science (evolution). This policy is a corruption or adulteration of science (and my AAAS dues).

To give this (political) policy (and activity) a name, I write "accommodationism" (for the policy). But by any other name, my objection would still be against the (political) policy (and activity) of science outreach asserting compatibility.

Now I’ve laid out enough to paraphrase my agreement with Bruce Gorton up this thread: Accommodationists (like Josh Rosenau) maintain belief in the policy of promoting belief in the compatibility. That’s the distinction I want to clarify to the thinkers in this thread; e.g.:
1) Jerry Coyne’s Seeing and Believing was against belief in the compatibility.
2) Jerry Coyne’s Truckling to the Faithful was against belief in the policy (of promoting belief in the compatibility).

On those two issues, Josh Rosenau endorses the policy of promoting compatibility, but he’s unclear about endorsing the substance of the compatibility he’s promoting. That might seem hypocritical, but Josh is expressing the policy of the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE.

Anonymous said...


I was outlining the position of accomodationism, as I see it. It's not a good argument to turn around and say that those who claim to disagree with that position don't disagree with what I say. It may simply be the case, then, that they aren't actually anti-accomodationists. I'll go into that a little more in a longer post, but wanted to point that out about my definitions: they are not definitions, per se, but simple descriptions of the positions.

Anonymous said...

I think it is your response, Russell, as well as those of Sigmund and Jerry that really show that we need to clean up the positions of accomodationist and anti-accomodationist, which have become quite convoluted in my opinion.

So, starting from first principles, here are the broad positions that I see that someone can take towards the question of science and faith and their compatibility:

Incompatibilist: Science and faith are incompatible; if something that be properly said to be based on science and there is something else that can be properly said to be based on faith, they are incompatible.

Accomodationist: Science and faith are neither necessarily compatible nor incompatible. It is possible to make faith-based views compatible with science and vice versa, but they may not be naturally compatible (ie without effort).

Compatibilist: Science and faith just are compatible; there are no interesting ways in which they can be incompatible.

Now, what you say, to me, attacks a straight compatibilist position. But I'm not sure that the people who call themselves "accomodationists" are actually compatibilists. For example, I think it was Francis Ayala who said something like "Religion, properly understood, cannot be incompatible with science." I take that as, in fact, an accomodationist view in the parlance described above: if you do religion correctly, you won't conflict with science. But that doesn't mean that there won't be religions that conflict with science, and that seems patently, obviously false and not worth a lot of the discussions that have been had with "accomodationists".

I also think NOMA is not necessarily a compatibilist position. If you claim that they never do encroach on each other, that would be compatibilist ... and clearly wrong. But if you say that NOMA means that religion should not use theology on directly scientific questions and science should not make theological claims, that would be accomodationist, especially from the religious side (since it would imply that it should leave the details of the creation of the universe to science).

Compatibilism, to me, just seems patently false, but I'm not sure how many so-called accomodationists actually are compatibilists.

Incompatibilism seems wrong to me, but not obviously so, and I can find some anti-accomodationists that do seem to be incompatibilists. Larry Moran, for example, absolutely is an incompatibilist, as he ties it tightly to ways of knowing, argues that science is based on reason, evidence and skepticism, and that faith violates at least one of them. It's a credible argument, but I'd disagree that that incompatibility is meaningful. I also think that Jerry Coyne is an incompatibilist with what I consider weaker arguments, but perhaps not. You, Russell, might actually be an accomodationist by my descriptions, but that's not a bad thing.

For me, I think that some things that rely on faith can be made compatible with science, but that there can be conflicts. I don't see why that would make me an anti-accomodationist, since in a lot of ways I'm making the exact same arguments as the accomodationists are. I think I would count as an accomodationist. I could be wrong, but obviously I'd like to know why [grin].

Anonymous said...


Good point. Replace that last part with "counter-productive to our shared goals, or at least a goal that we should share."