The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront” Religion is a False Dichotomy

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2010

Last weekend the Council for Secular Humanism held their 30th anniversary conference in Los Angeles, and it was attended by many of the greatest minds in the humanist & skeptical movement.  One of the headlining events of the conference was a panel on the topic of religion – titled “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” – and it has subsequently generated a great deal of discussion within the skeptical community.

The panel included such illuminaries as Jennifer Michael Hecht, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Chris Mooney, and Victor Stenger.  Essentially, the entire discussion – which can be can be watched on U-Stream (part 1 and part 2) – revolved around one question:

How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? If we champion science, must we oppose faith? How best to approach flashpoints like evolution education?

There have been a couple of interesting things I’ve read and/or listened to on this question…

PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog – Confrontation all the way

Point of Inquiry’s episode – New Atheism or Accommodation?

… and I’ve either read online discussions about this or had personal conversations about it with other skeptics.  Thus, since it is now a focal point for discussion, I’d like to include my thoughts on this whole issue, because I think that in large part the skeptical/humanist/non-religious communities are missing the forest through the trees…

1. The Skeptical Community Isn’t Monolithic

First of all, let me point out the obvious (or, at least, it should be obvious): the skeptical community isn’t monolithic.  In my interactions with skeptics over many years (in personal discussion, via Internet message boards, at conferences, etc), I have come to one, firm conclusion: we don’t all agree on every issue.

Wow, that’s a big surprise, isn’t it?  Of course, I’m being sarcastic, but it goes to the heart of the question presented at the CSH’s conference and why I think it is misguided.  Think about it – once you get a large enough group of thoughtful people together, there is going to be dissent & disagreement.  And you know what?  There should be such disagreement!  Such debate and discussion is necessary for a critical analysis of any question.

One of the worst things for any large group to get involved in is group think, whereby they cease to question their own reasoning, motives, and conclusions.  To suppose that we skeptics are somehow different from the rest of humanity in this regard is both arrogant & foolish.

2. The Question of “Accommodation vs. Confrontation?” is a False Dichotomy

The assumption that we are a movement which should be one thing versus another is incredibly misguided, for the reasons I mentioned above.  Thus, the notion that on questions of how skeptics should relate to the issue of, say, religious belief must come to one response or another is just plain dumb.  Why must we “accommodate” or “confront” as a general response to the issue of religious belief?  In my mind, this clearly sets up a false dichotomy – that the only solutions are “100% accommodation” or “100% confrontation” – which is stupid.

There are some circumstances in which, yes, I think we should accommodate religious belief.  And, at the same time, there are circumstances whereby we should most assuredly confront religious belief.  When and how to respond depends upon the context of the situation and must be approached as pragmatically as possible, in my opinion.

For example, if you are an atheist and your local school board is considering whether or not to incorporate a “textbook” on ID-creationism into their science curriculum and you are attending the public meeting on the matter, then I think you’d be an idiot to turn down the assistance of a local Catholic priest who wants to help you argue against creationism.  Sure, you may not think there is any good reason for him to believe in God, but if he’s helping you address the problem at hand, why not accommodate his beliefs, set aside those particular differences & take the help?

Yet, at the same time, in the example above you are definitely confronting the fundamentalist religiously-motivated pseudoscientific garbage called creationism.  These creationists are attempting to take over your local school board, they are pushing a particular belief (i.e., a 6000 year-old Earth) which can clearly be shown to be in direct conflict with accepted science, and they have an agenda which is to convert everyone (believer & non-believer alike) to their particular, fundamentalist viewpoint.  Of course you should confront this nonsense!

3. Everybody Got a Gris-Gris

This brings me to my next point – namely, that even skeptics/humanists/atheists are clearly not any more or less rational than other people.  Or, as magician Penn Jillette put it: “Everybody got a gris-gris.”

A gris-gris is a kind of lucky charm or talisman, but in this context I’m using it to refer to an irrationally heartfelt superstitious-type belief.  The fact of the matter is that we all have something in which we believe quite strongly, even though it is irrational, weird, or just plain stupid.  For some people, their gris-gris is religion, for others it is a ideological or political affiliation, while for others it’s an acceptance of some particular kind of pseudoscience.  But the point is, we all have at least one.

My gris-gris is a “lucky coin” that I carry with me everywhere I go.  My rational mind knows it isn’t really lucky, and that whether or not I have it with me will not affect the laws of probability.  However, I have to have it with me – if I cannot find it in the morning, I get cold sweats & my heart flutters, and it throws off my whole day.  I know it’s stupid, but it’s my gris-gris (I have others, but this will suffice for the point I’m making).

And if you bother to critically analyze yourself, I guarantee that you will find your own gris-gris.  And you will quickly learn that many of your fellow skeptics will think your gris-gris is downright silly and perhaps worthy of having you kicked out of the skeptics’ “club”.  But if we all start making such judgments of one another, then what happens to our community?

4. The Question Should Be “Unity vs. Division?”

So, for all these reasons, I think the entire question has been mischaracterized and is therefore terribly misguided.  The question shouldn’t be one of “accommodation vs. confrontation” of religion, but it should be one of “unity vs. division” within the skeptical community.

In other words, are we going to allow our disagreements on particular issues (political, religious, beards vs. no-beards 🙂 ) to divide us, or are we going to acknowledge that there can be legitimate points of disagreement within our ranks and focus instead upon the things that we clearly agree on?  If we choose the former, then the skeptical movement will balkanize and fracture at a time when it has the potential to really break out into the broader society and make a difference.  If we can swallow our collective pride just a bit, and we choose to agree to disagree on some things, then we can move ahead more effectively.

It sounds cliche, but “united we stand, divided we fall.”

Let me be clear: I have my personal view of what “skepticism should be”, but I’m also not so arrogant to believe that mine “is the right view.”  There is a place for the confrontational PZ Myers’s of the community, just as there is a place for the accommodating Eugenie Scott’s, and yes, there is also a place for religious skeptics such as Dr. Pamela Gay.  We all bring our own talents to the table, we all have our own gris-gris, and we are all in this together.

If we lose sight of that fact, then we have lost the battle already.  And we would only have ourselves to blame if that were to happen.

15 Responses to “The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront” Religion is a False Dichotomy”

  1. Good points. I’d just add that after listening to and reading much of the same coverage, I am left with 2 strong impressions:

    1. Both sides of the issue give lip service to the idea that everyone has a right to their own approach.

    2. P.Z. and the Gnu Atheists do a much better job of walking that particular talk.

    Chris Mooney and Jennifer Michael Hecht keep coming back to the sentiment that we should shut up and be nice, even if we don’t really want to. P.Z. and company say you be nice if you want to, but we’ll call it like we see it.

    It may be a spectrum, not a dichotomy, but I’m definitely crowding over toward the Gnu side of the bell curve.

  2. The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront ……

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  3. Atheocrat said

    (Apologies for earlier comment, I hit the ‘send’ button in error)

    I’m trying really hard here! But try as I might, in all honesty, I can’t find my ‘gris-gris’! But even if I could, there is a major difference between, say, ‘touching wood’ when hoping for something, and dedicating your life to worship of a deity with all that this entails – without even mentioning the extremes. So I have to take issue with you on that point. Rationality comes in degrees too, and the false dichotomy you rightly pointed out in the early part of your reply ref aggressive/passive confrontation/accommodation attitudes in atheism, also applies to the idea of rational/irrational. It seems pretty clear to me that leaps of faith are largely the domain of the religious when it comes to the supernatural.

    Otherwise, you make some valid points, and I particularly agree with you on accommodating all shades of atheism within the sceptical movement. On the other hand I don’t see the signs of fracture that you allude to, although there are the occasional minor disagreements in debate.

  4. Chas said

    Thanks for writing this. Is it possible we, as a community, have fallen into the same trap as “balanced reporting,” present two extreme position in the guise of “lively discussion” at a conference? It seems to be played more for the entertainment of NYT readers than really identifying two mutually exclusive camps.

  5. The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront ……

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  6. limey said

    This is a subject I have been considering a lot recently myself and I think that some people are giving scepticism a bad rep by being vocally black and white in their language.

    After the Phil Plait DBAD speech I read several posts accusing him of ‘accomodationism’ and pretty much going so far as calling him a traitor to the cause. It was in the aftermath of that that many people, myself included, discovered that Dr Pamela Gay is a Christian, not a problem for me, I still class AstonyCast among the best podcasts I listen too. However I did read a stack of negative comments about her, including at least one person who said he would stop listening to the podcast and essentially said it was not worth listening to it any more following that revelation. Logic which still escapes me.

    On a personal note I have commented to others that people should be treated with respect, even if you don’t respect their ideas. This has often led to me being accused of saying I should respect the ideas. Which is a misunderstanding of my comment and viewpoint. While there are vocal people incapable of making the distinction between treating a person with respect and respecting a bad idea, then the reputation of sceptics and scepticism will suffer.

    That last point is especially amusing, since sceptics are always very quick to point out that particular error when its coming the other way.

    A great example is only this morning I was reading a Doctor’s comment on the Hollie Quinn cancer book. He made a very good factual description of why the Quinns are mistaken in their conclusions. However, this same post was also filled with some very pointed opinion of the Huffington Post website which has supported the book. I can’t comment of the justification or accuracy on the specific language used, but for me it certainly distracted from the article. It has left me with the feeling that the author has a specific axe to grind about the website and it came across both loud and clear in the article and my concern is that this sort of personal thing will put other people off exploring the truth because they simply can’t stomach some of the un-called for vitriol that exudes from some quarters.

    With regards to your comments in point 2, I would suggest going even further than some of the examples you give. If a sceptic has an interest in a specific area, be it a school board issue or a chosen charity fund raising, go out and find an organisation dedicated to that cause, if there are religious people involved seek them out and make friends with them. Show them that you are normal to them and you’ll find out that they are normal too. Who knows where the discussions will lead!

    * hmmm that’s come out quite long, sorry about that.

  7. bug_girl said

    Well done, Matt!

  8. Jeff said

    I think this debate has been going on a really long time, and I’d like to get happy with analogies and metaphors.

    It seems you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We’ve seen in human psychology that the stronger a belief is attacked, the firmer the believer will defend it. Thusly, instead of a full out attack, maybe a little coaxing is needed.

    That being said, we live in a world with both NASA TV and WWE TNA wrestling. Yes, we can be cultured and nice and sophisticated, but some times, we just need to see someone get ther @$$ kicked. This is where PZ and friends come in. They are our Roman Gladiators. We want to see them rip someone to shreds. Not to (de)convert them, but just to see some brutality. If someone (de)converts in the process, that’s a bonus, but that’s not why they get so much attention. They get the attention because the viewers want to see someone get disemboweled.

  9. Intrachresodist said

    I think your example with the Catholic priest and the school board ID textbook question isn’t quite apt. The question isn’t whether to accommodate the Catholic’s beliefs, but the beliefs of the school board members.

    Accepting the Catholic as an ally I expect depends a lot on what arguments he’s going to make in support of your cause. If he argues that the ID textbook should be refused because the bible clearly states that Eve was made from the rib of Adam, he isn’t helping the school board to think critically at all, even if he supports your goal to nix the ID textbook.

    Regarding accommodating the beliefs of the school board members, the classic question is, “should we tell them that science is compatible with their religion?” This would apply, for example, when arguing for a better biology textbook, if the current one glosses over evolution. If the school board is assumed to be of the firm opinion that increased science knowledge in schools will hurt their religion, then accommodationists will either deny that (saying “science and religion are compatible! Non-overlapping Magisteria!”) or try to avoid the correlation. Gnu atheists won’t flinch; if they think it’s untrue to state that science and religion are compatible then they won’t do it.

  10. Fred said

    Point 2 – false dichotomy.

    In a sense, agreed, a mixed portfolio of approaches would be logically better.

    However, companies, and political parties expend enormous effort (via marketing or PR) to consolidate hugely nuanced offerings to simple soundbites, in order to gain effect.

    All theistic religions are clear about similar good/bad, reward/punishment, judge/father, worthy/worthless dichotomies – and then overlay that with whatever brand of batshit they adhere to. The number of gods on offer (and the number of arms or manifestations they have) are secondary to the heaven/hell message).

    Since atheism is not monolithic, I think it behooves us to have different representatives, or different organisations, each with their particular approach.

    This would be strengthened by an underlying message that all can get behind.

    Where’s god?
    Who needs god?
    You are not alone.
    Probably no god.
    We left the bronze age – you can too.

    I cannot suggest what that underlying concept/message/soundbite should be – but I recognise a need for one.

  11. Dennis Bowden said

    Dear Matt
    You wrote an interesting article on the confrontationist versus accommodationists.

    I listened to Jennifer Michael Hecht’s rather rude chairing of what was supposed to be a debate between PZ Meyers and Chris Mooney. I can see the advantage of cooperating with theists in a common endeavour and simply not being rude. However, I think the point accommodationists like Hecht and Mooney miss is the effect on observers. For instance, in the worse case, if a child does not hear someone disagree with a religious believer, the child would, in my opinion, be more likely to accommodate the beliefs he/she is handed.

    Perhaps we should write off the current generation of believers as a lost cause and try and get our voices heard by the next.


  12. Tort said

    you missed the point a bit. On your point with the catholic priest, everyone agrees with you there. Richard Dawkins when campaigning against creationism in English schools first went to the bishop of Oxford and organised a letter signed by bishops and scientists against creationism. PZ Myers talks about how he recommends Ken Millers book to any religious students struggling with the conflict between evolution and their faith.

    The problem is to do with promoting religion. The accommodation crowd like to promote weaker, less fundamentalist faiths, often as a way to say to people that they can still be religious and believe in science. The confrontationalists argue that there is still a misrepresentation of science in these religions and that science groups should just promote science and not any kind of faith or atheism. The NCSE used to do it a lot but I haven’t seen it recently and Genie Scott took the confrontationalist position at the debate which was why you didn’t see anyone disagree with her. No one has a problem with a science organisation giving Ken Miller a platform to talk about evolution but what about letting talk about his faith? It may have value and may help some religious people to have a greater acceptance of science but there is a danger that you give the veneer of science to pseudo-scientific religious beliefs.

    The other point which gets wedged into these debates and tends to steal attention from actual issues is Chris Mooney accommodationism. Some accomodationalists (I’ve only ever heard it from Chris Mooney) argue that we should not attack the less egregious science abuses committed by those who are generally on our side. In the debate they talked about Francis Collins who maintained a website with a long discussion on who exactly Adam and Eve were and how they fit into evolution and who maintains a belief in intelligent design but only in humans (which is what prompted PZ Myers to call him a clown). Mooney wants the movement as a whole to pick it’s battles, so that no scientist speaks out against these people. The confrontationalists don’t actually have a problem with working with the Francis Collins of the world provided their wacky religious beliefs are not promoted (which is the above problem). It’s only Chris Mooney who goes a step further and says that scientists should not be allowed to attack bad science if it is otherwise helpful to the cause.

  13. I want to add that this post is essentially an accomodationalist’s argument. You have not, as far as I can see, avoided the dichotomy, but you have (perhaps unconsciously) sided with the accomodationists and framed it as a sort of compromise.

    I don’t actually think it is a dichotomy, as an issue. There is a spectrum. But there is a central question; do we overlook points of disagreement with people in the community? I doubt there is anyone who would always say no or yes to this question.

    But will there be times, around specific logistical tasks, when those points of disagreement will be brought up? I say yes in almost every case (which is to say there will be an exception I’m not thinking of right now, I’d bet).

    This necessitates divisions of opinion, and therefore no possibility of creating a no-conflict zone. Division is inevitable, the question is whether we can be comfortable within a community where your ideas will be criticized, or will you create logistical divisions where there should only be ideological ones?

    When we refuse to hear criticism, this is the seed of splits. Confrontational people should always be willing to hear critiicism, and accomodationists should be ready to witness it or receive it.

    This way, divisions based upon opinions don’t have to lead to divisions of communication, organizations, or “sides.”

  14. […] and atheists has gotten ridiculous. Most of the reasons why are, I think, expressed quite well in an article on The Skeptical Teacher blog, which argues that this whole debate creates a false dichotomy and needless in-fighting, which […]

  15. […] of worms which got opened (or re-opened) recently as a result of Skepticon 3.0 this past weekend.  I’ve already spoken my mind on this particular topic before, but for the sake of having my voice & point-of-view heard I want to just make a few quick […]

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