Questionable Motives

April 28, 2011

What’s the problem with religious accommodation and why does it so annoy gnus?

Filed under: accommodation,Atheism,Criticism,Gnu Atheism — tildeb @ 9:45 am

Taken in parts directly from author Paul W. , comment#29, over at Butterflies and Wheels and an excellent overview of the issue why gnu atheists are so deeply annoyed at the accommodationist stance taken up and promoted by other atheists:

Gnu atheists think more people ought to regularly speak up critically about bad religious ideas, and that those bad religious ideas are common to “liberal” religion as well as, e.g., fundamentalism.

The reasons why gnus think there’s too little forthright criticism and accommodationists think there’s too much vary considerably.

Accommodationists typically think some or all of the following, in some mix:

0. Distinctively religious beliefs aren’t all false, or aren’t all inconsistent with science, or aren’t so importantly false as to be worth objecting to.

1. In terms of its effects on human well being, religion isn’t a bad thing overall. A lot of religion (e.g., fundamentalism) is bad, but a lot of religion (e.g., theologically moderate or liberal Christianity) is actually good for the world, on the whole, promoting civilized conceptions of morality, or at worst harmless. If we dispensed with religion, or just diminished the mindshare of religion across the board, we’d lose a lot of good along with the bad.

2. Liberal religion is our friend, because liberal religious people are our main allies in the fight against conservative religion. If we talk people out of being liberally religious, that won’t help anything much, and may hurt because it will weaken institutions that we should be strengthening, or leaving as they are. Liberal religion is a crucial part of the solution to the problem of bad religion.

3. You can argue against the worst sorts of religion effectively without arguing against the best sorts. Fundamentalism is he problem, not religion, and critiques of religion should generally focus on distinctive features of bad religion. We should argue against theological conservatism, as liberals, more often than we should argue against religion, as atheists.

4. Even to the extent that it might be advantageous to undermine religion across the board, it is strategically unwise to attempt to do so. It will mostly alienate potential allies and generate backlash, doing more harm than good. It is better to be very “civil,” and only gently criticize religion, and mostly focus criticism on especially bad religion. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Gnus, in contrast, tend to think at least some of the following to a greater extent than accommodationists:

0. Distinctively religious beliefs are generally false, are generally inconsistent with science, and are false enough to be worth objecting to, out of a more or less free-floating commitment to truth.

1. In terms of its effects on human well-being, religion is a bad thing overall. Some religion (e.g., very theologically liberal religion) isn’t especially harmful in its direct effects on people, and sometimes is even good, but most religion is a net negative, and religion as a whole could be dispensed with, and that would be a generally good thing, with lots of pluses and relatively few minuses.

2. Liberal religion is our friend in some senses, and not in others. On average, if we talk liberally religious people out of being liberally religious, that will be a good thing because they’ll be even better allies against religion, including especially conservative religion.

3. You can’t argue effectively against bad religion effectively without arguing against religion fairly broadly, because the most important features of bad religion—belief in God and souls and divinely or supernaturally inspired morality—are common to almost all religion. Once you grant those mistaken premises, or fail to challenge them, you’ve mostly given away the store, and are reduced to making the kind of lame-ass arguments that liberal religious people use so ineffectively against conservatively religious people. (E.g., justifying certain ways of picking and choosing religious beliefs—rather than explaining why it’s all a load of bollocks, for which there are much better more basic, and correct arguments.)

The root problem isn’t fundamentalism, but central premises of almost all religion, which are themselves stupid and dangerous ideas, acquiesence to which enables fundamentalism—and basic nonfundamentalist orthodoxy, which is a bigger problem than outright fundamentalism.

4. Criticizing religion does generate backlash and alienate some people, but fears of backlash are overrated, and it is important to challenge religious privilege and especially to shift the Overton window of public opinion. Being too afraid of short-term backlash—and too pessimistic about major shifts of popular opinion about religion—is a recipe for perpetuating religion’s privileged position and dominance. It is demonstrably untrue that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar—successful social movements generally require a spectrum of opinion, including relatively “extreme” views. Excessive moderation is a recipe for stasis, and you need both reformists and “radicals,” who more or less play good cop / bad cop.

What accommodationists say that sets gnus off is usually a criticism of gnus that implies that we’re wrong to be as “radical” as we are, and that we should sit down and shut up, or do something else instead, because our anti-religious fight

1) isn’t worth fighting in principle, because religion’s not so bad, or

2) isn’t winnable, to any particularly useful extent, so isn’t worth fighting in practice, or

3) isn’t winnable by our overt, backlash-generating means, so we should all be nice moderates like the accommodationists instead of being noisy troublemakers who undermine sound, centrist political triangulation strategy.

We generally think all those things are false, and get really tired of hearing them from people who don’t seriously address the issues of fact, of worthwhile goals, or of effective political strategy.

Every time we hear strategic advice that amounts to “you catch more flies with honey” by somebody telling us what to do, who is apparently entirely ignorant of Overton window strategies, it pisses us off.

We get really, really sick of people telling us what to do without addressing our very good reasons for doing what we’re doing, and actually showing that their reasons are better than our reasons.

One thing that does frequently bring deep emotions into play is the sense that accommodationists frequently advise us what to do as though they think we’re simplistic strategically naive zealots, as opposed to thoughtful people with well-thought-out positions, good arguments, and an arguably excellent strategic rationale that is almost never even mentioned, much less properly addressed, by people who proffer an “obviously better” strategy toward apparently different goals.

Until accommodationists are willing to talk very, very seriously about Overton issues, we’re going to dismiss their strategic advice as the shallow, platitudinous crap that we think it is. As long as they act like we don’t even have a strategy, and criticize us for not going along with theirs, we’re going to be seriously annoyed when they tell us to do what they want us to do, instead of what we’re doing.

Talking about us as though we’re simply strategically naive and gratuitously confrontational is straw-manning us, and we are sick as shit of it. Its been going on nonstop for years, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

We do understand accommodationist arguments. Of course we do. We always have. It isn’t exactly rocket science. (Or even passable political science.) And we’ve always had good reasons for disagreeing with them, which are almost universally ignored by accommodationists, who continue to talk past us, and talk systematically misleading cartoonish smack about us.

That’s just seriously annoying, isn’t? Should we not be annoyed by that?


  1. A very good argument about the very real costs to personal rights, freedoms, and dignity by religiously motivated mainstream theologies respected and tolerated by accommodationists who mistakenly assume liberal and moderate religions are an ally to good reasoning can be found here.

    Comment by tildeb — April 28, 2011 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  2. tildeb

    Thank you for introducing me to the Overton window. The first example I thought of was the 19th century controversy over allowing women the vote, which is now “in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed.”

    I read the comment you link to over at Choice in Dying. There is a reply from misunderstoodranter:

    “This is true of organised religion, but what of those people who do not believe in scripture, or engage in religious ritual, but believe in something?”

    I suspect that “something” is spirituality, a word that always makes me cringe. I will have to prepare a short version of Tim Minchin’s Storm for next time someone says, “I’m not religious, but I’m a spiritual person.”

    Comment by Veronica Abbass — April 29, 2011 @ 8:40 am | Reply

    • I, too, keep running up against this new code word for belief-in-god-or-some-other-supernatural-guiding-agency/life-force: spirituality.

      I think Solomon’s Spirituality for the Skeptic does an admirable job differentiating the very real and deeply meaningful human experiences of awe and wonder and connectedness and so on from the oogity boogity of faith-based beliefs. But religious faith is – as always – a thief. Hitchens argues it poisons everything, but I think religion steals everything good and claims it for its own. Spirituality – as a term about these kinds of human experiences – is being stolen to replace the term religious, as if by sleight of hand it can made to sound synonymous with a deeper personal awareness through discovery rather than an imposed cast iron belief system of pseudo-answers based on some supernatural tyranny. The same has happened to the measure of trust and confidence we have in something we term belief, while at the same time the term has come to mean trust-based only-on-faith-without-evidence. That’s why in my experience nobody who uses the term in the religious sense can actually define it very well to mean anything other than in religious terminology, which is why it is wise to distrust the term itself.

      Comment by tildeb — April 29, 2011 @ 11:39 am | Reply

    • Hi Veronica,

      My point is that churches are made up of individuals. Not all religious people believe everything the church says. But in the absence of alternative explanations for ‘spirituality’ they collect at churches, because they think that only church understands spirituality, this in turn gives the church its political power – which is why the world has a problem with religion.

      As atheists what we need to be communicating is that spirituality is not absent from non-believers. And that this fact is not evidence for god but more evidence for there being no god. For if religion was true only believers would feel spiritual.

      As an atheist, I regard myself as spiritual person – in that I have animal instincts that allow me to detect that I am part of nature – nothing makes me feel more alive (and happy) than walking to the top of a big hill and taking in the view of green trees, grass and wild life or to lay back and glare into the deep dark sky at night observing stars.

      It is this feeling that we all share that organised religion has tapped into and exploited. A good preacher, (if there is such a thing) knows which buttons to press to make people feel spiritual – just as a good poet knows which buttons to press to make an individual feel romantic or solemn.

      What we need to be doing is educating individuals of the tricks that the clergy use to entrap believers, by sharing our experiences of life, and the feelings and emotions that we all experience and share that make us happy, and pointing out that this is achieved without the need for dogmatic beliefs in supernatural mumbo jumbo.

      Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 30, 2011 @ 5:39 am | Reply

  3. yeah! let’s put ’em into camps and do away with ’em! no compromise! no quarter!

    Comment by zero1ghost — May 2, 2011 @ 4:30 pm | Reply

  4. it’s the next logical step! NO QUARTER!

    Comment by zero1ghost — May 3, 2011 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

    • No it’s not. And you have every right to believe whatever want. Just keep it out of the public domain.

      Comment by tildeb — May 3, 2011 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  5. and the only way to keep it out of the public domain is to keep the people that hold these beliefs out of the public domain!!! esp. Muslims because they don’t believe in the separation of church and state. and come to think of it, christians too. they are wear’n crosses and putting fish on their car! should make ’em easy to round up!

    Comment by zero1ghost — May 3, 2011 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

    • Oh rubbish. It’s important for individuals to realize that personal religious beliefs belong in the private domain and do not belong in whatever professional capacity they operate. For example, a lawyer needs expertise in law and should practice it to the highest standards of the legal profession. Private religious beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with this. A pharmacist who brings religious belief to his or her dispensing duties has confused the professional obligation to fill legal prescriptions with person tastes and preferences and should be summarily stripped of professional standing. A senator empowered with the office he or she holds abuses public trust by promoting personal religious biases. This confusion between the public and private domain is ubiquitous and there is a need for sustained criticism when religious belief seeps into the public domain where it has no business causing effect. If anyone cannot carry out the public duties of a public office without accommodating religious interference in those duties, then the individual has an obligation to resign.

      Comment by tildeb — May 3, 2011 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

      • the separation you make is a false one. inevitably, what you believe will show through what you do. simple psychology really. thus we must crusade against the deluded and keep them away from normal society because there is no way they can keep personal from seeping into the professional. somewhere, if not everywhere, it’s operating whether in the open or subliminally.

        so it must be our imperative to isolate these deluded liars! they should be content being human doings and not human beings! they should stick to their role and maximize efficiency and cold reason with no empathy! as the great Ayn Rand stated altruism is weakness! all this talk of spirituality is crap! there is no spirit of anything! no ghost, gods, or spirits; the only thing you can rely on is cold, hard human reasoning.

        thus our reasoning skills should be taken all the way to the end game, if these wacko’s won’t stop bringing their beliefs into the public sector then we’ll stop ’em! we’ll drag them into the public sector and hang them there as a warning to all the others to keep their silly superstitions private! that’ll teach ’em! and the accomidationists too!

        Comment by zero1ghost — May 4, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

      • “Moderate to liberal Christians who sweep fundamentalism and extremism under the carpet — because “that’s not the true faith” but a misinterpretation or something like that — bug me. Even if we accept that there is a right and wrong interpretation of any given faith’s holy book, who exactly is qualified to decide which one is it? We all, whether adherents to one or the other, or those of us who stand outside all faiths, face an insurmountable epistemological problem in making that determination.

        In short, we have no criteria to decide between true faiths (or true interpretations of any given faith) that legitimizes any distinction between the benign and malignant ones – aside, again, from real-world effects, which no one wants to deny. At base, they’re all the same in an important way: the problem with all of them is that they have the absolute truth, garnered by a holy book — and that’s scary, no matter the face of the sect — and an attack on that must be an attack on all faiths, not just a cherry-picked and obvious few. All of these religions have the same bones. It’s how you dress it up that’s different. Gnus aren’t after the dressings, as I understand it, but are trying to get to and dismantle the skeleton or framework of religious faith.”

        From AR, comment #10 at WEIT

        Comment by tildeb — May 7, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  6. “they should stick to their role and maximise efficiency and cold reason with no empathy!”

    Bollocks – religion is not the guardian or the instigator of empathy. You assert that atheists are cold and hard, unsympathetic towards humans – this is false. What is insulting is that you assert that we need a god to tell us to be good, that we are born sick and need to be healed, and that religion and the belief in something that can not be proven to exist is the reason why humanity has morals – utter nonsense.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — May 5, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

    • And a lie – and you know it is!

      Comment by misunderstoodranter — May 5, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

    • where did i state that? we call that eisegesis in my business, aka reading what you want.

      i’m not saying that, i’m saying simply what you both have told me: reason alone can dictate our behavior! no god, no religion, just reason and science! everyone must conform to reason and a monolithic reason, none of this post-modern escapism with post-colonial though and assertions that enlightenment values are creations of dead, white, euro-centric colonialists. it is the thinking of those dead, white euro-centric colonialists that will cause every knee to bend, every head to bow, and will scatter all those lying, nonsense spewing religionists! away with them! no quarter! no compromise! we won’t tolerate any oggity boogity in any form! we’ve been shafted long enough! let us march together MUR! we’ll get these deluded liars! in the name of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and Harris, SO SAY WE ALL!

      Comment by zero1ghost — May 5, 2011 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

      • Wow. You need some serious work on your comprehension skills. Where have you found your latest straw man, that we say reason alone dictates behaviour? Show me.

        I have maintained that we can understand behaviour using the tools of reason and science compared to and in place of belief in oogoty boogity as this supposed fountain of knowledge, but that’s quite a bit different than saying reason and science dictate behaviour.

        And to rail against using reason as the common basis on which to build a framework of values shows just how desperate you are to pretend that belief in oogity boogity allows us an equally useful alternative method is pathetic. Of course, the challenge you flail against is providing any knowledge whatsoever that faith-based beliefs supposedly provide us, so you are left with nothing but special pleading and insistence on unearned respect to maintain privilege for your oogity boogiy. My claim is that there is nothing useful in your theology regarding values that cannot be arrived at solely by secular means, and that all the rest derived from belief in magic men and miracles and pleasing some invisible sky father through prayer and protestations before the various alters of the supernatural add not one whit of anything of practical use in this quest. But, hey, if you really feel the need for belief in oogity boogity to help you float your personal boat through your life, then simply keep it out of the public domain. Why is that such a difficult request to honour?

        Comment by tildeb — May 5, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

      • Not in the name of Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens – in the name and for the sake of humanity. If we as a species are to continue to progress, we must support and promote the acquisition and aggregation of knowledge, for the purposes of refining our knowledge, for the purposes of understanding the universe we inhabit, for the purposes of providing a better world.

        This may be idealistic world view – but the fact remains, more benefit has come out of the study of nature than the worshipping of the imaginary. Without the study of nature each and every one of us would be almost guaranteed to suffer in ways that are not imaginable by modern western standards. Simple procedures like having a tooth filled would be unbearable – you could try praying for no pain, but given the option of an injection or prayer which do you choose when you visit the dentist?

        Religion (as well as other unfounded beliefs such as alternative medicine, old wives tales etc.) has put people directly in danger. And in many cases its motive and intent for doing this has been not for the benefit mankind, but for the benefit of the belief, for the purposes of control, for the purposes of sanctioning and restricting knowledge and for the purposes of maintain authority. A faith healer charges money, psychics charge money, the church charges money – money for what – false promises and exaggerated claims based on nothing but a subjective biased opinion, that chooses to ignore evidence in favour of ignorance (fucking stupid!).

        A priest has no authority which I recognise; he is just a bloke with a dog collar on. And yet the clergy remain invited to school boards, to state celebrations, weddings, funerals parliamentary sittings, hospital settings, debates on cloning, embryo research and abortion – they are not qualified to do so. Therefore, on what basis do they have the right to be in such places over and above any other wacko that believes in ghouls or the bogey man… you don’t see the bogey man believer influencing school policy do you? You don’t see the Scottish water authority cautioning swimmers in loch ness because the monster might eat them do you! Why is that – is it because loch ness is believed by nutters by any chance – or do you think for one moment that they might have a point and should from now on be invited to the authority to influence public policy?

        So why do we let people with similar idiotic beliefs have access to nuclear launch codes – these are the last sort of loons that we want anywhere near any real power, they can’t be trusted because they cannot distinguish reality for imaginary superstition.

        So you are dam right – I don’t want to see elegance to religious quackery as the qualification that gives these people access to my children’s education, or the laws I live by, or the medical treatments that I have access to, or a nation’s military capability — because the religious qualification is made up unsubstantiated bullshit.

        The trouble is ZIG – you know this, and yet you still claim that a common ground can be found – which makes me suspicious of your integrity, and your motives and intent.

        Comment by misunderstoodranter — May 5, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

      • +1

        Comment by tildeb — May 5, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  7. yeah strawman! we’ll burn those too! for the sake of humanity! religion is the true danger and science has no dangers at all! religion is the cause of all ills and we shall stand for it no more! if we can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist! if we don’t have reasons for our actions, we won’t perform them!

    i see that you’re not a true believer tildeb. you state “I have maintained that we can understand behaviour using the tools of reason and science…” which is half-assed and on the verge of being an accommodation! science must dictate behavior just as the religion has done and done a horrible job with it. science will be much better! and something must dictate behavior because people need leaders and need behavioral controls. many follow, few lead. so i say science must lead the poor, the oppressed, the beaten down, the ill-privileged and what better system to use than ones created by white, european slave holders? they are spotless in history and from them only good has come, and we both know the same can’t be said of religion.

    as for you MUR: “The trouble is ZIG – you know this, and yet you still claim that a common ground can be found – which makes me suspicious of your integrity, and your motives and intent.” so what you’re saying is that i have questionable motives? ironic.

    Comment by zero1ghost — May 7, 2011 @ 1:51 pm | Reply

    • Your motives are questionable indeed! And that’s the entire point. Your latest ramblings reveal just how questionable your underlying assumptions really are.

      Comment by tildeb — May 7, 2011 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

    • It may help to ponder David Eller’s words here:

      “…religions do not and cannot progress the way that, say, science can progress. When science progresses, it abandons old and false ideas. Once we discovered oxygen and the principles of combustion, we stopped thinking that there was a substance called phlogiston. Once we discovered that the earth is round, we stopped thinking that it is flat. Science and reason are substitutive and eliminative: new ideas replace old ideas. Religion is additive and/or schismatic: news ideas proliferate alongside old ideas. For instance, the development of Protestantism did not put an end to Catholicism, and the development of Christianity did not put an end to Judaism. With science, we get better. With religion, we get more.” (David Eller’s book: ISBN: 978-1-57884-002-1)

      Comment by tildeb — May 7, 2011 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

  8. science has progressed us! and will do so! religion only shackles! imposes its will and is awful. we need progress! we need all the wonders that the industrial age gave us (never mind the child-labor, climate change, and economic disasters!) we need the free market, completely unregulated and devoid of superstition. i’ve been saying this on this whole post and you won’t see it or hear it. David Eller is completely right! and since new ideas proliferate alongside old ideas, then we must round up everyone who holds onto the old ideas…right? religion and science can’t co-exist, that’s what you’ve claimed. so since science is superior then we must do away with the inferior. simple logic. stop being such an accomidationist and really step up to the plate here!

    Comment by zero1ghost — May 8, 2011 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

    • You might find the video here enlightening:

      Comment by tildeb — May 8, 2011 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

    • I have stepped up to the plate. I have written over and over that you can believe what you want in the private domain but keep it out of the public. I have written you should respect what’s true over and above what you want to believe is true. Hey, if the Dalai Lama can ask you to respect what’s true, to alter your beliefs to align with what science shows us to be true, then I’m sure you can, too. Keep altering those religious beliefs into their proper alignment and we’ll all get along just fine.

      Comment by tildeb — May 8, 2011 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

      • so i guess what it takes to get through to you is a ton of satire. ummm…. i do believe i quoted the dalai lama in my approach a while back. on this we can agree save the public part. i will be very public about my faith the difference is i won’t hold you to the same standards or try to get you to convert. my faith is in faith, hope, and love and the greatest is love. if you love, we got no beef.

        Comment by zero1ghost — May 8, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

      • By public domain I mean institutions that represent the public: government, law, education, armed forces, et al. Religion has no place here in policies that represent their public service goals. What you as an individual espouse outside of these public domains is your business; what is simply intolerable is various well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) public officials making their private religious beliefs my business. Love has nothing whatsoever to do with this abuse of privilege and this abuse is endemic throughout the public domain. It must stop and I won’t stop criticizing its unwarranted intrusion into my life until it does. Every person who thinks freedom of religion is important should be on board with this position.

        Comment by tildeb — May 8, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

      • aaaahhh… a more specific definition of the term public. then yes, we can agree. even if really religious senators have a program that is “faith based” it still must be open for those of other or no faiths. on that we can agree. i’m on board.

        Comment by zero1ghost — May 9, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  9. The issue for me is that there is no need for laws for the benefit of the good to be attributed to ‘god’s’ desires and wants.

    Since there is no god – or at least no way of knowing if god exists or not, what is the point in a politician including the word ‘god’ in their speech.

    Doing so immediately devalues the laws for the benefit of the good, and also alienates the politician.

    Laws for the benefit of the good – are what ‘people’ want and not what ‘god(s)’ want – that’s the reality, and the truth of the matter.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — May 13, 2011 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

    • i think in this case ‘god’ could be ‘greater/higher good’ as that would be how courts of law would have traditionally understood it in a nonliteral sense. and determining what the higher/greater good is in any case whether secular or religious maybe just as futile as trying to argue whether god exists or not. yet that doesn’t seem to stop people from trying.

      Comment by zero1ghost — May 13, 2011 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

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