All is not well at the Center for Inquiry: Shook channels Chopra

April 2, 2011 • 5:00 am

Having come late to the out-atheist party, I haven’t much followed the doings of the Center for Inquiry (CFI).  I knew there was trouble about Paul Kurtz, and recently the organization often seems to be hewing close to an accommodationist line.  My notion, which I grant is pure speculation, is that the higher-ups at CFI decided that making nice with the faithful was the best strategy for selling skepticism and atheism.

Last September I wrote about how John Shook, Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the CFI, was going after Gnu Atheists on PuffHo for their abysmal ignorance of theology (see also here), an accusation he repeated on his CFI blog.  But because Shook has reasonable bona fides, I tried to read his book, The God Debates.  Sadly, I couldn’t finish it, for I found it tedious and poorly written.  Others, however, like it.

In a new PuffHo piece, Shook continues his accommodationism in a piece called “Where can naturalism and religion agree?”  It’s a strange article, for while one of its aims is to show that naturalism can satisfy people’s “spiritual” needs, another seems to be that naturalism and religion have similar messages. Here’s what Shook sees as the “spirit common to religions”:

  • That life is ultimately about a relationship, a connection with what is most supreme.
  • That there are two worlds, one seen and one unseen.
  • That the unseen world is the supreme world, and it holds the true power and destiny of all.
  • There is something essential in us that can survive in new lives.
  • That what survives of us is what is truly best in us.
  • That what rightly survives of us is the nobility of virtue, knowledge and wisdom.
  • That we should not prize the dark peculiarities of personality and ego, but the lasting light that shines through us.

He then shows how naturalism has similar tenets.  But to do that he must severely dilute naturalism with a huge dollop of New Age spirituality.  Here’s what Shook sees as materialism’s religion-like message:

  • That every life is interrelated, woven and composed of nature’s vibrant cords.
  • That the unseen world of nature’s energies shape life and life’s beauties in endless new forms.
  • That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.
  • That there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future of life.
  • That our virtue, knowledge and wisdom are inherited from prior generations, and we can pass them on to next generations.
  • That our spark of consciousness dims when the body dies, yet the finer part of our character can be woven into new lives.
  • That each person should long consider the shortness of life, and the smallness of self-importance besides the immensity of the whole.

This take on religion reminds me of Chinese fortune cookies: there’s never a bad message inside.  Shook’s conclusion?

The core messages of religion and naturalism do not sound so different, really. Should it even be a surprise that they can converge on a morality designed for the essential needs for life?

And then he begins sounding like Deepak Chopra:

We must at least take care of the genuine human needs of life, this one life that we know we share. And what can we all know? Like the essence of religion, nature’s deep ways tell us that you are more than you may appear, even to yourself. Nature shows how its supreme reality recycles everything and preserves what is necessary. Nature reveals how its real powers are available for you to conduct what is best through you into the future where everything must go. Nature tells you that you can have all of the meaningful life to which you are deserving, but not an ounce more, for the energies of life must be distributed fairly. And you waste your natural energies at your peril, for your selfish pursuits only rob you of your rightful destiny.

Taking a bash at both religion and science, Shook demonstrates that he’s superior to both:

But life is rarely a zero-sum game in the long run. Does a religion’s claim that you must desperately want your personal immortality, lest you be selfishly immoral, really make sense? Does a [sic?] science’s claim that you must sternly regard morality as illusory, lest you be irresponsibly foolish, really make sense?

I defy you to find any system of thought that you can’t twist to show some commonality with faith.  You could, for example, draw parallels between Stalinism and religion, emphasizing the deity-like worship of a father figure, the demonization of outgroups, and the punishment for violating dogma—indeed, many people have made such comparisons.  What Shook neglects, deliberately, are the vast differences between materialism and religion: the reliance on faith instead of rational inquiry, the common belief in a real afterlife, not just one’s personal legacy, the belief that importuning the deities with prayer can bring results, that there are miracles, rationalism’s conclusion that the material world is all there is, and so on.  Shook has simply gutted religion of all of its numinous and dysfunctional parts, a tactic I find disingenuous.  If you’re really comparing religion with materialism, at least do so honestly instead of turning the precepts of religion into fortune-cookie slogans.

But the parallels between faith and rationalism could easily be turned into a list of opposites as well: religion’s view of faith as a virtue, science’s as a vice; their completely different attitude towards evidence and revelation; the dysfunctional tenets of religion compared to the humane tenets of rationalism; their different attitudes towards women and gay or nonreproductive sex; the religious view that humans have souls (ergo no abortion) and so on.

And the accusation that science (or materialism) “sternly sees morality as illusory” is a canard.  What does Shook mean by “illusory”?  It’s certainly real in the sense that all cultural constructs, like democracy, are real; and morality may even be evolved, so that there would be genetic and physiological sources that could be studied by science.

Shook is prone to intellectual pirouetting, sometimes trotting out his atheist bona fides but then using them to slander Gnu Atheists.  This tactic is on view in his new article at the CFI website itself, “How to be an accommodationist.”  Here Shook links to thirteen of his previous posts to show how opposed to religion he really is.  But then he adds, “I like the label of ‘Accommodationist’ because it points right at my own view that nonbelievers have a big responsibility towards religious believers.”

But what does he mean by “accommodationist”? And what is this “big responsibility”?

It turns out that Shook redefines “accommodationist” for his own purposes, as someone who wants to show believers that their faith is wrong:

Nonbelievers who try to helpfully guide believers away from faith towards reason aren’t simply “accommodationists yielding to faith.”  There’s no accommodation to faith in anything I have ever written, and not much in other educators who have been tarred with the “accommodationist” label either.

Save the pejorative term “Faitheist” for some who actually do want to accommodate naturalism to spiritualism or to God.  As for Accommodationists, we can keep on helping religious believers accommodate themselves to naturalism and secularism.

Well, I suppose he can redefine it if he likes, but for me—and I think nearly all of us—”accommodationism” has always been the view that science and faith are compatible, not that faith can be dissolved by reason.  And, for the umpteenth time, “faitheist” did not originate as a pejorative term, but as a term for atheists who nevertheless favor religion: those atheists who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief.”  If it’s become pejorative, it’s because faitheism looks to many like a form of hypocrisy. It’s no more inherently pejorative than the word “Republican.”

So, given Shook’s neologism, how are we supposed to be “New Accommodationists”?

By lying to religious people.  Does this sound familiar?:

I never could buy into that odd “Accommodationist” vs. “Confrontationist” division as dogmatically preached elsewhere.  That division always sounded like it had to amount to “Confrontationists actually hit believers hard with The Truth” while accommodationists are apparently doing other things besides just demonizing believers and hitting them with The Truth.   We are told that atheism is betrayed by those “accommodationists” who won’t attack religious belief every chance they get.  Such an odd division between artificial camps can’t do justice to all the great educational work that so many atheists do.  Educators don’t just hit people with The Truth.

Doesn’t stridently hitting people with The Truth on the assumption that The Truth has intrinsic powers to overcome irrational ignorance, sound more like fundamentalist tactics?  Be that as it may, assaulting people with The Truth hasn’t been widely viewed as an effective educational technique since the Catholic Inquisition.  It’s never been essential to educated Atheism, either before or after the “New Wave” of sophisticated books by atheist leaders.

Instead, treating people as intelligent adults who frequently can be reasoned with is a method that has worked wonders for civilization since those dark days.

Once again Gnus are characterized as a pack of rabid dogs whose whole aim is to “attack religious belief” every chance we get (note the words “stridently” and “demonizing”, as well as the implicit comparison between Gnu Atheism and the Inquisition).  Instead, we must at all costs avoid “assaulting people with the Truth”.  I presume Shook means that we have to hide our real opinions, either disguising them or doling them out in tiny bits to the faithful, like a doctor slowly revealing to a patient that she is terminal.

Well, I know no other way to engage believers as “intelligent adults” than to give them my honest and unvarnished opinion.  (That is, after all, the way the Gnu Atheist books have had such success.)  By all means do it politely when you can, but don’t neglect sarcasm and strong language if you think it will appeal to onlookers. It is Shook who is treating the faithful as children, implying that while he and other atheists can handle the Truth (which presumably is that there is no God or afterlife), the faithful are credulous children who must be slowly and carefully weaned from religion, like children from Santa Claus.

It all reminds me of the movie A Few Good Men, in which a lawyer Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, confronts Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), wanting facts about a murder case.  Think of religious people as Kaffee and Shook (and his rationalist confrères) as Jessep:

Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can’t handle the truth!

As for how we should reason with “intelligent adults,” Shook refers us to not only his previous posts, but to the PuffHo piece mentioned above.  That piece says that we must point the faithful to the many similarities between naturalism and religion.  Yes sir, telling Catholics and Muslims that “there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future of life” is guaranteed to bring wean them from their faith.  Surely they won’t notice that the rationalist “afterlife” doesn’t have clouds, Gods, or virgins!  You can leave the cold, hard truth for later. . .

144 thoughts on “All is not well at the Center for Inquiry: Shook channels Chopra

  1. “That there are two worlds, one seen and one unseen.”

    Presumably unheard, unsmelled, untouched, and untasted, as well. If you can’t interact with it or detect it in any way, does it exist?

      1. This is out-and-out Cartesian dualism.

        I think he’s taking little bits of ideas from various religious/deist philosophers, putting them in a hat, and then pulling them out at random.

        Let’s throw some Descartes out there. Now Spinoza! Leibniz!!! Voltaire! Hume!!eleventy!!!

        Never mind that they all disagreed with one another vociferously.

        Shook seems to have never met an idea that he could evaluate. Therefore, they all must be true. That not accommodation; that’s capitulation.

  2. I don’t think that it does any good to either do aggressive battle with religion or to accommodate it. According to Kuhn and to experience we know that paradigms don’t shift by conversion but by convincing the next generation with the facts.
    The best we can do is keep pointing out those facts (including the fact of the dishonesty of the faith position) and hope for the best.

    1. The religious and the accommodationists regard simply pointing out facts as being aggressive.

      1. Plus, how can reason compare to those who imagine themselves saved and special for what they believe? (And damned for doubt.)

        I think the religiously brainwashed should be treated the same way we treat other people with delusions. We certainly don’t have to take their delusions seriously nor treat their delusions with respect.

  3. ■ That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.
    ■ That there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future of life.

    The mixing up of the second law of thermodynamics with the idea of an eternal spirit is where it all goes wrong, as usual. Sure, your energy is not destroyed (essential or otherwise), but the concept is not useful to a conscious being. To conflate the ide of having an eternal consciousness after death is like saying a jigsaw puzzle that is shaken up in the box is a pretty picture. Sure, all the bits are still there, but they no longer make any sense. Also, the kind of afterlife Shook states as Natural is not the one the religious want.

    You are right, accomodationalists are pandering to those that cannot handle the truth (or even Truth), and that truth is that we are all finite beings. We only exist for a short while as virtual constructs in our fragile meat brains, and once the biological systems that sustain us break down we cease to exist. Maybe it is an ego problem, or a self-esteem one, where the concept of “self” is so important that the fear of no longer existing can only be pushed away by believing in the supernatural and denying anything that contradicts that belief.

    1. Well said. The essence of life isn’t energy, but information. Carl Sagan said something along those lines I think.

      1. In homage to this site, the essence of life is the process of evolution. 😀

        To pick nits, I don’t see how information can be vital for anything. It is a relative property of systems. You can measure their use of Shannon information, their relative content of Kolmogorov complexity, et cetera. It doesn’t tell you much outside of specific contexts.

        [For life and evolution, I would say that functionality is vital. _How_ you use information if you will, but more than that.

        But there isn’t much in the way of measuring functionality directly. Presumably that is why such indirect measures as traits and fitness are used instead.]

    2. Energy itself cannot be recycled with 100% efficiency – if it was, food webs would be vastly different and we wouldn’t need to eat so much. Of course, he may not be referring to usable energy, but if he isn’t, then recycling is probably not the best word choice.

      Also, what the hell is “essential energy” – have we gone back to vitalism?

  4. Ah, so the religious can be gently guided to naturalism. I distinctly remember my naturalist guide, and I’m sure that many others raised in religious families do as well.

    Man, talk about your god delusions.

  5. John Shook seems to be all about syllogisms and categorization. He fabricates both by the hundreds then tries to drive them into the minds of his readers who are still trying to figure out what he is talking about.

    I did actually finish reading his book and as Jerry said, it is very poorly written.

  6. Well, I am glad that I’m not the only one who found Shook’s book tedious. It goes on and on and on until you don’t remember a thing that he says. One list of premises after another expressed in shorthand form, argument after argument, until one’s head simply spins. And the editing is simply abominable. At one point I thought I should have noted them all. There are simply hundreds of them, several on a page, and that becomes annoying after awhile. And then, in the end, it’s not clear what he wants to say. For the most part it seems anti-religious, on the whole, and then he ends with the kind of thing that he has in this HuffPo piece, all wishy-washy, not wanting to say straight out that religion is a pack of lies, but trying to show, instead, that you can have your religion and deny it too. It’s a turkey of a book.

    1. And isn’t this just the epitome of accommodationism… obfuscating so as to never say that religion is no more supported by science than immaterial fabric worn by proverbial emperor’s.

      Faitheists use words to say nothing at all… while slamming those who point out those who speak the truth plainly– the emperor is naked.

      So long as people treat religious superstition as something more respectable than other superstitions, religious people will believe that religion warrants special respect.

      1. Ack!! I heard someone say this exact thing last night. It was specifically about Buddha predicting string theory. I think he was watching me closely to see if I’d facepalm. I should’ve, literally, done a facepalm, and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t.

  7. Ugh, he calls it The Truth™.

    I don’t know what he’s talking. When I talk to believers, I point out how their arguments don’t make sense and ask them questions about it. How is that not treating them intelligently?

    If a student were to say, “I believe 2+2=7” and the teacher were to accommodate that view and say how it’s similar to 2+2=4 and not explaining how that student is wrong, I would say that teacher isn’t doing their job well.

  8. That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.

    I think the laws of thermodynamics have something to say about that “perfect efficiency”.

      1. …ignoring, of course, the fact that under the theory of relativity, the first law no longer applies.

        Energy is not conserved in a relativistic universe.

        So, not only wrong, but 100+ years wrong.

        1. You leave me to scratch a minor irritant.

          It is true that energy isn’t conserved _ in parts of_ the universe, as Carroll describes so well for us who hasn’t studied general relativity (GR):

          “All of the experts agree on what’s happening; this is an issue of translation, not of physics. […] Energy isn’t conserved; it changes because spacetime does. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

          But he also alludes to the fact that GR cosmologies such as our LCDM cosmology conserve energy _of the whole_ universe (it is zero):

          “The thing you would like to define as the energy associated with the curvature of spacetime is not uniquely defined at every point in space. So the best you can rigorously do is define the energy of the whole universe all at once, rather than talking about the energy of each separate piece.”

          Aahhh! Nit picked.

  9. We are told that atheism is betrayed by those “accommodationists” who won’t attack religious belief every chance they get.

    No, atheism is betrayed by those who want to throw other atheists under the bus in order to sound more “reasonable” or “moderate” to believers.

    1. Don’t you think Templeton would just love that? Having a good reason to give the CFI’s Vice President a whole lot of money?

      1. Yes, blogs recently written by Shook like:

        “Science and Religion are Incompatible”

        “The Totalitarian Ambition of the Religious Mind”

        “God Fails a Simple Rationality Test”


        “A Creator God cannot be a Reasonable Explanation”

        have Templeton written ALL over them.

    1. Many religious believers are completely unsympathetic to the idea that science is not seeking the ultimate truth, but just increasing our body of knowledge in increments… so, instead of trying to get them to value knowledge in a more scientific manner, he wants to pretend we’re really doing it their way?

      1. Yes, I think he is trying to do that. But I get the distinct impression in this particular case (from the context: “hitting” people with The Truth [capitalized]) that he’s being sarcastic; that he’s implying it’s only “our version” of the truth – how arrogant of we Gnus to presume to bludgeon the wonderful religious folk with The Truth (according to us).

  10. Doesn’t stridently hitting people with The Truth…

    I get the feeling that Shook hasn’t been harassed by religious nuts before (innocent and good-willed as they may be before they find out you are an atheist).

    While being jostled by godbotherers, I usually have only two choices: 1) get away from them as fast as possible, or 2) get them to walk away from me by being a strident Gnu.

    Option 2 has had the benefit of piquing the interest of some evangelists who are willing to consider commonalities and even debate their beliefs, but for many I find that stridency (which can be as simple as saying “I am an atheist”) makes them run. I would only use Option 1 anymore if I felt endangered or if I didn’t have the time for a short discussion about atheism vs. theism.

    What Shook neglects, deliberately, are the vast differences between materialism and religion: the reliance on faith instead of rational inquiry, the common belief in a real afterlife, not just one’s personal legacy, the belief that importuning the deities with prayer can bring results, that there are miracles, rationalism’s conclusion that the material world is all there is, and so on.

    QFT — Accommos seem to be striving for harmony with little regard for the undemocratic situation currently in play for many of theism’s foes, and accommos show little desire to actually educate theists lest it upset or enrage them.

  11. I suggest that John Shook join his local church, or join a new-age religion, or become a Buddhist. Can’t we at least keep atheism and agnosticism free from such BS?

  12. I can’t bring myself to deconstruct the whole thing…it’s just too horrifically simple. But, let’s look at his first premises…

    1. “Most supreme”? Define the term, please. What, exactly, is “most supreme”? Are you talking about gods who create universes and then step aside? Gods who bring earthquakes and tsunami and who heal the sick at a rate far below the observed rate of spontaneous remission? Are you talking about the laws of physics? Do those laws require a relationship? Worship?

    2. Two worlds: one seen and one unseen? Proof required. Cartesian dualism is dead as a doornail, and no one is bringing it back.

    3. “There is something essential in us that can survive in new lives.” Define please, “something essential”. Then prove its existence. Are you talking about a coherent entity, aka a “soul”? “Survive in new lives”…reincarnation?

    What muddle-headed mush.

    Geez, from such a shaky start, it’s no wonder the whole enterprise founders on the rocks.

    It’s not surprising that these “ideas” (being quite generous with that term) find a home at WooPo.

    Maybe Rosenau is right … Shook should submit this to peer review in the theological/philosophical literature. Oh what an awakening he’d get in that rarefied air … or not, which would be instructive in and of itself.

    1. It’s really not all that difficult.

      As much as possible, don’t hurt yourself or others.

      Everything else is commentary.

      1. Well it’s a good deal more difficult than that! Sometimes you can’t avoid hurting others – in some situations there is no way to avoid it. That’s really not just “commentary.”

        1. And even Aronson came in for criticism for suggesting that we need more than atheism. (See Victor Stenger “What’s New About the New Atheism” Philosophy Now, April/May 2010.) I’ll exit quickly now, lest I be called a “troll.” I know that guys like me ain’t much welcome around these parts.

          1. I reviewed Aronson’s book for New Politics. Favorably. Surprise! :- )

            My only criticism, if it was such, was that Aronson portrayed himself as more pessmistic than he really is. He talked about the myth of progress, but at the same time much of the rest of the book was all about progress of various kinds. He subscribes to that “myth” more than he perhaps realizes.

          2. I know that guys like me ain’t much welcome around these parts.

            Not if your contributions consist of little more than passive-aggressive accusations of intolerance.

  13. That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.

    So true. As I’m always saying to my wife, “You may die but the total net Joules in your body will only disperse, and though they may be lost to waste heat and be unavailable to drive new work, they will never completely disappear. Oh shucks, I get so tongue-tied when I get emotional, what I’m trying to say is I love you for your calorimetric content!”

    Trying to act like thermodynamics somehow supports the concept of an afterlife is bull crap. I can’t imagine how anyone would find this comforting and frankly I find it demeaning.

  14. Oh come on Jerry, you missed the highly important disclaimer at the end of John’s piece: “The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily shared by the Center for Inquiry or its staff.”

    As a former staffer at the CFI, I can assure you that CFI is most definitely not hewing to, or embracing in any wholesale way, “the accommodationist line.” I mean, after all, did you actually read the criticisms Kurtz leveled at the current CFI leadership in the New York Times, Politics Daily, and NPR? Then there was this juicy nugget in the LA Times: “Fellow nonbelievers were not spared, however, as lines were drawn between “new atheists,” who encourage open confrontation with the devout, and “accommodationists,” who prefer a subtler, more tactical approach….That rift cracked open recently when Paul Kurtz, a founder of the secular humanist movement in America, was ousted as chairman of the Center for Inquiry, a sibling organization to the Council for Secular Humanism. One factor leading to his ouster was a perception that Kurtz was “on the mellower end of the spectrum,” Flynn said.”

    You don’t just how true that first sentence “Fellow nonbelievers were not spared” is! So don’t fret Jerry, CFI is very far away from sliding into accomodationalism.

    1. Correction to the above last sentence:

      You don’t know just how true that first sentence “Fellow nonbelievers were not spared” is! So don’t fret Jerry, CFI is very far away from sliding into accomodationalism.

      1. Indeed, I saw the disclaimer. The reason I think it’s more than just Shook is that several other officials of CFI defended Shook’s attacks on Gnus, either on CFI blogs or this very website, and they chose Chris Mooney to be one of their broadcasters, promising that he’d never discuss the science/faith thing. (That turned out to be wrong.) The CFI may have expelled Kurtz for accommodationism, they’re sure spending a lot of time defending accommodationists.

        So you say Shook is bucking everyone else at CFI with posts like this?

        1. I just see John as trying to split the difference by attempting to carve out what I view as an eminently reasonable middle ground. I haven’t read or seen anything from the other “CFI officials” you mention. Perhaps we should wait for John to respond to his critics?

          1. The decision to have Chris Mooney take over Point of Inquiry was a poor one. I used to listen every week. Now I never listen to it.

          2. That might have been done for political reasons since at the time CFI was being called radical fundamentalist atheists at the time. I could be wrong. I don’t speak for CFI on this.

          3. We know that’s what he’s doing. What we object to is that he wants to place gnu atheists on the “unreasonable” side of the cut – and giving unreasonable arguments to do so.

          4. I don’t care what John Shook calls himself. He’s a New Atheist. I don’t think he wants to be pigeonholed and he doesn’t fall into groupthink. He’s been unfairly slapped with the label accommodationist, because most people haven’t seen him debate or read most of his work.

            Ophelia, you agreed with this as well. Why aren’t you sticking up for John?

          5. I don’t know enough to “stick up” for John, Melody; I haven’t even read the article under discussion. I don’t think he’s an accommodationist, but I don’t know enough either way to take a position.

          6. Nathan,

            I don’t see what John’s doing as splitting the difference, although he may see it that way.

            I think he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, then bashing gnu atheists for just having their cake, in much the same way he does.

            It’s not fair that in some contexts he says much the same stuff as gnus, and then goes around accusing the gnus of being horrible in ways they’re not.

    1. Hey, there actually is such a thing as anything you can think of! But I don’t wish to be dismissive. I felt real regret, in my youth, when honesty compelled me to let go of God, at the loss of a coherent worldview. I was helped, at the age of twenty, by a manic episode that played out as a natural spiritual experience. I won’t belittle disciplined efforts to acquire the same.

    2. Religiosity is supernatural. Spirituality is not necessarily so, but it’s a loaded word with many contradictory definitions.

      I’ve heard some atheists refer to “spirituality” as the sense of wonder and awe they feel when observing nature. Me, I just refer to the sense of wonder and awe I feel when observing nature. I’ve no need to attach the spirituality tag to it. I don’t understand why others do either. The word evokes supernaturalism – the word spirit is often synonymous with soul – and when used in a non-supernatural manner is so vague, nebulous and has so many different meanings for different people that when people say that they’re spiritual I honestly have no idea what they’re talking about. They have to explain what that word means to them, rendering the word, for all intents and purposes, useless.

  15. Somewhat offtopic, but the other day a nickname for the HuffPo popped into my head and had me chuckling for a while:
    The HuffPuff
    As in, all huffing with hot air, and filled with puff pieces. As a long-form nickname it could be nicely extended to The Huff-and-a Puff. It just sounds so silly (like the big bad wolf), which is why I thought it fit so well. PuffHo is decent, but just a little too respectable, IMO. Something childish like HuffPuff seems more appropriate. 😉

    1. PuffHo also sounds like a Rap Star’s … er… aquaintance, if ya’ know what I mean. Hardly flattering to most people.

      1. PuffHo strikes me as tainted by misogynism, or at least too plausibly associated therewith. Given that the proprietor is a woman, I feel a little discomfiture seeing it. Something like HuffPuff makes the point with no unfortunate alternate interpretations, so I find myself liking it better.

    2. Disagree. PuffHo is brilliant. 1) because they call themselves HuffPo; 2) because it combines “puff” as in overblown feelings of significance, with “Ho” as in doing anything for money. HuffPuff doesn’t come close.

  16. I read the article about accommodationism when he first posted it on FB (Yes, Shook and I are FB friends). I had tried to talk to him and the other commenters there in the comments, but ultimately the accommodationists (we really need a short-hand; ‘a-holes’?, ‘a-comedy-ists’?) simply didged and weaved around semantics; even Michael De Dora got involved.

    Bottom line, accommodationists can be confrontational, morso than any gnu, but only when talking with gnus. The rule to be nice dissolves when you are talking to a gnu, because we are somehow less important or something.

    1. The rule to be nice dissolves when you are talking to a gnu, because we are somehow less important or something.

      It is annoying, but it does spawn excellent gnu commentary about this and that, and there has been no shortage of breath in responding forcefully to their silliness. 🙂

      However, it is odd to me how they insist on treating religious people with kid gloves for the most part and dance around the topic of their own nonbelief like Shook above. Doesn’t that mean they look down on theists or perhaps feel ashamed of atheism itself on some level?

      1. I have been saying for a while that treating religious people this way is not respect. Respect is being honest and direct about your opinions. That, to me, is why I identify with the gnu atheists. That, and I agree that religion and the sciences ARE really in conflict, and trying to politely pretend that they are not just so that science will become more popular is a short-sighted tactic.

    2. For what it’s worth, Michael De Dora has changed his mind about accommodationism. He was rather rude about his own CFI post on the subject at my place the other day.

        1. Remember that Michael DeDora is a young guy. He’s sorting out his ideas in public. He has never been dogmatic in his beliefs. He has always seen the value in both sides and never identified with being an accommodationist. At the same time he was being tarred as an accommodationist, he was debating priests and that horrible troll S.E. Cupp on television. He was also doing a talk called “Skepticism includes atheism so get over it.”

          1. Yes, I do know all of that. I guess what bothered me the most recently was the fact that Michael de Dora was pulling the old trick of saying that because he was not sure what ‘accommodationist” means, it means nothing. I was simply trying to point out that he was not understanding that there is a real phenomenon going on here, and the sides are referred to as accommodationists and gnus, even if some uses of both terms sway from side to side, making them harder to hit.

          2. I think he sincerely believes that. He probably feels that way, because people are being called accommodationists when they are not. It’s like a witch hunt. Therefore, he believes it means nothing.

            I agree it is indeed a real phenomenon.

          3. Miranda, it doesn’t help that “accommodationist” had a pretty clear meaning in the context of self-identified gnus arguing with self-identified accommodationists, and then others grabbed the label and started using it similarly when bashing gnus, but not applying the same standards to themselves.

            For example, John Shook has written a bunch of very gnuish stuff on his own blog—that science and religion incompatible, and praising certain ridicule of religious beliefs—but gone on HuffPo and thrown gnu atheists under the bus.

            It’s not helpful when people take a term with a fairly clear meaning and then use it inconsistently to flatter themselves and bash whoever they feel like bashing.

            See my more detailed comments on John’s “How to be an Accommodationist” posting, which is an exercise i Dumptyism, ridiculously trying to be the master of the word.

          1. Interesting. I will have to cut him some more slack in the future. He still says things that are a little closer to what I would call accommodationist than where I am sometimes, but having seen that I will give him some credit.

            And yes, we should be all on the same side. The problem is with some people (such as Chris Mooney and those who get published more often at HuffPo/HuffPuff) I am not sure that we are always on the same side in terms of goals.

      1. Yeah, good on Michael. He’s admitted to being unfair to gnus in the past, and apologized for it. Classy.

        On the other side of the scale, the head of CFI, Ron Lindsay, recently blogged on whether we should care if people believe in God. The answer was mostly no.

        That seemed a bit odd for the head of a humanist organization to be saying, and too accommodationist for my tastes.

        1. Again, look at Ron Lindsay’s other work. He harshly criticizes religion. People need to do their research before tarring people or an organization with accommodationism. I’ll give you twenty blogs you’ll agree with for that one blog you disagree with. If you can’t resect someone because you don’t 100% agree with them on everything, there is a problem.

          1. Melody,

            I’m sorry if it sounded like I don’t respect Ron, or don’t realize he says and does much less accommodationist-leaning stuff.

            I do, and I do. (E.g., I know he defends blashemy day, which is hardly accommodationism.)

            I did think that piece was kind of weird—I think it should be pretty obvious why humanists would rather people didn’t believe in God.

            Part of my point, which I should have been clearer about, is that there’s a mix of stuff coming out of CFI, including odd mixes from particular individuals, such as Ron and John Shook.

            I should probably also be explicit that I didn’t think that Ron’s piece was so “accommodationist” as to be bashing gnus. It was NOT—it was just saying something most of us would disagree with and find a bit puzzling that it’s an issue.

            Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

          2. Here’s CFI’s mission statement:

            Here’s the mission statement of the AHA:

            To my knowledge, the two largest humanist organizations in the US.

            Here’s the Thomas Jefferson quote that Ron concludes his blog post with:

            It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The beliefs of the religious, however absurd they may be, should be a matter of concern only to the extent the religious are motivated by their beliefs to harm others.

            This is to me perfectly compatible with the mission and ideals of a humanist organization.

        2. Paul_W

          You need to keep in mind that organizations, in general, will tend to be more diplomatic than their members. Part of what is called ‘accommodationism’ is diplomacy. And while I am not very diplomatic, I am members of groups which are more diplomatic. And leaders of organizations tend to be moreso as well (with the exception of Dave Silverman, who I think is doing a great job with American Atheists, even if I do miss my friend Ed Buckner).

          CFI has a mixed bag of leaders, and I think that some of their opinions will be accommodating on some issues. But when you practice selection bias (as you seem to be doing) in remembering any and all things accommodationist in CFI personnel, you do dis-service to the truth. People are complex, they do change, and we need to try and see the whole cloth and not fixate over what we see as stains on that cloth.

          As a Gnu, I hold truth over such biases. Accommodationists are not my enemies, they are people who I am working with because my more aggressive and direct approach, which seeks to point out the actual conflicts which some down-play in order to work with people more closely, is necessary for some situations and some people. I just want the diplomats to see the importance of what we so-called gnu atheists bring to the table and stop attacking us. If they do so, we will have nothing to attack about them, even if we may have discussions about what tactics to use, and when to use them.

          You, Paul, seem more interested in saying that accommodationism is a problem PER SE, not because they are demonizing the gnus. I am not with that assessment, although I may agree that they are sometimes at odds with the most useful tactics we need in this cultural conversation.

          (BTW, with this argument between Paul and I, I seem to have identified a further split; gnus who cannnot stand anything accommodationist and those that recognize that the diplomacy they employ is sometimes useful….great)

          1. shaunphilly (may I call you shaun?) –

            But if the accommodationists are attacking you (in attacking us) then they are your enemy, no? You say they’re not your enemy but in the next sentence you say they’re attacking us. That’s enemy-stuff.

            I would agree with you that they’re not enemies if they weren’t attacking us. But they are, so I don’t. That’s the issue, and it has been all along.

          2. Yes, you may call me Shaun. 🙂

            Well, in the sense of disagreeing about this issue, yes we are enemies. I meant that we are not enemies in the larger (metaphorical) war in our culture. I mean that we have a lot in common in this fight, and that the distinctions do not have to have us attacking each other, understanding that criticism is not necessarily an attack. As my blog’s mentra is, “Criticism is not uncivil”.

            I don’t want them to attack us anymore, so then we will not be enemies even in this small disagreement. Enemies seems too strong a word. I prefer adversaries, because it has less emotional punch. But, you are correct; in this smaller sense they are making enemies of us.

    1. Watching that and then reading back over the parts he allegedly wrote as quoted above is jarring. Are you sure this is the same person who wrote the quoted parts above? I would not guess that the Shook in the video is an accommodationist the way he taunts, dismisses, and shrugs off Craig, agnostics, and a couple of questioners.

      1. John Shook is a New Atheist! That’s what I am trying to say! He has a large body of work demonstrating it. He writes a couple of poorly worded op-eds and gets tarred as an accommodationist.

    2. And after listening to his interview on Point of Inquiry hosted by Price, I feel that I am left with the conclusion that Shook is trolling in the HuffPo piece. Either that, or it was edited without his input before being published.

  17. materialism’s religion-like message

    Not to ignore other astute comments on this, but it is a dreary laundry list of mistakes:

    “That every life is interrelated, woven and composed of nature’s vibrant cords.”

    In as much as these relations should refer to laws, they aren’t all “vibrant”. The slow dynamics or statics of symmetries and thus conserved quantities comes to mind.

    “That the unseen world of nature’s energies shape life and life’s beauties in endless new forms.”

    Energy means conservation over time. If it is “unseen” it isn’t conserved, so no energy.

    “That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.”

    First an oxymoron, the change in recycled energy means there is no “essential” to its character. Second a break with physics, since heat isn’t perfectly recycleable. This is why we have entropy of Carnot engines in the first place!

    “That there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future [blah blah blah] and the smallness of self-importance besides the immensity of the whole.”

    So processes happens over time. Cheers, presumably this is why we have time in the first place.

    More interesting is that processes like deterministic chaos means _loss of memory_. So no perfect afterlife either.

    If I may inquire, why don’t CFI try to get hold of readily available answers once in a while!?

  18. The problem with Shook’s HuffPo piece is not which side of the debate he’s on. It is, simply, that it is a very bad piece of writing, full of bad metaphors and equivocation.

    Perhaps he’d care to visit this thread and explain exactly what he meant by “essential energy”. Melody is convinced that he’s a good guy, and in my book REALLY good guys will defend their stuff or ‘fess up.

    1. I disagree; I think that the problem is which side he’s on. The fact that he’s trying to be on both sides leads fairly directly to desperate equivocation.

      The bit about the afterlife is pretty pathetic. Sorry, we just don’t believe in anything interestingly like an afterlife.

      It’s not like people who do believe in an afterlife don’t agree with us that our actions in this life have effects on the world that may persist after we’re gone. They know that too, and when they’re talking about an afterlife, that’s just not what they’re talking about.

      I once won a public debate with a theologian about the existence of “the afterlife.” It turned out he didn’t believe in an afterlife either, just that sort of effects-after-you’re gone thing.

      Maybe I didn’t actually win—maybe he just lost, with people voting against him for insulting their intelligence with a patent bait-and-switch.

      Memo to John Shook: it’s not an afterlife and not interestingly like an afterlife if you’re not in it.

      Religious people are not so stupid as to fail to think you’re stupid if you think they’ll fall for that.

      Its seriously and obviously desperately bad analogy, which anybody can see right through.

      If that’s “how to be an accommodationist”—to insult people’s intelligence in a way they’ll predictably notice—count me out.

      1. I think there’s a more real materialistic afterlife concept than what Shook offers, that also has real ethical implications. It’s a stretch to call it an afterlife, but I think science supports that all our lifes are permanent, although restricted to a finte region of spacetime. In relativity, past, present, and future cannot be distunguished in a general way and so are all equally real. So I will always be here living my life today, even though others in the future will be out of communication with it as a matter of principle.

        I think this is much more profound than what Shook refers to, at least from the point of view of affecting our behavior and standards of ethics. The Holocaust (for example) isn’t just something that happened a while ago. It’s just as real now as it ever was. It can’t be erased. That suffering is permanent.

      2. Yes, I also see Shook’s article as a rather disingenuous attempt at a bait-and-switch. He seems to deliberately trying to present his views so that both the religious and the atheists can see whatever they want to see — sort of like the head and vase illusion.

        A gnu atheist can read “the energies of life must be distributed fairly” and interpret it as a reference to the equitable laws of physics and thermodynamics; a religious person can read it and take comfort from his use of the words “energies” and “fair” — seeing confirmation for a spirituality which equates “energy” with “consciousness” and “fair” with “justice.”

        And then … when the religious folks are no longer fighting against atheism and naturalism … we can gradually sliiiiide them over to reinterpretation. Like seeing that the face profiles are really a vase!

        They’ll never notice Shook’s a gnu atheist. Particularly if he’s slapping the gnu atheists for insensitivity. It’s perfect.

        “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.” — Woody Allen

  19. I’m trying to wrap my arms around the complexities of this whole accommodationist vs confrontationalist debate to see where I come out on the issue? I have a sense that I would be an accommodationist (with some important qualifications) but I would like to further investigate the recent history of this debate as it has played out in the freethought movement. Does it all begin with Jerry’s long review of Miller and Gilbertson in The New Republic? Is there an article online somewhere that maps out the contours of the controversy (hopefully without ideological rancor)? Thanks.

      1. Thank you for the link. I’m kind of late to the scene, so it’s good to be able to read some of the earlier writing.

        My own take is that accommodation is a problem for the faithful, and when scientists and science writers consider it their problem, they end up being condescending.

    1. That’s the start of one phase of it. An earlier phase started with advice about “framing” – which I didn’t follow closely, so I’m not a good source.

      The phase that started with Chris Mooney’s advice (sort of via something he reported Barbara Forrest to have said) about Jerry’s TNR article and “civility” got very complicated very fast. I frankly don’t think I know of any neutral source.

      Here’s a very quick outline, as non-ideological as I can make it:

      Lots of people wanted to know exactly what Jerry should have done differently, and asked Chris M. questions about that. Chris M. didn’t answer. Things proceeded from there.

      I still think that if Chris M had answered the questions at the beginning, there could have been disagreement but vastly less hostility. I still don’t think I or anyone else did anything wrong by asking the questions, given that Chris M is an influential voice.

      1. Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications at American Univ., has also held forth on “framing,” and can be found online critiquing Dawkins’s allegedly insufficient “framing.”

        Hasn’t “framing” always existed in propaganda – er, uh, Ah mean – public relations? “Framing” is part of what Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” is meant to detect.

        Seems to be that “framing” boils down to what one has to do with those who are willfully ignorant and uncurious.

    2. I sketched a map of the territory (as I see it) in two comments here on Russell Blackford’s blog. My intention was to set labels aside, point out substance, and include arguments in the positive for what I want.

  20. Reading this brought me back to current discussions about the Quran and the murders in Afghanistan, purportedly because of the book burning. Each group or religion of choice claims it is the other that causes the problems. I don’t agree. If people must have a god or goddess and it seems some must. Then why too must they pay to mega corporations for their praying time? Is it that difficult to pray alone? The idiot in Florida is not alone in the guilt for this, those angry about a book being burned had a choice, they made the wrong choice. Their choice was murder, how then does that fit any religion being about peace? In my mind it does not, it only again validates that religion is the scourge of human kind.

  21. “Does a [sic?] science’s claim that you must sternly regard morality as illusory, lest you be irresponsibly foolish, really make sense?” Does any science make any such claim? I don’t think so. Straw person!

    Shook embarasses me because I see in his writing a rather vulgar parody of the kind of naturalistic spirituality that I would otherwise lean towards, in which, for example, we can take consolation that after our deaths the good we did will be remembered and imitated. To make of this a kind of pseudo-heaven (“That there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has [sic] influences far into the future of life.”) degrades it. And such bad writing!

  22. Based on the content of their public ruminations, the gap between accomodationists and modern liberal theologians is becoming so small that, pretty soon, we’ll be able to squeeze a god into it.

    1. I mean:

      “Does a science’s claim that you must sternly regard morality as illusory, lest you be irresponsibly foolish, really make sense?”

      Who the hell is he kidding? What “science” claims this? And does he even proofread for clarity?

      Sometimes I think Accomodatheists write bafflingly obtuse things like this in order to (a) provoke an incredulous reaction from the Gnus’ side of the fence, so adding fuel to their “look how angry the Gnus are!” fire and (b) display how reasonable they are to the precious, coddled believers in the hope of increasing their audience.

      If he did want to increase his audience, he could always clarify his position, attempt to express it concisely & honestly and make a conscious effort to not demonise those who are ostensibly on the same side of reason & rationality.

      And hire a freaking sub-editor.

  23. Religion believes:
    * That the universe was created by a supreme being who takes an acute interest in your existence.
    * That the supreme being is three things that somehow are also one thing.
    * That lust is immoral.
    * That you must believe certain things in order for your mind to experience paradise after your body dies.
    * That god killing his son forgives all of humanity for the heinous sin of being descended from people who ate a fruit from a tree.

    Naturalism believes:
    * None of the above.

  24. Can’t everyone just state that from the side of religion, that it can accommodate science [ as it can democracy or tyranny, and its twin superstition- the paranormal- ” The Transcendental Temptation” Kurtz’s must read book, but we gnus add that from the side of science,Thales, Strato,Democritus and the teleonomic argument, no way!
    Lamberth’s argument from pareidolia is that just as people see Yeshua on a tortilla,people, people see intent and design when only teleonomy- no directed evolution- no wanted outcomes- arise. Scientists are investigating this notion of intent-agency. So, as with the teleonomic argument, we have a scientific basis for dismissing the God- balderdash.
    Again, Victor Stenger rings true that science indeed can rule about the supernatural!
    It is so superstitious to pray or to find intent behind natural causes. That non-intent then cannot be the Primary Cause or Ultimate Explanation, Aquinas and Leibniz, respectively, notwithstanding!
    And per the argument from physical mind, how can a mindless being intervene in Existence or be any kind of explananion?
    How can He be that Ultimate Explanation if He is neither a principle nor an entity nor a personal being as then He’d not be able to substantiate Himself as that very Explanation?
    Aren’t theologians just loony

    ” Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr. Griggs
    ” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.” Inking Lynn
    ‘ God is in a worse situation than the Scarecrow who has a body to which a mind could enter whilst He has neither. He is that married bachelor. No wonder that He is ineffable!”

  25. Nathan, Melody, Shaun et al.,

    A few historical and theoretical notes on the “accommodationism” kerfuffle, and what the word means in context:

    It more or less began with Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney and the “framing wars.”

    Nisbet and Mooney claimed to be experts on science communication and politics, and proceeded to tell us that framing science shows that we gnus are Doing It All Wrong and should more or less shut up, and start sucking up to the religious.

    (I came in in the middle of that; I know a fair bit about framing myself—I studied with Mr. Framing himself, George Lakoff, a bit—and I thought that Mooney and Nisbet were incredibly naive and simplistic about the psychology framing, and about political strategy, and that their condescending to Gnus was worse than merely inappropriate.)

    A key issue here is that the framing wars and their continuation as the accommodationism wars were largely about how to promote science and especially how to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools in the US.

    There were (and are) two key differences between gnus and framers/accommodationists.

    1. The accommodationists are quite focused on defending the teaching of science and especially evolution, specifically in US public schools. Promoting atheism, or promoting humanism, is not particularly important to them, if backlash leads to religious people rejecting evolution. Anything that doesn’t advance the goal of teaching evolution in US public schools is Not Helping, and anything that causes problems for evolution in schools is Hurting the Cause, even if it also advances atheism and humanism in general, in the US, or in the world.

    2. The accommodationist’s vaunted political strategy, such as it is, is to use centrist triangulation tactics almost exclusively. To them, the most important political goal is to avoid alienating moderate religious believers, who are the swing voters about US education policy with respect to evolution. They continually stress that this is a very religious country, that moderate religious people are our allies or potential allies, and that we should consistently court their favor. They generally explicitly or implicitly assume that the US will continue to be a very religious country for the foreseeable future, and that we must cater primarily to the religious moderates, trying to convince them to support evolution and science, rather than trying to convert them to atheism and humanism. They also think that politically savvy communications experts like Nisbet and Mooney should carefully craft messages acceptable to the mainstream, and especially religious moderates—and that anybody who presents more radical positions, especially to a broad public, is undermining their well-thought-out strategy for “the cause.” They especially object to scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers, who assert that understanding evolution is somehow importantly related to disbelieving in religion, as opposed to just fundamentalist literalism.

    Gnus, by and large, see things rather differently, are more interested in the bigger picture and the long term, and think a more pluralistic strategy—a variety of differently-crafted messages with different degrees of perceived “stridency”—is actually more politically effective.

    We think it’s possible for the US to secularize significantly over the next few decades, as Western Europe and Japan have done over the last few decades, such that many moderate religious people become atheists and humanists.

    We not only think that those are laudable goals for many reasons, but also think that in the long term, that’s the best way to ensure that science in general and evolution in particular are more highly valued in US culture—we may be able to convert a substantial number of wishy-washy potential allies (moderate religious people) into strong allies.

    A key strategic idea is the concept of Overton Windows.

    The idea of Overton Windows is that short-term triangulation doesn’t generally work out well in the long run. By constantly catering to the center, and not holding your ground, you end up incrementally giving away the store, and the center of public opinion shifts away from you.

    Accommodationists frequently appeal to the intuitive idea that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” and try to make it sound like a very general truth, not just a truism with some truth to it.

    They make it sound like it works well to silence the “extreme” voices in a movement, who are likely to scare away the moderates, and instead project a fairly consistent, well-crafted message that appeals to the center.

    A look at actual politics shows that that’s just not true, and that fears of backlash against perceived “extremists” within a movement are generally overrated. (Especially if even the strident “militant” extremists are not actually militant, i.e., advocating the use of force, and are just voicing opinions and making arguments.)

    If we’re really so all-fired interested in specifically US politics, it’s instructive to actually look at what works in US politics—and it is plainly not true that in general “you catch more flies with honey.”

    That is something that Republican strategists have demonstrated over and over again in the last several decades—people like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove know more about what works in politics than people like Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney.

    One thing that they know is that fears of backlash are often overemphasized. In practice, extremists do generate some backlash, but usually less than more fearful strategists suppose, and usually less of the mess sticks to the moderates than most people assumed before the Republican Revolution.

    That means that “extremists” on “your side” of a political spectrum are usually beneficial to the cause, not just a liability.

    They serve some crucial functions, and that’s where the specific concept of “Overton Windows” comes in.

    An Overton Window is a range of acceptable public opinions around the perceived “middle” of some range of basic opinion. (It’s usually talked about in the context of a roughly “left”-to-“right” political spectrum, but it’s more egeneral than that.)

    At any given time, there’s a range of things that do get said in public, and taken as fairly “normal” opinions, even by people who disagree with them. Outside that range, there are views that are never said, or rarely said, which are perceived as weird, and generally dismissed as not even worth considering.

    There are several reasons for that, grounded in human psychology and listener’s political strategies. People have a strong unconscious tendency to assume that the messages they hear are the ones that they need to hear—for example, because if there was a better idea out there, surely some smart people would recognize that and say it in public. And most people don’t understand how strongly they unconsciously tend to “split the difference” and take a position between whatever two “extremes” are actually presented.

    (There’s tons of psych data on this “bracketing” effect—e.g., for almost any multiple choice question with a numerical answer, where peopl have to guess to some extent, the highest and lowest values given as choices have a substantial effect on what number people will guess. If the right answer is the lowest-valued option, they’ll generally guess too high, and if its the highest, they’ll guess too low—and often be adamant that they did not take the range into account.)

    Such conscious and unconscious listener biases don’t take into account the fact that some messages aren’t getting out for other reasons, e.g., that short-term political strategists don’t have to worry about opposing positions that nobody is publicly taking and defending, so they’re happy not to talk about them.

    For these and other reasons, rarely-said “extreme” positions are generally dismissed as stupid, naive, crazy, or somehow irrelevant, and people tend very much to talk about what other people are talking about, especially things that lots of other people are talking about. Within a perceived range of opinions that people do talk about, the ones in the middle are generally perceived as more reasonable, and the ones closer to the extremes of the talked-about range are suspect, and easier to dismiss.

    Overton (a conservative political strategist) explained that the crucial role of political think tanks and propaganda mills is not to talk about stuff within the overton window, and especially not near the center of the Overton window. It is to move the Overton window itself—to change the range of what gets talked about and thus taken relatively seriously. The idea is to strengthen support for ideas that are currently relatively marginal, i.e., barely within the Overton Window, and to shift the boundary toward your end of the spectrum by introducing even more extreme ideas that are currently considered flaky—and to have enough people repeat them, and get other people talking about them, that they no longer seem so extreme, flaky, and dismissable.

    In the long run, the effect is to shift the range of ideas that people take seriously, and move the center itself in your direction. One effect of this is to make previously “extreme”-seeming ideas seem relatively moderate, and previously less extreme seeming ideas seem positively normal, maybe even the default, conventional wisdom.

    It’s a way of boiling the political frog, with the range of acceptable ideas incrementally shifting in your direction, such that the center moves your way, and most people don’t even notice that the terms of political discourse have changed in ways they never thought about.

    Overton likens this process to a tug of war, with the range of opinions being a rope, such that pulling on one end of the rope shifts the whole rope a little bit, by various indirect effects. Everybody pulling in your direction is your friend, helping move the rope your way, even if they’re holding onto the rope at a point much nearer the center, or much further out.

    That’s an admittedly simplistic analogy for some extremely complicated psychological and social processes, but we think there’s substantial and useful truth to it—which the noted “accommodationists” (Mooney, Nisbet, Rosenau, Genie Scott et al.) steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. They talk as though our failing to grasp the rope at the particular point they recommend means that we’re hurting the cause, not helping the team.

    We tend to agree with Overton that that’s mostly nonsense—we’re all on the same team, pulling in the same direction, not betraying the team by being “too extreme,” etc.

    We don’t think that everybody should talk the way we do, all the time, althoug we do think it’d be good if more people did, more often.

    Given an Overton-type view, it should be clear that we’re not just “hurting the cause” of science education, much less the cause of atheism and humanism—for example, by making atheism sayable and fairly popular, we may actually be helping liberal religious people politically, by making them seem less extreme than those nasty atheists. We’re helping to define them as the new center of discourse about religion, with their more conservative opponents seeming more extreme and kooky. That’s progress.t

    Our long-term goal is precisely to shift the window of acceptable public opinion in our direction. Ideally, we’d like to shift it all the way our way, and convince everybody to be atheists. Even far short of that, there’s plenty of good to be done. If we simply increase the acceptance of atheism and shift the window so that theologically liberal religion is the new center, that has downstream effects of marginalizing fundamentalists, who the majority will see as not just wrong, but increasingly fringy and kooky—e.g., not the sort of people they’d vote for.

    I think the conflict between accommodationism and gnu atheism is largely based in these different ideas of effective political strategy.

    Accommodationists, by and large, think that there’s a central “best position” to take, for political purposes, and that their strategic goal is to get as many people as they can to espouse it.

    Gnu atheists don’t think that. They think that if everybody on “our side” is pulling in the same general direction, a diversity of particular positions—some more accommodating, some more “strident”—is often quite a good thing, and backlash against extreme views is often less of a problem than you’d naively think.

    Why that’s true has a lot to do with how people self-select political messages. Everybody has their own internal window of reasonable-seeming views—e.g. from moderately to the left to moderately to the right of their own political position—and people mostly seek out opinions within that personally “acceptable” range to consider seriously and discuss with others.

    For example, consider what happens when a rabid right-wing conservative politician spouts off and offends people with liberal views. Do most moderate Republicans then leave the party? No.

    More importantly, do most politically moderate swing voters (e.g., Reagan Democrats) then decide not to vote for a more moderate conservative on that basis?

    No, they clearly typically don’t. They continue to dismiss the rabid religious conservative as they generally dismiss such people, and continue to take more moderate conservatives seriously, for the same reasons they did before. The fact that an extreme conservative seems unreasonable to them doesn’t make a moderate conservative seem much more unreasonable. There may be some backlash against the Republican party generally, but often not much, and more moderate Republicans manage to avoid most of it. They’re still seen as the relatively good guys, having to put up with the cranks in their own party, and who swing voters may well vote for when it comes up.

    Gnus don’t generally deny that there’s some useful truth to truisms like “you catch more flies with honey.” They don’t generally think it’s a good idea to go around just gratuitiously pissing people off and generating nothing but backlash, as accommodationists seem to think they do.

    They’re just more optimistic that unvarnished atheistic messages will reach some people—after all, that’s how a lot of current atheists became atheists—and that the backlash won’t be too bad, and there won’t be too much collateral damage to our less extreme allies. In the long run, and in the big picture, we can shift the Overton Window somewhat, and the net effect is likely good for everybody on our side, despite some admittedly real costs of our behavior. It won’t come without costs of the sort that the accommodationists are so afraid of—we know that—but we think it will be worth it, and if they don’t, they need to make much better arguments to convince us.

    This has been a key issue in the accommodationism kerfuffle, and the accommodationists have consistently Stonewalled about it, pretending that the gnu atheists don’t have a real political strategy, and pretended that the gnus are naive, ignorant, obtuse, an pigheaded assholes who just won’t get with their obviously superior program.

    For example, these strategic issues have been pointed out to Mooney many times by many bloggers and many commenters on his own blog, for literally years on end, but he has never even acknowledged that there is a serious strategic argument being made, and has continued to feign mystification as to why the gnasty Gnus don’t fall in line and behave like reasonable accommodationists.

    That’s a form of lying. Chris Mooney clearly knows full well why we disagree with him on strategy, but would rather not let on that we actually have an argument, which we’ve been making for years.

    Instead he keeps implying that we do what we do for no good reason, harping on our tone an often misrepresenting us to make us seem unreasonable and gratuitiously mean, with quote mines and all.

    I think it’s pretty clear that his intent is precisely to smear and marginalize us as ignorant assholes—even when we’re saying things he agrees with, but doesn’t want said for tactical reasons—-so that people who listen to him will not listen to what we’re actually saying, or to our actual reasons for going ahead and saying it.

    That’s why we don’t like Chris Mooney, and other accommodationists like Josh Rosenau who argue against us similarly.

    Rather than addressing what we actually say, and whether it’s true, or even why we say what we say, and whether our strategy has any merit, they choose instead to make it personal.

    It’s a systematic, intentional smear job.

    They clearly intentionally avoid addressing the real bones of contention—factual and strategic—and choose send the message that we’re mean, we’re ignorant of what we’re talking about, were politially naive, and we’re just being noisy assholes for the hell of it.

    That’s why it’s not surprising if we react to John Shook portraying us as the noisy, proudly ignorant, know-nothing wing of atheism, and think he’s that sort of “accommodationist.” If he doesn’t want to be mistaken for that sort of accommodationist, he should avoid sounding so very much like one.

    It’s a vile smear, and it’s a dishonest dodge, and it’s throwing us under the bus to appeal to delicate religious sensibilities, and it sucks.

    The foregoing background is also why it’s not surprising if I respond a bit negatively to, say, Ron Lindsay, when he argues that we ought not to worry about whether people believe in God, if they’re not adherents of a particularly bad version of religion.

    Where on earth has Ron been these last few years? Does he know nothing of politial strategy and social belief fixation? Has he never heard of Overton Windows? Have the accommodationists succeeded to that extent, such that the head of CFI doesn’t know what the main strategic argument has been about all along? (It’s not as though CFI hasn’t always had its controversies about essentially the same strategic issues.)

    If so, that’s unfortunate, and I sincerely hope this background and explanation will help somehow.

    At any rate I think anybody considering calling themselves an “accommodationist” should ask themselves a few questions:

    1. Do you believe in Overton Windows, such that a diversity of messages is a good, including things that seem “strident” and “extreme” to people whose views you’re arguing against—people who are unused to hearing blunt and forceful arguments against souls and gods and religious bases for morality? If so, you might not be an accommodationist, even if you think being nice to religious people is good, all other things being equal.

    2. Do you think that atheists should prioritize protecting the teaching of evolution in US schools, using a short-term tactics that caterto the (religious) center, over spreading messages of atheism and/or humanism? If so, you might not be an accommodationist, even if you think that teaching evolution is a good thing, and all other things being equal, is a goal that people should work toward.

    3. Do you think that science conflicts with religion, not just about things like evolution and the age of the Earth, but about the existence of supernatural entities such as souls, God and a supernatural basis of morality? Do you think it’s okay for atheists to say so in public, and, if they choose, to prioritize that over worries that backlash about atheism and science might undermine attempts to portray evolution as consistent with “moderate” mainstream religion? If so you might not be an accommodationist, even if you’re strongly pro-evolution as well as pro-humanism.

    4. Do you see the New Atheism as a good thing, overall, even if you disagree with some New Atheists about some things, such that you wouldn’t like to offer some criticism and advice, but don’t basically want to shut it down? If so, you might not be a accommodationist.

    The conflict out of which the term “accommodationist” arose is not a conflict between nice atheists and nasty atheists. It is foremost a conflict about central tenets of religious belief, and especially about political strategy and whether to argue about such beliefs. If you don’t sign on to the centrist, triangulating, short term strategy of soft-pedaling atheism and humanism, for short-term gains in promoting the teaching of science and specifically evolution, especially in the US, you aren’t clearly an “accommodationist.” Find another word, please.

    For us, and for the self-described accommodationists—who accepted that term as a substitute for the more loaded term “appeasers”—the word is just way too loaded with connotations about

    (1) science and religion being compatible (at least as a public stance for scientists and scientific organizations to consistently take),

    (2) any argued incompatibility being something that should be swept under the rug, and

    (3) New Atheists being ignorant, bullying, gratuitiously backlash-generating assholes with no understanding of (or sincere interest in) political strategy.

    Just don’t go there. Find another word for just being relatively nice atheists, or atheists with deep rich backgrounds in the history of religion and sophisticated theology, or whatever distinction you’re actually making. That word is taken.

    And if you insist on using the tainted word “accommodationist,” be very, very wary of those very connotations. If you seem to be using gnu atheists as a foil, and casting them as ignorant, politically naive blowhards who just piss people off for fun and make trouble for the nice, smart, savvy atheists—and not clearly addressing our actual points or our actual strategy—-well, don’t be surprised if they come down on you like a ton of bricks for dishonestly vilifying us like Chris Mooney.

    1. These posts are WAY WAY too long for this website. This is the place for omments, not essays. Please make comments concise.

  26. The foregoing background is also why it’s not surprising if I respond a bit negatively to, say, Ron Lindsay, when he argues that we ought not to worry about whether people believe in God, if they’re not adherents of a particularly bad version of religion.

    Where on earth has Ron been these last few years? Does he know nothing of politial strategy and social belief fixation? Has he never heard of Overton Windows? Have the accommodationists succeeded to that extent, such that the head of CFI doesn’t know what the main strategic argument has been about all along? (It’s not as though CFI hasn’t always had its controversies about essentially the same strategic issues.)

    Do you mind me asking if you’ve had any “official” role in any atheist/secular organization? This could even include volunteering, interning, etc. or even just discussions with the leadership. Has this been the discussion among the leadership of other secular groups that you are aware of? Is this top of the mind to them? You seem to have put a fair amount of research into this and the last comment above in parentheses indicates that you’ve been following CFI for at least the last couple of years. Just trying to see if your assessment of what you say is “the main strategic argument all along” is gleaned primarily from (for lack of a better term) “insider” or “outsider” sources.

    In the interest of the same level of disclosure, I should note that myself I volunteer for CFI DC and my wife is the Executive Director. I haven’t really discussed any of this with Ron who I’ve met on several occasions, however what features first and foremost in everything that CFI does is the CFI mission statement: which is what (I believe) he and the board have a legal obligation to uphold. So on the question of whether what Ron said is contrary to CFI’s mission statement, I must reiterate my opinion that it is not-please feel free to disagree. I’ve also heard enough rank and file members, event attendees, and lecturers at church-state separation events/discussions repeat the exact same Jefferson quote with complete approval to say that a sizable portion of folks within the movement are also very much in agreement notwithstanding any of other discussions you summarize.

    I work in marketing in my day job and I follow politics pretty closely, so I get what you are saying about Overton Windows and triangulation, however as much as some might want to emulate the last 30 years of success of the conservative think-tanks in terms of shaping public discourse and so on, realistically there is simply a vast difference in resources between the secular/atheist movement and the conservative movement that -to me at least- makes any such comparison hypothetical at best.

  27. Simon,

    Yes, I have been involved in atheist organizations, including being a founding member and sometime board member of an unusually successful local atheist organization, which seriously considered becoming a new CFI local Center. (That deal fell through, because a minority of our group was very much against it, but I was very much for it at the time. In retrospect, I think I may have been on the wrong side.)

    I’ve had some discussions with CFI leaders, but not a lot, and not for years now. It was before the “New Atheism” became a phenomenon, and that’s caused me to reconsider some of my earlier views, as has thinking about things like the rise of the religious right, and the amazing successes of the gay rights movement despite that.

    I do like CFI in general, and appreciate a lot of what it has achieved, and I do participate in some CFI activities, and have friends who have or have had local activist and organizational roles.

    On the other hand, I do worry that CFI still seems to have some of the same weaknesses I think it had under Kurtz—being a little too focused on establishing a certain “brand,” and distinguishing itself from inferior brands, and a certain kind of message discipline where it’s very, very important to seem elite, established, and “respectable” and not like those rabble-rousing atheists who scare the horses and mess everything up. (In the old days, American Atheists particularly.)

    I was hoping that would all just go away with Kurtz, but there still seems to be more of it than I like—and a certain amount of plain gnu-bashing, apparently out of envy of the popularity of disorganized rabble. (Of course it’s not cast that way, and its arguable, and I assume a lot of it simply accidental, e.g., people repeating characterizations and arguments that they accept from others, without looking at what’s really going on… but sometimes the the criticisms seem so weak, or so nonspecific, and even hypocritical when you look closely, that it seems any old argument is good enough to make gnus look bad and certain CFIers or The CFI Way good by invidious comparison.)

    I’m not sure what you think the significance of the Jefferson quote is, when he says “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    I’ve always taken it to mean that people shouldn’t consider a mere difference of belief, in itself to be an injury to anyone, of the sort government should treat as a criminal act like theft or assault, or to which anyone should respond with violence or coercion at all. I don’t think that he meant that people shouldn’t disagree with others, and do so publicly and forcefully, and sometimes even resort to “strident,” “militant” tactics like ridicule.

    It was also Jefferson who said: Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear, and Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Sounds like a gnu to me.

    I don’t think Jefferson ever meant to imply that we ought not care about others religious beliefs at all, or ought not to argue about religion, especially when others’ beliefs have the very serious real-world consequences I talked about in my reply to Ron. Do you?

    To me, that seems to miss the point of a liberal democracy; the point is that we don’t equate belief or speech with violence or coercion, precisely so that we can shouldn’t have a vigorous discussion of our disagreements, largely because it is politically important to do so.

    I made an actual argument, which neither Ron nor you has responded to. I think that the false religious beliefs of even moderate religious people do have major negative consequences, which we should righly be concerned with. Do you disagree?

    I think Ron was making a simply terrible argument when he said that we all have some false beliefs, so we shouldn’t worry about whether people believe in God. It’s a kind of tu quoque fallacy, isn’t it? And his essay doesn’t get much better from there, because he makes arguments that seem to assume independence of effects where it’s not warranted—rather like thinking we shouldn’t worry about whether cigarettes cause cancer, because they usually don’t; many poeple smoke and lead long healthy lives, or only get minor medical problems from smoking.

    I gave a bunch of reasons for thinking that even moderate religion does have bad consequences, and for thinking that coddling moderate religion is enabling of worse forms of religion—by failing to address the underlying false beliefs, etc. Do you disagree, and think that the Jefferson quote really addresses the issues?

    In writing what I wrote, I wasn’t accusing Ron of violating the letter or the express intent of CFIs mission statement, narrowly construed. (I don’t think such statements are generally definitive of what an organization is for, or should be for, anyway; I’m less concerned with what CFI’s official stated mission is than what its real mission is, and what it should be, in practical terms, if it wants to achieve any o those goals.) And believe it or not, my intent was constructive.

    I was more arguing that (1) there is strength in numbers and (2) secular humanism isn’t going to make major strides without somebody undermining broad support for religion per se. (Not just the religious right or fundamentalism or even basic orthodoxy.) We’re all pulling on the same rope, and the more people we can get on our side, the better.

    “Converting” moderate religious people to atheism is generally a plus for secular humanism and separation of church and state, isn’t it? Commitment to strong secular principles is mushy among wishy-washy liberal religionists. (For example, the chances of somebody objecting to school prayer are much higher if that prayer excludes them, or many peole they know. They’re not nearly as worried about excluding people outside an Overton-like window of people they don’t dismiss as fringy and kooky. Being many people is almost always a political advantage in several ways.)

    And if Overton’s right, poaching liberal religionists isn’t as bad even for liberal religion as it seems—it helps them seem more normal, and poach more moderate religionists. That’s assuming there’s enough people pulling on the rope at the relevant points; if not, you may mostly get polarization, with the middle thinning out—and that seems like a big fear among people like Mooney. They’d rather avoid pulling on the rope than risk stretching and even breaking it. I think such fears are reasonable up to a point, but quite unrealistic beyond that point. They grossly underestimate the strength of the people’s various center-seeking tendencies that make Overton windows work.
    You don’t win a tug of war by all pulling on the rope in the same place, and “not pulling too hard.” You win by getting enough people pulling your way, and getting them to pull.

    I can believe that a sizable fraction of CFI members (“friends”) and organizers would agree with the other interpretation of the Jefferson quote—that we should not make an issue of others’ belief in God, per se—and that Ron’s blog post reflects a popular view in CFI?

    Is it a consensus, or the clearly dominant view, in CFI? I got the impression—mistakenly, perhaps—that there was considerable difference of opinion within CFI about that, at all levels. Some CFI people think that forthrightly atheist activists like the gnu atheists are a great thing for the cause, and others think that they are an embarrassment that undermines CFI’s carefully crafted image, who don’t belong in CFI, and a lot of people are somewhere in between. (There is certainly quite a range of opinion in my local CFI group.)

    Am I mistaken about that?

    I responded the general way I did to Ron because I thought he was taking the wrong position, even if it was a fairly popular, almost consensus position in CFI from bttom to top, but I didn’t think it was. I thought he was taking a position on a live controversy within the organization, and making bad arguments for the wrong conclusion.

    I took the “where has Ron been?” line because it was hard for me to believe that he isn’t familiar with the kinds of points I’ve been making, or that they’re terribly uncommon views even within CFI, so I thought he was being surprisingly sloppy and maybe even sneaky to just sweep them under the rug with a tu quoque, an approving misreading of Jefferson, and an analysis of causality at a high level that conceals what’s really going on. (That is, why others’ belief in God does matter to all of us, even if for some reason it’s not something we should do anything about.) There are pretty good arguments against accommodationism—in this case meaning not arguing against religion per se, to avoid arguing against “friendly” liberal religious people—and they deserve a fairer treatment than that, even if they’re somehow ultimately wrong. Maybe we should be accommodationists after all, but if so, those are clearly not the right reasons, and I do think the CFI leadership should all be aware of that by now.

  28. Simon,

    About Overton and money, etc.

    Overton was a think tank guy focusing on what role think tanks and other propaganda mills should take, but his points are not all specific to think tanks and such.

    If there are people out there speaking up and getting attention, it works, and if you don’t have to pay them to shill for ideas on your “end” of the “spectrum,” that’s even better. Actual grassroots support is great. (After all, conservative money largely goes to give the impression of grassroots support, with astroturfing, etc.)

    That’s what disturbs me about some CFI types talking smack about random unqualified New Atheists managing to sell lots of awful books, and that terrible atheist rabble on the internet—people who didn’t go through proper channels to be qualified and certified as the Right Kind of Atheist.

    They seem to be missing the point of how social movements work. You can exert some top-down effects, but it’s the bottom-up effects that make it successful.

    Obsessing about those upstart outsiders with their nasty rabbles is a good way to marginalize yourself and end up in the dustbin of history.

    If you vilify your friends as proudly ignorant know-nothings when they’re working for your cause for free, you don’t deserve to have any friends, and you don’t deserve for your cause to succeed.

    The cause may well succeed, but it will likely succeed without you, and you’ll be the outsider.

        1. I understand Jerry’s concern, but I hope he won’t delete your comments. They are fricken awesome. You stated the position so clearly, and with so much insight, that I think it should be required reading for anyone new to this issue (and even those who joined mid-way).
          I will second the motion that you start a blog or website or something, and make these couple of comments your first post(s). I for one would refer to it frequently. (But, no pressure, eh? It’s all good. Whatever, whatever. … Just start a fricken blog already!!!) 🙂

          1. I agree. I was thinking that it might be a good idea to start up a multiauthor blog at “gnuatheists.*” and/or “gnuatheism.*”. (Where “*” is “com” and “org”.) The domains are available, except that “” points to a specific blog posting here at WhyEvolutionIsTrue.

  29. There’s a lot here, so I’ll try to address most of it where I’m able to:

    re: ‘distinguishing from the rabble’, in the 3 or so years that Ron’s been CEO and that I’ve been involved more actively this is simply not the case and this is by design both at the local as well as national level. Council for Secular Humanism has long supported local independent groups (eg WASH here in DC) and we’ve co-sponsored events with just about every other local and national group that has a presence in DC (eg the AHA). Council is also a part of Secular Coalition for America which has almost every large and small secular organization of note eg AA, AHA, AAI, etc. A lot of CFI locals are also part of their respective UnitedCOR, so again at the local level this definitely shows cooperation and mutual respect.

    re: I made an actual argument, which neither Ron nor you has responded to. I think that the false religious beliefs of even moderate religious people do have major negative consequences, which we should righly be concerned with. Do you disagree?

    To clarify my position: if someone is dedicated to secular government and secular discourse and is against religious extremism, I’m not convinced that this has ‘major negative consequences’ for society no. I’ve met plenty such people. Doesn’t mean of course that I have to be intellectually dishonest or withhold my disagreement on the god question if and where it arises. It may well be that I’m wrong of course so I’m open to opposing arguments. My guess from reading the article is that Ron is probably in disagreement with you as well on this statement, however I’d recommend you email him and ask directly.

    re: (I don’t think such statements are generally definitive of what an organization is for, or should be for, anyway; I’m less concerned with what CFI’s official stated mission is than what its real mission is, and what it should be, in practical terms, if it wants to achieve any o those goals.)

    I disagree here. Myself I’m kind of a literalist with regards to this kind of stuff as it helps keep people on the same page. I’m not of the opinion that a mission statement should be set in stone and it can always be refined, however when there a lot of moving parts and stakeholders there has to be a basic agreement that is spelled out in writing. Words matter and a mission statement is really important for an organization to stay alive and relevant in the long term even as the leadership and key players change.

    re: opinion on gnus, the only person affiliated with CFI that I have seen saying outright that the gnus are a bad thing is Chris Mooney-and he is more interested in science communication and acceptance, not so much advancing humanism or atheism (at least that is what he says). However the four horsemen have been writing for Free Inquiry for years and have been featured at our national conferences without fail whenever their schedule permits. At the local level to give but one example Sam Harris promoted his latest book at the DC, NYC, and Portland locals. As with every guest we’ve booked for the past few years, we have complete autonomy and freedom to create our own programming and be the face of CFI for our local membership.

    re: Obsessing about those upstart outsiders with their nasty rabbles is a good way to marginalize yourself and end up in the dustbin of history.

    Quite frankly speaking for CFI DC the only thing we obsess about is creating great programming for our members and the public. It’s a full time job for my wife and it’s what our members pay their dues for. There is simply no time or interest in drama and personal agendas. My experience with the folks in the headquarters in Amherst is that they share in this obsession and work very hard at what they do.

    1. Simon, let me say that I DO realize that CFI does happily promote gnus and is not mostly like Chris Mooney, and that I know Ron is definitely not Chris, and that John Shook isn’t either, though he annoys us by writing like him sometimes. (But not lots of other times.)

      And my objection to Ron’s post was not that it was vilifying gnus. It seems to be pretty clearly defending not being more like gnus, which is quite different from, say, making an invidious comparison to us, much less calling us names.

      One reason I am honestly puzzled by his editorial stance (as opposed to his behavior) is that it seems to be saying that something gnus are known for doing is just not worth doing—that it’s fighting a useless fight to try to convert harmless moderate religious people to atheism and humanism.

      I doubt Ron actually believes that—he’s too smart, and the actions you talk about seem to betray it—but that’s the message he’s sending, and the conflict is confusing, from here on the outside.

      (That seems to be the sort of thing that Melody calls “nuance,” and blames us for taking exception to, but to us seems like clearly a muddle.)

      1. Clarification: when I said that Ron seems to be saying that converting moderates is “just not worth doing” I meant
        “even if you can do it successfully.” An argument that it’s too expensive would be more persuasive in justifying priorities, but that’s not the argument he made.

      2. As far as I’m concerned I think it’s a perfectly reasonable stance to say “live and let live” if someone is a good citizen with a commitment to secular values and they happen to have beliefs on the supernatural that are incorrect or simply ill-informed. My guess is that for most gnus the annoyance factor for folks like this is far lower than say…violent anti-abortion activists so while there may be disagreement I would not have thought this to be highly controversial. I’m sure there is plenty of common ground elsewhere however.

        As a gnu you may disagree also, but I think disagreements of this magnitude are OK within a movement, as long as they are sincere differences in opinion, which this undoubtedly is. There are many people who have sincere differences of opinion with gnus and non-gnus (while agreeing on other things simultaneously), and IMO the best way to build on this is to have a public dialogue where these disagreements can be addressed.

        1. Simon,

          It seems to me there’s a very common straw man and bait-and-switch thing going on here, of which Ron’s piece is a good example.

          We all do understand what Ron and you say about fundamentalists being worse than liberal religionists. We always have; it’s dead obvious, and generally needn’t be argued.

          That simply doesn’t imply the further claim that liberal religionists’ personal beliefs aren’t also a significant problem worth addressing, or even one worth prioritizing for Overton reasons—they’re relatively reachable people we can pull in our direction, and who will in turn pull others in our direction.

          Continually asserting the first (the obvious awfulness of fundamentalism)as though it implies the second (harmlessness of liberal religion) is just repeating the same fallacy, and obscuring the central strategic issue that actually divides accommodationists and gnus.

          (N.B. Our Overton strategy does not imply that we should all pick on liberal religion at every opportunity, and never play nice with people who obviously are “our friends” in an important sense—that’s another very common straw man.)

        2. BTW, Simon, it seems to me that you’re equivocating a bit between saying that Ron’s argument is actually valid, and retreating to saying his conclusion is “a reasonable stance.”

          It seems to me that the argument is patently invalid, for reasons I spelled out over there—but maybe a convenient one, to justify a convenient public stance—which in turn may not correspond to actual actions, or to the real reasons for them.

          (Melody: is that what “nuance” means?)

          I can understand why CFI might not want to publicly say it’s in favor of converting liberally religious people to atheism, and be seen as “proselytizing” atheism. (E.g., to avoid alienating theists in the skeptics movement, and frightening the horses in general.) Maybe it’s delighted to use New Atheists as a cutout to do the dirty work, and sometimes feign disagreement and disapproval. (But with real internal dissension about that.)

          That would be a much easier thing to read between the lines and accept, if CFI didn’t also harbor Chris Mooney in a publicly prominent position, and if some other CFIers didn’t sometimes say that same sort of straw-man thing in apparent deadly earnest, and call us names.

          (I do have the general impression that the situation has gotten much better since Kurtz and some anti-gnu people like R. Joseph Hoffman left. I’m glad Hoffman’s astonishing anti-gnu vitriol is not coming from a VP of CFI.)

          1. I am a New Atheist and I have never heard someone at CFI call “us” names (Unless you count Mooney whose work is contracted and has never done so as a representative of CFI that I’m aware of. I disagree with Mooney on just about everything. I think of him as the odd man out and not representative of CFI as a whole.). If you feel that someone has called you a name, I think you’ve misunderstood who those comments were targeted at. It isn’t New Atheists in general. I know that I am not a know nothing atheist.

          2. Melody:

            If you feel that someone has called you a name, I think you’ve misunderstood who those comments were targeted at.

            I’m pretty certain you’re wrong, at least in the case of John Shook’s earlier PuffHo piece that pissed us off.

            There is simply no nice reading of what he said that makes any sense at all. He clearly referred to a sizable “know-nothing” wing of atheism, with prominent leaders, who give a whole lot of people a bad impression of atheists, which is only “a little” unfair.

            There is nobody who could fit that description except some sizable fraction of rank-and-file gnus, led by at least two of the prominent New Atheists—and there are only about a half dozen candidates. Absolutely nobody else has a big enough audience to cause he problem he describes.

            John denied it, and refused to explain who else he could possibly have been talking about.

            There is no one, and he knows it, and you know it, and we’re not going to pretend we don’t know it.

            His denial was not believed, and his notpology was rightly not accepted.

          3. By the way, Melody, I do want to thank you for responding. I do take what you say seriously about John not being anti-gnu in general, and there being no general anti-gnu sentiment in the current CFI hierarchy.

            I do basically believe you, even if I still think John went quite unfairly overboard in the HuffPo piece, and still owes us an apology.


  30. Is it necessary that I “pick a side” on this? I don’t know that I agree with either you or Ron (likewise not sure that I disagree). But both positions have their merits as best I can tell and do not sound outlandish enough for me to reject outright. In summary I’m undecided.

    I also don’t think one needs to ‘read between the lines’. Why not ask Ron directly if this is of so much interest to you? As best I can tell this is an issue among many that CFI is happy to foster a discussion on without taking an “official stance”, which works just fine for me, however I might be wrong.

  31. I will keep my remarks as brief as possible. There are three points that need to be clarified, both as regards Jerry Coyne’s original post and some follow-up comments.

    Re Paul Kurtz: he was not ousted from CFI for being an accommodationist because he was not ousted. This is the sequence of events: In June, 2008, the board of directors removed day-to-day management of the organization from Kurtz. This was based on the board’s perceptions of the quality of his management, not his philosophical positions. Then in June of 2009, Kurtz presented the board with an ultimatum. Either the board restructured the CEO position (the position held by me) by stripping it of significant responsibility or he no longer wished to remain board chair. The board declined to restructure the CEO position, and Kurtz was out as chair. However, he remained on the board of directors. Finally, in May, 2010, Kurtz voluntarily resigned, his hand being forced by no one but himself. He simultaneously launched a new, competing organization, ISHV, whose provost is the inimitable R. Joseph Hoffmann.

    With respect to CFI’s relationship with what’s commonly referred to as accommodationism, CFI has never endorsed this viewpoint. I have certainly never defended it. Some individuals who are members of CFI and some who are employees or contractors of CFI have voiced positions that might reasonably be labeled as accommodationist. They speak for themselves. That said, CFI does not believe that voicing an accommodationist viewpoint is a fault meriting expulsion from the organization or termination of an otherwise satisfactory contractual relationship. There is a legitimate difference of opinion among nonbelievers about this issue, and as an organization that represents many nonbelievers, CFI, unsurprisingly, probably has some accommodationists among its staff/supporters. None of them is in a position to set policy.

    Finally, as to the views expressed in my own recent blog post, to which some of the comments alluded,
    I don’t see how they can be categorized as accommodationist. I nowhere suggest that atheists should tone down our criticism of religious beliefs. Instead, I raised the question as to what our ultimate goals should be. It seems to me we want a society in which religion no longer causes any significant harm, for example, by being used to influence our laws or public policy. Persuading people to give up religion is important principally as a means to achieving a truly secular society, not necessarily as a major objective in and of itself.

    One might disagree with my analysis, but any disagreement would have little to do with the various accommodationist-gnu disputes.

    1. (Jerry, I don’t know how to say the following briefly and well; feel free to moderate it out. I think it would be a great subject for you to address at length in a post.)


      I find it simply amazing that you can’t see the connection between your editorial devaluing atheism activism and accommodationism.

      Your essay hits a whole lot of reasonable-seeming commonsensical accommodationist notes:

      (1) Other people’s false beliefs are generally not our concern.

      (2) Atheists are wrong about a lot of things, too, so who are they to impose their views on others?

      (3) Lots of religion is pretty much harmless, so we shouldn’t get too worked up about religion and its falsity.

      (4) The majority being religious is not itself a serious practical problem we should worry much about, and that if we just get religion out of government, religion won’t cause practical problems severe enough that we should do anything much about religion in general.

      (5) While it would be helpful if we had more atheists, we don’t need a lot more—relatively few more is enough—so don’t make it a priority.

      Seriously, Ron, you don’t see any connection to accommodationism there?

      I’m not saying that you or CFI are “accommodationists.” I don’t think that’s right.

      I do think that for some reason you’re using typical superficial accommodationist talking points, which are often a prelude to saying that gnus are bad because they don’t agree, or don’t agree enough with these reasonable-seeming points, and misbehave.

      I don’t think you think that, in any strong form, but I’m honestly confused why you’d think what you said and not think gnus and more gnuish organizations (e.g., AA, RDF) are seriously Doing it Wrong in many ways.

      Your editorializing is a lot like Phil Plait’s notorious “Don’t be a Dick” speech. It’s really easy to read as a criticism of gnuish atheism, even if that’s not what you personally mean it to be.

      It clearly goes much further than a defense of CFI’s own particular priorities, for which there are much better arguments.

      I’m sure many accommodationists would read it as an endorsement of their views, and a criticism of gnu strategies and actions.

      If that’s not what you want, you should give a less superficial and simplistic analysis, which takes into account the very basic issues we’ve been arguing about all along, especially

      (0) Is there a legitimate goal of promoting truth for truth’s sake, and how far can you go doing that before you’re somehow unreasonable?

      (1) Are ideas common to almost all popular religion—souls, God-like things, supernaturally grounded morality—among the underlying causes of many false beliefs?

      (2) Do they affect many behaviors that do matter in practice, even in a (mostly religious) society with a strictly secular form of government?

      (3) Is the prevalence of and respect for those extremely common beliefs part of the problem that results in especially bad forms of religion such as fundamentalism?

      (4) Was Overton right, and does that imply that it’s good to have a plurality of strategies, including making atheist activism a high priority? (But not the priority, and not for everybody.)

      The other stuff all has some truth to it, but without addressing these fundamentals, it amounts to simply begging the central questions, and endorsing important claims of one side at the expense of the other.

      1. Have you considered communicating with Ron directly by email instead of writing essays on this website? Seriously.

        1. I was writing an email to Ron when I noticed he responded here.

          I was serious about you to moderating it out, in which case it’d amount to a private email to you about something I think merits a public response from somebody.

  32. Paul: I will have only a very brief response here. I just won’t have time this week to respond to all your points. (Sorry, but I do have obligations to the organization for which I am CEO.) Plus that may add some clutter to Jerry’s blog. But I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring your points. I will respond to them, at least most of them, in a new post on my blog next week.

    My brief response is that I don’t accept your characterization of my position. At the very outset of your comments, you assert that I am devaluing atheist activism. Huh? Where? Both I, personally, and CFI, as an organization, are strongly in favor of atheist activism. Among other things we want atheists to come out of the closet. We want atheists to express themselves freely and truthfully (unsparingly truthfully) about religious beliefs and claims. This includes pointing out how scientifically supported facts are inconsistent with various religious claims—which I always thought was the crux of the dispute between gnus and accommodationists.

    You seem to think that atheist activism requires a firm commitment to persuade as many people as possible to give up their religious beliefs, even in situations where their beliefs may not result in harmful conduct toward others and they make their decision about public policy based on secular considerations. Furthermore, you seem to think that unless an atheist makes conversion of the religious a priority, that atheist is an accommodationist. I disagree, and I think most nonbelievers would not have that understanding of “accommodationist.”

    1. Ron,

      You are missing my main point about Overton windows and strategy.

      You are also missing the basic nature of my disagreement with the particular argument in your blog post. (And your characterization of my position in your last paragraph is a complete straw man.)

      Your general argument is implicitly an argument why everybody should be fairly moderate, although perhaps you didn’t really mean it to be. Disagreeing with that argument doesn’t mean I think that nobody should be moderate. Properly understood, it’s not an either-or question, or even close.

      The biggest flaw in your argument is that it’s essentially answering a bad question—as an atheist, what should one do? There is no good answer to that. Different atheists should do different things. In terms of Overton’s tug-of-war analogy, your argument is basically giving an answer to the question where should atheists grab onto the rope?. There isn’t a particular most reasonable place on the rope for everybody to grab onto, as your argument suggests, but all along our general end of the rope.

      To the extent you’re saying we shouldn’t all be extreme, and a lot of us should behave moderately, I’m mostly agreeing with you. But by trying frame it as a matter of what an atheist should do, and coming to a particular reasonable-seeming answer, your basic argument implies much more than that—that nobody should be extreme.

      I strongly disagree with that—and I think you probably do too, though maybe not as strongly. I suspect that the superficial argument argument you gave doesn’t do justice to how you actually think about these things, and why you do the things you actually do.

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