Accommodatheism I: Salon proposes that we all stop criticizing the low-hanging believers

September 22, 2014 • 11:06 am

I decided to Coyne a new world to replace “faitheism,” and it’s in the title. “Accommodatheism.” It’s the tendency of some nonbelievers to try to make common cause with believers, or at least to stop criticizing them. (Watch Chris Stedman steal this word for the title of his next book!)

A prime example of accomodatheism is a new piece in Slate (which, along with Salon, now seems to be going after the low-hanging atheists). It’s by atheist Steve Neumann, and has the unfortunate (and largely irrelevant) title, “Cut it out, atheists! Why it’s time to stop behaving like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins.”

Overall, the piece isn’t horrible—not nearly as dire as some of the recent atheist-bashing pieces in Salon and the Guardian—but it still seems misguided. Neumann is an atheist himself and has little truck with religion, but, in the tradition of Chris Mooney, he thinks that loud, strident atheism, à la Dawkins and Maher, is inimical to the cause of atheism itself. We are, he says, polarizing Christians and preventing them from accepting our message because we’re too “in your face.”

Of course there’s not the slightest bit of evidence for this. Indeed, the number of “nones” (those who don’t identify with any formal religion) is growing in the U.S., as is the number of atheists. All this is happening in the very era of Hitchens, Dawkins, Maher, and Dennett.

Dawkins can in fact point to hundreds of people who have abandoned religion because of his books and talks (I always refer to his “Converts Corner”), yet I still haven’t heard of a single person—not one—who says, “You know, I have doubts about God, but when I hear that loudmouth Dawkins and his strident atheism, it made me want to hold onto Jesus even tighter.” (At this point I realize someone out there will tell me that one such person exists, but I want at least a thousand to counterbalance Dawkins’s converts.)

Nevertheless, Neumann proposes in his piece something called “The Atheist Positivity Challenge” (APC), whereby we’re supposed to refrain from going after Christians for one month. To wit:

I’d like to challenge all atheists, myself included, to refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month. Let’s call it The Atheist Positivity Challenge, or the APC for short. The purpose of this challenge is to draw attention to two things: The fact that gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive; and the need to rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.

. . . Refusing to indulge our desire to vilify the easy targets will make us look less arrogant and therefore less aversive. Not only should this make us less susceptible to open animosity, but it should help accomplish atheist goals which, as author and blogger Greta Christina put it, are about “reducing anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state.” I know it seems like blasphemy to refrain from criticizing loonies like [megachurch pastor Mark] Driscoll, but we need to have “faith” that the cultural forces currently in play will accomplish what we want.

There are several problems with this besides the lack of evidence that our “arrogance” and “aversive” behavior is turning America off atheism. First of all, lots of people follow the “easy targets,” and criticizing them may indeed sway some people on the fence. And those “easy targets” are doing some pretty bad stuff, like trying to prevent gay marriage, enforce the teaching of creationism in the schools, and trying to stave off abortion and birth control.  Do we stifle ourselves when Christians say that? Is that going to help our cause?

Second, can we still attack Islam? Or is that an easy target, too? For Islam is by far more dangerous than Christianity, and a lot of religious criticism is directed that way.  But of course attacking Islam turns Muslims off far more than attacking Christianity does Christians. Why is just one faith exempt from criticism? (Do Jews count, too?)

Third, is just one month of laying off Christians supposed to make a difference? Is this like a Lent for Atheists? And when we go back to our normal activity after that, will things be much better with the faithful, and atheism will be advanced? Does Neumann really believe that? If he does, I’d question his judgment.

Neumann notes that atheists are in poor repute, which is true, but he says that it’s our own fault:

While many millennials are de facto atheists or agnostics — or at least politically secular and socially tolerant — atheism still doesn’t enjoy a very good reputation in America. In a 2011 survey, for example, atheists were distrusted as much as rapists; and even this year atheists and Muslims are in a statistical tie for most disliked. This is the main impetus for the APC. I think that we outspoken atheists, the ones who actively contribute to the culture wars by blogging, writing articles and engaging in public debates, have to ask ourselves: Are we sincere when we say we have a positive worldview? I mean, it’s not enough to just have positive beliefs — that is, beliefs in something, as opposed to not believing in God — what is needed is an emphasis on positivity itself.

After accusing us of insincerity when we advance a positive worldview (talk about arrogance!), Neumann ignores the fact that people like Dawkins, Grayling, Harris, and Hitchens all did that (remember Hitch’s final speech in Texas where he extolled the virtue of the secular, thinking life?). Did anyone read The Magic of Reality? Or Grayling’s works on humanism? How about Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up? Nope, no positivity there.

So we have to lay off Christians for a month and be more positive and happy and stuff, and that, dear readers, is how we’ll promote atheism in America?

If you believe that, I have some swamp real estate in Florida I’d like to sell you.

Have atheists really hurt their cause by being negative and criticizing Christians? I doubt it. We are not, by and large, negative, and criticizing religious belief has brought many people to nonbelief. Our supposed negativity and criticism are, in fact, just excuses that religious people use to go after atheists. If we’d just shut up and be positive, they say, all will be well. Sound familiar? It’s the same advice offered to women who wanted to get the vote and, later, blacks who wanted equal treatment under the law.

I thought long and hard (well, not really that long and hard) about Neumann’s advice, and I think it’s just silly. If he had the slightest amount of evidence that this would do something to loosen religion’s grasp on America (say, 1000 Christians who would sign a document saying they’d give up their faith if we’d refrain from criticizing them for a month and be more positive), I’d take him seriously. But right now I think he’s talking out of his hat.

And Salon is silly for giving him space to say this, and mean-spirited in using a title that disses prominent atheists while telling us not to diss Christians.


207 thoughts on “Accommodatheism I: Salon proposes that we all stop criticizing the low-hanging believers

  1. I would have to say that avoiding criticizing social harms is the worst way to promote a “positive atheist” image (whatever that means). That I’m willing to engage theists by telling them I disagree with them should be treated as a sign of intellectual respect. Otherwise, all I’d be doing is coddling people with potentially harmful beliefs.

    1. The most horrific example of this: 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.

      Desperate teenagers rejected by their families. And this kind of bigotry is still socially acceptable in many communities, justified as “biblical”. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that homophobic bigotry is part of MAINSTREAM Christian culture in much of the U.S. And Africa is pretty much medieval. It’s astonishing that these attitudes are still pervasive in the 21st century. It makes me ashamed to be a human being.

      I wonder how these abandoned and persecuted kids feel about toning down the anti-Christian rhetoric, to make sure that we don’t hurt people’s feelings?

      1. Thanks for posting this link, Ralph. A lot of the online discussions I get into with Christians is that religious wrongdoing is relegated to other parts of the world, as if having the “cleanest dirty shirt” is something to be proud of. What I think the article in the post misses, and you hit on the mark, is that secular thought opposes religious bigotry because it is wrong and not because it is different.

  2. The demographics in the latest Pew Research poling should be telling us that drawing the old “accommodationist” fence lines is a dangerous mistake if the object is to create a workable majority where secular values (freedom of conscience, sound science education, ISIS not lopping people’s heads off). I do not trim my criticism of religious aspects at my Atheist Blog at (an award winning website btw), but neither do I dump on people or their beliefs insofar as they are beliefs and not knowledge. The religious Kulturkampf right did not get where they are by being a majority, but by developing tactics to find common cause with the big block in the middle. The new Millennial demographics opens the door wide to reverse that trend, but not if the assumption is “must be atheist to join.”

    1. I don’t disagree with what you have said here, but I do disagree that it has anything to do with what the OP is criticizing here. It is off target as a response to the OP, and presents a false choice.

      Neither Jerry, nor the typical atheist around these parts, think that atheists should refrain from working with believers toward common goals of any kind. Neither have assumed “must be atheist to join.” I do not understand how anyone could come to that conclusion unless they just aren’t really listening to what is being said. This could be construed as insulting, which could in turn upset or even piss off some of them / us. Why aren’t accommodationists worried about that?

      The issue the OP raised, and that many atheists agree with, is that telling atheists to shut up and not speak plainly about religious beliefs and issues is unwarranted and that the arguments used to support telling them / us to shut up are not sound. That is a completely different issue to the one you have addressed.

      The choice of working with believers towards common goals or criticizing religious beliefs does not reflect reality, and is not a choice anyone has to make in order to effectively do either of those things. It is a false choice. Both can be done, and are done all the time.

    2. The religious kulturkampf got to its dominant position specifically by excluding atheists and moderates.

      Early Christianity was defined by factional fighitng, with the winning side (the Catholic Church) repeatedly purging “heretics.”

      And that trend continued throughout most of its history. Heck for most of history being an atheist was outright illegal or stripped you of important rights.

      The idea that moderating pushes to the middle are what wins in the end – is simply ejaculating in the face of history.

  3. I interact with plenty of new era millennial religious believers at, and they are just as conscience of social ills as we are. But forcing them to choose their religion or their secular support and we risk losing a vital demographic in making headway against common opponents, that entrenched Kulturkampf minority that has parlayed their game so successfully over the last few decades.

      1. In particular, one has to someone inculcate the view that one can agree with someone on X and work to improve or whatever the situation related and then disagree on Y and not. There’s no person on earth who agrees with *everything* I hold, so …

  4. “Sound familiar? It’s the same advice offered to women who wanted to get the vote and, later, blacks who wanted equal treatment under the law.”

    Might I note that it’s also the advice you seem to have been giving, when you said this:

    “But if there is anyone who is damaging whatever unity exists among nonbelievers, it is not Richard or Sam, but those who try to rip to pieces anyone with whom they disagree.”

    Are you suggesting that it’s okay to be aggressively critical of religion, but not of the behavior of atheists themselves?

    1. Excuse me, but can you read? I went after Lee for going after people in misleading and ad hominem ways (see Michael Nugent’s analysis of Lee’s method of attack), not for an analysis of their beliefs (which, if done fairly, wouldn’t arrive at the same conclusion he did).

      I’ve always said that we should be going after beliefs a lot more ardently than we go after believers. Lee went after Dawkins and Harris as humans, and tarred them, as humans, unfairly.

      I don’t want that discussion to spread to this thread, and I don’t want to argue with you further about that issue here, okay?

      You just couldn’t stick to the topic could you; you had to try to accuse me of being a hypocrite to get your little jab in.

  5. The focus on star power is a mistake also. Very few atheists got that way from reading Richard Dawkins. Most lost faith they were raised in, or never found a need to embrace one to begin with. Prominent proponents are useful as lightning rods (atheism is now a subject for open debate today because of the barn burners like Dawkins blazing a trail) but we need to think carefull where to go next, to build on what we have done rather than just wheel spinning as we circle our wagons once again.

    1. Still waiting for an atheist-penned essay mansplaining to believers that they should ignore the harsher voices among atheists and hear what “real” atheists are about.

      I’m not sure how that would go – maybe someone’s already done it – but I notice some people just love to tell atheists what to think and how to judge (and not-judge) others and what’s the correct way to put things.

      I despise the mansplaining genre. Every inch of copy spent criticizing or lecturing to atheists on their ineffectiveness might be better spent on making the effective, vitriol-free case itself. It’s almost as if certain people are writing what they think is publishable (I won’t assert they do it for money, because I doubt there’s any money in it) according to the Step One: Dis Dawkins, Step Two: Praise believers, Step 3: Start shoveling …

      1. Which suggests that it’s less about helping atheists make their points and more about passive-aggressively discouraging them from speaking at all. The problem is that this isn’t because atheists are especially nasty in their criticisms, but because too many people are taught that religious beliefs are special, which makes what would otherwise be bog-standard criticisms appear as signs of nastiness. It’s like if a physicist gets too attached to a pet theory and interprets criticisms as personal attacks, failures of imagination, covers for social ploys, obfuscation, etc., only exaggerated.

        1. So true. Well, those beliefs are special, are they not? Delusions specifically and uniquely excepted from the DSM definition of “delusion.” I don’t understand why the psychiatric profession chooses to tiptoe around them; it seems completely bizarre to me that a professed atheist would go beyond tiptoeing (who among us has the nerve to disabuse Grandma of her beliefs? Not me!) to the point of favoring them over the perfectly rational and brave views of any fellow-non-believer.

          1. From what I understand (I am no expert) the DMS classifies as delusions only matters which affect “functioning” in some way or other. So if you live in a place where your egregiously false belief is reinforced, and you never suffer for it accordingly, you are not deluded.

  6. I agree with you on Neuman’s suggestion. When you look back at old state constitutions and see how atheists were originally (and in different cases) banned from becoming jurors, or holding public office, etc… it seems pretty clear that the modern vocal atheism is not the cause of our negative reputation. We’ve had a negative reputation amongst believers in the US since at least the 1700s.

    One quibble though, having to do with this:

    “Accommodatheism.” It’s the tendency of some nonbelievers to try to make common cause with believers, or at least to stop criticizing them.

    I find nothing wrong with making common cause with believers and just not discussing religion when we are making common cause with them on something else. In fact, I think refraining is probably the right high road thing to do in those situations. If you’re working with someone to try and increase blood donations, or encourage vaccination, or any one of any number of good causes, why bring up religion at all? I propose that in those situations, you can I identify the jerk quite easily – he/she is the person, whether atheist or theist – who makes an issue of it first.

    I’ll use NCSE as an example. I really wish they would just stop talking about compatibility/incompatibility altogether. I don’t ask that they become incompatiblists. I don’t ask that they kick believers out. Absolutely make common cause with them. What I want is an organization that focuses on the pros of teaching evolution in school, that promotes sound evolution education, and makes no theological proclamations at all. Just don’t go there. You don’t need to, and you know it’ll divide your allies. So why do it?

  7. Neumann is an atheist himself and has little truck with religion, but, in the tradition of Chris Mooney, he thinks that loud, strident atheism, à la Dawkins and Maher, is inimical to the cause of atheism itself. We are, he says, polarizing Christians and preventing them from accepting our message because we’re too “in your face.”

    Neumann is falling into the Argument for Tone Trolling, and as a result is guilty of trying, intentionally or not, to distract from actual issues such as whether beliefs are true/false or harmful/harmless. It’s not just an implicit command to “shut up”: it’s a command to ignore or downplay the whole issue to begin with. It’s PR, plain and simple.

    To quote King in a different context:

    “I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years
    I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great
    stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate
    who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace
    which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods
    of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of
    time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of
    good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more
    bewildering than outright rejection.

    “In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the
    evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical
    delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because His
    unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to His will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see,
    as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic
    constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

    “I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in
    Texas which said, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are
    in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ
    take time to come to earth.” All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion
    that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either
    destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the
    people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but
    for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It
    comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time
    itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”


    The form is different, but the spirit of my criticism would be the same towards this proposal of Neumann.

  8. I know this is inpleasant to hear. Atheists are supposed to be realists. So get real. Look at the demographics, the dynamics of what people actually believe and why, and approach this from the direction of aiming toward a vibrant secular majority where personal rights and conscience flourish. It is critical for progressive candidates occupy the White House and control the Senate (where Supreme Court justices) are confirmed. If anyone thinks that is even remotely possible without finding common cause with this new generation of religious Millennials, the next decades will be another tragic waste of time.

    1. Pandering to ignorance is a losing proposition for all. We had the Middle Ages once already, don’t need it again. It’s time to grow up.
      If we’re going to encourage ignorance, why bother with education.

  9. The idea that atheists not criticizing Christians for a month is going to make a positive difference on their view of us is simply ridiculous. If Christians even notice, they’re just likely to think we’re on the way to a conversion, glory be to the name of Jesus!

    Perhaps if Christians agree to stop proselytizing for a month, or at least brainwashing children I’d consider it. As it stands it’s just a stupid idea.

    I make a point of telling people I’m an atheist if the subject comes up – they’re always suitably shocked. It gives me the opportunity to represent that atheists are normal, decent people who apart from not believing in a god, really aren’t much different from them. So far I’ve managed, I think, to make people realize we’re actually not very scary. Those of us who can be open about our atheism need to speak out. I see it as similar to LGBT people gaining acceptance.

    1. The idea that atheists not criticizing Christians for a month is going to make a positive difference on their view of us is simply ridiculous.

      Well, indeed. Neumann seems to have missed the fact that most atheists did this for most of the twentieth century (and before) – and a fat lot of good it did. Meanwhile the religious right did exactly the opposite and became a major force in American politics.

      1. Good point. Its sort of like the theist suggestion “why don’t you just go to church/read the bible/try praying just once, and see what happens?” They seem ignorant of the fact that the vast vast majority of atheists have already done this.

        Why don’t we try being nice for a month? Well, most of us would like to think we’ve been trying to do that for years, not just a puny month, Mr. Neumann.

      2. Exactly Stephen and Eric! 🙂

        I was brought up a moderate Christian, but questioned virtually everything I was taught about it from a very young age and I was ashamed to admit I was Christian, However, I never thought of myself as an atheist because I had been taught that atheist was a synonym for devil worshipper, I was unable to become an atheist until I found out what it was. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to speak out if you can.

  10. If I consider the issue as a frequency distribution on a spectral baseline from exclusivist atheist (anti-theist?) at one end to exclusivist religious (anti-atheist?) at the other, I believe the bandwidth is narrowing and the volume increasing at the endpoints.

    The question becomes, “What is a religion?” As a UU, I’m indifferent to belief and interested in behavior. We had a Native American speaker at our church recently who opened by saying, “We don’t have a religion, we have a way of living.” to which I and many of our congregants wondered, “what’s the difference?”

    There is a vast middle ground of people who could care less what your beliefs are and are more concerned with how you behave.

    1. “We don’t have a religion, we have a way of living.” to which I and many of our congregants wondered, “what’s the difference?”

      The same difference between an elephant and a mammal: in this case, all religions are ways of living, but not all ways of living are religions. For one thing, religions involve leanings towards the supernatural, the “divine”, and – in general – claims, however tentatively put, of how the cosmos and humanity work that aren’t physicalist and/or typically of a naturalistic or scientific bent. Spiritual journeys fall right into that camp, unless it’s really just a romantically-inclined poetic atheist’s way of saying “self-improvement” or the like.

      There is a vast middle ground of people who could care less what your beliefs are and are more concerned with how you behave.

      This is to imply that “exclusivist atheists” aren’t less concerned about how people behave. The trouble is that the most committed and certain religious believers also tend to be the most dangerous. Even without that correlation, your comment is ambiguous towards a common-sense interpretation (a person can believe in hogwash and still be a good person) and a less commendable alternative (the public don’t care if you’re correct, but only if you talk nicely to them). The former goes without saying. The latter is close to tone-trolling and is invoked too often to avoid any critical scrutiny of the beliefs in the first place, something which should not be encouraged.

          1. OK, fair enough; I might have misinterpreted your comment. If you meant something else, I’d like to ask for clarification of what it was you intended, if I may?

            1. The misunderstanding may be due to my familiarity with her Native American “Way of Living” which includes many rituals, rites and ceremonies celebrating the creation of the universe which she discounts as not being a religion. Several years ago I visited her reservation and on the guided tour of the old settlement, one in the group asked about the use of a particular building and he, a tribal elder, said, “We don’t talk about our religion.

              The point being, in this case, that what constitutes a religion is open to interpretation even within a group.

              Hope that helps. simply stated, my issue is with those who believe their view should be ubiquitous.

              1. The point being, in this case, that what constitutes a religion is open to interpretation even within a group.

                Hope that helps. simply stated, my issue is with those who believe their view should be ubiquitous.

                I have mixed feelings on this attitude. On the one hand, language is flexible enough that this sort of thing can be considered respectable when dealing with different cultures, and it only requires asking what someone considers “religion” and working according to what they say is the definition they use, rather than presuming you know what they mean with the word. On the other hand, it looks like a semantic confusion at best, and there’s a reason we generally prefer not to use words too loosely. For instance, not calling it a religion doesn’t change what people’s beliefs actually are.

                If your Native American goes through with the rituals, etc., without actually believing that the universe was created, to me that’s secular culture with a religious history. If otherwise, then that’s a claim that can be rationally examined, and shouldn’t be exempted from such examination just because it forms the kernel for someone’s culture.

              2. True enough, but I wil never know because the Native American cultures with which I am most familiar keep their rites and rituals largely secret, even within their tribal(?) groups, as the rituals have both a private element in a sacred place performed by members of a religious(?) society and a public portion.

                As for labeling what is religious and not, my inability to find a scholarly consensus moves me to Voltaire’s encouragement to “define our terms.”

                Our characterization using the terms secular and religious is problematic for me due to the varied definitions of the terms.

    2. There is a vast middle ground of people who could care less what your beliefs are and are more concerned with how you behave.

      Belief are important because they inform and influence behaviour.

      1. True enough, but is it important you know precisely what the other’s belief is or is the relationship more important?

    1. I think it’s a good sign in general. Why would they spend so much time attacking us if they weren’t worried? After all, you didn’t see all this atheist bashing fifteen or twenty years ago. Why not?

            1. They apparently fear it’s counterproductive, although the rising numbers of atheists, agnostics & nones prove them wrong.

            2. One could question the commercial motives. Accomodathiests are useful to theists and therefore theists may buy their books. Theists are far more numerous so even a small part of that market is potentially lucrative.

              There is also the utilitarian angle. For example, Accomodathiests fear that if you force people to choose between science and religion, too many people will choose religion. So they think (incorrectly, IMO) that toning down the argument and not highlighting the contradiction will help the cause of science.

              1. * if you force people to choose between science and religion, too many people will choose religion *

                That seems plausible, and I now some have made that point explicitly (though, like you, I’d disagree). There still seems more … /emotion/ behind most accommodatheism, though.


      1. Why would they spend so much time attacking us if they weren’t worried?

        Well, the cynical answer to that is: in-group policing. They exaggerate an external enemy to improve internal cohesion to the group. Painting us as an enemy may have little to do with (sect leaders) thinking we are a real enemy. It may have more to do with getting more congregants to come to church on Sundays and increasing collection plate donations.

        But that may be overly cynical. I do tend to think it’s worry that’s driving it. Imagine a situation where Coke is the only soft drink corporation advertising. Then Pepsi starts advertising. Of course Coke is going to worry, eh?

  11. Is it OK if I go after low hanging believers with Sophisticated Theology? Politely declining doesn’t actually work with a parking lot messenger, but maybe telling them the Good News of the Ground of Being they actually believe in rather than that anthropomorphic god they claim they believe in will get them to go away? We could call it applied word salad.

  12. US Christians think atheists are worse than rapists because their preachers tell them that Hitler and Stalin were atheists. It has nothing at all to do with the percentage of atheists (does Steve Neumann have any idea how many of them post atheist-related material on their Facebook pages?) posting quips and quotes and cartoons on their feeds.

    I call baloney on the whole argument. You “friend” people on FB because you know them somehow, through work or school or family or friends in common. Therefore they know darn well that their “arrogant” non-believer friends are not worse than rapists, even if they don’t like the things they post.

    But by all means, Neumann should keep telling a much-maligned minority in the US that all they need to do is shut up and talk about happy non-controversial things so that the religious majority can go about their Facebooking without having their calm perturbed. That will definitely bring about change we can all believe in.

    1. Well said!

      The fundamental premise of accommadatheism — that it’s the “strident” and “uncivil” tone of outspoken non-believers rather than the vicious slander of preachers and conmen that is responsible for negative poll results like this “worse than rapists” comparison — is bollocks built on confusion between cause and correlation.

    2. “Neumann should keep telling a much-maligned minority in the US that all they need to do is shut up and talk about happy non-controversial things so that the religious majority can go about their Facebooking without having their calm perturbed.”

      Zing! The lopsided hypocrisy of it all, punctured with a few sharp words. You definitely have a way with them, Grania. That brilliant comment about parsing sentence fragments, and now this. Definitely going to be on the lookout for more, here and on Tw**ter.

  13. I’d love to see folks get away from the idea that there is a “one size convinces all” approach to atheism. Nice likely works, and so can more forthright criticisms – maybe not on the same people, but there are lots of people out there, so multiple approaches are merited. What doesn’t work – and this is what the “DBAD” crowd imply we should do – is to be a doormat about religion.

  14. ” In a 2011 survey, for example, atheists were distrusted as much as rapists; and even this year atheists and Muslims are in a statistical tie for most disliked.”

    Going by that it sounds to me like atheists’ reputation among the general population has improved in recent history. During precisely the same time frame that the very behavior he is counseling against has become (not for the first time in history) relatively common in the public discourse. This supports just the opposite of what he is asking people to infer.

    I can not, for the life of me, understand how so many people can believe that accomodationism is the best way to change peoples’ minds, and that direct confrontation is not only ineffective but counter-effective. All you have to do is look at history, recent or past, to see there is strong evidence against that. I can only think it is wishful thinking driven by a strong emotional angst to avoid making others feel angry or upset.

    1. I can not, for the life of me, understand how so many people can believe that accomodationism is the best way to change peoples’ minds

      Well, if you are changing minds about “does god exist,” then no, it’s lousy for that. But then accommodationists are rarely trying to make that point.

      If you are changing minds about “can I be christian and accept evolution,” then yeah, accommodation may be a good way to do that.

      1. I don’t disagree with that but I think it is short sighted of accommodationists to use such tactics. Any time I’ve heard, or read, an accommodationist explain their longer term purpose, or what changes they would like to occur, they claim quite closely the same things that gnu atheists do.

        Somewhere in this thread someone provided a beautiful quote by MLK that explains my thoughts on why their stated longer term goals are very unlikely to be achieved by avoiding direct confrontation of religious beliefs, far, far better than I ever could.

  15. Hmm, where to start with this moldering word salad?

    When we’re getting completely misrepresented in the press and conflated with Satanists and described as uncharitable and untrustworthy and otherwise burned in effigy, I don’t think smiling at the torch wielders is going to help all that much.

    Atheists taking their cues from Greta Christina is akin to Olympic equestrian athletes taking riding cues from a doughy, shirtless Vladimir Putin.

    If we promise to apologize for failing to properly genuflect to your non-existent deity. I assume, of course, that all the world’s religions will offer a formal apology for centuries of oppression, ignorance and war.

    If you really want to find out exactly how fatuous his “positivity challenge” is, just swap out atheists for the American public and swap out religious perfidies for Roger Goodell and the NFL. “Now I know that a frighteningly high number of players have committed acts of violence and that the league punishes marijuana more harshly than wife-beating, but we all just sound so screechy when we ask Ray Rice not to beat his family members unconscious.”

    Maybe I will refrain from criticizing religion for a month. I’ll just spend the next moth whacking the seeds right out of the low hanging fruit of fishwrap like this piece instead.

    1. I think you have fallen into the trap of misunderstanding Great Christina on this (see my comment further down).

      Whatever you might think of the current war between FTB and some other parts of the atheist community (and I’m not going light that touchpaper here!), Christina’s line on accomodationism and ‘shut up, that’s why’ arguments to get atheists to be quiet is very much the same as Jerry’s is here.

      1. That’s a fair point on this issue, I suppose. I can’t say I’ve read much of her blog of late. I stopped reading her blog however, because I got tired of combing through ad hominem screeds to find a good point every once in a while.

        1. Similarly, I was dismayed by her attack on JT Eberhard for having the temerity to suggest that speakers at public meetings shouldn’t berate audience members who ask questions they don’t like. I’m was disappointed to see Greta join the hair-trigger assault troops.

    1. You have to want it (IOW the people claiming strident tone _need_ it to be that way). It’s no different than how the words of Dawkins, Harris, et al are deliberately misinterpreted by the usual suspects to support their ideology.

      Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al are characterized as “strident”, even though they’re actually quite reasonable as you pointed out, because they speak out against the supported ideology.

      Facts don’t matter.

  16. ’d like to challenge all atheists, myself included, to refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month.

    I’d like to suggest that Neumann do some homework. Go back to, say, 1975 or 1965 and determine the frequency with which disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers occurs. I would hypothesize that requirement of his challenge – a month of making nice with purveyors of superstition – has already been met hundreds of times. As we know, it didn’t make Christians any less bigoted towards atheists and it didn’t encourage fence-sitters to move into the light of reason.

  17. Abandoning Christian-bashing for a month is abandoning gay rights for a month; it’s also abandoning women’s reproductive rights for a month. You can’t support rights without criticising those who oppose them.

  18. Strategically, I discern little net downside in a full-spectrum approach to atheist discourse. Let Dawkins be Dawkins, Coyne be Coyne, Mehta be Mehta, Pigliucci be Pigliucci, etc. Get the rational message out in as many packages and flavors as possible–plain, mild, spicy, hot, gluten-free, whatever. The more choices, the larger the audience.

    For my part, I would likely be considered an accommodationalist for reasons I’ll spare the one person reading this. (Hi!) But I wouldn’t suggest that atheist agitators temper their passion or moderate their tone. That would be futile, for one thing, but even if it weren’t, I think advocates are most effective when they play to their rhetorical and intellectual strengths, not necessarily to the sort of Queensberry sensibilities some of us have.

    1. I agree on the diversity (and strengths) of course, that is a non-accommodationist argument.

      But I’m sorry to say that your wording is unfortunate at the end. You come over as an arrogant accommodationist when you (perhaps) imply, and without evidence, that ardent atheists are unruly and/or unfair (“[not] Queensberry sensibilities”).

      A basic motivation to be ardent and outspoken is that one, orderly and fairly, accept other’s behavior as it is. To use the Little People argument, or as Neumann the “don’t mention the Asylum around the inmates” argument (“refrain from criticizing loonies”), or the STFU argument, is patronizing the religionists.

      Thanks for the sentiment though!

      1. Arrogant accomodationist?! That’s . . . rather more accurate than the description on my driver’s license. (180 pounds? Ha!)

        And I happily retract the Queensbury remark. I didn’t mean it as a slight against confrontationists. Rather, it was it was intended as a self-depricating dig at delicate flowers such as me, who wince when we hear Richard Dawkins refer to religion as child abuse, or read about PZ Myers going Ozzy on a communion wafer.

        In fact, thank you for calling me out on this. (How’s THAT for accommodationism?) After some Googling, I’ve concluded that I’ve been suffering under a semantic misapprehension. To me, the phrase “Queensberry Rules” carries the connotation of quaint, prim, refined norms ill-suited to genuine conflict, rather than purely honorable fair play (which seems to be the preferred meaning). I’m not sure exactly how I developed that impression, but it’s quite possible drill sergeants were involved. 🙂

    2. I completely agree. Like I tell my munchkins during the regular “You’re not fair! You like him better! ” whines — “If I wanted you all to be the same, I would have named all of you Fred. Is your name Fred?”

      Also, “If two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”

      We need different voices and different perspectives and different approaches. It’s not sensible to expect lovkstep agreement.

  19. I have religiously conservative friends and I know that overt criticism of their beliefs would end our friendships. They know about my lack of belief in a supreme being. Beyond that, I mostly try to reinforce my positive humanist values and wonder at the universe, hoping that continual exposure to such ideas, while not producing results in the near term, will lead to more and more acceptance both of the idea that we’re good people and of scientific things like biological evolution.

    1. Overt criticism may indeed end your friendship, I am familiar with being in that position. But, that does not equate to overt criticism not being effective, or being counter-effective, at changing the general public zeitgeist regarding religion, or even of changing your religious friends minds regarding religious issues. It is only evidence that friendships can be ended by criticizing religious beliefs in the hearing of religious friends.

      I’d suggest that such friends may not be worth counting as friends, but having experienced it myself I know it isn’t that easy. But I can say that overt criticism of their beliefs is precisely just what such friends need. But it doesn’t necessarily need to come from you / me.

        1. Yeah. The ambiguity of language is endlessly fascinating. So many different meanings can be conveyed by contexts other than the words’ semantic content.

        2. Well, similarly, I have some friends with whom I don;t agree politically either. That doesn’t stop the friendship.

          I don’t do religion or politics at work or, generally, with friends or family. (Call me old-fashioned.)

          1. I largely agree. However, I don’t have a problem doing religion or politics with friends or at work. Regarding friends, I think it’s because I’ve always been drawn to less close-minded and more educated people who either agree with me or tolerate dissent. Even in my religious days, I was always good at empathizing with other views.

            Regarding coworkers, perhaps it’s because I’m a software engineer in New York City, but many of my coworkers share my views on religion.

            As for family, I’ve posted about this here in the past, I haven’t fully disclosed my views to my religious family members because I am not convinced that it will benefit anyone, though I still may change my mind about it one day, especially as my children age. I have dropped hints, but largely just change the subject. In many family relationships in my experience, religion and politics are simply best avoided. And, as they say, you can pick your friends, but not your family. Were my relationship with them completely broken, it’d probably be a different story.

  20. I agree with those who want to join forces with whomever works to achieve positive social/cultural goals without reference to or debate about religion vs. atheism.

    Atheists like Richard Dawkins, who have spoken up for us all, are a primary reason that atheists have been able to come out of the closet, and are growing in strength. Now, we are somewhat less likely to be viewed as rapists, or creatures with horns and tails.

    Not all Christians are fundamentalists working towards a theocracy and the end times. Not all atheists are strident and dismissive in their dealings with Christians and their beliefs. Lets not oversimplify by painting all Christians with the same brush. Ditto with atheists.

  21. Fe de Erratas: where it says “A prime example of accomodatheism is a new piece in Slate”, it should say “A prime example of accomodatheism is a new piece in Salon”

    The article is from Salon not Slate.

    Besides, what’s the problem criticizing some weird idea, thought, etc? I will defend a position that you never should bully, denigrate, etc anyone just because of her/his thoughts (which include beliefs). But I will criticize any weird opinion, wouldn’t you? “The Earth is flat”… and will you go silent? “The world origin is a crocodile”, silent again (ok, for a month only), “The wine is the blood of Christ”, nope, I tried, it is wine, etc

    1. It’s one thing that someone says that “the Earth is flat” and another when a group thinks
      that they are superior because of thinking that and they want to punish those who plan a round-the-world trip.

  22. See if I have this straight: our goal is “to work towards more complete separation of church and state”, and we’re supposed to accomplish this by keeping quiet about “Christian newsmakers” for a month while Republican Senators campaign for reelection?

    Sure, that makes sense.

  23. Asking to not criticize easy targets is the same as STFU. They are all easy targets. The only difference between Driscoll, Ham, Hovent, Plantinga or Leaders of ISIS is how dangerous they are to the world at large. Their beliefs are not based on reality and need to be relentlesly challenged, mocked and ridiculed. Enough with the little people argument already. This is as infuriating as treating your twentysomething children like they’re twelve.

  24. This argument pretty much says that atheists should be good little atheists and not say anything unless it is to say something nice.

    The same argument was given to little girls not so long ago: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all – this is what good little girls do.

    Screw that! You aren’t going to keep me in my place – it didn’t work when I was a little girl & it isn’t going to work now!

    1. I actually think this is pretty good advice and I follow it the vast majority of the time.

      Most “bad” things don’t need to be said.

      I harken back to Lincon’s practice: When really pissed off, he would wirte out his flaming reply letter, and then put it in his desk drawer for a week. When he looked at it later, he’d decide whether to send it or not. Very few were ever sent.

      That said, I would never advise any minority to STFU. Only outspoken advocates ever get anything done in this world. Rock on Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, and everyone else who can and has the ability to do it well.

      As someone said above: Only through the efforts of people like those mentioned have so many public people been able to publicly announce their atheism. From small things, big things come.

      1. Unfortunately, the “don’t say anything if you don’t have anything nice to say” is too broad and it is used for people to remain silent and accept the status quo.

        I’m a believer in non disclosure but this statement doesn’t leave any room for that. It’s pretty despotic.

        1. “Of course, Lincoln sometimes had the option of sending in the Union Army in lieu of a written reply.”

          That is, when he could get George McClellan off of his gluteus maximus.

    1. Who can resist the temptation after reading

      “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

        1. If I could just see a demonstration of how one holds God, I think that would go along way towards showing he actually exists! I once tried holding onto a leprechaun and just never could get a grip…

  25. You should no longer use swampland in Florida as something that only foolish people will buy. There are many thousands of acres of former swamp land that has been filled in and now contains communities of many homes.

    1. …would you care to speculate on how many of these ‘swampland’ communities will survive this century? Federally-subsidized ‘beach nourishment’ is buying time but can’t succeed in the long run.

  26. I take a very different position than Mr. Neumann. Much of this problem (historically speaking) is the fault of atheists- precisely for not being as assertive as the current generation.
    ‘Respect’ towards religion has given it an entirely unwarranted respectability and validity.
    I was a boy in the 80’s, and I remember what can only be called the obscene rise of the nefarious televangelists. They went mostly unopposed, except for trying to take each other down.
    This is the first time ever there’s real impact on society, and that’s why they’re desperately venturing into the depths of Africa (yet again, but much more intensely). We should all be sending flowers to Dawkins, Harris, Coyne et al.

    1. “Much of this problem (historically speaking) is the fault of atheists- precisely for not being as assertive as the current generation.”

      True enough, though bullies (clerical and otherwise)are just as if not more at fault for starting the bullying.

      I’ve had a certain family member with whom I’ve worked hard at keeping the peace over the years, so as to keep open some sort of line of communication of nebulous quality.

      That effort was/is hardly ever reciprocated. There has not been one visit where I’ve not heard her utter at least one fatuous and disagreeable opinion, generally “blessing” me with an ad hominem directed at some third party. Most of the time I’m silent so as to maintain the peace, though in my older age I’ve vented a bit in retaliation and let the chips fall where they may, though not much, as I frankly want to maintain some sufficient communication and agreeableness so as to avoid the possibility of any smarmy deathbed mea culpas and reconciliation.

      I’ve silently disagreed with her so often that, were I to have otherwise voiced my opposition at every such encounter, I could hardly blame some disinterested third party observer for wondering whether I were purposefully contrarian.

      She likely thinks that I must not have much of a problem with what she says, else I’d be responding in opposition. Of course, to do so would shoot in the foot the possibility of maintaining of any crumb of a congenial visit. So, yep, I suppose my restraint is an encouragement, and therefore a minor personal fault.

      Seems it’s different in families where there is a greater emotionally-vested need (if not desire 😉 )to maintain cordial relations, as compared with a lesser such need in dealing with unrelated others.

    2. Yes, I watched the rise of the mega-church thing in the 1980s (including many of my associates) with disgust.

      Mega churches
      Union busting
      Wall street selling the country out
      Big hair

      I don’t miss it one bit. Though I do miss my 20-something joints and fitness level. 🙂

  27. The term “atheism” itself is a straw man. The problem is that it isn’t an “ism.” That is, there is no set of beliefs and assumptions that defines it; it is, in fact, the absence of a particular belief. So, when Believers attack atheism, they’re ascribing characteristics, like dogma, that they are familiar with, but have absolutely no meaning for atheists. I’m an atheist, and so are you, but that may well be the total extent of our agreement on anything. Except, maybe you, like me, don’t believe in Santa Claus, either?

    1. As we are well learning, it is hard to get the atheists to agree on a lot of things. Silly Neumann up there is trying to herd cats.

  28. Another thing Neumann seems to forget is that atheists have put up many positive billboards and bus signs, and they draw as much ire (and illegal rejection) as the negative ones. Don’t believe in God? You are not alone [contact info] is completely positive. All of the billboards used for the 2014 American Atheists National Convention were also positive. Such as: Utah’s elders: all religious? Think again. [contact info] Then there’s the bus ad from Indiana: You Can Be Good Without God”. Nothing negative there, all positive!

    The fact is that all of these things got pushback. Positive visible atheism provokes a negative reaction from christians, which leads naturally to the conclusion that it isn’t (only) the positive or negativeness of the message that causes affront, but the mere visibleness of atheism.

    In April 2008, Il. State Senator Monique Davis said something in legislative session which I think a lot of Christians are thinking, though few of them would voice it as bluntly as she did: “[Atheism is] dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!” Positiveness of message is not going to make our message more acceptable or less offensive to people who think it is danegrous for their children to even know we exist.

  29. Conversation between a christian and a properly behaved old atheist:

    C: Be quiet and act like you don’t c exist.
    OA: okay

    Conversation between a christisn and a rude, arrogant and abrassive new atheist:

    C: Be quiet and act like you don’t exist
    NA: No

    1. Bingo. Exactly.

      Put another way:

      Faitheist/Accommodatheist: “Stop vilifying the easy targets!”

      New Atheist: “Okay.” *vilifies Sophisticated Targets*

      F/A: “Clearly you’re targeting a target we didn’t set up. Our target is actually a Ground Of Targetry…with super duper invisible laser shields. Duh!”

      NA: *facepalm*

  30. If we’d just shut up and be positive, they say, all will be well. Sound familiar? It’s the same advice offered to women who wanted to get the vote and, later, blacks who wanted equal treatment under the law.

    Stage 2 achieved:

    And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement.
    First they ignore you.
    Then they patronize you.
    And then they attack you and want to burn you.
    And then they build monuments to you.

    [ Paraphrased from Klein; ]

    Stage 3 would be accommodatheists and their coreligionists moving from “shut up and be positive” to “STFU”. Some, like Dawkins, have achieved that stage.

  31. That’s the worst piece of advice one could possibly give us. If Mr Neumann suggested how, in his view, we could make our arguments more persuasive and effective, we would at least have something to consider. But to suggest that we should stop engaging in the public discourse on religion altogether, and see what happens, is not very smart indeed.

    “I know it seems like blasphemy to refrain from criticizing loonies like [megachurch pastor Mark] Driscoll, but we need to have “faith” that the cultural forces currently in play will accomplish what we want.”

    Who does he think is actually driving these ‘cultural forces’, if not people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jerry Coyne, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss… who openly stand up to religious abuses and promote reason?

  32. Stridency has been immensely beneficial for atheists in America. It makes people talk about issues that are of fundamental importance and most importantly it gets people talking about science and how it is not religion.

    If you want to be nice to people, teach them science, even if it is hard for some to bear. If you want them to suffer, do not teach them science; that might be easier, but it does much greater harm to civilization.

  33. I dunno, Jerry. I’m not in the Salon camp, but I do think “loud, strident atheism” is counterproductive in some arenas. I think your friend Sean Carroll has set the perfect tone: gives no quarter from an intellectual standpoint, is crystal clear on the arguments, but is respectful without being deferential. I think this approach is generally more effective in getting the message to penetrate reluctant ears and hearts in an arena such as his recent debate with Craig.

      1. First, longstanding experience discussing with my life acquaintances, to whom I have to/wish to explain by views/”non-beliefs.” Second, discussions with many people after events like the Carroll-Craig debate, or afte (group) watching some of the Youtubes featuring Hitchens/Dawkins/etc. vs. opponents, and the like. I think my interpersonal experience is more with “everyday” than in the hotbed of the atheist community, though I follow some of the discussion.

        If you haven’t seen the Carroll videos Carroll, you should take a look. I greatly admire his approach and outlook – I think they are highly productive in prying open the minds of a large section of people who would otherwise be trend off by the “let me tell you why you’re wrong” tactics (Which certainly have there place). I’d really like to hear the views of followers of this blog as to what they think of Carroll. (Jerry – care to comment?)

        1. So, just anecdotal evidence then.

          I think Sean Carroll is excellent; a very smart physicist, superb writer (he’s won a prize!), and a very effective debater re matters of fact (i.e., science).

          But I have nothing to suggest that his reasoned approach would be more effective across all kinds of believers as well as fence sitters. As had been observed, you can’t reason a person out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into (adage); presenting contrary evidence often makes people more intractable about their beliefs (psychological studies).

          Clearly a different approach is needed. Forthright attacks on the paucity of theology and blatant ridicule of ridiculous religious ideas have their place.

          But none of us are suggesting that such “outspoken” atheism is the *only* effective approach; we’re very happy with broad spectrum antibiotics! So, Sean’s approach is certainly not “wrong”. (But he’s hardly an accommodationist, either.)


        2. “I’d really like to hear the views of followers of this blog as to what they think of Carroll. (Jerry – care to comment?)

          Not speaking for Jerry, but just FYI, Jerry refers to Sean as WEIT’s Official Site Physicist™. That gives some indication, I think, of his views of Sean.

          Speaking for myself, this issue seems very simple to me. There are lots of different people, with lots of different histories, with lots of different personalities, and their state’s of mind change with time.

          There are many different relevant contexts to the issue of advancing secularism / humanism / rationalism in our society, and curbing damaging religious attitudes and beliefs. One on one discussion with family, with friends, with acquaintances, with colleagues, small group discussions among people of varying relatedness, formal debates, literature, journalism, the various arts, politics, responding to specific events, internet conversations, and countless more.

          Given all that I don’t know how anyone thinks there is, or could be, one best way. Seems ridiculous to me. And individuals, even such as Richard Dawkins and Sean Carroll, are not limited to one method. Examples of Richard being accommodating, being polite and supportive, being forthright and unapologetic, and employing sarcasm and ridicule can all easily be found. Most decent people tailor their method of engagement depending on the context. Sometimes not so well, but that’s humans for you. There is room, and a need, for many methods.

          I think if you were to look around you would be hard pressed to find any “strident” atheists who would tell “Sean Carroll type” atheists to stop doing what they do because our methods are the best.

          1. Nice comment. That overlaps some with what I just posted, unfortunately, I didn’t get through the flood of emails to read this first.

            The need for different approaches is well established in psychology (due to different behavioral and communication styles) and this is applied to all sorts of different settings. One of the first things you learn in any speech or writing class is to know your audience and how to properly address it; this applies to settings that are formal, informal and everything in between.

            I recently completed some training at work which talked about the different behavioral types, cues you should look for to know what type you’re dealing with and how to best communicate with them. We also did some self assessments to see where on the spectrum we fall. A person who is predominantly an analytical type is likely to be more swayed by the deeper evidence Sean Carroll gives in his talks. Other people are more swayed by expressive arguments and persuasion (though that doesn’t necessarily preclude the need for underlying evidence). Some well placed vitriol and targeted mockery can go a long way in the right situation. I think it’s great that there are eloquent spokespersons with greatly differing styles; it will certainly reach a wider swatch of the population than using just one method.

    1. But what is the evidence for your conclusion except your own opinion when you see people like Carroll? Are we all supposed to be like Sean? Or, if not, in which “arenas” are we supposed to be respectful? Or are we always supposed to be respectful because it’s never useful to be “strident”? Or, if you think both strategies are okay, if you can be only one way, which is the best way? If your view is that the Carroll-ian way is best (and I can’t deny that in a debate on physics his style is great), then do you think that people like Hitchens, who aren’t “respectful,” were damaging to atheism? I really can’t get on board with that view.

      1. Wow – tough crowd. There do seem ideas/views being read into my comment that aren’t there. I’m not suggesting the Carroll way (or any way) is the “right” way in all or even any particular context, just that I thought it has been productive in some instances and sets an example worth considering. As for the “Hitchens” approach, and it being “damaging to atheism”, I’d say no. He (and Dawkins, etc.) have done enormous good overall – but there’s no doubt they turn some people off.

        I’m still hoping for some thoughtful comments on Carroll’s approach.


        1. Carroll’s approach is fine. Hitchens’ approach was fine. Personally, I like them both, but it was the more outspoken New Atheists who articulated the very thoughts I had for years. In many areas, religion is so inculcated in society that many people don’t realize there are other doubters, that the questions we raise have been raised before and they are valid. Everyone may not like every approach, but there are certainly some people who are swayed by each.

          What makes no sense is the assertion that simply being quiet is going to cause people to give up their religion. As other posters have said, where’s the evidence for that?

          1. Hmmm – this is an interesting exchange, but I certainly didm’t assert that “simply being quiet is going to cause people to give up their religion.” Far from it.

            Interesting what you say about the New Atheists articulating your thoughts. That’s exactly the response I had listening to Carroll. The New Atheists have always left me half full. Sure, they easily win the battle with the believers on the merits of their arguments, but for me that’s long been asked and answered. Where Carroll (not sure how to categorize him, but Naturalist Flagbearer may do for now) adds to my view is to start to address the objection/misunderstanding believers have that atheists have no way to find meaning in their lives, etc. In YT, search “Craig Carroll god and cosmology” and on the first hit go to minute 83 – Carroll quickly expresses the sentiment I brought up in my original post. I think his wrap-up definitely helps sway a subset of believers to consider his arguments (though, no, I have no direct evidence for this other than direct discussions with a few people – but they count!)

            1. No, I didn’t intend to say you asserted that silence is the answer. That’s Neumann’s assertion.

              I’m just pointing out that Sean Carroll may appeal to a certain set of people and that Christopher Hitchens may appeal to another, and there’s some overlap there. But, we needn’t say that all atheists need to be more like Carroll, or even that all outspoken atheists appeal to everyone.

              As has been pointed out already, the people over at FTB hold little appeal for anyone who doesn’t toe the line in their little clique. They may not be doing a great job deconverting people, but I doubt anyone who has been swayed by Hitchens’ eloquence or Carroll’s reason would say, “Oh, that PZ Myers is insufferable, I think I’m going back down to First Baptist Church, they were right all along.” Even with that crowd, I would never say that they should be a certain way, lest they damage the cause. To do so would be to mirror the dogmatism of the religious and actually start to resemble the straw man argument that New Atheism is a religion unto itself.

        2. Not to answer for Jerry, but in way of providing a bit of perspective, keep in mind that Sean, as a cosmologist, is a different kind of target for the religious mindset than is an evolutionary biologist. The religious may bang on about big bangs and beginnings to the cosmologists, who specialize in such questions — but it’s as if most of them are denying the existence of atoms and molecules when they go attacking biology.

          I am truly amazed at the eloquence, humor and poise Sean exhibits when he patiently deconstructs theoillogic — but let’s be fair. He does tend to get a different set of questions, though the creationists frequently seem to get muddled on which questions should be posed to a cosmologist, and which to an evolutionary biologist.

          1. Thanks for the comment, good points all. I suppose my original post was posing the question, could Carroll’s approach (and some his arguments as well) be usefully carried to some of the battles being waged closer to the front. See the searches-to-links in my most recent response. In my view, a key thing Carroll brings to the party is to go beyond arguing why believers are wrong, and to show constructively that without religion people can find meaning and wonder in their lives, etc. (using his experience as an example). This may sound la-di-da, but I find his formulation fairly inspirational – and either under-represented in much of the current dialogue, or drowned out by the shouting. I think it may be helpful in prying open some minds.

            1. What I’ve seen is Sean argue why religious points of view in cosmological questions are, in fact, irrelevant to cosmological questions. And indeed, even if goditit is the ultimate answer behind the scenes, it still doesn’t help cosmologists any, as the next question is still “how?”, in any event. Add to that the way the possible answers to the “big questions” sounds like coming from a cosmologist (“well… according to this model you don’t actually have a beginning, but the big bang itself becomes a local entropic minimum in the entire space-time continuum, … or we could take this possible model, and…”). By the time the initial salvo is over, the religionist can be soothed that Sean doesn’t absolutely KNOW beyond a shadow of all doubt which model is the correct one, nor all the intricacies of the correct model.

              But then we get to the biologists. And for some reason, they claim to KNOW evolution is the right model… this is the kind of crap I’m talking about. If Sean had his intellectual energies under attack 24/7 because he considers it necessary to incorporate relativity (hiss, boo) into everything he did, it would probably affect his discourse style.

              Chemistry teachers never catch flak for sticking up for atomic theory. Nor do religionists see invites to shut down its central tenets. Even most geologists aren’t catching too much flak anymore, as it just seems more sexy to go after the biologists. The field of life sciences has become the dumping ground for anti-intellectualism, I think, because the anti-intellectuals will quickly get intimidated by the vectors, orbitals, manifolds, resonances and whatnot. Meanwhile, the lions, tigers and bears (and gasp… primates) seems to be a conversation they are more likely to enter. (and screw up again, and again, and again, and….)

              1. Well, biologist do *know* that evolution (more properly, the /theory/ of evolution by natural selection and some other stuff) is the “right” model, pace disagreements over the relative merits of punctuated equilibrium, epigenetics, genetic drift, &c.

                Where “*know*” means, have a very high degree of confidence.

                Confidence in cosmological models just happens to be much lower.

                So, it’s not really the case that biologists have less epistemic humility than cosmologists, it’s just that cosmological models are less well supported by evidence. (But in fact “the Big Bang”, however, is the “right” model; the uncertainty is, in a sense, about what the Big Bang actually /is/ … )


              2. Certainly. Thanks, Ant. That’s a great way to put it. I wasn’t trying to make distinctions between relative levels of epistemic humility among practitioners between fields… but was merely pointing out what the different practitioners tend to get attacked for.

                E.g., relativity (special & general) seem to be unifying concepts in physics… you don’t get very far if you don’t take special relativity into account in particle physics; likewise for general relativity & cosmology. Yet any time Sean (or Lawrence Krauss, or Carl Sagan, etc.) dared opine on anything related to their field of expertise, they weren’t descended upon by armies of deluded fools with an ax to grind because of Einsteinian relativity. At least I hope that doesn’t happen all that much.

                The most that seems to happen is the usual grousing and bitching about deep time from the absurdly mind-hobbled, plus the usual gripe about Genesis saying the big bang is right there in the let there be light part, plus mebbe you should find a spot for God somewhere in that theory, cuz it wuld werk mo’ gooder. But since life and its plasticity has not (typically) entered the discussion, neither has the really serious bone of contention: evolution.

                The poor biology educator gets to field more of the religiously-contentious stuff (at least in today’s climate). The mental model one needs to have to begin to properly understand biology involves understanding descent with modification, where the modifications are guided only by stochastic chemistry, no trickster-tinkerers providing oversight are either necessary or even allowed by available data.

                I suppose the religious (or Newage-hobbled) are in the middle of harping at physicists for not finding a cozy spot for consciousness among the quarks and leptons. But the subject matter (I think) tends to glaze their eyes over more — one hardly sees people getting their panties into a bunch merely because physicists maintain particle-antiparticle pair creation and dissolution processes are entirely random, requiring no ground of being to determine every last little thing. Instead, they see that as an opening for consciousness (free will), or a bulwark against strong determinism (though it isn’t)… or some other garbling that pretty much doesn’t seem to affect the physics project much.

                Head to biology class, though, and all bets are off. The entire ground floor is littered with poop – religious poop, as if biology’s entire basis has no merit whatsoever. I’d be interested to see how (elite) scientists would align themselves – either as an accomodationist or not… by their major field designation. My guess is that most softer-science practitioners (like what I have become) either wouldn’t give a toss or could get all po-mo about it, most mathematicians & materials scientists probably wouldn’t care all that much about the cultural battles… then I’m guessing it gets culturally dicier through cosmology – with more willing to call religion the impediment it truly is to a nuanced understanding of the science. To the biologists who overwhelmingly see religious faith as the central issue.

              3. Sorry, Stephen, I didn’t mean to oblige you to make such a long response, and I’m sorry if I misunderstood the implications re epistemic humility.

                I don’t disagree at all with what you’ve written here. But it’s kind of surprising that cosmologists don’t get into battles given the science is antithetical to literalist YECs. I suppose cosmology doesn’t figure so much in high-school physics as evolution does (or should!) in high-school (or earlier – yay, UK!) biology. And evolutionary biologists are up against a broader spectrum of creationists, including OECs (“oiks”?) and IDiots.


              4. Not a problem — I wasn’t too careful about wording earlier – such a misunderstanding was encouraged by my poor writing. And the length of response was also my fault, as I lack the available time to make it shorter. 😉 (I was also interested in letting other readers see the logic, more than I am in telling you stuff I know you already know 🙂

              5. One would think religionists would take notes when they ask cosmologists and particle physicists what they think the best-supported theories in science are — I think they tend to answer “relativity & evolution by natural selection, and not necessarily in that order”. I think I’ve heard Krauss say something similar on a few occasions.

        3. Sean is supremely good. He has the conviction of someone who is fed up with religion, but wants to combat it only with arguments based on physical evidence. For myself, this is what all of atheism should be about. However, most people simply do not care about science, they want to talk directly about the subject of religion and how it equates to their lives, only then do you get the requisite defense that people like Dawkins, Krauss, and even Weinberg can give. They are interested in religion and can defend against it. That defense happens to be strident by definition, because it thwarts what others so deeply want to be true even though it is not.

          1. For myself, this is what all of atheism should be about.

            Depends on your focus. Many scientists are science-first, in that they care more about correcting misconceptions about science than deconverting people from their religion. I would put Sean in that category. On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got atheists who are actively working to change people’s minds about religion – for them, the Carroll approach is probably not appropriate, it’s spending an awful lot of time doing something (explaining science) extraneous to their primary goal. Hitch is/was probably a good example. Then you’ve got people like Dawkins and Jerry closer to the middle of the spectrum – they write articles and books about both.

            In short, how much time you spend deconstructing and correcting religious people’s mistaken ideas about science and what it implies is going to depend on your goal is, and different atheists may have different goals. If it isn’t obivous from my comments here, I’m more of a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ kinda guy rather than the sort of person who thinks one communication strategy is clearly better than another. It takes all kinds of speakers to reach all kinds of audiences.

            1. A thousand flowers blooming. Nice. Some atheists really need ask the question: How many paths can a person take to atheism? Hint: I have a cuppa tea with fewer molecules in it than there are paths. 🙂

        4. * I’m not suggesting the Carroll way (or any way) is the “right” way in all or even any particular context *

          Very well, then. I’m sorry that I inferred otherwise (above, or below, however this comment falls).


      2. As someone with 6 years and 10,000 posts worth of experience discussing things as an atheist on William Lane Craig’s forum I think I can I’ve got a good basis for backing KB up. I’ve had several people publically credit my activity on that forum for their coming to see Christianity as unreasonable to believe.

        I’m not suggesting anyone try to be like Sean or be like me. I’m far from universally polite. However, success at getting people to think requires earning respect. I think most regulars here can see pretty clearly how little respect the behavior displayed on FTB earns.

        People who can earn respect while also recognizing things worthy of respect in others, have a lot more success in getting others to think seriously about something, than do people who trigger a fight or flight response in the person they are discussing things with.

        I’m not saying that it’s of no benefit to be “strident” either. Some people have a background that suits them to different things than others. I’m a preachers kid who used to lead Bible studies. I understand the psychology of many of the people I discuss things with, in ways that people who have never been religious never really can. You on the other hand provide (with the help of the regular commenters here) this wonderful website, where I can come to get a dose of sanity when I’ve been too long on WLC’s forum.

        If I were to point out the single biggest problem I see with the atheist community, it is (ironically) a lack of introspective understanding by atheists of their social primate nature, and propensity to revel in US vs THEM thinking. But what is it that we want as atheists and humanists if it’s not for THEM to be members of US?

        Perhaps little more recognition of the fact that we are all born ignorant, and will die only somewhat less ignorant, and virtually none of us choose to be misinformed and deluded, would go a long way.

        1. I think most regulars here can see pretty clearly how little respect the behavior displayed on FTB earns.

          Depends on the specific site/blogger. Some are very polite. Others are not. I think its somewhat unfair to paint FtB with a broad brush.

          My position is to let a thousand flowers bloom. Think of blogs as bars or eating establishements. Some people enjoy the ‘tie and jacket required’ type of establishment, where the music is classical, people speak in hushed tones, and they serve up mixed drinks of philosophy in high class glasses. Some are going to like the dive bars, loud background music blaring that requires shouting, rough language, where the arguments are more like budweiser. And heck, the same person might one day prefer one and another day prefer the other. Whatever your preference, I think most of us are best served when we have the variety available to us. Would you really want to live on an internet where it is all five stars or all dive bars? Wouldn’t the net be worse for it?

    2. I could have done a better job in my post. If you’re not familiar, here are some brief intro’s to the substance and style of argument I mean:

      1) Google “richard dawkins foundation the case for naturalism”; in the 1st hit find Carroll’s introduction plus a nice 10 minute intro (many here may have seen this already).

      2) In YT, search “Craig Carroll god and cosmology” and on the first hit go to minute 83 – Carroll quickly expresses the sentiment I brought up in my original post.

  34. Wait, I thought we were supposed to be acting more somber and cynical, like Nietzsche and the other proper atheists of old. Now I’m just confused. Damnit.

    1. Yes, we’re supposed to be more serious and bummed out because, you know:

      there is no mening in life
      I don’t get to live forever
      I don’t get all the happy horse hockey those religious poele get

      Sorry, too busy having a good time.
      And can the Advise Columnistas please make up their minds?! Serious and sombre or happy and get-alongy? Maybe what they are groping fo is: Invisible.

      Please go back to being the invisible, silent atheists of the Golden Days of my youth (in the 1950s, when everything in the world was perfect! 😉 )

  35. I will follow and show that the “low hanging fruit” are liars and cowards. I will also follow those who aren’t such easy targets. BOTH kinds are wrong and should be shown for what they are. Ignoring the villains does not help in the least.

  36. Neumann provides no evidence to show how pacification as a strategy would accomplish anything. Certainly will not create peace and love between christens and atheist. The mission is to convert the religious and convince them the error of their ways.

    How to go about this enlightenment process depends upon them and we have all kinds of history to show that nice does not work well. The christen technique is to attack in all directions and mostly ignore reason. How do you play nice with that. How does the atheist accomplish anything good by going after our most respected atheists?

  37. I agree with you Jerry 100%. I recovered from Mormonism after watching Bill Maher in religulous. That movie was provocative and mocked religion yet it raised my consciousness to a level where I had to critically address my brain partition. All is now history but I evaluated the evidence as laid out by the “irreverent” atheists including Hitch, Harris and Dawkins and had no choice but to abandon faith.

    Shawn Simba Mariri Javute Logistics Innocent Blaques Logistics and Freight(Rsa) 00267 71260036 0027 84 087 3114

  38. When I was active in the Libertarian Party in the late 1990s, we were advised to avoid being vicious or belittling or appearing as angry or rude. This was due to the fact that, back then, the LP was small and you as a member may be the first Libertarian a person would meet. And, if you were rude and belittling, this could turn them off from wanting to hear what you had to say even if they were on your side.

    My point is that although even I give into temptation from time to time to poke fun, I try to be more constructive in my criticism, more “professional” and not allow a discussion/debate to turn into an argument where ears and eyes turn off.

    There is something to be said when, after a few rounds of getting no where, just saying to your religious friend that you’ll agree to disagree. Then let it go for another time rather than keep beating them down until they don’t even want to talk to you anymore. Maybe just letting it go for a bit will get them thinking and they may come to you when they’re ready. Maybe.

  39. It’s interesting that Neumann uses Greta Christina as reason for why we should shut up and play nice. I think he’s fundamentally misunderstood Greta’s posture on the matter. She wants atheism to be more inclusive of different social groups, etc, and for forceful, but diplomatic disagreement (rather than invective) – not for accomodation with Christians. She’s very explicit on this.

    I think these 2 articles and this vid state her points very clearly. Perhaps Neumann should check them out…

  40. I only have one thing to comment about the post… With all deference to Prof Ceiling Cat, “Accommodatheism” doesn’t quite slip off the tongue as easily as “faitheism”. It’s more accurate, very true, but not as snappy, direct and doesn’t look quite as good written on the page.

    Sorry, this is many years of working with advertising/media/design types coming through!

  41. In terms of low-hanging believers, I’ve never seen Maher or Dawkins take aim at the likes of Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort or Bill O’Reilly in anything other than a dismissive tone.

    There’s a lot of fruit hanging, most of it (as Tim Minchin would put it) falls within a bell curve. I’m always curious as to which is the theism that’s worth addressing, as it seems something theists themselves cannot sort out. Which is the theism that should be what we are reaching for?

    1. …at the risk of sounding like a poor man’s imitation of a Buddhist koan, I would try to unask the question posing another: “what is it that you would wish to do, grasshopper?”

      There is a disconnect between what Maher or Dawkins would wish to do, in light of their intellectual energies, time remaining, personal inclinations, historical priors, position in the media universe, GOD KNOWS what else… and the type of theism that “we” “should” be reaching for.

      Who’s “we”, and what’s “should” ? You get into the “herding cats” conun-un-undrum.

      I’d say that what’s worth addressing is what is likely to have an impact in physical reality where it concerns the behaviors of others (esp. younger others). One maxim I’ve learned to try to live by is this: “all control is local”.

      I wouldn’t get too engrossed with trying to affect the huge picture, unless you are, in fact, Bill Maher — or even weirder yet, Richard posting here under a pseudonym — but instead focus on what you think might work in close quarters.

      To try to direct big events by personal decisions, as if it’s in any way predictable is a very silly business, littered with a LOT of carcasses. (I say this as a social networks scientist currently applying concepts of diffusion in entire populations). This is science that precedes stuff like “memetics”, which I consider to be not wrong, but just superfluous to (a subset of) linguistics.

      Carcasses include: trying to recast an atheist movement as the “Brights” (despite the noblest of intentions, cultural barriers tromped that one into the dirt), trying to predict the next Top 40 hit (I know many in the audio industry that laugh that one as the impossible dream… to predict precisely in what direction the stupidity and banality of popular tastes will take next)… millions more, but have typed too much again. Bottom line – think about your goals, tailor your message to the intended audience as best you can, message-check if possible, hope for the best, and try toi follow-up each encounter with a thank-you note and complimentary after-dinner mint.

      And for any remaining people still not agreeing with your position after being so nice to them, there is always mental and physical violence that could be applied. Just don’t let it get blamed on “atheists” the popular conception, or there will be hell to pay.

      1. “what is it that you would wish to do, grasshopper?”
        Usually it’s address the question according to the questioner in the most intellectually honest way possible. The notion that any individual believer is the “low-hanging fruit” doesn’t really go well in conversation with them (though sometimes it’s really obvious).

        The general criticism that atheists shy away from the true believers is a common trope, and one that seems to be both misleading in terms of the range of beliefs offered as “true” beliefs, as well as condescending to all those believers who don’t share the “true” belief of the person declaring it as such.

        Though if the metric is the “bigger picture”, then my comment or any utterance on my part is irrelevant as I have no audience whatsoever. What I say and do is largely irrelevant, though it still doesn’t stop believers telling me off for not grasping with “true” belief. Such is life.

        1. Hey, we do what we can… sometimes the bigger picture involves just being a really good relative / friend / neighbor – and playing it from there. It’s those situations close to us where we have greatest control over how we are perceived (all control is local) and why we are responding.
          Sometimes the downstream effects are mentoring others in some aspects of their personal growth… it’s really tough to know how things like that will propagate over time. Life has its pleasant surprises. But if we manage not to mess up interpersonal relations by appearing to condescend (even when we think we are not), then I call it a good day. 🙂

  42. Atheist should proceed in the same way all things worthwhile get accomplished. Ask the ffrf if the important things get done by playing nice and accommodation. How do we overcome ISIS – with candy and flowers?

  43. Will churches be closed for a month, will they stop evangelizing on TV and radio for the same month? This fellow should live in my hood where the number of churches and bars are almost at par and maybe he would let atheists be.

  44. On a side note, I think that the hounding of Richard Dawkins (by Guardian, Salon, etc) won’t end any time soon, because it still drives a lot of traffic to their sites.

    When I typed in Richard Dawkins a moment ago into Google search, the article in question was in top searches. It was very smart of them to include his name in the article title.

  45. Why is it by the way that “negativity” sounds like a real word, whereas “positivity” sounds unctuous and fake? I know it’s an actual word, but it sounds like something invented by a smarmy new age quack.

  46. “what is needed is an emphasis on positivity itself” – Neumann

    Or, what is needed is an emphasis on abstractivity itself, rather than any particular abstract noun.

    Or not, as the case may be.

  47. Growing up in Rhodesia, I used to get chastised for being a militant anti-racist eg “It’s only one aspect of their character. Why do you have to be so aggressive? We have to learn to live together” Yeah, right.

  48. I personally would refrain from identifying myself with atheism because of people like Dawkins. I have no religious beliefs but respect people who choose to believe in whatever particular brand of religion they choose. I find Dawkins’ smugness and constant belittling of other people’s beliefs tedious and extremely annoying. I find any form of proselytizing distasteful, even if it actually attempts to induce people to espouse beliefs that are somewhat similar to my own.
    We are now seeing atheist churches and groups springing up all over the place. I find the concept of groups whose purpose is to justify its opposition to religious belief absolutely pointless. I feel that the Slate article author is absolutely correct. Organized religion is doing an great job of destroying itself and pompous people like Dawkins do little to help that with their arrogant preaching.

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