Accommodation or confrontation?

Since arriving in Calgary, I made a simple promise to myself I would further my involvement in the local atheist community. It was therefore fortuitous that after only of few days of adjusting to my new surroundings, an opportunity to meet up with other atheists presented itself in the form of a lecture. Held at the University of Calgary last night, it was entitled “The Evolution-Creation Controversy“. Dr. David Eberth presented a stimulating discussion on the framework of Creationism, and argued the real ‘debate” is a political and cultural rather than a scientific struggle.

Dr. Eberth was coming into his approach from an admittedly accommodationist angle. You’re all probably terribly familiar with my thoughts on the matter by now, and can venture to guess I had a few things to say about it. Specifically I focused on one of his metaphors: that of a pendulum illustrating the tendencies for movements to shift from side to side. My argument was perhaps it would be in our favor to put as much emphasis on “our end of the spectrum” rather than concentrate on those who’s opinions were unformulated (the overly solicited “middle ground”).

While I admit it may seem strange one becomes more popular the more you alienate others (to a certain degree, of course), this paradox is undeniably true. Perhaps it’s because the unconvinced masses are impossible to sway, and so they require a “flash-point” in order to be compelled to choose (the safest thing, after all, is not to do anything). The “proles”, Winston observed in George Orwell’s dystopic masterpiece, were simply incapable of grasping the idea they were being oppressed. The experience was so pervasive, it was essentially invisible to them.

Delusion functions similarly. And while Eberth expressed no real interest in what people believed – since in his view it didn’t influence the process of science – it nevertheless interferes with the perception of science. This may be cultural, but it is the systematic irrationality on the part of everyone involved (at all levels) that creates fertile grounds for the controversy. Like any other poisonous concept such as racism, bigotry and sexism, there are no institutions that vanguard these antiquated and dangerous ideas; they are merely the subtle manifestation of a broader set of shared beliefs.

In other words, what you believe really does matter. The importance of belief leaves me unmoved by the limited reproach we give to bad ideas. Even worse, if we try to seduce people to see reality, the truth is we do provide a far less tempting offer. Religion entices followers with a host of promises we couldn’t begin to match. Instead we offer the bitter reality, like all offers which are too good to be true, it really was that and more. What our species accepted in the bargain of religion was the formation of an idea whose very existence created culturally dominant forces which withheld at bay our growing curiosity. Only in the light of reason, a glacially slow process many have perished to preserve, have we wrested away control from these institutions.

Soft pats on the back and a Scooby-Snack will not be enough to entice people to reason. We must instead appeal to the need that all humans share: to wrestle against the absurd. It is in our nature to fight the confusion of enigmatic forces acting upon one another. That struggle creates order to the world we experience. If you doubt this, a simple test can be arranged: simply try and manage that monster struggle after a only few days of sleeplessness. Our capacity for reason is the ultimate triumph of this struggle, but it is a delicate thing, difficult to maintain, and often contrary to our more potent instincts.

We must dissuade them as strongly as we can not to surrender this fragile capacity for reason simply for wishful fantasy. At the end of the day, I believe it is our desire to win the struggle for reason that will make us triumphant, and it is not one we should mask in an effort to be polite.

NOTE: I intend to coax Dr. Eberth to a long discussion of these topics for a future radio show. I believe these kinds of discussions are vital in understanding the appropriate response to the growing irrationality of our society.

Comments (6)

  • avatar

    Bradley Blackmere

    I agree. Without the Gay pride parades, and other high visibility maneuvers, our homosexual brothers and sisters would still be hiding, politely, in the closet. We won’t influence people by pretending to be nice, and being quietly patronizing and dismissive of their superstitions. If we hope to win the future for reason, instead of suicidal flim flam, we are going to have to challenge bad ideas wherever we find them. We need an atheist pride parade (figuratively, at least.)

  • avatar


    Well said!

    My main concerns with the accommodationist approach are that it’s
    short sighted, and fundamentally dishonest, and so it cannot be a constructive, progressive approach to move the important conversation forwards.

    Coincidental agreement on tactical matters belie utterly incompatible belief systems that will inevitably clash as soon as those short term cooperative goals are reached. Each side is merely using the accidental overlap in needs to achieve their own ends, with I believe, no real concern or consideration for the other party.

    Accommodationism is akin to tolerance – putting up with something you don’t agree with, in the hope that things will be better as a result. But the problem is that some things are genuinely intolerable, and shouldn’t be accommodated at all. Very often the areas of disagreement between those seeking accommodation and the religious people they are trying not to offend is large, and covers truly important issues that we shouldn’t pretend aren’t there.

    But perhaps the thing that most makes me think that accommodationism is not an approach that I could work within is that just like me the accommodationists have NO respect for the religious views they are accommodating. They disagree as strongly as I do with religious dogma, irrational beliefs and devinely warranted hatred… but they keep it to themselves. While I have no respect for the religious views people may hold dear, I do have a fundamental respect for the individuals that hold them. I respect these people enough to have an frank and honest conversation with them, and not tread carefully around real issues or look the other way on things that I believe are important. I think they deserve the chance to have their beliefs challenged, and ultimately I think that my honest disrespect is infinitely more respectful than the sham tolerance of accommodationism.

    Wow, that turned out to be more of a rant than I was expecting… I blame (thank!) seeing Sam Harris give a talk in London last night 🙂


  • avatar

    Anonymous Atheist

    Excellent post.

  • avatar


    You need to make the case for atheism that it’s not a immoral position, or anything of the sort. You have to first make it clear that atheism isn’t threatening before trying to knock people off of their beliefs because as long as this duality persists, a person has to make a choice. And if our side, to them, is still the caricature of atheism that we’re all a bunch of satanists looking to wipe religion off the planet they’ll never leave their own team to come join ours. No matter how hard we knock they’ll never come through the door if that’s what they think is on the other side.

  • avatar

    Bradley Blackmere

    And the only way we can make that case is to be high visibility. Once people realize that people they know, even friends, are atheists it will make it easier for them to understand that it isn’t a morally deleterious position to take. As long as we remain the unobserved bogeyman, nothing can change.

  • avatar


    I think both a confrontational and accomodational approach are valid, but it depends on your intent as to which is best for a given situation. If you aren’t worried about changing someone’s mind or beliefs, you have nothing to lose by sticking to your guns and being confrontational. However, if you are trying to change someone’s opinion (e.g., trying to have a believer see how Atheists see the world and try to have them come to the same worldview) it makes more sense to find and start on middle ground. Antagonism will always put the listener on the defensive, which means that they will not listen to any of your points, even if they would have agreed with you otherwise. Furthermore, recent psychological studies have shown that when a person’s worldview is threatened (e.g, questioned, disbelieved, etc) they subconsciously have more thoughts about death. This creates an anxiety, and causes their world view to polarise. It would be great if we could utlise this to polarise their views towards non-belief, but chances are they will become more staunch in their belief instead (at least immediately).

    A structured public debate is a perfect example of when a confrontational approach would work. You are trying to polarise the audience and you’re hoping they will polarise to your side and not that of your opponent. However if you are talking with someone you know who is a believer and you are trying to get them to see the non-theist point of view, antagonism will be counter-productive.

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